Sunday, April 27, 2014

2nd Sunday of Easter: Thomas and us

A literary genre that became fashionable when I was growing up was the substitution of a hero for an anti-hero. Of course an anti-hero is not just the opposite of a hero – an anti-hero is not just a villain – the anti-hero is the flawed human being who acts out of mixed motives – somebody who maybe starts out acting on the level of pure self-interest but along the way finds their humanity challenged by a moral dilemma – maybe somebody who ends up doing something good for the wrong reason, or who makes a moral trade-off to achieve something good by acting in a questionable way. Anti-heroes are dubious people – and it is that which makes them of enduring interest to readers who have a sneaking suspicion that their own motivations might also be somewhat mixed.

Thomas – the one we’ve always referred to as the Doubter – is also dubious in just this way. Thomas is a classic anti-hero – like so many other characters in John’s gospel. I’m in two minds about Thomas. On the one hand, I think he gets a raw deal in Church tradition. On the other hand, I think maybe he gets away too easily.

Now for us, a whole week has gone past since Easter Day – a really good thing for me, I’ve had a chance to catch up on some sleep and have a bit of a think about where we’re up to. But for the men and women that first Easter, the ones who’d loved Jesus and who saw him die, the ones who have just been startled awake and scared out of their wits all over again by the ambiguous news that the tomb is empty and that Peter and some of the women claim they have seen Jesus alive and well – we’re still in the evening of that very first day.

John tells us the disciples are in a locked room, gathered together secretly ‘for fear of the Jews’. We need to be careful here, on two counts – firstly to understand this term, ‘the Jews’ as meaning, the Jewish authorities who in collusion with the Roman occupation government have conspired to get rid of a minor troublemaker. We can also read into this some nervousness on the part of country folk from Galilee, up north past Samaria – people who have followed Jesus down to Jerusalem just this once only to see everything fall apart, Jesus taken and executed for political reasons that probably they barely understand – Galilean men and women who maybe feel afraid of everything Judean – but 2000 years later, we who have had too much experience of anti-Semitism need to be very careful how we understand John’s easy shorthand expression – ‘the Jews’.

The second thing we need to unpack a bit carefully is this – John isn’t just talking here about the 11 disciples who become the earliest apostles of the church – instead I think we need to have a mental picture of the whole community that has formed around Jesus – a community that has gradually grown as he has travelled through the villages of Galilee and then made his way down to Jerusalem and this fatal encounter. The reason it’s important is because it’s not just the apostles but the whole community that is about to be charged with a new purpose – the whole community that’s about to be transformed by the gift of the Holy Spirit which empowers them as Jesus has been empowered – but right now they are in hiding, sitting behind locked doors probably waiting to hear the sound of soldiers outside.

This passage in chapter 20 of John’s gospel is sometimes called the Johannine Pentecost, because where in Luke’s more picturesque account it takes a full 40 days after the ascension for the Holy Spirit to come down on the apostles in tongues of fire, in John’s gospel the gift of the Spirit comes immediately when Jesus has been glorified – for John there is no time lag between Jesus’ suffering and his glorification and so it is right on that first day that Jesus empowers the community of faith and sends them, just as he has been sent. The way John writes it directs our minds better, I think, to what it means to be a disciple – the agenda for discipleship is set by Jesus’ own relationship with the Father, which has been opened up to include those who believe in him – Jesus’ offer of life to those who believe in him becomes the template for the Christian community which is also about living out of a new sort of relationship with God. The Spirit that empowers Jesus to offer the sort of relationship that gives life is transferred to the community of faith when Jesus breathes on them – this is a play on words in Greek that always reminds me of learning to give CPR, mouth to mouth resuscitation – because this breath is literally as well as symbolically Jesus’ life that is passed on to reanimate those who love him. This scene gives us the hint that what is happening in resurrection is that it is we who are being brought to life, and the resurrection life of Jesus is inseparable from what the Church does in continuing to proclaim and demonstrate what that new life is about.

But Thomas is not with them when all this happens. Neither, as it happens, are we. Neither are any of the Christian community that John is writing his gospel for. Thomas in a sense stands as a kind of link between the first generation of disciples who believe because they see, and later disciples who can only come to faith because they believe what they hear. The reason I think Thomas gets a raw deal is that he isn’t the only one who has refused to believe the good news that has been told to him. In fact nobody in the gospel account believes until Jesus appears to them personally, not the women, not Peter or the other male disciples, not Thomas. And the whole point is that Jesus does appear to them, Jesus gives them what they need to come to faith.

But where Thomas is different is that he was not there that first Sunday evening. There’s not much point speculating where he was – the point is that those hiding in the room had, in seeing Jesus there, experienced Jesus' presence in a way that Thomas had missed out on. When Thomas hears the story from the others he maybe thinks that, if he really wanted to touch Jesus, he'd been in the wrong place. This is Thomas’s biggest mistake - thinking that the body he really needs to touch is the body that was nailed to the cross. Yet when Jesus meets Thomas’s conditions for belief, he comes out with the fullest confession of faith in the whole gospel – my Lord and my God! – and if tradition is right St Thomas ultimately travels a long way indeed, bringing the good news of Jesus Christ as far as India.

