Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Church must stop trivialising Easter

The Right Rev Dr Tom Wright is retired Bishop of Durham and Bishop Theologian of the Church of Englad. Thanks to the Sunday Times for reprinting this article! 

Christians must keep their nerve: the Resurrection isn’t a metaphor, it’s a physical fact Tom Wright Private Eye ran a cartoon some years ago of St Peter standing in front of Jesus's Cross and saying to the other Disciples: “It's time to put this behind us now and move on.” It was a satire not on Christian belief, but on politicians and counsellors, and their trivialising mantras. It depended on Jesus's death being not just an odd, forgettable event - and that it was His Resurrection, rather than a shoulder- shrugging desire to “move on”, that got the early Christians going.

Easter was the pilot project. What God did for Jesus that explosive morning is what He intends to do for the whole creation. We who live in the interval between Jesus's Resurrection and the final rescue and transformation of the whole world are called to be new-creation people here and now. That is the hidden meaning of the greatest festival Christians have.

This true meaning has remained hidden because the Church has trivialised it and the world has rubbished it. The Church has turned Jesus's Resurrection into a “happy ending” after the dark and messy story of Good Friday, often scaling it down so that “resurrection” becomes a fancy way of saying “He went to Heaven”. Easter then means: “There really is life after death”. The world shrugs its shoulders. We may or may not believe in life after death, but we reach that conclusion independently of Jesus, of odd stories about risen bodies and empty tombs.

But “resurrection” to 1st-century Jews wasn't about “going to Heaven”: it was about the physically dead being physically alive again. Some Jews (not all) believed that God would do this for all people in the end. Nobody, including Jesus's followers, was expecting one person to be bodily raised from the dead in the middle of history. The stories of the Resurrection are certainly not “wish-fulfilments” or the result of what dodgy social science calls “cognitive dissonance”. First-century Jews who followed would-be messiahs knew that if your leader got killed by the authorities, it meant you had backed the wrong man. You then had a choice: give up the revolution or get yourself a new leader. Going around saying that he'd been raised from the dead wasn't an option.

Unless he had been. Jesus of Nazareth was certainly dead by the Friday evening; Roman soldiers were professional killers and wouldn't have allowed a not-quite-dead rebel leader to stay that way for long. When the first Christians told the story of what happened next, they were not saying: “I think he's still with us in a spiritual sense” or “I think he's gone to heaven”. All these have been suggested by people who have lost their historical and theological nerve.

The historian must explain why Christianity got going in the first place, why it hailed Jesus as Messiah despite His execution (He hadn't defeated the pagans, or rebuilt the Temple, or brought justice and peace to the world, all of which a Messiah should have done), and why the early Christian movement took the shape that it did. The only explanation that will fit the evidence is the one the early Christians insisted upon - He really had been raised from the dead. His body was not just reanimated. It was transformed, so that it was no longer subject to sickness and death.

Let's be clear: the stories are not about someone coming back into the present mode of life. They are about someone going on into a new sort of existence, still emphatically bodily, if anything, more so. When St Paul speaks of a “spiritual” resurrection body, he doesn't mean “non-material”, like a ghost. “Spiritual” is the sort of Greek word that tells you,not what something is made of, but what is animating it. The risen Jesus had a physical body animated by God's life-giving Spirit. Yes, says St Paul, that same Spirit is at work in us, and will have the same effect - and in the whole world.

Now, suddenly, the real meaning of Easter comes into view, as well as the real reason why it has been trivialised and sidelined. Easter is about a new creation that has already begun. God is remaking His world, challenging all the other powers that think that is their job. The rich, wise order of creation and its glorious, abundant beauty are reaffirmed on the other side of the thing that always threatens justice and beauty - death. Christianity's critics have always sneered that nothing has changed. But everything has. The world is a different place.

Easter has been sidelined because this message doesn't fit our prevailing world view. For at least 200 years the West has lived on the dream that we can bring justice and beauty to the world all by ourselves.

The split between God and the “real” world has produced a public life that lurches between anarchy and tyranny, and an aesthetic that swings dramatically between sentimentalism and brutalism. But we still want to do things our own way, even though we laugh at politicians who claim to be saving the world, and artists who claim “inspiration” when they put cows in formaldehyde.

