Monthly Archives: April 2015

26 April – Christ our beginning and end

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Easter 4

Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm 85
Mark 1:1-15

There seems to be a general consensus that the beginning is a very good place to start: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”; so begins the book of Mark the Gospeller.

Beginnings, however, are rather less straightforward than we usually imagine. There are, in fact, no true beginnings in history. There was always something before what we choose as a beginning, so that – were we to be comprehensive – we would have to push back the start as far as our historical knowledge could reach. But, in fact, we don’t do this. While everything really begins somewhere prior to the beginning we choose, we nevertheless do choose: we do identify and magnify certain points within history as somehow being “the beginning” in a special kind of way.

In this process, what is likely to be less clear to us is that in such a naming of a beginning we are not so much identifying where things start as identifying the end from which we take our view of the beginning. The beginning is what creates us ourselves. The beginning we choose is chosen because it speaks us – not only speaks to us but speaks us, announces us, relates us. If a history and a starting place do not do this, then they are someone else’s story and not ours.

In the last few weeks, of course, and more intensively in the last few days, we have been reflecting as a community on the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli. Among the many angles of reflection, there has been no small amount written on this event as an Australian beginning. The language is sometimes quite extreme, and has been challenged from a different quarters, but it conveys the thought that this event defined the spirit of the nation. The event itself, and the way those soldiers conducted themselves, constituted the arrival of the nation on the world stage. In all sorts of often quite surprising ways, the ANZAC spirit is seem somehow to reflect what is “typically” Australian – even to have been the genesis of these characteristics. In this way they were us – our beginning – because we are them. Our Prime Minister remarked yesterday: “If they had not been emblematic of the nation we thought we were [read: “are”], Anzac Day would not have been commemorated from that time until this.” There is something fundamentally “us” behind the commemoration, and so it lends itself to serve as our “beginning”.

Whatever might be said about the continuing remembrance of the Gallipoli campaign, the point here is simply what sits behind the choice which is exercised in selecting this event as somehow being definitive and so somehow constituting a beginning: in this way we note ourselves.

What, then, of Mark’s sense for a beginning: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”? All that we have just noted about the choice of a beginning applies also in this beginning: this, too, is a choice about where the beginning is. In the opening passage there are intimations of other, prior events – the preaching of the prophet Isaiah anticipating John; the echo of the even earlier Elijah in John’s mode of dress; and perhaps even of the very creation event itself echoed in the movement of the Spirit over the waters of Jesus’ baptism (Genesis 1.1f).

Yet the beginning Mark chooses is the appearance of Jesus on the scene and the first thing we hear on his lips: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

If the need to choose a beginning – as Mark does – is a matter of expressing something of ourselves, expressing something of the end which is reflected in that beginning, how is that the case for Mark? What is the end – the goal – identified, chosen, in this beginning?

It is, again, us: Mark himself, or those to whom he writes – we are the end in mind here. The evangelist Mark writes to a community which is itself the fruit of the gospel which begins here. In the first instance it was a particular community: largely Gentile, probably in Rome, small in the face of the over-whelming presence of all things Roman, apparently under increasing persecution in the early to mid ‘60s. Some interpreters read the famous calming of the storm episode in chapter 4 as being a word about – and to – this little community, tossed about on the waves by seemingly irresistible forces of criticism and persecution, crying out to God, “Do you not care that we perishing?” (Mark 4.38).

The “beginning” which is the appearance and proclamation of Jesus makes sense of the identity and experience of that small community believers. They are different, off-centre. They are marginal to the dominant narratives which spring from different beginnings and imply different endings. As Palestine was marginal and problematic to the vast Roman world, so also are they, although living in the very heart of Rome itself. As wild-eyed crazy as the Baptist appears in his desert ministry, calling people away from the relatively safe city into the dangers of the desert with its “wild beasts” (1.12), so are these believers seen to be odd, eccentric. For this message – this gospel – speaks of a different centre. Just as the more jingoist readings of the ANZAC event see it as a characterisation of the Australian spirit – the centre of our identity – so for Mark the way the gospel begins characterises the community which is now formed by that beginning.

And just as any rampant nationalism, or fanatical extremism, or political ideology sees itself as finally arriving at the goal of human history – the “filling up” of history in this particular way of being human – so also Mark’s Jesus announces “the time is fulfilled” (1.15). Now, finally, it comes to completion.