Maybe the reason I end up in two minds about Thomas is that John, the writer of the gospel, is also in two minds about him. At any rate, John tries to make the story demonstrate two very different points. You see, part of what the gospel writer is emphasising with this story, is that the resurrection life of Christ is not something you need to be able to see or touch at all – that those who have come to faith a century – or twenty centuries – later have had just as real and just as life-changing an encounter with the resurrection life of Christ as the community of faith did that first Easter Day. The resurrection life of Christ is what we see at work in the church, it’s what takes tangible shape right here in our own community when we commit ourselves to loving one another and encouraging one another to grow in faith and love, and when we work together to invite others into the life-giving relationship that ultimately grows out of the relationship that Jesus has with his Father. Thomas is a negative example of that.

But the other part of what the gospel writer wants to emphasise at first glance seems almost the exact opposite – and that’s the real, physical presence of the risen Christ that Thomas can touch – the same sort of thing that Luke emphasises when he talks about the risen Jesus eating a piece of fish – because at the end of the first century, when John is writing his gospel, he needs to argue that the risen Christ is really real - no ghost, not just a figment of the imagination or even a reality that’s only spiritual and not physical. That the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth is continuous with the risen Christ and the source of the resurrection life the Church proclaims after Easter.

Thomas ultimately gets it right, even if his motives are mixed – he gets it right for the wrong reasons but he ends up as evidence of the truth that what matters is not proof of the resurrection, but encounter with the risen Christ. That makes him an anti-hero worth taking seriously – an anti-hero for dubious Christians.



Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Dream of the Earth

John, the writer of the fourth Gospel, had the luxury of time. Written around the end of the first century, or even as late as 120AD, up to half a century after Mark wrote his terse, almost telegraphic account of Jesus’ life and death, ending with the mystifying and ambiguous account of the empty tomb – probably a generation after Matthew and Luke wrote their Gospels – St John’s Gospel bears the marks of sustained theological reflection. What did it all mean? What exactly is God up to here? What does it mean that this Jesus, who we have come to know not just as a prophet and a miracle worker but as one who is so intimately at one with God that he can only be described as God’s self-disclosing Word made flesh – what does it mean that we have experienced Jesus’ life among us and what has changed as a result? Do we just get back to business as usual, is Jesus’ life, death and resurrection when it comes down to it just an electrifying if rather obscure tale – or has it changed something? Given that our world is just as violent and competitive as ever, given that the suffering of the world’s poor continues to be mocked by the obscene over-consumption of the rich, given that our footprint on God’s creation is ever more destructive – does Easter actually change anything?

Centuries of hymns and sermons tell us that the resurrection of Jesus is the promise of eternal life – somewhere else, perhaps in heaven – a promise that the frailty and foolishness, the pettiness and the general ho-hum-ness of our lives in the here and now will somehow be redeemed as we enter into a new quality of life in the hereafter. Twentieth century preachers – especially after two World Wars - emphasised the point that actually, this eternal life is something we don’t need to wait until after we die to experience – the experience of life in its fullness – eternal life – is something that Jesus models and promises us if we take the risk of living as Jesus lived, loving wastefully and forgiving indiscriminately. Eternity is experienced in the life-giving act of reconciliation, the dying-to-self commitment to compassion and mercy and justice.

Well, it’s true. Paradoxically it is our self-preoccupation that cuts us off from really living. God’s priority is for life in its fullness – and resurrection informs us death does not get the final word. Resurrection is the promise of eternal life, the promise that life is ubiquitous, irrepressible and inextinguishable. Actually, hard science already knows that. Real science already knows that it is energy or spirit that is the true bedrock of reality. Atheism is just the damp squib of pretence that matter is lifeless, the dismal attempt to deny our mortality by pretending, in effect, that we were never properly alive in the first place. Resurrection is God’s way of saying, ‘actually, you might just trust me on this’. Life doesn’t end in nothingness, and the depth dimension of eternity can be glimpsed in an instant.

But John knows his Bible, specifically, he knows the cosmic stories of creation and fall in Genesis, and he suspects God’s agenda is even grander. What is going on with the death and resurrection of the One in whom and through whom all things are created, and without whom not one thing came into being? (John 1.3) What’s going on is the completion of creation itself and John – I think – is expanding on the very first two chapters of the Bible. And this, I suggest, is very helpful for 21st century Christians, and for all who suspect that the defining issue and the greatest challenge for our time is how to live with hope in the context of a creation suffering the fallout of human arrogance and self-obsession.

We get the big picture in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, the Word who was with God in the beginning, and John makes the startling claim that Jesus is nothing less than the Word and Wisdom of God, the Word breathed over the chaos of precreation and divine Wisdom who pitches her tent and makes her home with human beings – thus making our humanity holy and revealing creation as the arena of God’s concern and saving action. In the subversive language of Hebrew Wisdom theology, this recasts the first chapter of Genesis. But today we focus on the second chapter, which is of course the tale of a garden. Or several gardens, which actually are the same garden, the garden of creation.

The first garden is of course Eden, which represents the tension between God’s dream of creation in harmony and the human will to work stuff out and change it and make it more convenient. Preferably with air conditioning and cruise control. Things go awry because of our deep-down desire to make the world around us conform to our own fantasies of control. Eat this, and you’ll know what’s going on. Except when they eat it, all the Bible’s first humans see clearly is their own nakedness – their own vulnerability and transparency. Great start.

