Archive for the ‘Easter’ Category

One more time

May 4, 2019

Easter 3 – 2019

John 21:1-19 (some thoughts)

Marian Free

In the name of God who reveals godself to us when we least expect it and when we most need it. Amen.

A trip to Israel is amazing. It is a beautiful country steeped in history. There you will come across a Canaanite altar that goes back 3,000 years before Jesus and a horned altar that makes sense of the horned altars of the Old Testament. You will encounter archeological sites that go back at least 1000 years before Jesus’ time and which have been built on over the centuries by different nations and cultures up until the present. The site of Capernaum with its ruins of homes that date from the time of Jesus helps us to put the gospel story into context and the Sea of Galilee is so vast that one can understand why the disciples might have been afraid when tempests arose.

That said, there is much that, for me at least, is a source of irritation or disappointment. I found it impossible to imagine the Israel of Jesus’ day in the towns and tourist sites that capitalize on their place in the gospel story and compete with each other for the tourist dollar. Christian denominations that vied with each other for attention were, for me, a source of deep shame and embarrassment. If visitors to the nation had been less keen to immerse themselves in the story they might ask themselves why both the Anglicans and the Catholics need such large churches in Bethlehem, why they have divided Capernaum into two parts, and why the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is divided between a number of Christian traditions.

On a lighter note, seeing a place at first hand had the tendency to burst the bubble of my imagination. Sites that loomed large in the gospel story did not have quite the same impact in reality. The Mount of the Transfiguration turned out to be a geological feature that I would have would called a hill; and the cliff that Jesus was ‘pushed’ to in Luke’s gospel was so far from Nazareth that it was hard to believe that even a huge crowd would have persisted in pushing Jesus over such a large distance.

What really surprised me and shattered my image of the story, were the fish. At the kibbutz by the Sea of Galilee we were served ‘St Peter’s fish’, which I took to be the fish of the miraculous haul recorded in both Luke and John. These fish (at least those cooked for lunch) were small – about fifteen cm long with very little flesh. It was hard to imagine even 153 of these fish being sufficient to make a net impossible to haul in as today’s gospel suggests and hard to imagine how many would be required to stretch to the nets to breaking point (Luke 5:6). But, as my grandmother used to say: “Why spoil the story for the sake of a little exaggeration?”

Why indeed? Whether here in John (after the resurrection) or in Luke (in connection with the calling of the disciples) the story is not so much about the fish as it is about recognition. In Luke’s telling of the story, the disciples have been fishing all night without success. When Jesus comes down to the shore they have left their boats and are cleaning their nets. Seeing the empty boat, Jesus asks Simon to put out from the shore so that he can more easily teach the crowds who have been pressing in on him. It is only when he has finished teaching that he tells the fishermen to try one more time which they do. This time the nets are so full they threaten to sink the boats. At this point Peter falls to his knees before Jesus and says: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

As a result of the miraculous catch, Simon recognizes Jesus as Lord and, in the presence of Jesus’ goodness, becomes only too aware of his own sinfulness. The story of the fish is not just a miracle but it is an entry point to the story of Simon’s identification of Jesus’ true nature.

John places the account of the miraculous haul at the very end of his gospel, but here too recognition is the central point. A group of despondent disciples tire of sitting around and decide to go fishing. All night they fish with no success. In the morning a ‘stranger’ on the beach urges them to put down their nets one more time. This time there are so many fish that they cannot haul in the net. Then John identifies the stranger as the risen Jesus and Peter, (despite the fact that he had denied and abandoned Jesus), is sufficiently excited to see Jesus and sufficiently confident that Jesus will not reject him that he leaps out of the boat in order to be the first to reach him.

Whether it is recognition of the divinity of the earthly Jesus or the reality of the risen Jesus, it is success after a night of struggle, a surprise catch after fruitless effort, that opens the disciples’ eyes to the divine presence that has urged them to give it one more try.

When we are tempted to give up, when the night is too long or the task seemingly impossible, we can remember the catch of fish, believe in the risen Christ, give it one more try, and discover that Jesus was there all the time.

One more time

May 4, 2019

Easter 3 – 2019

John 21:1-19 (some thoughts)

Marian Free

In the name of God who reveals godself to us when we least expect it and when we most need it. Amen.

A trip to Israel is amazing. It is a beautiful country steeped in history. There you will come across a Canaanite altar that goes back 3,000 years before Jesus and a horned altar that makes sense of the horned altars of the Old Testament. You will encounter archeological sites that go back at least 1000 years before Jesus’ time and which have been built on over the centuries by different nations and cultures up until the present. The site of Capernaum with its ruins of homes that date from the time of Jesus helps us to put the gospel story into context and the Sea of Galilee is so vast that one can understand why the disciples might have been afraid when tempests arose.

