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Sunday 29 April 2012

I lay down my life

Texts:  1 John 3.16-24; John 10.11-18

In the passage we read just now from John’s gospel, Jesus is addressing his Jewish opponents. ‘I am the good shepherd’ he says, ‘because I lay down my life for the sheep that I know and love by name.  You, on the other hand, behave like the hired hand who runs away when the wolf comes by, because he does not love the sheep and cares not for their fate.  The life I lay down, I lay down by my own choice.  But I will take it up again.  This power I have received from my father.’  This morning I should like to dwell for moment on this sense of volition we get in John’s gospel around the death of Jesus, that Jesus somehow chooses to lay down his life, and that he does this out of love for his disciples. 

It is difficult for we moderns to really understand why the crucifixion happened.  On one level, of course, we know exactly why it happened.  Jesus got himself into trouble by being incredibly naïve, by seeking to upset the carefully negotiated détente that existed between the Roman state and the Jewish authorities.  Jesus died because he was a starry-eyed idealist who could neither comprehend nor accept the real-politik of his time.  From that perspective, the perspective of historical and political ‘realism’, the more theological explanations for his death seem rather odd.  That Jesus died for our sins.  That he chose to die out of love for sinners.  That his life was given to exhaust and destroy the power of sin and death over our human future.  Journalists are completely lost with it all, as a review of the film version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe revealed a few years ago.  ‘What I have never understood,’ says the journalist, ‘is why Aslan, or Jesus, had to die.  If God loves us, why would he need some kind of blood-sacrifice?  Why doesn’t he just forgive us and be done with it?’  Even bishops and theologians have trouble understanding it all, as regular readers of our esteemed denominational newspaper will have discovered.

There are, of course, good reasons why we find the death of Jesus difficult to understand.  One of them I have mentioned before in this church.  Affluent westerners now live at a great distance from the rather sobering fact that life comes from death.  Indeed, we have become afraid of death because we have forgotten about its connection to life.  When we lived nomadic or agricultural lives, we were much more aware of the connection.  We saw that the beasts that provide our meat had to be slaughtered.  We saw that the plants that produced the grains for our bread had to die in order for us to harvest their fruits.  We saw that the land became fruitful again by ploughing in the dead remains of the harvest.  When you buy your food from the supermarket, when medicine has all but removed that daily certainty that death is around the corner, it is difficult to see that life itself comes at a cost, the cost of other life.

At one level, then, the theology of the death of Christ reflects upon a simple biological fact:  that life itself is very costly, that the aliveness of one is made possible only by the death of another.  Theologically, there is a sense in which this is true even with the doctrine of creation.  Here the creation only becomes possible, is only able to come into existence as something other than God because God is willing to undergo a kind of death, the death of God’s right to exercise sovereignty over the creation.  If God retained that right, you see, then the creation would be no more than an extension of God’s own mind and will.  It would always do what God willed it to do.  It would not be God’s other.  What God apparently chose to do, though, was to expend his power to create a power other than his own, a power that is able to choose a way other than that which God would have chosen. 

But note the way that theology has already complicated, here, the simple sense that the nomad or the farmer has that death is somehow necessary to life.  For what God does , in giving us life, somehow transcends the simple categories of necessity, of cause and effect.  What God does is introduce the wildcards of love and volition, which means that life and death are no longer a matter of necessity alone, unfolding according to a pre-programmed genetic imperative, but of choice, and especially the choice to love.  The death Jesus dies is not, therefore, to be understood only as some kind of necessary death, a death like that of the beast which is slaughtered (against its will) to feed the tribe.  His death certainly does feed the tribe, let us make no mistake about that.  What are we doing at communion, if not to participate in the food and drink that is able to give us the life of the kingdom of God?  Yet, let us be clear, this life is given us not because we take it from Jesus, against his will, but because he has chosen to give it.  Out of love.

There is a sense, then, in which the crucifixion simply manifests in human history what God has always been about: love.  And what is love?  According to the Johannine corpus, love is what God is as trinity, a community of service and care.  It is hospitality, the willingness to make a home within one’s own life for someone who is other than oneself.  It is solidarity, living the sufferings of another as though they were one’s own.  It is sacrifice, the laying down of ones own powers, one’s own capacities for life, that they may be taken up by another.  It is to centre oneself on helping another to come alive, in the faith that life shared is the best life of all. 

