Tag Archives: Death

24 March – On not dying too soon

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Lent 3

Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:7
Psalm 63
Luke 13:1-9

In a sentence:
Death can kill us before we die; this is the ‘unrepentant’ life

I have wondered for some time whether there might be something to be said for an occasional sermon which reflected on ‘the art of dying’.

As morbid as that might seem as a theme, reflections on death – properly Christian reflections, at least – are not about dying in itself, but about life and its relationship to those deaths in our lives we can’t avoid, regardless of how hard we try to forget that they are already with us, or are coming.

Knowing what death is, and where it is, are important skills in the art of dying, and something of this knowledge is treated in this morning’s readings.

From Qohelet, we’ve heard a fairly straightforward exhortation: Make the most of it, because you’re going to die in the end.

If nothing else, Qohelet is starkly realistic about the fact of death. The offence of death, its ungraspability (‘vanity’) and its unpredictability (more vanity) are close to the centre of his thinking. Life is vanity, and then you die.

In this, Qohelet relentlessly strips away any illusions we might allow ourselves about death as we go about our seemingly lively lives. But this is not in order to glory in death. As we have heard, he still holds that it is better to be a living dog than a dead lion.

Qohelet would simply have us know what death is and where it is. So far as he can see, death has the last word. This being the case, he is concerned to know, What is that word – what is spoken – and when, precisely, is it uttered?

There is also a lesson about death in the gospel reading we have heard today, although it is less straightforward than it might first seem.

Jesus reminds the crowds of two recent news bulletins which must have horrified them in the same way we’ve been horrified by the recent outrage in Christchurch. The question is put: do you imagine that those people died in that way because they were worse sinners than anyone else? No, he says.

At this point, Jesus is in close accord with Qohelet, such as in what we heard from him last week:

‘There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous (8.14).’

Contradicting one stream of conventional wisdom thinking, Jesus and Qohelet say that we cannot conclude from when and how someone dies whether they were righteous, or not. Death is neither a sign of life nor a sign even of deathliness.

But then Jesus seems to contradict this: ‘but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’ On the one hand, ‘perishing as they did’ is not a matter of repentance; on the other hand, it seems that Jesus then declares that it will be. This latter seems also to be the point of the parable of the unfruitful fig tree.

The only resolution here revolves around what might be meant by ‘perishing as they did’. The point would seem to be not that they died, but that they died unrepentant. Sin is not the cause of their death but colours it.

The warning, then, is not that buildings will fall on – or bullets will rain down upon – the unrepentant, but how tragic it is when death comes to the unrepentant. To ‘perish as they did’ would be too perish not knowing that there is something of which to repent, that there is something to lay aside, that there is a deathliness already in us, diminishing us.

One way of hearing such an account of an unrepentant death is as a call to ‘ticket to heaven’ repentance: ‘Repent now, lest you step out from this place and fall under a bus’. This is not what Jesus speaks of here, as large as the idea has been in the history of evangelism, as if sin has relevance only to what happens when we die and not to what is happening while we are still alive.

Qohelet helps again here. Unrepentance in Qohelet’s terms is not to understand our lot. It is to live vainly, emptily, oriented towards things which, in the end, do not really matter, which cannot be relied on and so which turn our lives into a chasing after wind. It is, in effect, to have died before death comes (cf. Ecclesiastes 7.17). It is for death’s last word to have been uttered too soon. The unrepentant life carries death with it, is death’s grip on us before we have died.

There is a poignancy in the illustrations Jesus uses here. A building is going to fall on him. Even more suggestively, his blood will also be mixed with that of the sacrifices.

If we imagined it were possible to be open minded about the moral meaning of the crucifixion, we’d have to say with Qohelet that there is nothing in the manner of Jesus’ death to tell us whether he was righteous or unrighteous, any more that Jesus allowed such a reading of those who died under the tower and under Pilate. To the dispassionate observer, Jesus just dies.