And, yet, it is a strange “completion”, for it is an “incomplete completion”. This is because the filling up of the time takes shape in the creation of something which is not yet at its end, its perfection: the church itself – that community which sees its particular present springing from this beginning. For, despite occasional triumphalist outbursts, the church is scarcely “complete”; the very writing of the gospel itself as an encouragement to a troubled church is evidence of this, quite apart from the inadequacies of the church more obvious to us today.

The church’s end is in this beginning, but it is not there yet. This is because of the strangeness of this particular beginning: its call to repentance. This repentance is no mere turning from this or that “sin”, no mere saying “sorry”. It is, as the English word itself implies (re‑pent : re-think), a re-thinking: a re-perceiving of what matters. This call to re-imagine ourselves and our future is an address to us who tend towards crystallising a particular sense of what it means to be human. These crystallisations are hardenings, exclusions of other possibilities. It happens, continually, in churches as it happens in nations. In these imaginings of ourselves we imply that we have already reached what it means to be whole and human. Or, in the terms which Jesus uses, we imply that we have already reached “the kingdom”: God’s kingdom has come, and we are the proof of it. It is this sense of completeness in ourselves which drives us to conflict with each other: the claims we presume to make on others on account of their being less, or deserving less, than we because our beginning, our end, are the “true” beginning and end.

But the kingdom of God – our completion – has not yet come: we are not complete. As then, so now, this world “draws near” in the person of Jesus in whom alone there is a true beginning and a true end, and who calls us out of parochialisms, nationalisms, triumphalisms and the self-righteousness which justify selfishness and give rise to fear. We are called from our sense of our own perfection and the narrow beginnings from which this sprang to a beginning and an end which is not yet quite ours, but the approach of which is announced in order to unravel us a bit.

Our first reading this morning was taken from Isaiah:

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news.

This announcement of peace in Mark’s gospel takes the form of the approach of a God who calls us out of our firm and fixed identities and centres into something as yet unimagined. This may not seem good news at first, and indeed Mark’s gospel is filled with shock and awe as the world meets the surprising, disorienting liberty Jesus brings. But it is liberty – a liberation from the powers and principalities which hold us in thrall and cause us to imagine that we need to distance ourselves from, or even kill, each other, and can then bless that as a beginning.

We give thanks, then, for Mark and for all who have told the story of this strange one in whom our beginnings and endings are re-worked to bring life and freedom.

May God’s people grow ever more fully into that story, becoming themselves new beginnings and endings which testify to where life and liberty are to be found. Amen.

19 April – “No one who abides in [Christ] sins”

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Easter 3

1 John 3:1-10
Psalm 4
Luke 24:36b-48

“No one who abides in [Christ] sins”. Let that rest for a moment on the surface of your mind: “No one who abides in [Christ] sins”. The Bible says it. Can we believe it?

Most of us are likely to feel a little uncomfortable about this, and all the more so when we discover that it is no mere slip on John’s part. Elsewhere in the epistle we hear similar things: “Those who have been born of God do not sin, because the seed of God abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God” (3.9).“We know that those who are born of God do not sin, but the one who was born of God protects them, and the evil one does not touch them” (5.18).

What makes us feel uncomfortable about this, in the first place, is that we know Christians – we know ourselves – and so we “know” John can’t be right. There are too many undeniable failures to ignore, and many Christians are more than happy to acknowledge the fact: “not perfect, just forgiven” (declares one of our less helpful bumper stickers).

But, if we weigh up the possibilities fully, there enters another reason why we might be uncomfortable about John’s confident declaration about sinless believers: if John is right, then we who purport to believe must wonder whether indeed we are those who “abide” in Christ. In fact, if we allow these words their scriptural status, the simplest way to make sense of what John says right here is to conclude that those we call “Christians” – ourselves or others – are not who John means when he speaks of those abiding in Christ.

John, then, seems to present to us two possibilities (or at least he does for those of us who imagine ourselves to be believers): either John is wrong about believers and sin, which perhaps presents us with problems about the authority of scripture on this matter, or he is right, which forces us out of the picture.

Yet this is too simplistic. If we are going to claim our status as Christians who somehow belong to God, we will object that surely John writes to someone, to some real, historical group of believers, and surely they are not that different from us. And in fact, just this is acknowledged in other parts of the epistle: 1.8 “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us… 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” 2.1“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous…” 5.16 “If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one…”

On the one hand, then, there are those who are “called the children of God” (3.1), in fact who are the children of God now (3.2), who “abide in him” and so cannot sin. On the other hand, these same ones have sinned, may sin, and indeed do continue to sin, As such, John calls them lawless and so “children of the devil”.

What are we to make of all this?