Perhaps our difficulties with the death of Christ come down to this, then.  That we moderns have become strangers to love, and especially to its costs.  Over and over we are told that love is something other than what Christ would teach us.  Over and over we are told that love is a contract or convenience that is fine while it serves our own interests, but can be legitimately done away with when it begins to cost us somehow.  Over and over we are told that love is about feelings of euphoria, a drug to help us cope with the pains of life.  As such, when love itself becomes painful, we are better to ditch it.  Over and over we are told that laying down one’s life for another, and especially for the stranger, is irrational.  Life is about securing yourself against the misfortunes of others.  Life is about comfort, no matter that our comfort deprives others!  Today elections are won or lost on this platform.  Is it any wonder that we struggle with the death of Jesus, then, a life laid down for another!

The good news of Easter is that life shared, life laid down for others, creates a new kind of life altogether, a life hitherto unimagined in the history of the world.  In the mystery of divine love for the world, the self-centred egotism that has destroyed human life for millennia is itself destroyed and done away with, absorbed, as it were, into the death of Christ so that the usual cycles of human relating—our cruelty, indifference, violence and greed—is not only interrupted, but done away with altogether.  You might not believe that this is so, if you look at the world we live in.  But what God gave us, in the time he spent amongst us in the flesh, was a glimpse into the reality of God, a reality yet more real than that reality we usually experience, a reality that is close enough to change our world if only we will believe and live our lives accordingly.  Faith, you see, is the place in which God’s reality (which is sometimes called grace) arrives in the world.  It is the place where love finds soil enough to flourish.

I pray for the faith of the people of God, that we shall be able to resist the rationalism and cynicism of our world, and let love in.  I pray that we might summon faith enough to love each other as Christ has loved us.  

Tuesday 24 April 2012

I am myself

Texts:  1 John 3.1-7; Luke 24.36-48

When, in Luke’s version of the story, the risen Jesus first appears to his closest friends and companions, they are not entirely convinced that he is Jesus, the man they had known and loved.  At first they think he is a ghost, some kind of other-worldly apparition who has come to harm them.  They start to believe only after Jesus has said, ‘Look, I am not a ghost, I am myself’ and invited them to touch the wounds in his hands and his feet. A few moments later he eats some fish in the presence, again to show that he is himself, ‘in the flesh’ as it were.  This story, and the one before it about the encounter on the road to Emmaus, have always intrigued me.  Not because of their apparently miraculous elements (I have never really struggled with the idea that God can do miracles) but because they model for us that rather paradoxical process by which Christian selves become yet more themselves by dying to themselves.  So, that is what I should like to talk about this morning: becoming who you are by letting go of who you are in order to become a new self that is like the risen Christ.

According to Luke’s story, Jesus was not always himself.  Which is not to say that he was not recognisable as himself.  His name was Jesus, he was a son to his mother and a brother to his siblings.  He grew up in Nazareth and learned a trade, which he then used to support his family.   Everyone who knew him over a period of years could have identified him as himself, even if they had not seen him for some time.  Even after his baptism by John in the Jordan, even after Jesus left his home town in pursuit of a new and dangerous vocation, Jesus was recognisably Jesus.  And yet.  And yet Jesus had not yet become entirely himself.  Even at the point of his death on the cross, Jesus was not yet what God had promised he would be.  He was not yet the risen one, who could shake off the power of sin, evil and death.  He was not yet the new kind of human being that the disciples encounter in our story: a flesh and blood person who could nevertheless appear and disappear as though he were no longer subject to the powers of time and space.  For much of Luke’s story, then, Jesus is not yet himself in the sense of having become who God had destined him to be. 

Crucially, in the story, Jesus is only able to become truly himself by letting go of a whole heap of cherished dreams about his future, some originating in his own imagination, and some in the imagination of others.  His mother, being a Jewish mother, probably hoped that Jesus would become a successful lawyer or rabbi.  She, and he, had to let go off that dream.  His friends and companions hoped that Jesus would become a political leader, a leader who could oust the Romans and restore the fortunes of Israel.  They, and he, had to let go of that plan.  And from the story of the garden of Gethsemane, we can surmise that Jesus himself would really have preferred to live rather than to die, to retire quietly to some regional synagogue perhaps, rather than to suffer the wrath of the Jewish Council.  Yet, in the end, he makes a crucial decision which makes all the difference.  ‘Not my will, but yours be done’ he says.  He says that to God, his Father.  And by that decision he lets go of his own hopes and dreams in favour of his Father’s hopes and dreams, which enables God to complete the process of his becoming.  By this death, Jesus becomes the Christ, the one anointed by God to bring a new kind of life in the world, a life so new that most of us still have trouble coming to terms with what it all means.