But the church is not open-minded here, for we consider the cross in the peculiar light of the resurrection. This is a peculiar light because it shines only on the cross. If that light makes us reconsider Jesus’ death, it makes us reconsider also his life: that he continued to do and to say and to be in the same way regardless of how much larger the possibility of a crucifixion loomed.

This was not a matter of ‘necessity’, in the sense that he ‘must’ die according to our traditional atonement theories. Jesus continues along the path on which he began because to turn aside from the likely outcome of a crucifixion would be to die before the building actually falls. This is the unrepentant life he calls us to turn from.

What then does repentance look like? It depends on what deaths we are already dying. But we get a general notion from Qohelet. His counsel this week – to enjoy the days of youth – may seem to some here to come a little late, but his point is what we emphasised on Ash Wednesday: it is vanity not to see that death comes, the ultimately vain, ungraspable thing: ‘all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again’ (3.20), vanity of vanities.

But it is vanity also to try to calculate death, and so let it darken the day before the night comes. To live in death’s shadow is not to live. It is to die too soon. This we heard in a different way last week:

for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun. (8.15)

The vanities of life – the misty vapours of chance and possibility, of work and reward, of life and death, the gamble on righteousness, the contradictions of justice – must not diminish the best that a human life could be, in a time and place.

In this sense, we might dare to say that Jesus on the road to Jerusalem is a life enjoyed.

Part of the art of dying is to set death in its proper place. When we do this, as Jesus did, everything else which happens – even our perishing – is life.

The lively kingdom of God draws near to displace the kingdoms of death; repent, then, and believe the good news.

23 September – Dying to live

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Pentecost 18

Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Mark 8:31-38

In a sentence:
That the life of Jesus, even the cross, is true life

Our gospel reading for today – the second part of what was set for last week – is often identified as a turning point in the telling of the story of Jesus.

Up to this point in Mark’s narrative, the question of Jesus’ identity has been constantly in play; now Jesus hears the word ‘Messiah’ on Peter’s lips and seems happy to allow it to go unchallenged – the identity of Jesus is established.

The narrative now turns from establishing Who Jesus is to the Whither and Why of Jesus. The confession of Peter, then – (heard last week) – together with the new orientation toward Jerusalem and the cross, are a turning point in the story.

But there is another sense in which this passage is pivotal. This is in that the story is not merely a story – an account of what Jesus did, and then did next. What Jesus did and what happens to him is now extended to what will happen to those who would count themselves his disciples: ‘those who would follow me must deny themselves, take up their own cross and follow.’ This amounts to those disciples ‘losing’ their life also.

As confronting as it is, we must see that this is not a simple recognition by Jesus of the familiar way of things – that, if he gets whacked, so also will his followers. Suffering by association happens often enough but how the politics might unfold is not a central interest of the gospel; it is only the background.

The link between the cross of Jesus and the cross of his followers speaks to the nature of the work which Jesus does in the first place, and where he does it. The work of Jesus is perhaps not best characterised, in the first instance, as ‘saving’ us. His first work is to live the life of a free human person, open to God and open to those among whom he is placed. We’ve noted before (e.g., Sunday July 29 2018) that the cross of Jesus is not the point of Jesus’ life. Jesus’ life is the point of his life; this is what an open human life looks like.

The call to follow Jesus, then, is not a primarily a call to hard work or to suffering, as if such things in themselves were redemptive and even if it will involve suffering. The call is primarily a call to life – eyes and heart wide open to the dangers and the possibilities of a human life, and taking up the richest of those possibilities despite the dangers. Taking up one’s cross is living – truly, freely, openly, lovingly – in the time and place in which we find ourselves. Anything less than this is what Jesus calls losing our life, even if our hearts are still beating. It is to be a shadow, a hollow casing for an experience which should have been there but has been eroded away by ignorance or fear.

And so today’s reading from Mark is a turning point not only because the story changes direction here, but because Jesus’ own calling is revealed also to be our call. Peter’s objection last week – that the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus could not possibly happen – was an objection not only that the Messiah was above all this. Peter rejected any notion that such might also be the fate of Peter himself.