We might dismiss it all as religious doublespeak which says yes and no at the same time, pretending that this actually stands for something. Or we might call for “balance” – trying to say a little bit of a yes and a little bit of a no, although in fact we’ll end up saying more of one than the other. Both approaches make some sense of what is seemingly gobbledygook.

But if, instead of trying to transform what John says into something which makes sense for us, we allow him to transform how we think, we will discover something much more interesting than what we already know, something which breaks through the barriers of knowledge which limit us.

While Easter is now quite forgotten for another year by the wider world, for the church it is still here, and is ever with us. As we noted on Easter Sunday: either the proclamation of the resurrection is a game-changer or it is nothing. The word “resurrection” implies that the dead might no longer stay where we put them. But this is not for the New Testament a mere fact. Death is fundamental to human experience and our measure of ourselves. If death is upset, then everything is upset: a new world order is imaged, and faith is a re-imaging – a re-image-ining – of ourselves after that sign.

What John presents to us in our reading from the epistle this morning springs from just such a re-imagining. The resurrection of Jesus may seem to be nowhere in sight in this text, yet all of the New Testament is a description of life in the world from the point of view that Jesus has been raised. What really confronts us here is not the surface issue of doublespeak about sinless people who sin, or children of God who are also children of the devil. Though it is nowhere explicit in our reading, the “problem” John causes for us rests in his confidence that Jesus has been raised from the dead. This is a problem because of all those who might have been raised from the dead, Jesus was the least expected. We have noted before how this contradicts our inherited religious sensitivities after centuries of “Christian” moralistic conditioning. In the crucifixion Jesus is judged – named – as blasphemer. He is then, so far as any can see, a moral failure. His naming and bearing of himself was apparently wrong, and his persecutors were simply fulfilling their religious duty in demanding his execution.

The resurrection is the re-naming of Jesus, now by God. The resurrection declares, “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased”. (These words, borrowed from the baptism and Transfiguration narratives, are – in those places – actually resurrection statements. This is because, if there is not resurrection, there is no ongoing interest in Jesus [who is “proven” blasphemer], and so no “recording” of the baptism of Jesus or the Transfiguration). A shift takes place from our naming of Jesus to God’s naming of him.

What has this to do with anything? We began by noting that we name ourselves as Christians, and yet John seems to say that such as we do not sin, and yet we do often seem to sin, so that John makes little sense. But who names us, and how, is at the heart of the confusion. In our naming of ourselves, we end up with a great complex of contradictory hyphenated names: Mr Christian-Sinner (whether the sexually abusive priest or the congregational gossip); Dr Religious-Atheist, who professes no belief in “god” but whose life is thoroughly determined by influences she scarcely recognizes, let alone acknowledges; Mrs Selfish-Giver, who gives time and money more for the recognition this gets her than for those in need; Miss Capitalist-Greenie, whose radical eco-Tweets are made from a phone built in a far-away place under slave-like conditions. Our attempts to name ourselves create a thoroughgoing moral confusion from which we cannot extract ourselves, such that hypocrisy – that sharpest of critiques which can be made of anyone who commits to any statement of themselves – is unavoidable.

At this level of our experience, the only recourse is self-justification. With this, if we are honest, comes anxiety. Am I more “Christian” than sinner, more socialist than capitalist, more generous than selfish, more what I publically profess than what I permit myself in private? This is not necessarily a religious anxiety about whether I’m “saved” or will inherit eternal life. It is a thoroughly and broadly human phenomenon: am I safe from what might threaten me, whether the dangerous thing which might over-run me or, more importantly here, that I might be discovered not to be who I’ve presented myself to be. These are the fruits of our naming of ourselves. We are more – and less – than we can say, and that difference between what we say and what we are creates anxiety.

But the good news which is the gospel is that God speaks to us our true name: God fundamentally “defines” us. “Children of God” is a name given us by God, and not by ourselves: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called the children of God” (3.1). This is a surprise for John. We are so familiar with it that it’s almost meaningless, just another self-designation. The surprise is in that what we have understood ourselves to be is enveloped within something which is not only more comprehensive but also healing and liberating: God renames us – and remakes us – according to the name he has for Jesus – Son, “child”.

While we might presume to call ourselves children of God, only God can make us his children, because to be a child of God is to be as Jesus is to the Father (cf. 5.1,18), and this is unknown to us until God makes it known by doing it (3.1b) – showing us what this relationship looks like, what it can overcome. To say that God “loves” us is to say that the Father does just this – makes his life our life by taking the name he has for the Son and letting it be the name he has for us: “children”.

