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Sunday 27 April 2014

Peace be with you

John 20.19-31

This morning’s gospel tells the story of what happened immediately following the appearance of the risen Christ to Mary of Magdala. That very evening, we are told, the remaining disciples of Jesus had regathered in a house near Jerusalem, and they have the doors locked out of fear that they will be arrested as known associates of their treasonous leader. Suddenly the risen Jesus appears amongst them saying ‘Peace be with you!’ As evidence that it is indeed Jesus, and not some kind of imposter or ghost, Jesus shows them the wounds of his crucifixion. The disciples, John tells us, were overjoyed to see the Lord.

Again Jesus says to them ‘Peace be with you!’ But now he adds ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’ and breathes upon them the power we know as the Holy Spirit. In this power, he gives them a unique mission: to forgive sins as God had already forgiven their sins through the words and actions of his Son.

The final part of the story is about Thomas, who was not present when all of this occurred. Thomas had apparently doubted what the others had told him about Jesus’ appearance amongst them. So when the disciples gather again on the following Sunday Jesus appears to them all again, this time, it seems, with a special message for Thomas. ‘Peace be with you’ he says again, and invites Thomas to touch his wounds and believe as the other disciples believe. Thomas then makes the famous confession of faith in Jesus, ‘My Lord, and my God!’ ‘Because you have seen me,’ Jesus says, ‘you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe’. And then John, the gospel writer, makes it clear what Jesus means by this. ‘These words are written,’ he says, ‘that you, my readers, will believe that Jesus is the messiah, the Son of God and that, believing, you may have life in his name’.

Now, as we gather here this morning for our final service as the St Columba’s congregation, this story would both comfort and challenge us. For it contains within it the comfort and challenge of the risen Christ himself, a Jesus who is as alive and present today - here with us - as he was for the disciples in the story.

I want you to notice, first of all, that Jesus twice appears to his disciples as they gather together on a Sunday. And what does he do when he appears? Well. He does three things. First, he blesses them with the peace and forgiveness of God. Second, he shows them that he, the very one who was tortured and crucified, has risen a new kind of body, a body of flesh and blood that bears the marks of his crucifixion, and yet it able to pass through locked doors in order to encourage and to bless. Third, breathing the Holy Spirit upon them, he gives them the very same mission he had received from his father: to forgive sins and declare the peace of God.

To a first-century audience, to John’s first audience, this is all code. It is a code that seeks to answer the question ‘where may we find life and hope when I feel abandoned and afraid?’ For that, we believe, is precisely what John’s first hearers felt. They were a small group of Gentile Christians who were no longer, it seems, welcome to worship God at their local synagogue. Because of their faith in Jesus as messiah and Son of God, they had finally been expelled. And in the wake of the Roman Empire’s first wave of anti-Christian persecution, they felt very much alone and without shelter. So, when John has Jesus appear to the disciples behind locked doors on a Sunday evening, he is seeking to address the very real and visceral concerns of his first audience. John is showing them where to find life and hope in the midst of their fear and despair. You find such things, he says, in the Jesus who greets you when you gather together as one body for Sunday worship.

For look at how John’s structures the story he tells about Jesus’ appearances to the disciples. He structures it like a first-century worship service. First there is a liturgy of gathering, a gathering of disciples from their immediate experience of alienation and even persecution. It is there that the risen Christ meets them with his first words: ‘Peace be with you’. This greeting immediately communicates to those gathered that God is on their side, that God is amongst them in Christ to heal and reconcile all the pieces of their broken lives; that while many others may have pushed them away and abandoned them, God himself has done no such thing. In Christ, God has brought them near and renewed the broken covenant so that they could ever more be God’s sons and daughters, heirs forever, with Christ, of all the blessings God had given his people from time immemorial.

Then there is a liturgy of word and sacrament, in which Christ reveals to them himself: a body broken and destroyed by the actions of evil men, and yet risen as a sign that evil will never have the last word, that the power of God’s Spirit is more powerful than the power of death. This is a word that is able to encourage everyone who feels that the broken pieces of their lives can never be brought back together, that broken minds, hearts and bodies can never be restored. This is a sacrament, an embodied story, by which the power of the risen Christ to renew hearts and minds and bodies that were dead is taken into the body that is now his church, so that even the deadest and most broken of congregations can be revived, raised, to give God glory and to serve the world for which Christ died.