For there is something ‘distant’ about the Messiah in Peter’s unbaptised understanding. For him – and for us whom he represents – the saviour is a ‘thing’, a prized possession which we hold, a charm which protects us from whatever threatens, an airbag against colliding with life. Such a charm changes the world but it does not change us. This is what merely valuable things do; at best they confirm us but they do not change us.

In a poem fragment from John Donne he speaks of the difference between this and the twist the gospel requires of Peter’s understanding; (writing of Christ:)

He was all gold when He lay down, but rose
All tincture, and doth not alone dispose
Leaden and iron wills to good, but is
Of power to make e’en sinful flesh like his.
(‘Resurrection, Imperfect’)

‘He was all gold when He lay down’ – that is, as gold, he was a valuable thing, a purchase on the world, a security: ‘you are the Messiah, and such things can never happen to you’.

‘…but he rose / All tincture’. A tincture is a substance used to colour a metal – to change its appearance. Donne’s point is that Jesus is not simply precious – which is what Peter holds. Rather, Jesus makes us like him, although not merely in appearance: for Christ does

…not alone dispose
Leaden and iron wills to good, but is
Of power to make e’en sinful flesh like his.

The call of Jesus is not that we believe in him, in the sense of believing a thing about him. We do not believe merely that he is ‘gold’. The call is to become before God as Jesus himself is before God: to become flesh like his flesh.

If this is the call of God, then it is also the gift of God.

This is why we speak of the church as the body of Christ. The church is not merely ‘a’ body – a body politic. It is this body: the body of Jesus. (From the weekly liturgy:) ‘Let us receive what we are, let us become what we receive – the body of Christ’: the emphasis – and this is your part to emphasise! – falls on those last two words.

Acknowledging that this is not always a comfortable gift, St Paul puts it this way:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8.28; cf. also 2 Corinthians 3.18)

This is not different from what Jesus describes in his talk about taking up our cross. To follow Jesus – even in costly ways – is to begin to look like him, to be free as he is, to be open to God as he is.

To follow Jesus is to have the things we might normally fear – which is death in all its lived forms – behind us.

To be growing into such a life, then, is to begin to look like someone who has been raised from the dead.

And when that kind of thing happens, not merely the gospel narrative but the world itself comes to its own turning point, and changes forever.

Let us, then, take up the call to follow wherever Jesus might lead, and watch God transform the world.

17 December – The God who brings death and life

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Advent 3

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Good news to the oppressed, binding up of the broken-hearted, proclamation of liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners; a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit; the garments of salvation, a robe of righteousness, a garland, jewels…

The word of promise in this language is surely extraordinary in the ears of those who have lived through hell. Isaiah proclaims a great reversal, a turning upside-down of the experience of the people of God – the return of God to their midst as blessing.

But what about those for whom the world is not horrific, for whom life’s biggest challenge is along the lines of negotiating a shopping centre carpark a few days before Christmas or waiting out a kitchen renovation? What does Isaiah have to say to any whose life is largely devoid of oppression or ashes or unrighteousness? Because, for most of us – in and out of the church – life is mostly ok most of the time, and so Isaiah’s proclamation comes like icing on what was already a pretty good cake.

One way of hearing Isaiah under these circumstances is to imagine that he speaks not to us, but as us: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” or us. The word to us becomes our own word and, going further, we take it upon ourselves not simply to speak of the coming of God but to be those who realise God’s peace. We have received the Spirit, and we are to pay that forwards, for others.

Certainly, those who “have” are under a moral obligation to share and bless those who have not. But if this is all it’s about, then there is no possibility that God has anything more to say to us. Is there a word of the Lord – a blessing, heart-raising word – for the relaxed and mostly comfortable?