The world wants to hush up the real meaning of Easter. Death is the final weapon of the tyrant or, for that matter, the anarchist, and resurrection indicates that this weapon doesn't have the last word. When the Church begins to work with Easter energy on the twin tasks of justice and beauty, we may find that it can face down the sneers of sceptics, and speak once more of Jesus in a way that will be heard.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Thought for Holy Saturday - in moments of Waiting

I found this thought from the current Archbishop of Canterbury and though it worth posting as we wait for the Day of the Resurrection to dawn...

Twenty five years ago yesterday, (March 24th) Oscar Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador, was shot dead at the altar of a hospital chapel. He was fully aware of what risks he was running; for some years, he had denounced the massive injustices of Salvadorean society and the brutal intimidation practised by government. He knew the efficiency of the death squads he had so frequently castigated from his pulpit.

He hadn't started as a radical; at first his appointment had been seen as a depressingly safe one by churchpeople committed to resisting the corruption and cruelty of the government. But the more he saw of the reality of life in his country, the clearer things became. The killing of one of his friends and colleagues was a watershed for him: he faced the worst and knew he had nothing more to lose once he had accepted that he was risking his life. His own assassination was a catalyst, shocking and shaming a whole nation.

It's a story that points to the hard truth Good Friday reminds us of. When goodness appears among us, it brings out the worst, not the best. It provokes unreasoning hate and mindless violence: whether it's Romero or Gandhi or Martin Luther King, something very deep and disturbing is uncovered or unmasked. And only when evil is lured into showing itself in plain colours can judgement be passed upon it.

Which is why Jesus in St John's Gospel talks about how his work and teaching will make things worse in the short term. People who have been complacent in their blindness are challenged, and they react with murderous anger. So it has to be: there is no short cut to change. Romero's death is a sort of image in miniature of what Christians want to say about the death of Jesus. He drew out from both the religious and the political authorities of his day their hidden agenda, their hidden terror and denial of God. But somehow, he did more, he challenged us all to recognise that most of our human lives are shaped by this urge to deny or escape God. Pilate and the high priests are just exaggerated versions of something we should be able to see in ourselves. As the hymn says, he paid the price of sin. And because of this exposure and judgement, everything changed.

A human martyrdom like Romero's may shock people into change for a time. But the Christian claim is that the shock of the cross does more, telling us just how close we are to Romero's murderers. Yet if Jesus's death is the act in which God himself lays hold on the hidden evil and fear, and declares that it cannot win, the world is different. If we trust what he is and what he does, a new possibility opens up. Today we know that no death squads will finally succeed in defeating God's justice and God's love. But only a death can show us this.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

If God has raised Jesus from the dead...

Do not be afraid for I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.
He is not here. He has risen, just as he said. – Matthew 28.6

It has been said that where there is life there is always hope. I believe that the opposite of that is also just as true: where there is hope, there is life. And what does the world need more than anything else right know that a bit of hope. There have been triple disasters, wars, no fly zones, riots and protests, politicians whizzing around looking for people to vote for them, promising the moon and the stars if they get to hold the reins of power. All the while people are somewhat skeptical that anything is going to make life better. And if you think that’s all true then, consider this: if God really raised Jesus Christ from the dead, isn’t the rest of it all rock and roll?  

That is why in Matthew’s Gospel we are shown that those earlier believers were let into the tomb. They had to come and see for themselves that Jesus was not there. And that is where we need to be. With Mary and the other women who stood outside the tomb, trembling in fear and wondering what could possibly make life and matters worse. Like them we have to encounter the angels and be let into the tomb to realize that Jesus was not there. And in that meant hope became a real possibility for the world. The absence of a body does not by itself suggest that Jesus is alive, but it does give the rise to the question, “where did he go?” After all, dead men don’t walk trails… do they?

The women are invited into see the reality of the empty tomb that they had helped to shut up on Friday afternoon. They watched as the men rolled the great stone in its grove until there was a great thud and the stone was in place. The soldiers sent to watch the tomb has sealed the stone in wax and stamped it with the seal of the Emperor. Anyone breaking the seal would automatically be put to death. No wonder the soldiers fell down and played dead when the angel came and opened the tomb – who would have taken the blame for letting these women into the tomb, much less discovering that they had let the dead man out of his grave!