Finally there is a liturgy of mission in which the now encouraged and joyous disciples are blessed with the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who raised the dead Jesus to life. Here they are sent out, beyond their locked doors, into the smeared and broken world, now ready to speak and enact Christ’s mission of forgiveness and reconciliation to all who would look for such things.

The message here is clear, and it is the same message that Luke shared with his own church through the story of Emmaus: that the church meets the risen Christ, the source of all life and hope, when it gathers together for worship. What John is saying – to both his own congregation, and to ours all these years later – is this. If you, as an individual Christian, are feeling lost and confused, bewildered or doubting like Thomas the double-minded, get thee to worship! If you, as a congregation of Christians, are feeling beaten up or abandoned, forgotten by those whom you had looked to for blessing, shelter, or protection, get thee to worship! For in worship you will meet the risen Christ and he will heal and renew the faith you need to face the world once more, no matter how hostile and godless that world may appear to be. In worship you will receive from Christ a power that is able to forgive your most awful persecutors, a power than can turn even the worst of enemies into friends.

Now, I want to close with some brief reflections on what this all means for this congregation of St Columba right now, as you worship together for the last time.

First, let me repeat what I said to you on that first Sunday after we had heard the news that this building would be sold. That there is no doubt, in my mind, that the Synod has committed a grave sin here. The church which is supposed to encourage and support local congregations, the church which in its Basis of Union says that the congregation is nothing less than ‘the embodiment in one place of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping, witnessing and serving as a fellowship of the Spirit in Christ’ has, by closing this perfectly viable worshipping congregation, betrayed its own fundamental faith and doctrine. For it is in the worshipping congregation – the gathering of Christian disciples to encounter Christ in word and sacrament - that the church receives both its identity as Christian community and the power it needs to carry out its mission. A church that closes down worshipping congregations in order to preserve programmes that do not include the gathering of the church around word and sacrament will very soon cease to be a church. Such a church will very soon become, as a senior leader in another church observed in a recent conversation – little more than a property trust or a secular charity.

Second let me say, by way of affirmation, something about the undeniable vitality of worshipping here at St Columba’s. I can testify, from my own experience, that this congregation is indeed a place in which the risen Lord Jesus Christ may be encountered. As many of you know, at the times in my life when you invited me to join you here for a time, I came to you somewhat disillusioned, broken and depressed. What I found here was a group of Christians who were committed to worshipping God - to struggling with Christ in the Scriptures, and sharing with him in the healing sacrament of his body and blood. I found, too, a community that had allowed itself to fundamentally formed by this worship of Christ, a congregation in which mutual care and love for each other took first priority. A congregation that looked beyond itself to care, also, for those whom Christ loves in the wider community. A congregation that was not afraid to offer a prophetic critique when it was needed, when either church or state begin to neglect those whom Christ loves. Hear me now, my friends. The joy I found while worshipping with you here I will treasure for ever. For Christ has reached out to me here. He has forgiven my many sins, he has blessed me with peace, he has given me the power to go on in the life-long calling to be his disciple. Because of all this, St Columba’s is one of the few congregations of which I can truly say that I encountered, therein, a Jesus who is alive and real and made fully flesh.

Finally, allow me to say something about your future. Although it is true that you have suffered because of the sin of others, please don’t hang on to the hurt you feel for ever. Hear the word of Jesus to all his true followers: ‘If you forgive anyone their sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven’. There is a mystery here. Christ has given his disciples the power of forgiveness, of healing, of reconciliation. Therefore, if we forgive those who hurt us they are indeed forgiven. If we do not, they are not forgiven. So please, in considering the sins of the Synod, consider first your own sins and Christ’s treatment of them. If Christ’s first word to us all is one of peace and of blessing, if Christ was prepared even to die on a cross to show us how much we are loved by God, surely those of us who know this grace deep in our hearts can also forgive the sins of a Synod. The church is far from perfect. If the history of the church shows us nothing else, it shows us this! But neither am I perfect. Or, I suspect, any of you. Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone! So if you are struggling, still, with the hurt of what has occurred, I encourage you to get yourself to church, to worship, to a wrestling with Jesus in word and sacrament, that you may received from him the power not only to heal yourself, but also the power to offer this healing to those who have hurt you.