Fast-forward to another garden – this one the vision of the prophet Isaiah, living in a time of military defeat and exile. Isaiah dreams of an age of peace, an age he calls the Day of the Lord when creation has turned full circle to where it was always meant to be. No going back to Eden, there’s too much water under the bridge for that, but peace can’t just mean human beings refraining from slaughtering one another. Isaiah’s dream is for that deeper, richer reality called shalom – wholeness and fullness – and he sees that human life can only be complete when it is lived in relationship with all that God has created, and so he imagines (in chapter 11) a world in which the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid the calf and the lion, the cow and the bear all live together – which is to say the wild and the domesticated – with nobody eating anyone else and a small child leading them. Isaiah’s picture of creation at peace is of human beings fulfilling their original purpose of being custodians and protectors of creation rather than predators and plunderers. The echoes of Eden are there, but this is the peace not of na├»ve innocence but of reconciliation. The human curators model the virtues of restraint and self-limitation, it is an ecological rather than an individualistic image of human life.

And so to the Gospel. John doesn’t do the 40 days in the wilderness at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – surprisingly, to me, given that the image of Jesus in the desert surrounded by animals and learning to rely solely on the sustenance provided by God is so close to the dream of Isaiah. But John does two other gardens, the first of which is Gethsemene, the garden in which Jesus faces his fears and temptations - but unlike the first humans in Eden, resists the desire for self-serving control. Gethsemene in effect is the demonic echo of Eden. Jesus’ companions are overwhelmed – he is alone with the shifting shadows, with his fears and the half-heard voices. Jesus knows that his life can only unfold as it should in dependence on the one he calls his Father, and so he dies as he has lived, forgiving and loving those who have rejected him. Jesus here is practising the priority of relationship that we call self-giving love.

The final garden is of course the garden of the new tomb, the cave of Joseph of Arimathea. The garden is not so much described as suggested – it is a place of silence and rest for Holy Saturday on which, as the medieval theologians suggested, the creative Word of God was so hidden in death that all creation must have slept, or at the least walked in its sleep, grieving and purposeless. This is the seventh day of creation, the day on which God also rests. I imagine something like the garden that surrounds the castle in which the Sleeping Beauty was hidden, waiting for a kiss. A garden desperately in need of a gardener, brambles and overgrown olives trees with ancient gnarled trunks.

But something is moving, because as the night of the seventh day draws to its close a new cycle is beginning. The first day of the week, which in Jewish mythology is the first day of creation, is the day of resurrection. A woman walks at first light across the damp grass of the garden carrying gifts for a dead lover, and finds nothing but an inexplicable absence. The stone has been rolled away – it looks at first like a desecration even in death – she calls her companions who come and confirm the mystery. But then Mary does see clearly when she sees the one she supposes to be the gardener, because that in a sense is exactly who he is. This is a renewed creation and it begins with a man and a woman standing together in a new garden. What the garden of the new tomb makes possible is a reordering of creation as it is divinely intended. The Evangelist’s implication is that resurrection ushers in Isaiah’s Day of the Lord and offers the possibility of a creation at peace.

Well so what? What good does an ecotheology of resurrection serve? For a start it relieves us of our self-preoccupation that makes even religion about me - and it reminds us that the meaning of our lives can only unfold and be understood within their proper context, which is the network of our relationships with one another and with God’s creation. It relieves us of the burden of assuming that humanity is all God has on God’s mind. It reminds us of the need for humility – in the proper sense of the word which comes from the Latin, humus – of the Earth. It introduces a proper spirituality of the physical, something the Church for most of its history has sadly lacked. Not only is every created thing an icon of Christ and a little Word of God, as the Franciscans put it, but this creation made holy in the Incarnation of the Word and restored in the resurrection of the Christ is nothing less than God’s own body. It sets us free to delight in our created surroundings, and in our own bodies, and it reminds us that our true vocation is to be lovers of all that God loves.

Resurrection, finally, is a word of hope – God saying ‘actually, you might just trust me on this too’ - that the true end of the story is not death, but the fullness of life and the shalom of the Earth.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Good Friday

I wonder if anybody here has heard of Juanita, the virgin of Mount Ampato in Peru?

We don’t actually know Juanita’s real name – she was christened Juanita by the archaeologists who discovered her frozen body, more than five centuries after she died. There’s a certain poignancy, I think, in every archaeological dig, the sense of intrusion on the domestic lives of people long dead, of eavesdropping on the private details of lives lived long before men and women ever dreamed that such a thing was possible. But this find, back in 1995, was especially heartbreaking, the perfectly preserved body of a 12 year old girl, the right side of her temple crushed by a single blow from a spiked club, her brain pressed to the left side of the skull. There were no other indications of violence or mistreatment, the child was well-fed and it seemed she had trekked for a number of weeks and climbed over six thousand metres to reach the mountain top on which she met her end. She had been buried according to the rituals of her people with dignity and honour. This Inca girl was a five hundred year old human sacrifice who had been carefully prepared to die for her people, a willing victim to appease the angry god of the mountain volcano.

Does it make you angry to think of this? Does it sadden you to think of a people who believed in such an angry god, a god who they believed periodically hurled lava and hot ash at them and who could only be satisfied by the provision of a scapegoat? Or do you, perhaps, also believe in a god like this? A cranky god who’s had enough of you, and me, and everybody like us who just doesn’t measure up. A god who keeps a track of your sins – sins of omission and sins of commission, the ugliness of envy, the trickiness of deceit, all the times you were selfish, or lustful, the times you wished someone else harm, the times you used someone else as a means to an end, sins mortal, cardinal and deadly – a god who sees right through you and who is just in the middle of thinking up some particularly nasty eternal punishment for you – when Jesus offers to take the rap instead.

