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Saturday 23 April 2011

Christ is risen to heal the world

Texts: Romans 6.3-12; Matthew 28.1-10

Tonight we celebrate the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, an event that - in the faith of the church – bears no comparison or analogy within the ordinary space and time of this world.  It is an event that has happened only once, and will never happen again in exactly the same way.  The resurrection is so unique, in fact, so singular in its eventfulness, that we are able to say a lot more about what it is not, than we are about what it is.  That’s just how it is when God decides to change world.  The old rules no longer apply, even the laws of biology or physics, and suddenly what we thought we knew turns out to be wrong!

Amongst the many things that the resurrection is not, for example, is a resuscitation of the dead body of Jesus.  We know this because, according to the eye-witnesses, the risen Jesus’ body does not behave like a re-animated body should. It can change its basic appearance, so that even the closest friends of Jesus do not recognise who he is. It can appear and disappear from sight, at once here and then somewhere else in an instant. It can walk through walls. It can even ascend into the air.  Resuscitated bodies don’t do that stuff.

Another thing that the resurrection is not, is a moment of re-birth or re-turn in the cycle of life as we know it.  This may be bad news for those of you who take Bunnies and eggs to be legitimate symbols of ‘Easter’.  Because actually they are symbols of a certain kind of Easter, the pagan ‘Easter’, the Easter that is named after the Anglo-Saxon goddess of fertility, Oestre.  This Easter celebrates, and is actually all about the turning of the agricultural seasons through autumn, winter, spring and summer.  This Easter is about the re-birth of light and life and fertility after a long fallow, enwombed, winter.  It is the Easter that the ancient Christian missionaries sought to overcome, but never did, because here we are in the midst of a bunny-and-egg obsessed culture in the southern hemisphere, which celebrates such things according to the northern agricultural cycle!  Such is the strength of the pagan myth!

Enough, then, of what the resurrection is not.  Allow me to explore something of what the resurrection is.  Tonight's gospel reading shows us that in the face of the resurrection of Christ, the theologian must become a poet.  When he speaks of the resurrection, Matthew does not speak of the thing itself, but only its effects.  This is to invoke what the English poet, Percy Shelley, called ‘negative capability’, the capability of a event that we cannot directly see, touch, taste, smell  or hear, to nevertheless produce effects that we can sense and interpret.  In Matthew’s account, the resurrection is something that happens in the dead of night, the dead of this night (but without the benefit of coal-fire electricity and street lamps).  The darkness represents an event that cannot be witnessed directly, like a nuclear explosion, or the implosion of a vast star into a tiny singularity.  Matthew wants to insist, nevertheless, that the event is very real and that its effects are profound.  That is why he invokes the image of the Angel who brings lighting and an earthquake to unlock the tomb and let the dead Christ free; that is why he speaks of an Angel who is, himself, bright, swift, and devastating as lightening.  The Angel is an image from Jewish apocalyptic literature, a literature that seeks to bear witness to things hidden since the foundation of the world, to represent, though the hyperbolic devices of poetry, the revolutionary action of a God whose actions so fundamentally change the rules that whatever rules we are working with are for ever playing catch-up.

Let us then, like Matthew himself, confine ourselves to speaking of the risen Jesus in terms of his revolutionary effects. The first thing to say is that Jesus is risen to trans-value every value, to re-value, in fact, every thing and every person that is considered mere rubbish by the powers that rule our world. Christ is raised to go before us into Galilee, the Galilee of where we happen to live, the Galilee of Melbourne, shall we say.  Christ is risen to effect in that Galilee a revolution of values whereby those who are called ‘sinners’ become saints and those who are called ‘saints’ or ‘models of virtue’ are shown, in fact, to be sinners.  Christ is risen to give life and worth to anyone generally considered to be either ‘dead’ or ‘worthless’, like aborted babies and the severely disabled, locked away from public view (as they are) in institutions, in order to protect the general public from distress.  Christ is risen to reveal that the many who claim to be  really ‘alive’ and living the good life are already dead, dead inside, living only on the phantasmal power of their insatiable desire and wishful thinking.   Christ is risen to raise the least important people of all, whether they are children or seekers of asylum or whatever, to membership in the royal household of God.  Christ is raised to shine a light on the so-called ‘leaders’ who rule it over us, to show that their care, in far too many cases, is only for themselves.  Christ is risen, finally to reveal that many whom this world considers wise (Richard Dawkins comes to mind) are nothing more than ranting fools, while the so-called ‘fools’ of this world, those who live out a simple faith in the God who is love, are actually wiser than any mind can measure or equation can tell.