So, the congregation of St Columba’s is now to be concluded. But the church of Jesus Christ lives on. For Christ is present wherever his church gathers to listen to his word and celebrate his sacraments. If you want to find the Christ who is alive, who has overcome the sting of sin and death, if you want this Christ to share his power for life and for hope and for joy with you, get thee to church! That church can no longer be the congregation of St Columba’s. But it can be some other church.

I’d like us to conclude by saying a prayer together, a prayer attributed to St Columba, for whom this church is named:
O Lord, grant us that love which can never die, which will enkindle our lamps but not extinguish them, so that they may shine in us and bring light to others. Most dear Saviour, enkindle our lamps that they might shine forever in your temple. May we receive unquenchable light from you so that our darkness will be illuminated and the darkness of the world will be made less.
Glory be to God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – as in the beginning, so now, and forever more. Amen.

This homily was preached at the final worship service of the Uniting Church congregation of St Columba's, Balwyn, on April 27 2014, also the date of the congregation's 90th anniversary. 

Monday 21 April 2014

Unchaining the resurrection

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 J├╝rgen 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.

Sunday 13 April 2014

Palm Sunday

Palm (or Passion) Sunday is the first day in what is known as ‘Holy Week’, the most important week of the annual Christian calendar. Through an intricately woven series of rituals and services, Holy Week recalls the final week of Jesus’ life from his entry into Jerusalem through his arrest, torture, crucifixion and burial. Holy Week is the introduction and theological precursor of ‘Pascha’, or the season of Easter. Taken together, they proclaim that the risen Lord of the cosmos is also the Crucified One who shares in the experience of injustice and evil of all who are genuinely poor, marginalised or forgotten.

The liturgy of Palm Sunday unfolds in two movements, the Liturgy of the Palms and the Liturgy of the Passion. The Liturgy of the Palms tells the story of Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem on a donkey, and the adulation of the people as they welcomed him as a messiah, the ‘Son of David’. The ritual gets its title from the account of St. Luke, who recalls that when Jesus arrived in the city the people spread palm leaves and also their garments before him as a sign of their respect and worship. The Liturgy of the Passion introduces the major themes of the week to come: the betrayal of the messiah through a kiss; his abandonment by friends and supporters; his agony as even God, his Father, appears to turn his face away; his torture, crucifixion and burial as some kind of sacrifice of atonement for those who do evil to both God and their neighbours. This story is told through a series of readings and songs, often accompanied by the extinguishing of candles arranged on a large cross placed in the very centre of the place of worship.

The combination of these two liturgical movements invites worshippers into a contemplation of the ways in which every one of us seeks to kill the good in ourselves and one another, burying the invitation to justice and peace under the stultifying soil of our inhumanity, even as we praise and honour such principles with our lips. Read in that way, Palm Sunday represents an invitation to all people, whether they are Christian or not, to self-examination. Are we really a people of justice and peace, or do we actually pursue lifestyles that undermine the coming of these realities into our world? Do we support the good, the noble, the beautiful and the true with both our lips and our lives, or do we actually put such aspirations aside when the way becomes difficult, dark or unpopular? Palm Sunday is also an opportunity to reflect on the forgiveness and grace at the centre of all things, a power which is able to put aside even the very worst that human beings can do to one another and create the possibility of a new world, a world where justice and peace can find a permanent home.

It is not surprising therefore that there is a well-established tradition of public marches and rallies for peace and justice on Palm Sunday. Here we hope and pray for a deep congruence between our participation in the liturgical life of the church and a ‘taking to the streets’ to advocate for justice and compassion towards all who are poor or marginalised.