The question of our redemption is not pressing today, either in the church or in society more generally. Certainly we are constantly working towards something, and something better than we what we presently know but this kind of progress is not the business of Christian worship or faith. The heart of our confession is not the offer of a nudge from worse to bad, or bad to good, or good to better. We speak, rather, of life out death, of the creation of something out of nothing. Christian faith is, at heart, concerned with miracles, with the impossible. For when God comes, what he brings is not only the kind of healing we think we need but also revelation of the full extent of that need. In the breadth of Isaiah’s preaching God speaks such words of comfort as we read in worship this time of year, but also divine rage and accusation against the people for things about themselves they would scarcely recognise or be aware of.

When God comes, it is always as life out of death, as creation out of nothing. This means that when God comes it is always with bad news as well as with the good, the good revealing the bad. The broken-hearted may not know, or have acknowledged, that indeed their hopes have been dashed; the captives not know that they are imprisoned, the comfortable not know just how insecure they are.

We mark just this dynamic in our worship each week. We call on God, whether we are feeling we need God or not. We hear that we are forgiven, often of things we had not imagined we were guilty of. Perhaps quintessentially, we gather around a table at which is served a victim through whom salvation is somehow won.

All of this “works”, however, only to the extent that the bad comes with the good. If we speak of the coming of resurrection, we speak also about the coming of death. But we have to be careful here. The proclamation of resurrection is not for the dying but for the dead. We noted last week that we all know that we are dying. This knowledge, however – our mere mortality – is not the question answered by resurrection. Resurrection reveals death – a death we do not yet know – it does not merely nudge us through what we already know. Resurrection doesn’t answer our sense for death because we have not yet asked the question well enough, despite our mourning and ashes, as real as they are. The resurrection with which the church is concerned is that which identifies who is dead, including us dead who are still walking.

This is enacted also in the Eucharist. The Eucharist “works” only to the extent that we who receive the body and blood admit a culpability in its having been broken and spilt. There is no “nudge” here into a better life by taking a spiritual medicine which treats some disease in us, and so which could be substituted for a generic brand which is not called “body” and “blood”. The ritual kills in the accusation of our complicity in death, and raises in the creative grace of God. Death is but a means by which God can bless; the Eucharist is death and resurrection – Jesus’, and our own.

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Isaiah proclaims, with the emphasis falling on the spirit, and not on the “me”. For it is the spirit of the Lord which creates and renews the face of the earth. This is the light John announced, which enlightens everyone (John 1.9), even those who do not yet know they are living in shadows. When God comes, the dark places appear and are flooded with light. And God is coming.

For this spirit, this light, all thanks be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and always. Amen.

10 December – God is coming. And it is the end of you.

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Advent 2

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85
Mark 1:1-8

To those looking for peace comes the cry,

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.

“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.”

God is coming! Make the way straight! “Cry out!”

And what shall we cry?

“All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass…”

You’ve gotta love the Old Testament prophets for their capacity to punch, square in the face, any easy forgiveness or cheap attempts to leap out of the world as it is into sentimental notions of paradise on earth or of eternal life! Isaiah declares: God is coming. And No One. Gets Out. Alive. Comfort, O comfort my people…

How do we respond to this? Horror, revulsion or terror would make sense to any normal person who took it seriously. But what about the people gathered here today? Does this horrify, terrify us as well? Are we “normal”?

The abnormality to which we are called as conspirators with Isaiah and disciples of Jesus is that we not be horrified here. Rather, we are to find ourselves set free with the realisation that we are not divine. That we are grass, that we are mortal, is the mark of our creatureliness.

We need, of course, to speak carefully. There is here no exultation in our mortality. It is not a thing to celebrate; it is just “a thing.” “No one gets out alive” is the law. It is, simply, the case. The function of law is to limit: only drive this fast, only drink this much, keep your hands to yourself; that far and no further. The law constrains, which is precisely what Isaiah declares here: you are constrained. You are flowers and grass, and will wither and fade.