Jesus meets these same women on the road as they are going back to tell the apostles about what has happened and greets them. They know him and the fall down in worship at his feet. Then Jesus encourages the women “Go and tell the others go to Galilee and I will see you there.” There is hope and hope  brings us into the presence of God to worship. Because Christ is raised from the dead, we can live with him that new and risen life if we can choose to participate in his life. We in this Easter moment, are called to proclaim Jesus is Lord, he is risen from the dead and he is Lord. So let us take what you have learned in living your lent out loud and proclaim to those around you “Don’t be afraid. He is risen. Things are going to change.” The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of God and his Christ. The grave is overwhelmed and he calls us by name and we will rise. 

Happy Eastertide everyone!                                               Jason+, Nova, Joshua and Aaron

Ibis ad crucem (to the cross you go) - it is finished!

If there was a sentence handed down by a judge in the Roman Empire that was truly feared, it was simply this: Ibis ad crucem (to the cross you go). Pilate had tried to set Jesus free but allowed himself to be maneuvered by the religious authorities and some of the people into doing what they wanted. Pilate had shuttled back and forth trying find a solution that would satisfy everyone and allow him to be left alone and out of this quarrel. He knew that the leaders of the Jews had handed Jesus over because of jealous and fear. He knew them well enough to know that they would act, like most human beings, to protect themselves, their places and positions of power and authority.

Pilate himself in times past had not been so merciful. In fact in some cases he had been quite cruel. But this was different. This young rabbi didn’t seem like the type to lead a rebellion and he wasn’t begging or pleading to be set free, claiming there had been a misunderstanding or a terrible mistake. He simply and quietly stood there while all the rage of others flowed around him.

Is this how God responds to death? Maybe it needs to be said that Jesus was not going to be king on anyone else’s terms. He had resisted when they came to make him king by force. He consistently shot down he self seeking, self indulgent disciples when they tried to make the kingdom their own. He was not going to be Prime Minister by popular election nor was he going to use the strength of military might whether human or divine. It should make us stop and realize that we do not look at power and authority or at faith the same way that God does. We don’t understand God’s idea of kingship. Had the crowds given thought to what would happen if their revolution was successful? If Jesus had used divine power to root out the Romans and usher in a new age of prosperity and freedom of the people of Israel – something they had scarcely known in their history – what would have happened after? Would it have been a real paradise? Probably not. They would have probably started to complain and plot against the new king and his administration because he demanded that they follow and reform things to his way of thinking.

And we need to remember what John has already written in his Gospel – his own received him… not! He made it clear to those around him who he was and what he stood for. This is what he was tried for and found guilty of who he truly was. This is why he was sent to his cross. No waiting. No royal commissions or plebiscites. No negative advertizing campaigns. Not even a forensic investigation to find out if he was telling the truth… He dares to claim he is our king? To the cross you go! If there was need of evidence that we disbelieved in his claim on us Pilate said it best, “What I have written, I have written.”  He is your king.

What is truly amazing is that God uses this moment of horrific violence and brutality to bring forth his grace and mercy, not just for those who rejected him then but for all of us for all time, that we might live in him and for him. To the cross Jesus chose to go. And when everything was completed, when he had offered everything he possibly could give he declared his own judgment, “It is finished.” God in Christ has reached out to this God hating world and embraced it and refuses to let go. God desires to offer life and freedom instead of death and destruction. And thanks be to God, that is how God has dealt with death.       


Thursday, April 14, 2011

All washed up!

Coming to this night and to this time of year I cannot help but stop to reflect on the years that I have been in ministry and the people that I have served and served with over time… the feet that I have at least symbolically washed if not literally and the people who have washed mine. In particular I remember the being in a church in Newfoundland, working our way through the Thursday evening and the liturgy. When all those who had wanted to come up to have their tootsies tickled with some warm water, a bit of soap and a cloth, I moved to start putting things away only to have a parishioner pipe up and ask, “Sir, who washes your feet?” When I realized (and rather quickly) that the question was in earnest, I invited those who would like to return the favour to come and do for me what I did for them. Sure the water was warm and there was a certain amount of reverence to the whole proceeding but I will never forget the smiles and the laughter… Yes! There was laughter and we were still in church!

The people who participated in that service still remind me of who we washed each other’s feet. A moment that while deeply personal to be sure, helped people to understand better the connection that we need to have with Jesus through his life, death and resurrection. It too is deep, personal and gratifying. But at the same time then, we can look to go deeper in that relationship and really begin to understand what it means to be a follower of the Lord Jesus. And in doing so, we need to ask ourselves a couple of simple questions: (1) how are you at serving others and (2) how are you at self sacrifice?