This is both our present reality, and our future reality. In the experience of Jesus we learn that we are loved by the Father as children, and yet in the Spirit of Jesus we are still being loved into that reality. Thus we hear the strange but necessary call: become what you are. John says (paraphrase): We are God’s children now, and yet we do not know what that actually looks like. All we know is that we will be like Christ (3.2) This being “like Christ” is not a moral state – being without sin – but is the state of being a child of God, sharing in the life the Son enjoys with the Father. In this we are purified (3.3), because it does not depend upon what we do and our trying to make a claim on God through that. It depends on God’s claim on us.

In this way it is not so much that we do not occasionally – or very regularly – sin. It is rather that this sin does not define us, is not our completion. Sin, which looms so large in much Christian-speak, is now set to one side as a secondary thing: merely the sign that we are not yet become what we are. (This archaic English construction [still present in German, French] – “are not become” – seems somehow to capture something more than the more familiar “have not become”, marking the becoming as ever a present [“are”] process). Not our actions, our demonstrating of ourselves, our naming of ourselves, but God’s, is what matters: You are my son, my daughter, in whom I will be well pleased.

This is the gospel, and our calling is to begin to look like it is true.

By the power of God’s Holy Spirit, may this ever being re-shaped into the humanity of the Father’s Son become ever more manifest in us, to God’s greater glory and our greater life and freedom. Amen.

12 April – The Resurrection Appearance in John 20: 19-31

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Easter 2

Acts 4:32-5:11
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1-2:2
John 20:19-31

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Peter Blackwood

Ressurection IconThe Anastasis or Resurrection icon depicts Christ clothed in white, surrounded by a radiating blue capsule or mandorla (Italian for almond). To this point the icon resembles traditional icons of the Transfiguration. In the Resurrection icon Christ straddles the black abys of death standing on two sarcophagus lids. He is drawing Adam and Eve out of their tombs. With Christ, Adam and Eve are alive, they are resurrected.

Orthodox theology is very clear that this icon does not represent any historical moment. It does not depict that which no one saw happen, which no gospel writer describes. They all describe the death and the post resurrection appearances of Jesus. Luke describes the ascension. They tell of the empty tomb but not of the emptying moment.

Neither does the Resurrection icon depict any moment in history.

Leonid Ouspensky has written of the theology of icons. He writes of the Asastasis icon, “The unfathomable character of this event for the human mind, and the consequent impossibility of depicting it, is the reason for the absence, in traditional Orthodox iconography, of the actual moment of the Resurrection.”

Orthodox theologians describe this as a dogma icon. It is not about an event. Rather it is about a truth that interprets an event. Jesus Christ was crucified and on the third day rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples. In baptism Christians enter into Christ’s death and rise into his resurrected life. “The Resurrection of Christ is simultaneously also the Resurrection of humanity; the Resurrection is not only the Resurrection of Christ, but a majestic universal event, a ‘cosmic event’”. (Branos. Θεωρία Ἁγιογραφίας. pp.216,217.,, April 2015)

Just as Orthodox iconographers set out to paint the image of truth about Christ, so the gospel writer, John, set out to tell in story form, truth about the resurrected Christ. We can set aside the historical veracity of the story he tells. It differs remarkably from other accounts.

We have been conditioned by Luke’s gospel to understand the transition of Christ from a man inhabiting our human existence through death, burial, resurrection, post resurrection appearances to the disciples, the ascension to heaven, and then the sending of the Holy Spirit. All very lineal. Suits our time bound existence.

Rudolf Bultmann suggests that the resurrected Christ in John’s gospel who appears to the disciples behind closed doors does so as the crucified, risen and ascended One. John has told the little story of Mary in the garden mistaking the risen Jesus for the gardener. 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father… ‘” (John 20:17). The crucified, risen and ascended Christ appears to the disciples, greets them with peace, breathes the Holy Spirit upon them, and sends them. Christ’s sending of the disciples is the same type of sending by which the Father sent the Son. The mission of God’s sending of Jesus is the mission of Jesus sending the disciples. The Church is the heir of Christ’s mission in the world.