We all know this, of course. What matters is the impact we allow the fact of our mortality to have. If our mortality is fundamentally offensive to us, then we labour to keep it at bay, to preserve ourselves as long as possible, to hold death at a distance by whatever power or influence we have. Life understood in these finds Isaiah’s mortal realism horrifying, terrifying, or repulsive. Who needs – or wants – to be reminded of the enemy when the work of our lives is to keep us hidden from that enemy for as long as possible? We see this in ourselves and in others, and we might characterise it as a deathly mortality. It knows only the law and its limits.

But Isaiah’s proclamation does not call us to this but, rather, to a lively mortality. This is a mortality – a creatureliness – which knows the limit and exults not in it but in the freedom which comes with it. This is the freedom not to have to survive, the freedom of not being necessary. The gospel in Isaiah’s proclamation is not simply that Israel’s “sins are taken away”. The content of those sins was the drive to make ourselves necessary, the denial of death’s final claim on us and of the possibility that we might cease to be. Isaiah’s gospel is that when God comes that kind of striving and anxiety is no longer required.

A deathly mortality is reflected in the corresponding deathly life: a life lived at heart in fear of – or revulsion at – the God who defines us as creatures, as grass. This is a life which finds it insufficient to be in the form or image of God and grasps at more (Genesis 3; Philippians 2).

A lively mortality is one which would live life to its fullest. A lively mortality celebrates the approach of God because it is when God comes as Creator above, and beyond, and yet for, us that we come to ourselves.

Here the law finds its end – its purpose: God being God, creature being creature, in the same moment. (This is, of course, what we say is the meaning of Christmas: the coincidence of God and the world, Christ as the end of the law, not only in his death but in his birth.)

In neither the lively nor the deathly experience of our death is that death any less real. All that matters is which way death’s shadow falls.

If it falls towards us, on this side of our inevitable definition in death, then our life is lived in a valley of death’s shadow. We live and die in a twilight; aware of the hint of more but not able to do much more than light candles and fires against the encroaching gloom.

But if death’s shadow falls away from us, on the other side of death, this means that death is obscure, that we cannot see what is beyond it, what it holds for us. This is to say that death is incomprehensible. And this is to say that we – who are mortal – do not yet now what we are. What it finally means to be a creature is still hidden from us, even if we walk now in the light. But we need no longer be jumping at the shadows.

This is the death – and the life – to which we are called, in all its incomprehensibility. And the word about all this is given in Isaiah for our comfort: when God comes, we become as we are created to be.

In the church, of course, we also hear rumours of resurrection, of death overcome and of life without end. At heart, this way of speaking is to say the same thing with a different emphasis or accent. Resurrection does not deny our death but only changes it; the “only”, however, is momentous: freedom from fear, life along straight and level pathways.

The gospel is that God is coming. And this will be the end of you. And a new beginning.

God comes that we might know that we are not God, that we are not necessary and do not need to try to be. More than merely necessary, we are loved, desired, by the God who created us in order that he might come to us, and we to him.

And God will come, and come, and come, and come… until we are his.

Now and always, all praise and glory be to the God who creates, sustains and sets us free. Amen.

BasisBits – Paragraph 8: Holy Communion


BasisBits Logo - 2 WITHOUT S

The Uniting Church acknowledges that the continuing presence of Christ with his people is signified and sealed by Christ in the Lord’s Supper or the Holy Communion, constantly repeated in the life of the Church. In this sacrament of his broken body and outpoured blood the risen Lord feeds his baptized people on their way to the final inheritance of the Kingdom. Thus the people of God, through faith and the gift and power of the Holy Spirit, have communion with their Saviour, make their sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, proclaim the Lord’s death, grow together into Christ, are strengthened for their participation in the mission of Christ in the world, and rejoice in the foretaste of the Kingdom which Christ will bring to consummation.

From Paragraph 8 of the Basis of Union (1992)


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BasisBits are intended particularly for congregations of the Uniting Church in Australia but could be easily adapted for general use by congregations of other denominations. The suggested use of BasisBits is as items in the “news” section of your Sunday pew sheets or regular congregational publications; some would lend themselves to incorporation into your liturgy order itself.