For those who are in public ministry, it is assumed that we know how to give but what about how to receive? If we don’t start from a point of being the one who needs to receive, then how do we have anything to offer? Jesus tells the Pharisees when he is in conflict with them about whether a blind man should have been healed on the Sabbath, “the thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy. I have come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)

For me that is why foot washing, the smiles and the laughter that come with it are so important for all of us. We talk in the Church these days about “baptismal ministries” but how many of our people do we help to see that they are doing ministry throughout their everyday lives. Ministry is at least in part about sharing the things, the gifts, the love that has been shared with us. Ministry is about being intentional with sharing what God has given us with others. Many will look at this week as a sign of failure and weakness. Yet it is not a moment of tragedy and deep loss but of triumph and of fulfillment. We need to remember that salvation comes to us through God taking the lead and embraces the God hating world that has wandered away from him. The only way in which we can aid others to understand how much God loves them is to serve them and to, when it is right and necessary, make sacrifices for them.

Jesus himself sets such a pattern for us: giving ourselves in service and in sacrifice, in love and obedience to God and a willingness to see and bear one another’s burdens. Life is not gained by hording but by giving; not by grabbing but by releasing; not by ruling by serving. And as the Rev. Canon Michael Green once noted, “ too often the Church has worn the robes of the ruler rather than the towel of the servant.” Therefore, as I heard somewhere else recently, “You cannot be full of yourself and be full focused on others.”

True love knows the cost of sacrifice and goes ahead and makes the gift and way. It is the standard by which we ought to live the Christian life and it is the way in which we will draw others to come and to know Christ and to realize they are already known by him. We are, as his Church, chosen and called by him. We are neither a surprise nor an accident. We are washed and ready to go; waiting for what is to come.    

Becoming more than "active"

In my reading to get ready to preach in Holy Week, I came across a curious little note. The note suggested that in today’s Church, an active Christian is someone who goes to worship about twice out of five Sundays and is never seen at a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday Service. Such a claim made me stop and think. Is it possible that we need to have a bit more pain and suffering in our Christianity to get people to understand just who Jesus is. After all that’s the question that is asked in the city of Jerusalem when Jesus comes in to make his claim on humanity. He comes riding not an animal of war (i.e. a great white stallion) but a humble honest and peaceable animal in riding a donkey. And it should be noted that in coming on such a beast and in such a manner, Jesus was making a pointed if silent claim to his kingship over the house of David and thus over Israel.

As Scott Hoezee puts it: Jesus' entry into Jerusalem is like a flashbulb going off in a dark room. Most of us know what that's like. You are sitting in the middle of a very dark room when suddenly, maybe as a prank, somebody pushes the test button on a camera's flash. Just before the flash, the room is so dim you can hardly make out what is what. But in the instant of the flash, you can see everything with vivid clarity: the chairs, the curtains, the pile of papers on the end table. For just a moment you see it all. But then, as your eyes reel from this shock of illumination, it all fades and the room seems darker than it was before the flash.

Many figured that it was time for the great showdown; that Jesus would finally confront all the wrongs of the nation and would usher in a new and great and glorious age. There is no doubt that had to be on the minds of some, including Judas Iscariot and the Twelve. Jesus’ entry into the city reminded the people of what happened in the days when the city was captured by the Greek Antiochus Epiphanies in 175 BC and how Judas “The Hammer” Maccabeus and his family became heroes of the people for standing up to their oppressor, freeing the city and reconsecrating the Temple after it had been so badly desecrated. Flipping tables, scattering money and driving out animals and people might seem mild by comparison in terms of a ‘real revolution’.

Jesus shows and makes his claim upon all of us. Most people like to stake their claim, make their fortune and have their fame. This is what others expected of Jesus. He would initiate a war to liberate the oppressed, create a class struggle dividing people into friend and foe and thus make a revolution. The problem is they didn’t and I think we still don “get it”. Jesus has no money, on political power or ambition. People have not listened to the message or to the heart that has brought them a message from God. They are still trapped in their own hearts, ways and thoughts of personal gain and glory.

We see this in Peter and Judas. There were many similarities between the two men: they were both of the 12. Both had been in ministry with Jesus and for Jesus for a length of time, since the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. They preached and taught; they healed people of their sicknesses and drove out demons. Both were there at the last meal, had their feet washed and watched everything, heard everything Jesus said and did.