But that is how it is for all of us, as well.  We shall never be truly ourselves until we are able to let go of ourselves—the usual hopes and dreams planted in us by family, friends, and media—grasping, instead, the self that God wills and promises for us, the self that is Christ.  The Christ-self, as the 1st letter of John tells us, is ‘righteous’.  Not ‘righteous’ in the sense of a self-interested hiding away from the rest of the world or a sitting in judgement upon it.  No, the Christ-self is righteous in the sense that Jesus was ‘righteous’—an engaged embodiment of the mercy of God, a tough kind of love that is centred on other people and refuses to simply abandon them to the powers of death, despair or banality.   According to John, we shall never be entirely ourselves until we are like the risen Christ, the new human being, the revelation of what God intends for humanity in general.  ‘When he appears,’ says John’ we shall be like him’.  This is God’s promise, but like all God’s promises, it is not a promise that can be fulfilled apart from the choices we make.  God created us for freedom.  To become who we are, we must choose the path that Christ would choose.

Ego eimi autos . . .  I am myself.  That is what the risen Christ said to his disciples.  And we shall only be able to say that ourselves if we are prepared to do what Jesus did, to take our baptism into his death seriously as a very real dying and a rising.  We shall be ourselves when, by faith, we have allowed Christ to take away the fear of what others may think, and the desire to conform to all that is conventional or common-sense.  We shall be ourselves when we are prepared to risk both security and sense for the sake of a gospel of outrageous love.  We shall be ourselves when we stop believing that there is nothing we can do to transform this crazy world of economic and scientific rationalism.  We shall be ourselves when prayer has become a more familiar habit that watching TV or surfing the internet.  We shall be ourselves when we are able to attend to the needs of others (‘needs’, note that, not ‘wants’), even if that means putting aside what we think we might need for ourselves.  We shall be ourselves when we are able to surrender ourselves to Christ and say ‘not my will, but yours’.  Now, I am very aware of not yet being myself. And you, I know, are aware of it too.  But in faith I believe that Christ will complete the work that he began when I was baptised.  He will do it for you to.  If only you will surrender.  If only you will let go.

Saturday 21 April 2012

Easter in Ordinary

Acts 2. 14, 36-41; Psalm 116.1-4, 12-19; 1 Peter 1.17-23; Luke 24.13-35

Well the times have come full circle and we find ourselves in the Easter season once more.  Like last year, and the year before, and the year before that, we sing the Easter refrain 'He is Risen!' and crack open the symbols of new life and fertility:  Easter eggs, Easter bunnies.  And they remind us of the new life which came with Christ’s resurrection, just like last year, and the year before that, and the year before that.  And we get up early on Easter morn and sing the Easter refrain 'He is Risen!' and crack open the symbols of new life and fertility:  Easter eggs and Easter bunnies.  And, well, the times have come full circle and we find ourselves in the Easter season once more.  Like last year, and the year before, and the year before that, we sing the Easter refrain 'He is Risen' with hearts full of joy, and crack open the symbols of new life and fertility:  Easter eggs, Easter bunnies and . . .  do you get the feeling that I’m going around in circles?  Do you get the feeling that the record is stuck, and you’ve heard it all before? 

Friends, what I have done just now is reflect back to you what I myself hear at Easter time just about every year.  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 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 replace 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 of new life, but the Big Mac.  Because each time you have one, it tastes exactly the same as the one you had last time.

Of course, the Feast of the Resurrection has absolutely nothing, nothing I say, to do with the Eternal Return which is 'Easter'.  On the contrary, the resurrection of Jesus is about the in-breaking of something which is so new, so different, so unheard of, that, strictly speaking, we cannot even describe it.  It is, as Jürgen Moltmann says, an event entirely without comparison or analogy.  It is an event which shatters every established pattern, every expectation, every shred of comfort and 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 the purpose of this interruption?  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, they had lived though a cycling of highs and lows: their messianic hope had been shattered on a Roman cross.  Yet it is here, within the circle of despair, that the Christ 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, but not in the mode of most of the sermon’s I’ve heard, which do little more than confirm and comfort me in circle of that which 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 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 then 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 a thing.

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. 

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 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. 

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 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 in the human language of Christian worship, Christ himself arrives in the midst.  Not to confirm what we intend to say, but rather to so dispossess our symbols of the meaning 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 being liberated from their bondage to the same old thing. 

I pray to God that Christ may do just that, even with what I have said to you this morning.  Maranatha!  Come Lord Jesus, come!

I want to acknowledge the work of three other theologians of the resurrection in the composition of this sermon: Ebarhard Jungel, Jean-Luc Marion and Nicholas Lash.