Archive for April, 1996

Sunday Week 4 of Easter Year A

You should all be glad that you haven’t had to live with me for these last couple of weeks because I’ve done nothing but moan about this gospel reading. I do not like it. In fact, I hate this reading! It troubles me, it irritates me. Well, since I’ve had to suffer it, I thought you should too.

So what’s my problem? It’s not just that I’m allergic to wool (which I am) it’s something more. This gospel gives me double-vision: I keep coming back to the scene at the empty tomb where Mary Magdalen met the Risen Jesus and setting it alongside today’s gospel. One is full of touching, down-to-earth humanity and the other seems like high theological speculation. One is an involving story about real people and the other is a barely coherent mix of images and allegory. That’s my first grievance —Bring back the Resurrection!

My other complaint is with the particular image of Jesus that comes with all these sheep—not Jesus the shepherd but Jesus the sheepfold. Underneath the pastoral language there’s a picture of Jesus as a boundary, as a wall, as a marker of who’s in and who’s out. All the language echoes with division and separation and even violence. They’re “our own” and there’s the stranger—the wolf, the thief, the marauder. In John’s vision you are either in with us or you’re out—and not just out, you’re out to steal and kill.

I cannot stomach the vision of Jesus as a barrier, even when it’s a barrier that can be opened to let me in. Someone is being kept out. I can’t take the language of exclusion—it has done so much harm.

Now, from what we can reconstruct of John’s community such language makes a lot of sense. We think they were a Jewish group who had come to believe in Jesus as Messiah and were eventually thrown out of the synagogue as a consequence. They go it alone. They are intensely aware of separation and of Jesus as the one who sets them apart. Their response to being excluded seems to have been to put up their own theological barriers to mark them off very sharply from the synagogue across the street. We all know what a split in a church congregation is like.

But, understandable or not, Jesus is being used. … Jesus is always being used for someone’s purposes. You see it in each of our readings this morning. We have a fact to contend with—Jesus is risen—but what on earth do we make of it? The story of the Resurrection demands to be made sense of and incorporated into the whole of our lives. But, in the making sense, the original story, the original encounter, can so easily get lost. And then Jesus gets used.

He is used in the first reading to inspire guilt—”this Jesus whom you crucified,” says Peter. And Luke, the writer, is using this whole episode to paint a rosy picture of the golden age at the beginning of the church to encourage his own congregation to quit squabbling!

Jesus is being used in the second reading too. All the suffering that Peter’s talking about isn’t voluntary—the community is being persecuted for its religion. So Peter presents Jesus as the one who already suffered for them to make their present suffering holy and worthwhile.

In its own context, each passage makes sense—Jesus is being used to speak to where people are. But out of context that use becomes abuse—abuse of Jesus and abuse of those told to suffer.

How do we get from that delicate encounter at the empty tomb to these Jesus-es? And, more urgently, how do we put our own delicate encounter with Jesus into our own context—Who is our Jesus, if he’s not playing on guilt, if he’s not inviting us to suffer, and if he’s not standing as a boundary between ourselves and those we fear?

Who is your Jesus? What difference has the Resurrection made to you? Or to me?

I made a promise when I preached on Easter morning that in this season the Risen Jesus would come to each of us, friend to friend, as consoler. One who knows our grieving, one who knows what to do to draw each of us to new life. Has that happened to you yet? Are you being consoled? Or are you still nursing a death, still hanging around an empty tomb?

We preach to ourselves, as you well know. But we only see it with hindsight. In my own prayer, in these weeks, I’ve discovered that I prefer Jesus dead to Jesus alive. That I prefer to hold his broken body and weep rather than accept his comfort and his life. He wants me alive but I’m afraid of what that life might mean. When I close my eyes in prayer, the choice between those two Jesus-es is always there—one dead and bleeding; one so gently and passionately alive. … And I have a choice, each day: which one will I spend my time with? Who will I let him be in my days, and in my dreams?

This is where theology gets done. Not in Berkeley, not in Rome, but in the hearts and minds of each of us. Yours and mine. We each have a dead body to account for and an empty tomb and a new life … a new life.

Each day we write, in blood and breath and bone, our own scriptures. Each day we tell ourselves and our world who Jesus is and what his being alive means for us. Oh, let us pray that his voice will sing clearly through ours. Let us pray that his life will be abundant in our own.