Even more than this, Christ is raised to create a new world, a new universe.  Christ is raised to effect a revolutionary transfiguration in the very cosmos we inhabit.  His crucified and risen body straddles, you see, both this universe - the universe think we know - and the new creation to come that God has promised.  Through his body broken on the cross, Christ has opened a conduit, a portal if you like (you Harry Potter fans, you), into this new cosmos, where the rules have been changed so that the power to kill and to break, to maim and destroy, has been rendered as nothing.  There, it is only the love of God shown in this crucified Son that prevails.  In this perspective, the day of resurrection is simultaneously the last day of this creation, and the first day of a new creation.  What happens now is that the new will unfold within the old, until this world has finally fulfilled its purpose: to find sons and daughters for the God who is love.

Note that while the portal has indeed been opened in the risen body of Crucified, the purpose was never to suddenly transport us to that world - immediately and instantaneously - but to create, instead, a colony of witness in this world for the world that is coming but has not yet arrived.  That is what Matthew’s talk of evangelism is about.  You know, the woman being sent to tell the men, and the men being sent, with the women, into Galilee to wait for and bear witness to the resurrected Christ.  ‘In the resurrection of Jesus the new creation has indeed arrived’: that is the substance of their message.  But there is more.  ‘To everyone who believes in our message, Christ will grant a key to the portal of life, that everyone who believes may experience the liberating power of the new creation, even before it has fully arrived!’  This is the promise of the risen Christ to all who would believe.  To every soul who is willing to die with Christ to the hateful values of this world and its values.   To every soul who would submit to Christ’s teaching and allow his or her self to be undone by it.  To every soul who is willing to be broken and remade after the image of the Crucified. Christ is risen, friends, to do nothing less than heal and transform both our selves and our world into a place of goodness and beauty. A world like the one that is to come.

That he does so in a mysterious and rather hidden way goes with the territory.  For the story of Jesus told by Matthew is not, in the final analysis, the story of two worlds, one that comes before the resurrection and one that comes after.  It is the story of an ordinary and not particularly powerful man who is always already - from the beginning of the story to its end - a visitor from the new creation, whose only power is the power of love.  If he was to take Galilee or Melbourne or anywhere by storm, with weapons and armies to effect his will in a campaign of shock and awe, this would be to contradict everything that his Father, the God who is love, is on about.  Instead, in the gospel story, he takes a route at once more subtle and far more powerful: the strange and hidden way of friendship, servanthood and loving sacrifice.  And we who have died with him in baptism are called to do exactly the same: in every thought, in every deed, in every relationship, in every moment; trusting not to the power of this world, the power of our ferocious self-protection or self-interest, but to the hidden power of self-giving love that flows from God’s future, through the portal of Christ’s crucified and risen body, into the hands, the feet, the faces and the voices gathered thus on this night of revolution.  To the church, which is Christ’s very body - crucified and risen, like him, for the healing of the world. 

Christ is risen.  Hallelujah!

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Holy Week and the Great Three Days of Easter - an introduction for the uninitiated

Christianity’s most important festival occurs each year in Holy Week (sometimes called 'passiontide') and the first day of the Paschal (Easter) season. Beginning with Palm/Passion Sunday, Holy Week commemorates the last week of Jesus’ life. Through a series of public services of worship, Christians everywhere join with Christ as he enters Jerusalem, shares a last meal with his disciples, is arrested, tortured, crucified and buried. Finally, at the Easter Vigil - which takes place sometime after sundown on the evening of Holy Saturday - Christians all over the world gather to celebrate Christ’s resurrection and renew their baptismal promises to follow Christ faithfully.

Palm/Passion Sunday

There are two parts to this opening service of Holy Week. The first part is familiar to most Protestants. It is the Liturgy of the Palms, commemorating the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem to cries of ‘hosanna’ and the waving of palm branches. The second part of the service is not, perhaps, so familiar. The Liturgy of the Passion is a reading of the whole story of Christ’s suffering and death, which might be interspersed with the extinguishing of candles to symbolise the ebbing away of Christ’s life. Because the service is best completed in almost total darkness, the darkness at the moment of Christ’s death, many gather for this service in the evening.

Maundy Thursday

The Maundy Thursday service commemorates the last supper Jesus shared with his disciples. According to John’s gospel, Jesus took a servant’s towel at the evening meal and washed his disciple’s feet. He did this to show that he had come amongst them as a servant, and that they, too, were called to serve one another. In memory of this event, the liturgy gives opportunity for the worshippers to wash each other’s feet. Afterwards, worshippers share a supper of bread and wine together, in thanksgiving for that first supper or 'eucharist' Jesus shared with his friends. The service is completed with a reading of Psalm 22, which is all about being betrayed by a friend and how an experience like that can cause a person to feel betrayed by God as well. While the Psalm is being read, the church is stripped of all colour and light. In this way, worshippers are prepared to walk with Jesus to Gethsemane, where Jesus is betrayed by his friend Judas through the bitterness of a kiss.