BasisBits – Paragraph 7: Baptism


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The Uniting Church acknowledges that Christ incorporates people into his body by Baptism. In this way Christ enables them to participate in his own baptism, which was accomplished once on behalf of all in his death and burial, and which was made available to all when, risen and ascended, he poured out the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Baptism into Christ’s body initiates people into Christ’s life and mission in the world, so that they are united in one fellowship of love, service, suffering and joy, in one family of the Father of all in heaven and earth, and in the power of the one Spirit. The Uniting Church will baptize those who confess the Christian faith, and children who are presented for baptism and for whose instruction and nourishment in the faith the Church takes responsibility.

From Paragraph 7 of the Basis of Union (1992)


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BasisBits are intended particularly for congregations of the Uniting Church in Australia but could be easily adapted for general use by congregations of other denominations. The suggested use of BasisBits is as items in the “news” section of your Sunday pew sheets or regular congregational publications; some would lend themselves to incorporation into your liturgy order itself.

BasisBits – Paragraph 4: Christ Rules and Renews the Church


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The Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church is able to live and endure through the changes of history only because its Lord comes, addresses, and deals with people in and through the news of his completed work. Christ who is present when he is preached among people is the Word of God who acquits the guilty, who gives life to the dead and who brings into being what otherwise could not exist. Through human witness in word and action, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ reaches out to command attention and awaken faith; he calls people into the fellowship of his sufferings, to be the disciples of a crucified Lord; in his own strange way Christ constitutes, rules and renews them as his Church.

From Paragraph 4 of the Basis of Union (1992)


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BasisBits are intended particularly for congregations of the Uniting Church in Australia but could be easily adapted for general use by congregations of other denominations. The suggested use of BasisBits is as items in the “news” section of your Sunday pew sheets or regular congregational publications; some would lend themselves to incorporation into your liturgy order itself.

BasisBits – Paragraph 3: Built Upon the One Lord Jesus Christ C


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The Church as the fellowship of the Holy Spirit confesses Jesus as Lord over its own life; it also confesses that Jesus is Head over all things, the beginning of a new creation, of a new humanity. God in Christ has given to all people in the Church the Holy Spirit as a pledge and foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation. The Church’s call is to serve that end: to be a fellowship of reconciliation, a body within which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole, an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself. The Church lives between the time of Christ’s death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things which Christ will bring; the Church is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here the Church does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come. On the way Christ feeds the Church with Word and Sacraments, and it has the gift of the Spirit in order that it may not lose the way.

From Paragraph 3 of the Basis of Union (1992)


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BasisBits are intended particularly for congregations of the Uniting Church in Australia but could be easily adapted for general use by congregations of other denominations. The suggested use of BasisBits is as items in the “news” section of your Sunday pew sheets or regular congregational publications; some would lend themselves to incorporation into your liturgy order itself.

BasisBits – Paragraph 3: Built Upon the One Lord Jesus Christ B


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Jesus of Nazareth announced the sovereign grace of God whereby the poor in spirit could receive God’s love. Jesus himself, in his life and death, made the response of humility, obedience and trust which God had long sought in vain. In raising him to live and reign, God confirmed and completed the witness which Jesus bore to God on earth, reasserted claim over the whole of creation, pardoned sinners, and made in Jesus a representative beginning of a new order of righteousness and love. To God in Christ all people are called to respond in faith. To this end God has sent forth the Spirit that people may trust God as their Father, and acknowledge Jesus as Lord. The whole work of salvation is effected by the sovereign grace of God alone.

From Paragraph 3 of the Basis of Union (1992)


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BasisBits are intended particularly for congregations of the Uniting Church in Australia but could be easily adapted for general use by congregations of other denominations. The suggested use of BasisBits is as items in the “news” section of your Sunday pew sheets or regular congregational publications; some would lend themselves to incorporation into your liturgy order itself.

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.

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