Today, of all days in the Christian calendar, we need to reflect very carefully on just what sort of God we believe in. Believe it or not, this nasty caricature of a god that I’ve just described is still officially on the books in many parts of the Christian Church, certainly something like this is still the subconscious image of God that many Christians carry around with them – a violent, rejecting image of God that makes God’s people, in turn, rejecting, guilt-ridden and unloving. Someone has to pay the price of sin, in this scheme of things. Just thank God it isn’t us. Thank God it’s Friday!

Except, what if God isn’t like that? What if God isn’t interested in squaring up the cosmic balance sheet? What if God is more like the father in the story that Jesus told who comes running to meet the son who had ripped him off and abandoned him, who having sunk to rock-bottom decides to try wheedling his way back into his father’s good books? Not because he’s sorry about how he treated his father, but because he’s sorry for himself. What if God is more like that father who doesn’t even mention his son’s misdemeanours, who is just overjoyed to have his boy back and who dresses him up in the finest clothes and throws a party for him? The foolish father who loves too much and allows himself to get hurt? What if God is more like that?

Because two of the words Jesus speaks from the cross show us, I think, that sort of God. According to the tradition, putting together all of the gospel accounts of the crucifixion, Jesus speaks seven times after he’s nailed to the cross. Preachers on Good Friday often focus on these seven sayings, the so-called seven last words – today I just want to talk about two of them.

And the first one is this. As soon as the soldiers have crucified Jesus – an inevitable consequence, really, for a prophet who insists on talking about freedom and forgiveness in a world of political and religious oppression – as soon as Jesus is hoisted up there, according to Luke’s gospel, he prays to the one who, as he always has in his life, he addresses as ‘Father’. ‘Father, forgive them’, he prays. ‘They don’t know what they are doing.’

He isn’t talking to us, to his disciples, to the soldiers themselves, to any of the bystanders at the foot of the cross. Instead, we are overhearing a private conversation, a conversation between the Son and the Father, deep within the heart of God. And Jesus, rejected and pushed aside onto the cross, asks God to forgive those who have refused to listen and be changed by his gospel of forgiveness and love.

Actually, I wonder whether I really know what I’m doing most of the time. It seems to me I’ve spent most of my life trying to work it out. I think about stuff, and sometimes I pray about it, and then I act impulsively, hoping for the best, hoping somebody else knows what they are doing, following the rules because at least then if it all goes wrong I can’t get into any trouble. Remember the temptation in the mythical account of the Garden of Eden – eat this and then you’ll know what’s going on – you’ll be able to tell good from evil – well, that’s what human beings have always wanted, to know what the heck’s going on, but the story tells us Adam and Eve ate from the tree and all they saw clearly was their own nakedness, their own vulnerability. Deep down we still don’t know what we’re doing.

You think if you follow Jesus you’ll get a bit of moral certainty? Except remember the pointed little story at the end of Matthew’s gospel, the one about the end of time and the judgement? And the “good” ones, the sheep, are congratulated for getting it right – you visited me when I was in gaol, and you gave me water when I was thirsty, and they say, ‘what?’. And the unlucky ones, the goats, are told off because ‘I was in gaol and you didn’t visit me – I was hungry and thirsty and you didn’t help me’, and they say, ‘what?’. Jesus disciples follow him for years and they never work it out. We don’t know what we’re doing, either. We spend most of the time oblivious to the moral effects of the way we live.

Maybe you remember, in the aftermath of the tsunami on Boxing Day 2004, people writing letters to the editor saying, ‘how could God?’ – or ‘where the heck was God?’ ‘God’s got some explaining to do if he wants us to believe in him from now on.’ Except from the perspective of history it’s not really tsunamis that are the problem, it’s human violence, human self-centred-ness, it’s our preoccupation with our own lifestyle at the expense of the two-thirds world who wonder how they can even earn a basic living, or at the expense of the wasting the resources or upsetting the balance of God’s creation. How typical, how self-centred of us to think the issue is whether we should condescend to believe in God.

And the first thing Jesus prays on the cross – this is the inner being of God on display here – Jesus prays, ‘Father, forgive them. They haven’t got a clue’.

It’s a funny thing, forgiveness. When I’m talking to people about it I usually tell them that understanding has to happen first. That the one who has caused the hurt needs to acknowledge and understand what they have done, that there needs to be some attempt at putting right, then forgiveness can heal the relationship – but God, forever vulnerable and pushed aside by human priorities, ending up inevitably on the cross – God hasn’t read my fancy psychology textbooks – God forgives – too soon, unconditionally, pre-emptively and foolishly. You know what, God? We’ll only do it again. We’ll only push you onto a cross again. But God does what God always does – reaches out in love, regardless.

And the second word that tells us what God is like? Again, it’s from Luke’s gospel and one of the two who are crucified with Jesus – Luke calls them thieves but in Matthew’s Gospel the Greek word is lestoi, which means brigands, freedom fighters or terrorists, depending whose side you’re on – one of these violent men who have lived by questionable means and for questionable ends – one of these says to Jesus, ‘remember me, when you come into your kingdom’. The lestoi, you see, are like us – men and women of compromise, of divided loyalties and murky ethics. We believed in something once, maybe back in the 70s, but we think we might have sold out. We’re not quite sure what we’re living for, any more, and when we face eternity we’re not quite sure where we stand. ‘Remember us’, we ask, and it means, literally, ‘re – member us – make us belong again, put us back together again’ – and Jesus says, ‘today’ – not tomorrow, not after we die, if you’re lucky – but, ‘today, you will be with me’ – ‘your life has meaning and power and beauty through me and in me – today, you will be in paradise with me’.

Thank God it’s Friday.