Well, the gospel writers admit that this kind of stuff is a bit difficult to swallow. How are we supposed to believe such things? It is not difficult to imagine that there were members of the early Church that struggled with faith and doubt. The gospels suggest that it was ever thus from the beginning of the Church – from the beginning some took more time than others for the truth to click. Luke tells of two disciples who couldn’t get it at first even though they were in the presence of the risen Lord as they walked to Emmaus. Mark tells of those who are first told of Christ’s resurrection running away in fear and didn’t tell anyone. The gospels are up front. Paul nailed the issue when he wrote to the Corinthians, ‘For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,…’ (1 Corinthians 1:22-23)

John puts the disbelieving problem on the shoulders of Thomas. He is the one who, for so many of us down the ages, has responded to the doctrine of the resurrection, “Prove it! – show me the evidence that the Jesus who was killed by crucifixion is the living and ascended Lord.”

A week later, John tells his church, Jesus appeared again and Thomas was there and the crucified, risen and ascended Christ invited a close inspection – a come and touch the evidence invitation. Thomas makes his declaration of faith, “My Lord and my God.” John doesn’t say if Thomas accepted the invitation to touch. Western artists such as Caravaggio depict him making an inspection with autopsy-like thoroughness.

Stylistically the inclusion of this bit of the story is a bit clunky. But it was important to tell the story because there was a body of opinion that suggested that either Jesus was not truly incarnate – he was a heavenly being who seemed to be human, or, he did not really die but seemed to die and was resuscitated. Dan Brown favours the second theory, hence the Da Vinci Code. He managed to keep the heresy alive in his block buster.

Some years ago I was at a cross cultural event in which church leaders from different ethnic origins shared something of their cultural and spiritual backgrounds. The Chinese presentation was impressive. Our colleague showed us video of the parts of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games and he helped us to understand the richness of the history of Chinese spirituality told to the world in that display.

What we were hearing was so beautiful, so aligned with our Christian hopes for peace and harmony. One Anglo minister dared to ask the speaker, “So, why do you need to be a Christian?” His answer was quick and simple – “Because the Word became flesh”, he said. A murmur of ascent ran through the room – an ‘Amen’ to this profound expression of Christian faith.

John tells the story of Thomas and his struggle to believe because from the beginning John has said, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) And John asserts at the end of his gospel account that God’s word is with us in Jesus, that God is still with us in the crucified, risen and ascended Christ who breathed on his disciples and bestowed the Holy Spirit so that, in the Church, the Word still abides in flesh.

All the action is God’s. The disciples are given the encounter with the risen Christ. Thomas is given what he needs to cast doubt aside. Faith is never a work of human endeavour. Faith is God’s gift. New life in the crucified, risen and ascended Christ is a gift.

In like manner, those who paint an icon of the Anastasis, the Resurrection must take care that Christ’s hands clasp Adam and Eve in such a way that it is clear they are not holding onto him – he is holding onto them.

Adam and Eve in the Anastasis represent all humanity, all of us. The dogma captured in this image speaks of Christ reaching to us to draw us into his new life. This is not our doing. Like it or not Christ reaches out and holds us. His new life is his gift. Ours is the choice – to live his new life – or not.

5 April – Resurrection – too big a thought to think

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Easter Day

Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 118
1 Corinthians 15:1-11

In the reading we’ve heard this morning, Paul speaks to the Corinthians of “…[the gospel] through which you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you – unless you have come to believe in vain” (NRSV). He then goes on to give an account of a series of resurrection appearances, culminating in the appearance to Paul himself quite a long time after the crucifixion.

I want to focus this morning on that the final phrase: “unless you have come to believe in vain.” One scholar has recently put to this little line a sense which is especially useful for the task of thinking about thinking about the resurrection of Jesus: “…unless you believed without coherent consideration” [Anthony Thiselton (2000), The first epistle to the Corinthians: a commentary on the Greek text, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans]. I want, this morning, to pull apart what “coherent consideration” – or sensible thought – of the resurrection of Jesus might look or feel like, because sensible thought is not something which characterises most thinking about the resurrection, whether it is thought by those who believe or by those who don’t.

Now, when it comes to talk of the resurrection of Jesus, the question which presents to most people’s minds almost straightaway, of course, is something like, “did it really happen?”, and this question is, surely, fair enough! But, however hard we might think it is to answer this question, it is in fact at least as hard actually to ask it properly. Asking an honest and open question about the resurrection of Jesus may even verge upon being impossible for most of us, if not us all.

To recognise this we need to note two things. The first is that, whether or not we finally believe it to be true, the story of the resurrection wants to be an all-embracing, world-shaking, gut-wrenching, head-spinning, life-transforming proclamation. That is, it wants to make a difference, and a difference which goes right to the heart of our world and existence. It is the end, and the beginning, and so also the centre of the Christian story. If what we are talking about does not threaten to press in on us in this all-affecting way then it is not the resurrection of Jesus. But we’ll come back to this first point later.