Yet when their faith is tested, when the cost of being his disciple is at its highest, both failed to follow. Judas perhaps thought that he could force Jesus into using some of his power to do what he wanted – to get rid of the Romans with one powerful “zot” and fire from heaven. Use violence to rid themselves of the oppressor. It is only later that Judas realizes that Jesus will not fight back, will not use his power to claim an earthly kingdom that Judas begins to understand the depths of his betrayal. His grief at not seeing what he wanted and Jesus not fighting back plunge Judas into hopelessness and eventually death.

Peter wanted to be bold and strong too. He professed to be willing to be there right a Jesus’ side, all the way; even if it meant going to his own death. He was warned that he would not be faithful, that he would fail and yet he pressed on. And perhaps that is what made the difference. Peter kept his eyes on Jesus and how he lived for Jesus in the days after his failure to be faithful. Jesus reached out for Peter and restored him to a healthy relationship not only with himself but also with the rest of the Church. And Jesus did this through not only his words but even more so his actions.

What does that have to do with us? Jesus makes the same appeal for us to join him in his great parade into the kingdom. Have you fallen short? Have you walked or wandered away? Have you been willful and demanded that you get your own way? First, remember that with God there is mercy and that mercy triumphs over judgment. Then come and join us. Come celebrate the glory of the king and find that there is something more to the Christian life than just being “active” that you might really live in Jesus’ name.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

In Lazarus Moments

One day, as the church parking lot filled up, people were surprised to find the doors to the church tightly locked. And there was a sign on the door. It read: “I’ve been preaching here for three years about how we should live out the gospel in our daily lives. You must have heard the message. Now go out and do something about it!”

I have often wondered about our North American culture and our fixation on the end of things and on death. Consider what the most popular shows on television these days are about: death! “NCIS”, “CSI”, the various incarnations of “Law and Order” not to mention the aptly named shows “Bones” and Body of Evidence but to name a few. When I was studying for ordination, it was a big deal to come home on Tuesday nights after class (with Tim Horton's Tea of course!) to watch “House”. I used to like how Dr. House had all the answers, even when he didn't. I used like how he could somehow, some way because of how brilliant he was, cheat death and get his patient to live. But as it kept happening over and over again, I began to realize that he could not stop the inevitable – he could indeed “cheat” for the moment but the moment would not last. He could stave off death but he did not have the power to stop it much less prevent it.

I think that is what we look for God to do to: to prevent death. We as a culture want God to stop death right in its own tracks and cause death itself to cease to exist so that we don’t have to endure it anymore. We can sense the separation and we know the heartache that being separated from God causes. And I think that is why both Martha and Mary say to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” We seem to want to live this life forever instead of looking to what God is preparing for us in the future and moving towards it. We fail to lift our eyes up to the hills and to look for the presence of God in the midst of everything that is happening and think of God, his glory and desire his presence to make everything new again. Maybe we should take the time to consider that very thought – what do we lift up our eyes for? Where do we go for our strength when the storms and winds of life come?

Perhaps we need to consider that God desires to breathe new life into the dry bones of this exiled age. Maybe we need to boldly proclaim to our community, “Thus says the LORD, I will cause breathe to enter you and you will live! I will breathe life into you who have stopped dreaming and ceased hoping; you who have settled into your comfortable armchairs and couches with your comfortable lives. I will breathe rejuvenation into you who have work commitments, stacks of dirty dishes on the counter and piles of laundry laid out on the floor. I will bring to you who think that the best days of your life are behind you the wine of fresh vigour. The Lord says to you, “Rise up” from the little graves where you are content to sleep and wait for something better to come along. Arise, and discover that the Spirit is blowing on you, restoring and renewing your life and vitality. Arise and live with because the world needs you to rise up and live with hope so that they might see and know that God is not done with us just yet.

Seeing and experiencing “Lazarus moments” ought to stir us to action – to present to this hurt, fearful, sick and dying world, the Christ who would rather die than be in glorious eternity without them. We ought to be motivated to reach out to people not to just bring them in the doors of our buildings but to help them walk through the gate and into wider, bigger life with Christ. After all who would have thought that when Jesus faced towards the yawning darkness of the entrance to that tomb and boldly, purposefully called, “Come out!” that it would actually happen? Who would have believed that death itself could be undone so that we are raised to new life and let lose to really and truly live and serve the Master.

Thanks be to God that he can not only put the stopper back into the bottle of tears, praise God that there is always life where there is hope in him. Let us go and boldly proclaim that hope in Jesus’ name.