The Maundy Thursday service should not be regarded as an event that stands on its own. It is part of one great act of worship that lasts for three days, in a multi-service rite known as the Paschal Triduum, or Great Three Days of Easter. For that reason, there is no blessing or dismissal at the end of the Thursday event. Instead there is the simple expectation that all will gather again for the events of Great Friday.

Good (and Great) Friday

There are two kinds of service on Good, or Great, Friday. The first, an ecumenical 'Stations' or 'Way of the Cross' procession, has its origins in a private devotional practices from fourth century Rome. There the journey of Christ to Golgotha, carrying his cross, was commemorated by a rhythmic movement of walking, reading and prayer. Today it has become a means by which separated churches may come together to publicly share their sorrow at Christ’s death. An ecumenical Way of the Cross is often planned for the late morning of Good Friday.

The second service of Good Friday may best be celebrated at 3pm, in memory of the hour of Christ’s death (Matt 27.45). This second component of the paschal Triduum incorporates a reading of the story of Christ’s death, a series of ‘reproaches’ as from God the Father towards a world that would crucify his son, and a final movement of silent prayer that is known, traditionally, as the ‘veneration of the cross’. Here a great wooden cross is laid on the floor of the church and people are invited to stand or kneel before it, to touch the cross and offer their prayers of penitence and thanksgiving for Christ’s great sacrifice. Many church traditions have no eucharist on Good Friday because the period between the Supper on Thursday evening and the Easter Vigil on Saturday evening is a fast.  In those churches that cannot abide a fast, the eucharist is sometimes celebrated silently, or in an abbreviated form, using the blessed symbols from the night before.  In any case, this service can be very, very moving. Again, there is no dismissal or blessing at the end of the service. Instead, the participants are invited to continue their worship at the final component of the Triduum, The Great Vigil of Easter.

Great and Holy Saturday (The descent to Hell)

The Western Church has always been a little perplexed about what to do with Holy Saturday, and especially the notion from 1 Peter 4.1-8 that Christ, upon dying, went 'in the Spirit' to all those trapped in the underworld who had not heard the gospel and preached to them that they, like the liviing, might repent.  Again, one should not take such accounts as 'history' but as theology. Peter wants us to know that the gospel is preached to all creation, from its heights to its depths, and all people are called to make a response.  One way to celebrate these themes is to meet on the morning of Holy Saturday around a cross that is layed on the ground with a burial shroud over it. The service then takes the form of morning prayer, except the psalms, prayers and canticles are taken from 'Matins for Great and Holy Saturday' in the Eastern tradition.

The Great Vigil of Pascha (Easter)

The Great Vigil is the most important service of the Christian year because it celebrates what, for Christians, is the central event in human history, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The service begins sometime between sundown and dawn with a 'Liturgy of Light'. Worshippers gather outside the church around a fire from which a new Paschal candle is lit. The Paschal (Easter) candle is a symbol of Christ’s resurrection. It burns in the church every Sunday during the fifty days of the Easter season to remind us that Christ is risen.

Following behind the raised candle, worshipers then process into a darkened church where they are seated for the 'Liturgy of the Word', a reading of selected passages from the whole history of God's dealings with humankind. As each reading passes, the worshippers say a prayer and light a new candle. The church gets gradually brighter. At the final reading, an account of the resurrection, all the lights go on, the Easter banners are unfurled, and the congregation rises to sing a joyful song of praise to the God who alone is able to give life to the dead.

What follows is a 'Liturgy of Baptism', in which catechumens who have long been preparing to embrace Christ are finally welcomed into the church through baptism, a washing with water in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Rising from the water, each new Christian is annointed with oil, as a sign that God's Spirit has now taken up residence in their lives as advocate and guide. Ideally, a bishop can be present to say the prayers of 'confirmation' over them before all the other worshippers - those already baptised - renew the vows made at their own baptisms or confirmations: to turn from evil and to follow Christ, and to live in the faith of the church. The congregation is sprinkled with water as a sign of renewal in that vocation and mission.

Finally, worshippers share the 'Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper' as a sign that Christ is for ever amongst his people as the crucified and risen one, feeding and nurturing them for their mission in the world. The newly baptised joyfully receive the supper for the very first time! A blessing and dismissal indicates that the Paschal Triduum is now over. At this point, the champagne often flows very freely indeed!