For the moment we’ll focus on the second thing which makes it almost impossible to ask an honest question about the resurrection, which is that human beings are pretty bad at taking seriously anything which might matter in this all-embracing kind of way.

Let us try a thought experiment. Put aside for a moment any objection you might have to the possibility of resurrection and ask yourself an honest question: if it were the case that this happened – that Jesus rose from the dead – and you were somehow convinced of the fact of it, what difference would it make to you?

I put it to you that it would probably not make much difference at all. And the reason is, to put it rather bluntly, that we are much less interested in the facts than we think we are. I offer as proof of this the following. However well proven or not we might think the resurrection of Jesus is, let us consider some more familiar facts and their significance for us: It is established pretty much incontrovertibly that smoking is very bad for you, that drinking to excess is very bad for you, that narcotics and prescription drug addictions are very bad for you, that sexual promiscuity exposes you to all sorts of health risks, that driving too fast gets people killed, that too much salt, fat and sugar wreaks havoc with our health, that “the house always wins”, that predators of children get caught, that philanderers are exposed, that if we kill our enemies their children will want to kill us, that “populate or perish” has physical limits, that unrestrained consumption cannot be sustained, that we are running out of oil, that we are facing significant and possibly even catastrophic climate change, and so on.

AND YET, we continue to smoke, drink, treat our bodies as garbage disposers, gamble, speed, betray, kill, breed, consume and burn as if what we know about these things, in fact, is not the case. The point is that what we know – as a “fact” – doesn’t necessarily, or even often, make a lot of difference to how we act. Rather, we live “wishfully” – blindly – as if it won’t happen to us, or maybe only wanting it not to happen to us, imagining that our wish will change the order of things but deep down knowing all the while that it certainly won’t. I doubt that there are many, if any, who are free of this kind of self-delusion at some point (or many points) in the way they live their lives – knowing something which really should matter and yet living as if it were not the case.

Now, my intention here is not to moralise on human stupidity but simply to illustrate that it’s no easy thing to come to a real, honest conclusion about the claimed resurrection of Jesus – and any resurrection we ourselves might enjoy. If more or less irrefutable data on the effects of smoking or eating rubbish or drinking and driving or killing our enemies don’t convince us to change our behaviour, then do we really imagine that a “proof” of the resurrection of Jesus is something even worth pursuing?

The mere fact that something like the resurrection might have happened is likely to be, for us, neither nor there. The problem is that “facts” generally don’t really interest us. We are distracted by them, but they don’t really change us. We are less logical and rational than we might imagine, which matters when logic and rationality are the reasons usually given for dismissing the resurrection.

Or, perhaps more accurately, we are very often thoroughly rational, according to the way of thinking which most has us in its grip. The question is, what kind of thinking is it which pretends to trust science and logic to tell us most about ourselves or the world, and yet ignores the results of that research and continues in destructive behaviours? Our willingness to live dangerously in spite of what we know suggests that ours is, in fact, fundamentally a death-denying world-view. But if in this way we do deny death’s approach by risking or wasting our lives and resources, then it should scarcely surprise us that we are not interested in talk of resurrection. We live almost as if we don’t need resurrection, for death no longer concerns us. (This seems, in fact, to have been part of the problem Paul sought to address in the Corinthians to whom he wrote).

Now, the point of this diatribe is simply to establish this: that the question about the resurrection of Jesus – our typical “did it really happen?” question – is rarely an open or honest one. That is, we simply aren’t able to take seriously a “yes” answer, and so the more common “no” answer doesn’t really mean anything either. We might be able to force ourselves to believe, or we might be persuaded by historical evidence and arguments (of which there are many), but this is really no further advance on not believing. We’ve not felt the anxiety at which talk of the resurrection is directed, or the anxiety which it ought to produce.

To get back to Paul’s little, throw-away line: it is possible to believe, or not believe, “without coherent consideration”, without sensible thought. More than possible, it is typical that the resurrection is believed (or not) in this way.

And so, for example, it is typical that when we say the creed many people will feel uncomfortable or uncertain at the mention of the resurrection of Jesus and the more general “resurrection of the dead”. More than that, many will fall silent at that point, and pick it up again a little later.

Perhaps it is appropriate to fall silent at that point, but not because we’re unconvinced of the facts. We ought to hesitate to declare too loudly that Jesus is risen just because it is too big a thought to get our head around, let alone to adjust our lives to. We ought to hesitate here because, if he were truly risen, it would not only mean that a marvellous thing “happened”; it would make death more serious a matter – for sensible, coherent talk of resurrection only makes sense when death is a real and present reality.