That said, there is much that, for me at least, is a source of irritation or disappointment. I found it impossible to imagine the Israel of Jesus’ day in the towns and tourist sites that capitalize on their place in the gospel story and compete with each other for the tourist dollar. Christian denominations that vied with each other for attention were, for me, a source of deep shame and embarrassment. If visitors to the nation had been less keen to immerse themselves in the story they might ask themselves why both the Anglicans and the Catholics need such large churches in Bethlehem, why they have divided Capernaum into two parts, and why the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is divided between a number of Christian traditions.

On a lighter note, seeing a place at first hand had the tendency to burst the bubble of my imagination. Sites that loomed large in the gospel story did not have quite the same impact in reality. The Mount of the Transfiguration turned out to be a geological feature that I would have would called a hill; and the cliff that Jesus was ‘pushed’ to in Luke’s gospel was so far from Nazareth that it was hard to believe that even a huge crowd would have persisted in pushing Jesus over such a large distance.

What really surprised me and shattered my image of the story, were the fish. At the kibbutz by the Sea of Galilee we were served ‘St Peter’s fish’, which I took to be the fish of the miraculous haul recorded in both Luke and John. These fish (at least those cooked for lunch) were small – about fifteen cm long with very little flesh. It was hard to imagine even 153 of these fish being sufficient to make a net impossible to haul in as today’s gospel suggests and hard to imagine how many would be required to stretch to the nets to breaking point (Luke 5:6). But, as my grandmother used to say: “Why spoil the story for the sake of a little exaggeration?”

Why indeed? Whether here in John (after the resurrection) or in Luke (in connection with the calling of the disciples) the story is not so much about the fish as it is about recognition. In Luke’s telling of the story, the disciples have been fishing all night without success. When Jesus comes down to the shore they have left their boats and are cleaning their nets. Seeing the empty boat, Jesus asks Simon to put out from the shore so that he can more easily teach the crowds who have been pressing in on him. It is only when he has finished teaching that he tells the fishermen to try one more time which they do. This time the nets are so full they threaten to sink the boats. At this point Peter falls to his knees before Jesus and says: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

As a result of the miraculous catch, Simon recognizes Jesus as Lord and, in the presence of Jesus’ goodness, becomes only too aware of his own sinfulness. The story of the fish is not just a miracle but it is an entry point to the story of Simon’s identification of Jesus’ true nature.

John places the account of the miraculous haul at the very end of his gospel, but here too recognition is the central point. A group of despondent disciples tire of sitting around and decide to go fishing. All night they fish with no success. In the morning a ‘stranger’ on the beach urges them to put down their nets one more time. This time there are so many fish that they cannot haul in the net. Then John identifies the stranger as the risen Jesus and Peter, (despite the fact that he had denied and abandoned Jesus), is sufficiently excited to see Jesus and sufficiently confident that Jesus will not reject him that he leaps out of the boat in order to be the first to reach him.

Whether it is recognition of the divinity of the earthly Jesus or the reality of the risen Jesus, it is success after a night of struggle, a surprise catch after fruitless effort, that opens the disciples’ eyes to the divine presence that has urged them to give it one more try.

When we are tempted to give up, when the night is too long or the task seemingly impossible, we can remember the catch of fish, believe in the risen Christ, give it one more try, and discover that Jesus was there all the time.

Peace, peace, peace

April 27, 2019

Easter 2 – 2019

John 20:19-31

Marian Free

In the name of the Prince of Peace, who bestows on us that peace that the world cannot give. Amen.

Yesterday I was listening to Saturday Extra on the ABC. Even though it was off topic, Geraldine Doogue could not help sharing something that she felt was the most extraordinary piece of news. Apparently, South Korea has built new hiking tracks which take walkers up the hills and to the edge of the de-militarized zone. These tracks are to be called ‘Peace tracks’. That said, hikers will need to be accompanied by several armed soldiers and they themselves will be equipped with bullet proof vests and army issue helmets! For most, if not all of us, the equipment would be suggestive of anything but peace.

Last year we marked then100th Anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles which exacted such a toll on Germany that is could be said that the cost of peace was the Second World War. The 2nd of September, 1945 is the date on which WWII officially ended, but that date does not accurately reflect the end of various conflicts that continued throughout Europe for decades as a result of the hostilities. ISIS has been defeated in Syria – in the sense that it no longer has control over any territory but the recent acts of terror in Sri Lanka are clear evidence that ISIS is far from being a spent force.

All this begs the question: What is peace? Is it the defeat of the known enemy? Is it the reclamation of lost territory? Is it the complete cessation of hostilities or simply the end of hostilities between the major players? Does peace require the humiliation of the vanquished or the payment of reparation? In most cases peace does not mean the settling of differences, nor does it mean reconciliation. At best, the end of war signals resentment and distrust – I remember returned soldiers who absolutely refused to buy anything Japanese such was the depth of feeling of those who had suffered at their hands. On the other hand, within decades, if not years, the past is forgotten as economic interests forge new relationships with those who once were the enemy.