1 comment April 28th, 1996

Sunday Week 1 of Easter Year A

At the end of the film “Terminator” Arnold Schwarzenegger—part-man, part-machine—is finally dying after being crushed, boiled and baked. Stripped right down to his metal skeleton he utters his last words—”I’ll be back!”

Schwarzenegger was the bad guy, but it’s the same for the goodies. At the end of another film—”Aliens 3″—our hero, Ripley, gives her life to finally rid the universe of an awful alien creature. She is gone for good—or at least she was, for I hear that another film is planned in which by some ingenious device she comes back to life to fight again.

Resurrection is very popular these days. There’s always the possibility of a sequel (or two) to milk some more cash from the movie-going public. Well, it may be a popular theme but it’s not the way to look at what we celebrate here this Easter morning. This is not the sequel. The Resurrection of Jesus is not a repeat performance of his life. This is not “The Nazarene Strikes Back” nor is it “Son of Son of God.” For one thing, sequels are never as good as the original —the hero returns and does all the same things over again with not one element of unpredictability. What we celebrate here is altogether unpredictable: a new life has been born.

But the birth wasn’t easy. If you listen to Mary’s story today you see how difficult. You realise how exhausted she must have been. And, if we ourselves have entered into the story, as we’ve retold it together in our three days of prayer, we will probably feel just as drained. For Mary, and for us, it has been a succession of intense feelings: a last and disturbing meal with a dear but doomed friend, betrayal and arrest, the waiting, the watching, and his suffering, his dying, and yet more waiting by his dead body in the tomb. And now it is all over, all done, all finished, Mary of Magdala is exhausted and distraught. And now, at the open tomb, her weeping is even more desperate than before because it seems they have taken away even the corpse and left her nothing to cling to, or mourn over.

If we have travelled with Mary these days, we too have been mourning—grieving for Jesus but also grieving for all his death evokes in us, all that seems dead in our own lives, all the failed hopes, the lost opportunities and dying dreams. We carry our own tomb with us—within us—and we don’t know why it is empty.

Then the vigil comes and, overnight, darkness is transformed into light and death becomes life. Suddenly he who was dead is not dead, but alive. But, if we have any heart at all that good news is hard news to take. It takes time to absorb. It can’t just happen with the lighting of a candle. So there she is, bewildered, hanging around the tomb, when these two snotty angels say to her “Woman, why are you weeping?” which is a stupid question. Because, of course she’s weeping! Jesus might have moved from death to life but, as yet, Mary hasn’t. It takes time to grieve and time to accept that life is alive. Mary has to be coaxed out of her own tomb. She hears another voice ask the question: “Woman, why are you weeping?” and she doesn’t recognise it—yet. So she tells her story again, holding onto the familiar hurt of it. Until that voice, his voice, speaks her name and lets her unclench her fingers from her burden of death, to receive again the gift of herself, tenderly given, and with it a mission, a call, to be an apostle to the apostles, to touch them too with life.

Jesus, the one death could not hold, is back—not to destroy his enemies but to console his friends. We will see this pattern over and over again in the next days and weeks: Jesus comes to meet friends who are hurting, and to do for them exactly what they need to bring them back to life. Peace to the frightened disciples in the upper room, hope to the couple fleeing to Emmaus, faith to the friend who cannot believe, and, here, comfort for the comfortless Mary. Jesus comes as a friend to bring a friend back to life.

Coming back to life takes time, which is why the Church gives us time. The Church counts this whole coming week as one day—Easter day. And after it forty more days of Easter—a whole Lent’s worth—to unwind the way to Calvary and slowly get the message that Jesus is not dead and neither are we.

It may have happened already—it may take some time—but, however it happens, this Easter Jesus will come to each of us as a friend, to console us, to make us happy, to share with us his own joy. He knows what stands in the way of our joy and he knows how to get round it. No need is too big for him—or too small—in fact, this is the only job the Risen Jesus has to do! Every single Resurrection story we have is a story of consolation—there is not a one of judgement or revenge—not a one. Jesus lives that we might live. And we, brought to joy by his joy, have nothing else to do but befriend the world, and, through our care, console its grief.

April 7th, 1996


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