Feast of the Resurrection (or Pascha)

A morning service on Easter Day can be relatively informal. Because many worshippers will have been up late the night before, this service may be built around a breakfast meal of bread, fish and wine. This mode of doing thing commemorates St. John’s account of the appearance of the risen Jesus to seven of his disciples on the beach of Lake Galilee where they were fishing (Jn 21). Worshippers may be invited to bring some bread, fish and wine (or grape-juice, if you prefer) to share with others. The service includes the ancient greeting ‘Christ is risen: He is risen indeed!’ and there are stories, prayers and Easter hymns aplenty. This is a morning of great joy and celebration at the new hope of resurrection. The celebrations continue over the next 50 days until Pentecost, which commemorates the giving of the Spirit of Christ at his ascension to the right hand of his Father. This is the season par excellence for the celebration of baptisms and various ceremonies of renewal in faith.

A final word about 'Christian' and 'Pagan' versions of Easter

You may have noticed that there is no mention in any of these specifically Christian forms of Easter worship of either eggs or bunnies. Some may find that surprising. In fact, the celebration of Easter using eggs and bunnies owes far more to pre-Christian Europe than to Christianity. The pagan celebration of Easter was essentially about the turning of the seasons from the dark of winter to the brightness of spring and the new harvest this would make possible. For pagans Easter was, and is, essentially a celebration of the returning fertility of the earth every year at springtime. In this context, symbols of fertility such as eggs and rabbits make perfect sense.

The Christian Easter celebrates something rather different, however. For Christians, the risen Christ is not simply another version of the 'Corn King' (C.S. Lewis' phrase) - a god or goddess who returns to life when the earth has been warmed by the spring sun in order to bless the fertility of the earth and guarantee a successful harvest. Christ is not, in this sense, an 'eternal return' (Nietzsche) of that which we have come to expect on an annual basis: the eternal fecundity of the earth, and a symbol of our endless capacity to become what we have always expected we can become as human beings. No. Christ is something more than this. Christ is the arrival, within human history, of something which neither nature nor history could produce on its own, from its own cycles or resources, as it were. Christ is the arrival of something genuinely new: a new idea, a new creation, a new way to live.

For in Christ, so Christians believe, God has acted to liberate human beings from the despair of their eternally cyclic imaginations. To the cry of the wise: 'there is nothing new under the sun', God poses not a confirming answer but an eternal question: 'What kind of world would be made if you abandon yourselves, your resources, your imaginations and allow yourselves to be re-made - from the outside in - in the image of this human being from another time and place, this Christ?' For what does the risen Christ mean, for Christians, if not the arrival within the possible of that which is not, strictly, possible: life, where there was only death; light, where there was only darkness; peace, where there was only conflict; hope, where there was only despair; purpose and vocation, where there was only accident? For Christians, then, the resurrection of Christ is nothing less than the contradiction of every expectation built on the principle of the 'eternal return'. It is the shattering of every pattern or model built on what has happened before. It is the beginning of a future which is genuinely new, genuinely revolutionary. SO new, SO revolutionary that we can barely glimpse its import.

For me, that is good news. Because I am tired of iterations that never solve anything, answers that simply confirm what we already think we know, solutions that never really worked in the first place. It is the good news that it is God who can save us. We are no longer condemned to save ourselves.

A holy Passiontide and joyful Paschal season to you all!

Sunday 10 April 2011

Can These Bones Live?

Texts: Ezekiel 37.1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8.6-11; John 11.1-45

As Ellie Wiesel and his companions watched, the German guards led a young boy to the gallows. He was well-known to them all. A sprightly lad with a quick sense of humour. His presence had done much for their flagging spirits of late. But now their humour was gone altogether, and a sickness of heart gripped the whole company. The boy had stolen a loaf of bread. He was to be executed for his trouble, and the whole population of the concentration camp was being forced to watch. As the noose was placed about the boy's neck, Ellie heard a whispered question, 'Where is God now?' And that, my friends, is a question that I often ask myself. 'Where is God now?' Where is God for all those Africans whose lives are being stolen away by war and famine? Where is God for the street kids of Columbia, whose parents abandon them to hunger and disease and a culture of violence? Where is God for we Indigenous people, whose land and stories and children was taken away without our consent or permission, whose lament can never be stilled? Where is God?