I suggested before that we are basically death-deniers. We live our lives in such a way as to imply that death doesn’t really impinge upon us. We don’t really think that our abuse of our bodies by way of what we put in them will make a difference in the end; we don’t really think that our consumption of resources will make a difference to us or the environment in the end; we don’t really think that the impact of our lifestyle upon others in our society or on the other side of the world matters that much. If we did think that such deathly things mattered, we’d stop, or at least try to change direction, or at the very least confess that we are stuck and can’t really do anything to change ourselves or the lot of others. This would at least be honest.

And we should be honest, and brave, and choose not to suffer the fool who lives in us all. If Jesus’ resurrection is anything that is truly interesting – truly worth saying yes or no to, then our question about whether or not it “actually” happened is really neither here nor there, or at least not the place where we must begin. In our approach to the question about the resurrection of Jesus – if we are to be honest – perhaps we should start with ourselves. Perhaps we should ask not “did it happen?”, as if the answer would actually make a difference. Rather, perhaps we should ask: do we not need the resurrection of Jesus to happen? Do we not need such a thing to expose the truth about ourselves and the way we live – in the presence of death and yet denying it? Do we not need a call to a life which is not simply a covering-over of our impending death but an incomprehensible shattering of that death and the insidious hold it has on us, even as we refuse to acknowledge it? Do we not need to be prompted into “coherent consideration” and sensible thought about what it means truly to be human – honest, alive and free?

I confess that I do, at least. For I live as if life did really not matter, which is to say: that it is not much different from the death I do not acknowledge either. And so, for the sake of making sense of the life I live and the death I will die, I declare: Jesus is risen, to the glory of God, and that we might truly be ourselves. “This is the LORD’S doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes” (Ps 118). So let us rejoice and be glad in this good news. Amen.

3 April – The cross as throne

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Good Friday

Isaiah 52:13-53:6
Psalm 40
John 12:20-33

Many of you will know the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus. It has come down to us in a number of versions, but generally runs something like this: Oedipus is born to the king and queen of Thebes. A prophecy is spoken over Oedipus, that he will kill his father and marry his mother. To thwart this, the child is left out to die but is found and is adopted by the king and queen of Corinth. Once grown up, Oedipus accidentally finds his way back to Thebes were he kills his birth-father in what was perhaps the world’s first road rage incident. Oedipus does not know that it is the king or his father, and no one else knows who killed the king. Oedipus then rids the city of an ongoing burden and threat, and receives as reward the hand of the widowed queen – his birth-mother – in marriage, who bears him a number of children. Eventually, however, everyone discovers the unwitting patricide and incest. Oedipus’ mother hangs herself, and Oedipus gouges out his own eyes and is exiled with the children (half-siblings) he had by his mother-wife.

It’s a story with something for all the family! For the Greeks it was about the unavoidability of fate, and modern depth psychology has made much of it in relation to family dynamics, but the important part of the myth for our purposes this morning is, first, that Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother not knowing who they were and, second, when these things are discovered to have taken place, the whole story is revealed as a tragedy: death and destruction and exile are all that can follow.

Of course, the death we gather to recall today is the death of Jesus. Yet I suspect that this death is heard by many to be a tragedy along the lines of Oedipus: the irony that Jesus was king of Israel, and yet Israel unknowingly crucified its king. Certainly the church often “sells” the story in this way. I want this morning to unpack a different sense of what happens in the death of Jesus, and why we gather for no mere tragic or ironic memorial but for “Good” Friday.

In our gospel reading this morning Jesus speaks of his approaching crucifixion as a “lifting up”: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (v.32; cf. John 3.14f; 8.28). It’s easy to hear this as a euphemism – a way of referring to the impending disaster of the crucifixion without actually naming it for what it is, a way of softening the blow for Jesus’ hearers.

Yet there is much more going on here than mere euphemism. The evangelist John loves double meanings and the ironies which come with them. The Greek word behind “lifted up” can certainly apply to being lifted up on a cross. At the same time, it can just as naturally be used for that kind of elevation which is an enthronement. A king’s coronation could be said to be his “lifting up”. This double meaning is suggested again later in the gospel when Pilate nails to the cross the charge against Jesus: “the king of the Jews” (19.19-22). Here is another of John’s ironies – and he intends us to note and to understand them. Pilate seeks to mock Jesus, or mock the Jews, yet in the evangelist’s mind Pilate unknowingly declares to all the world Jesus’ true identity.