Maundy Thursday

Thirty four years ago, during the final week of Lent, a single gunshot was fired inside the Cathedral of San Salvador, making Archbishop Oscar Romero the first priest since St Thomas a Beckett in the 12th century to be murdered while celebrating the Eucharist. Romero had just delivered a sermon in which he reminded his congregation about the parable of the grain of wheat that – unless it dies – remains just a single grain. Two weeks earlier, in an interview that appeared in a local newspaper, Archbishop Romero had predicted his own death in these words: ‘As a Christian I do not believe in death but in resurrection. If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people’.

Romero was a most unlikely martyr. He was elected as archbishop in 1977 precisely for the reason that he could be trusted not to rock the boat. It seems Romero was a pious but unremarkable priest with conservative views on most things, and no particular interest in El Salvador’s political troubles. So far as the church was concerned that made him the perfect candidate for archbishop – because for the church in El Salvador in the late 70s, staying in business, keeping the doors open despite the disappearances and the political assassinations seemed like the highest priority. Nobody in the Church hierarchy wanted to make waves with the military dictatorship. Facing a rising tide of international condemnation, the government just as desperately needed a compliant Church. Nobody thought for a moment that Romero was going to turn into El Salvador’s most uncompromising advocate for social justice, the most fearless critic of human rights violations. Nobody thought for a moment that within three years this lacklustre priest was going to earn the hatred of El Salvador’s rich and powerful - and be disowned by most of his fellow bishops as a troublemaker. Romero went along with the status quo for a while – like most of us do - and then something changed him. He all of a sudden realised that – when the Church finds itself in a place of social injustice - standing in solidarity with the poor is not just one of the things the Church might do, but the only thing the Church can do. Just weeks before his death, Romero claimed that ‘a church that does not unite itself to the poor and denounce from the place of the poor the injustices committed against them is not truly the church of Jesus Christ – we either serve the life of Salvadorans or we are accomplices in their death – we either believe in a God of life or we serve the idols of death’.

You either serve life, or you serve death. Today, in the church, we celebrate D day – D for decision. Oscar Romero, like Jesus before him, realised the paradox that to choose life is to live in a way that denies the power of those who deal in death, even if the consequence of that choice is that, for a time, the power of death seems only to get stronger. Oscar Romero, like Jesus, discovered the ultimately realistic power of hope, which is the decision and the commitment to persist in choosing life even when the forces of death seem to be overwhelming. Hope is the power to act against the common sense that says there’s no point, cut your losses, be reasonable. Hope implies an orientation toward the future that might be – the future Jesus is imagining when he describes for us what the reign of God looks like – and the refusal to accept that such a future is not possible.

I wonder how many of us watch the TV show, ‘The Simpsons’? I find it wonderful and subversively life-affirming for its apparent cynicism that actually entices the viewer into a real affirmation of what’s important in life – somehow or other it seems to hook into our own world-weariness and our familiarity with everything that’s shallow and self-serving in human nature – then almost without us noticing – leads us to the point where we recognise love and generosity and self-sacrifice as life-giving options. I wonder if anyone saw the programme where Homer ate a blowfish? Blowies as I’m sure you know are poisonous – however in Japanese cuisine they’re carefully prepared in order to be safe to eat – but naturally Homer gets a bad one and begins to turn an interesting shade of purple. The point of the story is that Homer is given 24 hours to live, so he starts thinking of all the things he was going to get around to doing one day – no time now for the big-ticket items like climbing Mt Kilimanjaro or winning the lottery – so he decides to do some of the other important stuff – like teaching 10 year old Bart to shave – telling Marge that he loves her – listening to the whole Bible on CD – in the event he falls asleep in the middle of Genesis and wakes up quite put out that he’s done all this stuff to get ready but he didn’t even die – but we get the point that in preparing for his imminent demise, thinking he is about to die, Homer has actually started to live.

Like Homer Simpson, today Jesus faces D day. What do you live for if you know it’s the last day of your life? My guess is that Jesus knew pretty well where his ministry was going to end up. The Bible tells us he knew and tried to prepare his disciples for his death, and he hardly needed any miraculous powers to predict what would happen if he turned up in Jerusalem in the middle of a religious festival – the Passover that celebrated Israel’s deliverance from unjust slavery in Egypt. This festival – which brought together both the religious and the political dimensions of what it meant to be Jewish - was always a big headache for the Roman occupation army and the Roman governor Pilate, who one year according to the Jewish historian Josephus had the approach roads to Jerusalem lined with crucified resistance fighters as a warning to would-be messiahs and trouble-makers. However successful his Galilean ministry had been, Jesus would have to know the consequences of turning up in Jerusalem in the middle of a Passover weekend and proclaiming the kingdom of God as an alternative both to the injustice of secular power and the corruption of religious elites. Like Oscar Romero, Jesus knew the consequence of choosing life would be his own death.

So what does he do? This night that he surely knows is his last on this earth, what does he do? Jesus does what he has always done – he gathers friends and enemies, good people and bad people, and he breaks bread with them, pours out wine for them. He eats with them, as he has always done. This is when, like Homer Simpson, Jesus should be saying anything that still needs saying, doing whatever has been left undone. But he uses the occasion to share a meal - because as much or more than in any of the miracles – it’s when Jesus breaks bread that we get the point of what he means by his talk of God’s kingdom. But then tonight he says something new – something we’ve never heard him say before – but when he says it we realise that’s what he’s been telling us all along: ‘What I’m doing here, is I’m giving you myself. That’s what I’ve always been up to. This bread – it’s me – my life, my spirit, my future, all of me – that’s what I’m giving you’.

