Psalm 114; Luke 24.13-35
Friends, every year at Easter I hear the resurrection of Christ being tied to the cycles of nature, to the return of fertility, to the flowering of flora and fauna in the (ironically) European springtime. For that is what the theology of the resurrection has become in our culture: an affirmation of the eternal return of that which we saw last year, and the year before, and the year before that, and so on. Here the Christian meaning of the resurrection has been collapsed into that old pagan celebration of Oestre, the Anglo-Saxon god of fertility, whose advent is celebrated with the cyclic return of the sun to warm the world and awaken the life that lays dormant in the soil. This Easter celebrates what Nietzsche called ‘the eternal return of the Same’, the irrepressible tendency of nature to repair and renew itself; but more seriously, of human beings to want what they have always wanted, to believe what they have always believed, and to know what they have always known. It is an Easter in which 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. Which makes me think that perhaps the best symbol of this modern Easter is not even the fertile bunny or the egg, but the Big Mac. Because each time you have one, it tastes exactly the same as the one you had last time.
Moreover, I often feel that our church, the Uniting Church, has become exactly like this pagan version of Easter: forever, like Smith in the Matrix films, preaching a gospel of inevitability. Since we have so tethered our faith to the economic and cultural fortunes of our society, we feel as though we no longer have anything important to say or do, nothing, that is, that has not already been said or done by many others. Here our faith in the resurrection is made forever small – about the size of our faith in the ‘human spirit’ - and forever repetitive, condemned to be no more than a ‘spiritual’ footnote to themes that have been present in politics, economics, law and sociology from time immemorial. Themes that are condemned to repeat themselves over and over again because they are made by us, by human beings, who find it comforting to believe that there is nothing really new under the sun.
Of course, the Feast of the Resurrection has almost nothing, almost nothing I say, to do with the eternal return of this neo-pagan Easter (I will return to this 'almost' on another occasion). The resurrection of Jesus, rather, 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 adequate comparison or analogy. It is an event that shatters every established pattern or model, every expectation, every shred of comfort and certainty we may have had about the way things are. It is like the t-shirt 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 the purpose of this interruption, this bending of reality? To change things. To change things so entirely that we will never again become captive to all that is 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 our hearts, as Peter says in his Pentecostal sermon, 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 despair. And that is where we find the companions as they begin their journey. Like many of us in the Uniting Church, they had lived though a cycling of highs and lows: their messianic hope had been shattered on a Roman cross. Yet it is here, precisely within the circle of their despair, that the risen Jesus chooses to meet them.
Now, having joined them, Jesus, listens to their woes. We would expect that of him, would we not? But then he does something rather surprising. He begins to preach to them from the Scriptures – and not in the mode of most of the sermons I’ve heard, which do little more than confirm and comfort me within the circle of what I already know. No, this is a profoundly dis-confirming preaching, first castigating the companions for their lack of faith in the prophets, and then proceeding to deconstruct their Scriptural knowledge so radically that its meaning is utterly and irreversibly altered. The results were, I imagine, terrifying. Suddenly the companions begin to see that everything they had ever known and believed was wrong. Yet despite the upset, there is something 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 risen. 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 to each other 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 logic of the Same which held sway there, to interrupt and fragment its omnipotent power by the burning presence 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 tonight 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 of what is good and noble and true. He comes to change all that, 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'. He was writing about himself, of course, a man who was constantly on the look-out for new experience, something which might cut across the boredom of his life. 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. 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 from such things.
This I believe, and this I declare to you today. But I want you to note two important implications of this belief for ourselves, as we begin on this new venture in religious community. 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, no matter hard we work to create forms of religious devotion by which he might be rendered permanently present, 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 him squarely into the full ambit of our gaze, will only disappear into invisibility. The monastic traditions speak, often, about the Christ who comes in the guise of a 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 religious forms may become - even those, like ours, which earnestly seek to reform and recover what has been forgotten and lost - they will certainly not secure a Christ who may be domesticated to our own use and purpose. The risen Christ, you see, is free. He will always prosecute his own purposes, not ours.
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 driven out by the burning in their hearts to dis-confirm and question the logic of the world from which they came. What is Luke telling us in all this? Simply this: that the risen Christ ministers to us in the gathered worship of the Christian church. That he reveals himself to us in the reading of Scripture, the preaching of the word, and in the breaking of the bread. Which is probably rather unwelcome news to those who want to close down worshipping congregations in order to keep social and cultural programmes going! But seriously, how can this be? How is it that this most 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 very much at the heart of everything I am trying to do in my own journey through life. And 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 it is by the ordinary human language of Christian worship that Christ, himself, chooses to arrives in our midst. Not to confirm what we intend to say, but rather to so dispossess our devotional forms of the meaning we intend, that, somehow, even as we say and do them, we hear them coming back at us with a meaning not our own, in an inflection and tongue not our own, so that our hearts burn with confusion, and terror – certainly - but ultimately with the holy joy of people who are being liberated from their bondage to the same old thing. That is why we must continue to devote ourselves to the apostle’s teaching, to prayer, and to the breaking of bread with each other. For Christ has chosen these things, more than any others, as the instruments of his converting work.
I pray to God that Christ may do just that, even with what we plan to do day by day and month by month in our little community. May Christ come to blast away our tired old habits of mind and heart. May Christ come to transform our despair and our churchly weariness, that we may find an appetite for evangelism and for witness that many of us have never truly known. May Christ come with the power described by the Psalmist, a power able to transform desert rock into pools of soothing water, the power that is able to lift all who are truly lost to their feet and give them courage. Even so, may it be for us, and for our church. Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus, come!
This homily was delivered on the Feast of the Resurrection in 2014 to constitute the Kairos Community, a group of Uniting Church ministers who committed themselves to daily prayer, to mutual care and to a monthly gathering for theological education and the celebration of the Eucharist.