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Friday, April 12, 2013

Breaking Out with Jesus

Text: Luke 24.1-35

Do you ever get the feeling that you’re going around in circles?  Do you ever get the feeling that the record is stuck, that you’ve heard it all before?  I got that feeling as I watched the evening news last night, and now I feel sick to the stomach.  For even as we gather in this season on which Christ rose from a violent death, the ancient feuds continue unabated. In Columbia and Afganistan, in Iraq and the Sudan, the cycle of violence and despair turns yet again: an eye for an eye, a church for a mosque, a wrong for a wrong.

To my mind, what we see in all this is what Nietzsche called ‘the eternal return of the Same’, the irrepressible tendency of human beings to crave what they have always craved, to believe what they have always believed, and to know what they have always known.  With the eternal return the rhetoric of ‘new life’ is just a figure of speech, because nothing new is really possible.  The circle returns, endlessly, to where it began.  Violence begets violence, and despair begets only despair.  In the end even the most hopeful amongst us are seduced.  We begin to believe that we’ve seen in all before, that there is nothing new under the sun.

The reality of the Resurrection, which we celebrate this morning, confronts this cycle absolutely. For the resurrection of Jesus is about the in-breaking of something that is so new, so different, so unheard of, that, strictly speaking, we cannot even describe it.  It is, as Jürgen Moltmann says somewhere, an event entirely without comparison or analogy.  It is an event which shatters every established pattern, every expectation, every shred of certainty we may have had about the way things are.   It is like the T-Shirt which I bought at a U2 concert a few years back which said “Everything You Know is Wrong”.  It is the explosion within Sameness of a reality which is totally and radically other than anything that we could ever think or imagine:  it is the arrival of God.  And what is the purpose of this interruption?  To change things.  To change things so entirely that we will never again become captive to all that seems predictable, or ‘necessary,’ or ‘fated’.  When Christ rises he does not rise, like Lazarus, to a life lived as it had been lived before.  When Christ rises, he rends not only the entrance to his tomb, but also the very fabric of the way things have always been, so that God’s creatures may never be slaves to the Same ever again.

Here we find ourselves inside Luke’s story of the Emmaus road.  Like us, the travelling companions live in that time after the resurrection.  The women had been to the tomb and witnessed its emptiness, but scarcely able to understand what had happened themselves, find that they cannot make themselves understood amongst their male companions, who remain trapped inside their cycle of grief, anger and despair.  Like many of us, they are stuck within the endless cycle of expectation and disappointment: their messianic hope had been shattered on a Roman cross.  Still, it is here, in the very centre of that circle, that the Christ chooses to meet them. 

As two of these disciples journey toward Emmaus, Jesus joins them, listening to their woeful story of hopes dashed and despair grown large again.  But then he does something rather surprising.  He begins to preach to them from the Scriptures, but not in the mode of many of the sermons I’ve heard, which do little more than confirm and comfort me in what I already know.   No, this is a profoundly dis-confirming preaching, which first castigates them for their lack of faith in the prophets, and then proceeds to deconstruct their Scriptural knowledge so radically that the meaning of the same is utterly and irreversibly altered.  The results were, I imagine, terrifying.  Suddenly the disciples begin to see that everything they had ever known and believed was wrong.  Yet despite the upset, there is something compelling in what Jesus says that compels them to hang onto him. 

So when they urge Jesus to join them for the evening meal, he consents to do so.  And there he does something which really dislodges their expectations.  In a careful repetition of what he had done at the last supper, Jesus takes bread, says a prayer of blessing, and breaks it so that all gathered may eat.  At that moment, we are told, the companion’s eyes are opened.  They recognise that the stranger is Jesus, their friend, the crucified one.  And yet he is not that one.  He is radically different.  He is somehow other.  If that isn’t weird enough, Luke then tells us that in that precise moment of recognition, at that very nano-second, Jesus vanishes from their sight and is seen no more. 

Turning to each other in wonder and excitement, the disciples declare the way in which their hearts were ‘burning’ within them when they heard the word preached.  Note the word: ‘burned,’ as in purged by a bushfire, not ‘warmed’, as by a cosy open fire on a winter’s night.  The disciples rise from where they are and return to the place of despair and forlorn logic from which they came.  They return to Jerusalem with a distinct and special mission:  to declare and confirm that Christ had indeed been raised, and that he had make himself known to them in the breaking of bread.  Which is to say, they returned to Jerusalem to dis-confirm the miserable logic of the Same which held sway there, to interrupt and fragment its omnipotent power by the burning joyfulness of all they had glimpsed in the risen Christ.