And John’s Gospel tells us Jesus does something else that is new on this last night of his life, but as soon as he does it, we realise that it’s what he’s been showing us all along. Jesus washes his disciples’ feet – the job of the lowliest servant – and we realise that Jesus’ whole life has been an act of divine humility and love. ‘Love one another this much’, he tells us. ‘Lead God’s people by serving them’.

And for the first time ever, we hear the implication that the company of those who eat this bread become Jesus body in the world. The company of those who follow Jesus’ example of humble self-giving – the sort of humble love that leads inevitably to the cross – become an icon of divine humility, which is Christ.

Facing death, Jesus chooses life. What will we choose?


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Passion Sunday

A few years ago now, together with the rest of Australia, I watched in a sort of horrified fascination the rise and fall of Mark Latham. Wasn’t that something? This guy was certainly different – on the plus side you could say he had a real freshness and spontaneity – on the minus side he was unpredictable, a loose cannon – certainly Latham was a charismatic politician, and Labour’s election campaign was always going to depend on whether we saw him as a liability or an asset. But what struck me at the time as most remarkable is that it was the media itself that first built up the idea of Latham as a breath of fresh air – then closer to the election it was the media that brought him down. Could it be that – the closer he got to Canberra – the things we liked about him at first started to make us nervous. Latham as unpredictable Opposition Leader was OK – Latham as potential PM made us collectively feel a bit nervous.

This is exactly what we get this morning, when we start at the end of the driveway waving palm branches around and the mood is buoyant – following this Jesus character we can do anything! – and we follow him into Jerusalem because that is where all Opposition Leaders head for – and we call him the Son of David which means we think he is the longed-for Messiah who’s going to kick out the Romans – but notice how when we get into Jerusalem the mood changes and now when someone asks ‘who’s that you’re all following’ we say ‘oh, just some prophet from Nazareth’. Not so much of the ‘Son of David’ stuff now under the shadow of the Roman fortress. The crowd picks Jesus up and sweeps him into Jerusalem because they see him as a political saviour – then they draw back nervously because more likely he’s going to turn out to be a political liability. A week later the crowd are going to be howling for his death – maybe even the same crowd, certainly another crowd just like it.

Of course, my analogy has got its limits. A major difference between Jesus and Biff Latham is that – for all that we see a crowd who change their minds about Jesus overnight - the gospels don’t for a moment show us a Jesus coming unstuck because of a propaganda campaign gone wrong – instead we see a Jesus who from the start of his ministry until the end is in control of his destiny. So why the change in mood? Why today’s ugly scene? Why does Jesus crash and burn?

We can’t pretend we don’t know how this story ends of course – in the resurrection – we can’t take the agonising journey from here to the cross without knowing what lies on the other side. But we’re not there yet. If as Christians we want to experience the exuberance of Easter morning – if we want to light the new fire next Sunday as the sun comes up and know that this is our Lord who once and for all has defeated death, then we need to watch with Jesus in Gethsemane and share at full strength the horror of the ordeal that’s ahead; and we need to stand at the foot of the cross with his mother on Good Friday. Only the Jesus who suffers as human beings suffer can teach us what it means to be human. That’s why the celebration of Easter doesn’t just take place on Easter Day – that’s why Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Day are together called the Triduum, or the Great Three Days of our faith. Only if we watch faithfully with Jesus this week can we rise with him next Sunday. But we’re not there yet.

Back in the 12th century St Anselm came up with a plausible explanation not only for why Jesus had to die, but for why Jesus’ death puts us right with God. St Anselm’s typically medieval idea was that human sinfulness so affronted God’s honour that somebody would have to pay the price – but at the same time there was a dilemma because God’s mercy also requires forgiveness – and the only way out for God is to provide the victim himself – St Anselm’s idea of Jesus paying the price for God’s forgiveness of our sins became so popular that for many Christians it’s become – well, gospel. Unfortunately, St Anslem’s theory makes Jesus life almost irrelevant – because in this view of things it’s his death that makes us acceptable to God. The other problem is, that believing in a God who dishes up this sort of punishment leads to a hierarchical and authoritarian view of the world. It doesn’t leave much room for grace. And Jesus as the perfectly obedient son who becomes the divine victim becomes the unfortunate model for structures of abuse and neurotic guilt.

However, back in the 12th century, there was also a rival explanation. St Abelard at around the same time came up with the idea that God did not require Jesus death at all. God intends his creation for life, not for death. For St Abelard, it’s Jesus’ life that is important, because Jesus models for us how we can live out of awareness of our relationship with God, and St Abelard suggests that Jesus death is not the main point at all – Jesus death is simply the consequence of how he lived. St Abelard of course is the darling of all who see a political dimension to Jesus’ ministry, because it’s easy to see the accumulating opposition to a Jesus who insists on turning the status quo upside down, preaching subversive ideas like ‘blessed are the poor’ – associating with Samaritans and prostitutes. And it’s easy enough to see why - in the supercharged atmosphere of expectation that was 1st century Palestine under Roman occupation - this Galilean preacher would become the focus for everyone who’s looking for liberation and a better deal.

The problem with St Abelard’s idea is it’s too easy to slide from there into a view of Jesus as just another good man who risks his life for an ideal. Ultimately, it waters down the central Christian message that not only does Jesus show us what God is like, but that in Jesus, heaven and earth have touched each other so that human beings now get to share in God’s own life.