We miss the point, however, if we read this as simply telling us that Israel unknowingly crucified its king in the same kind of way that Oedipus unwittingly killed his dad and married his mum. In the crucifixion it is not so much that a king is killed in tragic and ironic circumstances but rather that a king is created, or a particular kingdom comes into being. The ambiguity of “lifted up” allows John to present Jesus to us as both being crucified and enthroned, being crucified and being made king, in this “lifting up” in the crucifixion. Not a king mistakenly or unknowingly crucified, Jesus is the king because he is crucified, he becomes king in his very being crucified. His kingship takes its character not from what he should have been recognized to be before the crucifixion but from the fact that he has been crucified. It is as if the Son of God is not the Son of God for us, not our king, until he is crucified. Why? Because we are those who would crucify our king (cf. John 19.5), such that only a crucified king – a crucified God – could be our king, our God.

So it is that, for John’s gospel, the crucifixion is much less of a catastrophe than it is for the other gospels. For the crucifixion is the point at which the nature of God as faithfulness is laid forth for all to see: here the full extent of God’s reign – God’s kingship – is revealed. This is a kingship not abstractly over “all”, but specifically over those who crucify Jesus. Jesus is only king to those who would crucify him. (We approach again themes visited a few weeks ago [March 15]).

Just to reinforce this point, we should note one other way Jesus refers to the crucifixion in this morning’s first reading: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (v.23). The language of “glorification” here applies also to the cross, as it does elsewhere in John (cf. 12.16; 13.31f; 17.7). The glory of Christ is seen in the crucifixion. The glory is not the resurrection if that is understood as an event separate from the cross. In the crucifixion we see something about the nature of God which the resurrection by itself cannot show: a vision of God in which God’s very being – God’s very glory – is tied up with his relationship to a people which falls short of his covenant call. God’s tying of himself to his broken world goes to the very heart of what God can be, and must become; this God, this king, bears the marks of crucifixion, because we – the crucifiers – are his “subjects”.

[ASIDE: John would say to us, then, not merely that “God is love” or that “God so loved the world”, if by that is meant that God could otherwise stand aloof but in fact condescends to forgive. Rather, God is as God loves. God is the way in which he loves. This forces our language and our thinking to a strange place because a “thing”, God, becomes an action, love. It is as if a singer were to become the song. We have to say, then, not that God is “love”, as if these were two separate things we simply join together, but that the love of God is God – how God loves is itself God. Jesus upon the cross is truly Word-become-flesh, God meeting us at our lowest yet – and this is the critical point – remaining, even “becoming” God in that meeting.]

To put it differently, we might say that the gospel is the impossible proclamation that the greater the distance we place between ourselves and God, the more strained our relationship is with God, the more clearly we see God’s freedom to be God for us through all obstacles, even such a death as the cross. It is as if God becomes more “God” as we become less godly, as God overcomes the distance – overcomes the cross – that he might again be life and love for us.

Here we move within the theme of the faithfulness of God. God’s faithfulness takes its meaning from God’s response to the unfaithfulness of God’s people. That God is faithful, and that this faithfulness concerns keeping a promise of good things for God’s people, is at the heart of the biblical witness. That Jesus can be both crucified and enthroned in a single act is the meeting of our unfaithfulness with God’s faithfulness.

The God with whom the church deals is always the crucified God, because the church is composed of those who crucify, even God. And yet because God still wills to be our God, the crucifixion becomes an enthronement: the kingdom of the crucified God is a kingdom over crucifiers.

This is good news. We are those who lift Jesus up upon the cross, but not with the tragic consequences of Oedipus: exile in horror unto death. For the death of Jesus is as much God’s act as ours: the enthronement of Jesus as king over those who crucified him, that we might not be lost; even with that as part of our history, we remain his.

We cannot fall outside of God’s desire to be God for us, to heal and to restore even us. In the crucifixion we are named and judged, and forgiven and owned. And so we remember not the tragic fate of a good man, but a goodness which subverts and overcomes the ironies and tragedies of human existence: the very faithfulness of God who will not let us go.

And so, we call this not Tragic Friday, as if it were the symbol of human weakness and the dark necessities of fate. It is Good Friday because, unlike what was tragically inevitable for Oedipus and his family, here the tragic is swallowed up. Any choice we might make for death in our lives or in others’ is put behind us in the one death which really matters: the death in which death ceases to be only our end and becomes a new beginning in a relationship to a new kind of king, a new kind of God.

For this surprising, life-giving end to the tragic human story, all thanks and praise be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and always, Amen.