Now, this is a strange and wondrous story by any standard.  So strange and wonderful that I am certain that almost everything I intend in speaking about it this morning is not quite right.  But this is how it is with the resurrected Christ.  He comes to us as the word that is strange and in/credible, not conforming to the logic of what we know and experience to be real and trustworthy.  He comes to us not to confirm what we know or to reinforce our sense that things will never change.  He comes to transform that inclination utterly, to show us, in the blazing light of his risen glory, that the Eternal Return of the same is killing us.  Slowly killing us, but killing us all the same.  And who can doubt this word?  Hasn’t life become genuinely banal for us in this neo-pagan world of circles?  Hemmingway wrote famously that most people live lives of “quiet desperation”.  The writer of Ecclesiastes complains that all is ‘vanity’, by which he means that human beings, despite all their apparent thirst for experience, tend to look only for that which may be easily integrated into the logic and the framework which is always already there: the framework of violence, the strong over the weak, the deserving over the less deserving.  But Christ is raised to shatter that logic, to undo the idolatrous gaze that works such vanity into all that is seen and touched and felt.  Christ is raised to set us free.

This I believe, and this I declare to you today.  But I want you to note two important implications of this belief.  And these reflections are guided directly by Luke’s text.  First, resurrection belief is sustainable only if one believes what Luke says about the disappearance of Christ at the very moment that we recognise him.  Remember what we heard from Moltmann. The resurrection is an event without analogy.  No matter how much we try to understand and describe him, the risen Christ will always and everywhere elude and elide our grasp.  We see him as in a glass darkly; he is a flash of light at the corner of our eyes, which, if we turn to take squarely into the full ambit of our gaze, will disappear into invisibility.  The Celtic tradition speaks of the Christ who always comes in the guise of the stranger, a stranger who is gone even before one realises who he was.  In precisely that mode, the Emmaus story tells us that no matter how ingenious our resurrection accounts and theologies become, they will certainly not secure a Christ who may be domesticated for our own use and purpose.  Christ will not allow himself to be manipulated like that.  He will not join us in our crusades against those we see as our enemies.

Which leads into my second point, and a rather perplexing one at that.  Perhaps you will have noticed how Luke structures his story after the model of a first century worship service?  First there is a Gathering of companions, who come immediately from the circle of despair, and they are joined there by Christ.  Then there is a Service of the Word, a recounting of the Scriptures and a preaching; and it is Christ himself who does this; yet he is not recognised by those who hear.  Then there is a Eucharist, where Christ is again the anonymous presider who breaks bread, blesses, and share it with his companions.  And then there is a Mission.  The disciples, having finally discerned the risen Christ, are then driven out by the burning in their hearts to dis-confirm and question the logic of the world from which they came. 

What Luke is telling us here is simply this: that it is in the gathered worship of the Christian church that Christ chooses to reveal his radically new word and reality.  That worship itself is the mode by which he interrupts and fractures the logic of despair.  For in the reading of Scripture, the preaching of the word, and in the breaking of the bread, Christ himself comes to call us out of whatever trap of fate or necessity in which we have become ensnared.  In worship he gives us a glimpse of that world in which violence and despair have been done away, absorbed into Christ’s death on the cross.  In worship we learn that Christ is risen to make another world, another logic possible, the world and logic a transfiguring love which is able to cast out all fear—even the fear of our enemies.

But how can this be?  How is it that this ordinary human language of worship may become the language of Christ?  Didn’t I just say to you that Christ comes to interrupt our language and to un-say all that we might say of him!  Well, there is a great mystery here, a mystery tied very much to the mystery of Christ himself, who, in the incarnation, is said to be God in an ordinary human life.  Perhaps all that one may say about this mystery is something like this:  That in the human language of Christian worship, Christ speaks himself so resolutely that even where our liturgy seeks to enlist him to our wars against others or enrol him in our logic of violence and despair, Christ is able to address us in his own voice, from the margins as it were.  Even from that marginal place, Christ is able to speak powerfully: to so dispossess our liturgy of the meanings we intend, that, somehow, even as we say it, we hear it said back to us with a meaning not our own, in an inflection and tongue not our own, so that our hearts burn with confusion, and terror, but ultimately with the holy joy of people who are really being liberated from their bondage to the same old thing.  Christ will not succumb to the tombs we may make for ourselves or for him.  Christ will break free.  He will always break free, and he will break us free with him. 

I pray to God that Christ may do just that, even with what we say and do this morning. 

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