Neither obedient scapegoat nor activist, the life and death of Jesus have saving power because of who Jesus is - one with us in the circumstances of our lives and at the same time one with God. It is a 13th century theologian, the Franciscan scholar St Bonaventure, who I think gets closest to the mark with his idea that the fundamental logic of creation is the joining of opposites – in the Word made flesh, Bonaventure tells us, as the noblest completion of creation the most extreme of opposites are joined together – the infinite with the finite, the Creator with the created, heaven and earth. St Bonaventure goes on to suggest that the crucified Christ is the ultimate conjunction of opposites – the opposites of suffering and grace, hatred and love, death and new life. Metaphorically, St Bonaventure says, evil overreaches itself in putting to death what can never be put to death – and because of this the crucified Christ becomes for us an icon of reconciliation – the means by which the irreconcilable opposites of our own nature can be made whole – our contradictory impulses of self-gratification and self-transcendence brought together.

Passion Sunday is the day on which the contradictions expose themselves, the day on which the barometer plummets from the heady excitement of a carnival to the sinister recriminations of a show-trial. Standing at the entrance of Holy Week, Passion Sunday invites us to reflect on our own divided nature – to identify ourselves in the crowd that dances with delight in a Jerusalem street – and also to find ourselves in the crowd that yells for blood in the courtyard of a military garrison. As we follow Jesus on the short but agonising journey from Palm Sunday to Golgotha, we find that in the Crucified One we ourselves are made whole.

It’s often remarked that Holy Week – the week during which our liturgical remembrance slows down to match the time frame of the last week of Jesus’ life – is the heart of the Christian year. If we do Holy Week well – which is to say, if we hang around, if we wait with Jesus and take time out from all the things in our own lives that demand our attention so that the drama unfolds around us and within us – if, unlike the disciples, we don’t turn aside but stay and wait and pray with Jesus – then the whole of our Christian year as a worshipping community is deepened and energised. We only get the depth of sorrow and love and joy if we are prepared to live through it. And when we do take the time to live through it – one day at a time – then we come to realise that this grief is our own grief, this pain is our own pain, this betrayal is our own betrayal – that all the imperfections, all the suffering and regret and loss of our own lives are exposed for us in the divine sacrifice that horrifies us precisely because we experience the echoes of it in our own humanity. And we come to realise something more – that the depth of love we see this week also lives in us and the triumph of love over suffering that transforms the world on Easter morning is the very same creative energy of God that gives us life and redeems us from all that is wretched and selfish life-denying. This week, if we commit ourselves to fully experiencing all that it offers, sets us free from all that entraps and limits us – the negative scripts of abuse or sin – and reveals in us the possibility of what we were created to be – men and women enabled to live with courage and purpose and joy.

And so, I invite you to join with me this week in keeping the Great Three Days that are at the heart of our faith.



Saturday, April 05, 2014

Can these dry bones live?

A week or so ago I heard the news that a number of skeletons dug up in London – by crews excavating for a rail extension – were confirmed to be the remains of plague victims. This of course isn’t an unheard of occurrence anywhere in Europe – in 1348 when the bubonic plague virus swept into Europe from its ancient foothold in central Asia the Black Death killed one third of the population of Europe – 60% of the population of London died within 12 months and victims were hastily buried in large communal pits. It was widely assumed that this in fact was the end of all things, the Biblical apocalypse.

Europe survived, of course, though the flower of its medieval culture and intellectual accomplishment was snuffed out – in England vast tracts of agricultural land returned to the forest and whole villages were abandoned. The population took centuries to recover – it is impossible for us to imagine the fog of despair and hopelessness that would have clung to the landscape.

Can these bones live? Ezekiel asks rhetorically. Well in the case of the plague skeletons the almost eight century old bones are painting a picture of ancient life as they reveal the epidemiology of the plague and the stresses and privations of life for the working classes in the fourteenth century. They are also revealing valuable information about the still surviving and still dangerous y. pestis infection. In a sense these bones have been given new life..

Two Sundays before Easter and the readings from the Bible speak to us of resurrection – not Jesus’ resurrection, but ours. Here in Ezekiel with the mysterious vision of dry bones, and in John’s Gospel with the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus, as has often been remarked, never speaks – neither before his death nor after his raising. His experienced is never described, but it is an experience we can’t help but wonder at, as we face the certainty of our own mortality. It isn’t a foretaste of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead because Lazarus, once raised, is still subject to the mortal conundrum that his life eventually will be hidden again in the darkness of death. But Jesus tells us clearly that death does not get the last word, in God’s scheme of things, and says to us: ‘I am the resurrection and the life’. Our assurance that our lives are meant not for oblivion but for resurrection is not a dogma, but a person. Lazarus, I have always thought, is so obscure and undeveloped as a character because, essentially, Lazarus is every one of us. Not dying into oblivion but loved and welcomed home by God.

But where the Lazarus story essentially works at the individual level, the mystery of resurrection in the prophet Ezekiel centres on a whole community that has given way to despair. This is not a case of existential reassurance for human creatures who face the final circumstances of our lives alone, but good news for a nation that has faced the agony of military defeat and exile, the destruction of its temple and religious observances and the humiliation of its ruling classes. After years of siege during which the people of Jerusalem were reduced to near starvation and cannibalism, the fabric of Judean society disintegrated, the remains of the educated and governing class were dragged off in chains to Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel among them, and the only people who remained were the landless peasants. Effectively, Judah was no more.