Ezekiel must have been asking the very same question as he looked out over the people of Israel following their exile to Babylon. He imagines Israel as a standing army - once glorious in battle, but now defeated absolutely. In Ezekiel's vision, this people once chosen by God lie dead across a whole valley. Their bones are dry and white in the sun. Even the sounds of mourning have passed away. There is no sound but that of emptiness, that thin whisper which says 'Our life is dried up, our hope is lost, we are cut off from God completely'. That note of national despair finds its echo in the more personal story of Lazarus of Bethany. Lazarus is a man greatly loved by his family and respected in the community. Suddenly, in the prime of his life, he becomes ill and dies. And note this. While Lazarus' sisters and the whole community mourn, Jesus, the very face of God in this story, is nowhere to be seen. He remains in another town, a long way off.

I must confess to you, my friends, that sometimes when I am in pain or despair I feel as though God does not care. But, more often, I wonder whether God can actually do anything about our pain. Oftentimes, even as I go about my duties as a Minister of the church and representative of Christ, I find myself wondering whether God may, in fact, be impotent. Perhaps God does care, perhaps God cares a great deal. But it may be that God can't do anything about it. Maybe God brought the world into being, but now is helpless to change its course. Maybe God had good intentions, but the whole thing just got out of hand. Most of the time, my friends, I have absolutely no problem believing in the reality of God's love. As I gaze at the image of the crucified Christ, I know in my heart that God suffers out of love for the whole damned creation. But frankly I wonder if God has any power to turn things around. I wonder if Christ may still be crucified, if God may be as dead and impotent as Nietzsche suggested.

But when I begin to think this way, when I begin to think that all is hopeless and lifeless, that line from Ezekiel comes to mind, 'Mortal, can these bones live?' I hear the question as a challenge to the despairing vision of my personal perspective. And I am reminded that my personal vision is extremely limited, that there is a supreme arrogance in writing things off so easily. When Martha meets Jesus on the road to Bethany, Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again. Martha brushes his comment off by reciting a line from the official doctrine of the Pharisees, 'Of course, Master, he will rise again with all the righteous at the last day'. But Jesus immediately challenges the limited nature of her vision. He talks of himself as the 'resurrection and the life' and declares that any who believe this will never be defeated by the powers of death, even in the midst of this life. 'Do you believe this?' he asks Martha. And this is Jesus' challenge to all of us.

Do you believe that the dry bones around you, or within, can live? Do you believe that God has the power to not only love us but to save us? Such belief is rare, I think. And it is rare because of the ways we are taught to see. Psychologists talk about a condition known as learned helplessness. Most people who believe that they can never progress beyond a despairing situation in which they find themselves, have learned that belief from their parents or other significant people in their lives. The children of alcoholics, for example, learn that they can never face a difficult challenge without the aid of a drink. But, of course, the drink eventually robs them of the capacity to face any situation. At another level, most of us have been taught to be passive and helpless as members of our society. Though we live in a democracy, and we are all proud of the freedom we have, very few of us ever exercise that freedom by resisting government policy or setting up ways of life which go against the flow of 'normal' social commerce. We have all been lulled into thinking that we are powerless to change anything. In the face of big business and big government, what can we do?

The reality, of course, is that things can be different. It's not only government or big business or big personal hurdles which stop us. It's what we believe. Do you know why I set aside time everyday to read the Scriptures and pray? Not because I ought to as a Christian. Not because I am a minister. I pray because I believe in a God who brings life to the dead. In that sacred half-hour, I read the stories of God in the Bible, and I wait for God to show me the ways to hope and resurrection in the midst of my own despairing reality as well as that of the communities in which I am engaged. In that little room, I wait for God like the Psalmist waits for the morning. And God indeed comes to me. God lifts me up. God renews me in hope, and fills me with visions for a better day.

Do you believe that these bones can live, my friends? When Jesus had done with weeping, he showed the power of his love by commanding the dead Lazarus to come forth from his tomb. And, blow me down, he did!  Against all reason, all expectation, all predication or calculation . . . Lazarus came forth! The dead man lived! Now, listen carefully. This is not a story about God's liberation at the end of time. It is not primarily about the hope of resurrection for all who die in the righteousness of Christ. Those stories, with that intent, come later in this gospel.  This, however, is a story about here and now. It calls us to believe in a God who brings life to the dead in the midst of our present lives, in our present stories, here and now. Do you believe the promise of God, my friends? Do you believe that God’s Spirit can come from the North and the South, from the East and from the West, to breathe new life into defeated bones? I do. Not smugly, and not triumphantly, I hope that’s clear! My belief is hard won, and I need the constant discipline of prayer to retain it. But I do believe! And you can too.

Can you imagine what could happen if you believed?