The exiles were out of place, disconnected with everything that had made their lives meaningful, uncertain even how to worship God in a strange land. From this place of dislocation and despair, the prophet Ezekiel is visited by the spirit of God and is taken to this valley of dry bones.

Possibly the prophet is seeing a real burial place, the communal grave of the victims of starvation and disease during the years of siege. It is an appalling sight, and also for Ezekiel as a priest, also a place of ritual contamination and impurity. And this burial pit has become a symbol for the people who are now apart from God and who have no life or hope remaining in them. The tension between life and death, ritual cleanliness and impurity points to the underlying problem for the people in exile: where is God? With the Temple in ruins and surrounded by a strange landscape and foreign customs, where is their centre and their hope?

The power of this image is the fact that the experience is recognisable to any community that has lost its purpose and its hope. In times of war and social dislocation this is the reality, for example, for refugee communities. Where is God on Manus Island? For the residents of a temporary camp in the unfamiliar setting of a rain-soaked tropical island, subject to harsh conditions and incomprehensible administration, the temptation is to despair. How can human beings continue to believe in God in such a situation? Is the living death of a people torn from all that is familiar, separated from loved ones and cast adrift from the anchors of culture and language, beyond the possibility of hope and new life? So it must seem to those living this nightmare. But for us as Australians maybe Manus Island has become the dry bones of our self-belief as the land of the fair go.

Others have seen in this image the frustration and despair of faith communities clinging to what sometimes seems like the anachronism of religious rituals in a sea of secularism. Marooned by the passing of what used to be known as Christendom – the age of Christianity in which faith and society were synonymous – the Church now finds it speaks a language nobody else seems able to hear or understand. Exiled – so to speak – in a foreign land that worships the strange gods of consumerism and nationalism, Christian communities can lose their faith, find themselves going through the motions out of habit, no longer sustained by creed or sacrament. We see this not only in dwindling attendance at church services, but in congregations that disconnect from the basics of living together as a community of faith: no longer studying and praying together or working together for the good of others. We ourselves can become the dry bones of the faith we proclaim.

Psychologist Joanna Macey comments on the connection between overwhelming bad news and depression, noting that despair and grief so often produces self-sabotaging inaction and denial of the problem. The context of her comments is in relation to climate change, as increasingly dire warnings from the world’s best climate scientists fall on apparently deaf ears. Last week’s IPCC report pointed out that climate change is no longer just a prediction but a current fact, and that it is primarily the poorest countries that are bearing its brunt in rising sea levels impacting low-lying communities in Bangladesh and many of the Pacific island nations. Just last night we saw images on our television screens of devastating flooding in the Solomon Islands. It is beyond question that extreme weather events are increasing in severity and claiming a toll on human communities. The IPCC warns in blunt terms of the shortening window of opportunity that remains for effective international action to reduce atmospheric carbon emissions and that failure to act – this decade – will lock in an average 4-6 degree global temperature rise that will massively impact both human and non-human life on our planet by the end of this century. It is almost as though the news is too much and the stakes too high to be comprehended. I don’t know about you, but I worry about what sort of world my baby grand-daughter will live in. Yet governments dither and argue – last week our own Prime Minister shrugged off the latest IPCC report by quoting a 19th century poem – Australia, he said, has always been a land of drought and flooding rain, always will. It’s the 21st century equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome burns. We disconnect from what science is telling us – even as, I suspect, most of us secretly expect science to get us out of the pickle. Macey warns of the danger of despair and inaction that leads to a community in depression and denial – the dry bones of disconnecting from the future of the only planet we have and the future of our own children and children’s children. The alternative to despair, she says, is to get involved. To address the situation immediately around you – to plant a garden, take steps to reduce your household’s carbon footprint, drive less, walk more – affirm the goodness of local community and the power of doing things together.

The parable of Ezekiel tells us that the future belongs to God, and that God is the one who is capable of bringing new life out of the human situations that reek of despair and death. God doesn’t ask Ezekiel for help in reassembling the bones – resurrection is God’s initiative and God’s project. But that doesn’t mean to say we have nothing to do! We participate in resurrection to the extent that we take it seriously and act towards it. Ezekiel didn’t just see the vision in the valley of dry bones; he also saw the reality of a community in exile who believed the good news that they had not been abandoned by God, and who were prepared to become the good news that they had received. Ezekiel and others such as the prophet Jeremiah encourage the people to put their faith in God’s promises into action – to build homes in Babylon, to married and raise children and work for the good of the community in which they found themselves. Turns out the years of exile were a time of unprecedented creativity and growth in cultural and religious identity. When the exiles – now calling themselves Jews - eventually returned to the land they knew God not just as the dangerous presence confined to the Temple in Jerusalem but as the one who could be trusted to accompany them through thick and thin.

Crisis is nothing new – even an existential crisis like climate change finds its echoes in the experiences of ancient populations, like the despair that gripped the population of Europe in the fourteenth century. As a community of faith we have one essential difference – as Archbishop Rowan Williams put it – as Christians we are necessarily prisoners of hope. We believe in God’s faithfulness and God’s ability to bring new life from death-dealing situations. But that good news comes with a warning – which is that to be a community of faith we must also be a community who dares to put God’s promises into action, a community of hope that puts flesh and blood on the promises of God. Like God’s people in exile we must dare to live God’s promises of new life – the God who promises liberation for captives and justice for the oppressed, the God who promises to be with us always, the God who pledges an everlasting covenant with all that lives, that never again will the Earth be submerged beneath the deep waters of death.

If we believe God’s promises and if we live toward them with passion and conviction – then these bones will live.