Peace on the world stage is a very different beast from the inner peace that faith offers. We speak of “being at peace with ourselves and with the world”. By which we mean being content with who and what we are and with the situation in which we find ourselves.

Three times in today’s gospel Jesus says to the disciples and to Thomas: “Peace be with you.” Frank L. Crouch suggests that each time Jesus uses the words they have a slightly different meaning. My interpretation is different from his, but it is helpful to speculate on what Jesus might mean by repeating the phrase.

It is hard to imagine the scene. The disciples fled in fear when Jesus was arrested and now, even though they have heard reports that Jesus has risen, they are in hiding for fear that they will be arrested and killed as known associates of Jesus. They are still in Jerusalem and have locked the doors to give them some sense of security. I imagine them huddled together, going over the events of the last three years and in particular the events of the last week. What did it all mean? What should they do next? How could they safely leave Jerusalem? Who could they trust?

Suddenly, despite the locked doors, Jesus appears in their midst. Instead of recriminations he offers them peace. “Peace be with you.” There is no need to berate yourselves for what you did and did not do. The past is the past. There is no need to be anxious or afraid, I am with you. In the midst of their confusion and fear, Jesus offers peace. Now that they know that Jesus is not holding their cowardice against them, the disciples do not need to dwell on the past. Now that they are confident that Jesus is alive, they can have confidence that, whatever the future holds, God will bring them safely through. In other words, they can be at peace with themselves and at peace with the world.

A second time Jesus says: “Peace be with you.” This time the peace that Jesus offers is less comforting and more challenging. Having reassured the disciples that they still have their place among his followers, Jesus tells them that he is commissioning them to carry on his work. The disciples’ relationship with Jesus has been restored, but the story does not end there. The peace that Jesus offers now provides reassurance. Jesus’ confidence in them extends to his confidence that he can send them to continue his mission. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus cannot promise the disciples that the road ahead will be smooth, but he gives them peace – the knowledge that they can and will manage whatever difficulties confront them.

Finally, Jesus says: “Peace be with you” when he appears to the disciples a second time – for the benefit of Thomas. Peace is offered not just to Thomas but to all the disciples. Perhaps this time Jesus is addressing tension within the group – after all Thomas was not able to believe that the others had seen Jesus. Perhaps this third time, Jesus is gently chiding the disciples and reminding them of the prayer that he had uttered in their presence before he died: “that they may all one. As you Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us that the world may believe” (17:21).

Restoration, challenge, command – the peace that Jesus offers is all these things. When we feel that we have let Jesus down, he will come to us and let us know that all is right. When we are unsure what to do next, Jesus will nudge us in the right direction. When our relationships with each other are stretched Jesus will remind us of the command to love one another.

Jesus offers the peace that the world cannot give – a peace that quietens our nerves and reminds us that God does not abandon us though we might abandon God and a peace that gives us courage to step out in faith in response to God’s call. In return Jesus asks us to be at peace with one another so that the world seeing our unity with one another, may see in us the unity between Jesus and God and so come to believe.

Words cannot express

April 20, 2019

Easter Sunday – 2019

Luke 24:1-12

Marian Free

In the name of God, who is always just beyond our comprehension. Amen.

“It was amazing. I can’t tell you how fantastic it was! You just had to be there!” I imagine that most of us have used those words or heard those words after an extraordinary experience – a brilliant sunset, an exceptional performance or an extraordinary athletic feat. There are times when words are simply not enough to express the wonder of what we have seen or experienced. We want to share the event with our friends and acquaintances, but we know that whatever language we use will be inadequate because the experience was simply indescribable. There are times too, when we know that even if we could find the words, what we are trying to describe might be beyond the comprehension of those with whom we are sharing. If they were not actually there, they will not understand that the Bach (for example) was performed in a way that was so sublime that it had to be heard to be believed, or that the sunset had that extra something that set it apart from all other sunsets – a certain something that although it was clear to the observer was also allusive; or that the trapeze artist performed a feat that excelled anything that had been seen before, a movement, a gesture that set it apart.

All of these events – sunsets, performances, athleticism – are all within the realm of ordinary experience. Our audience might not grasp the subtle differences that we are trying to share, but they will have seen a sunset, heard a musical performance or witnessed an exceptional athletic feat. These are more or less every day occurrences. People have something against which to measure them – their most amazing sunset, the performance that most moved them or an act of athleticism that impressed them.

This is not the case with Jesus’ resurrection. Before the women arrived at Jesus’ tomb no one had had an experience of someone rising from the dead, there was no prior reference point against which to measure the experience, no previous event that could be used as a base point to describe this event. Besides which, Jesus had not only been well and truly dead when he was taken down from the cross, but he had been in the tomb for two days and two nights. There could be no mistaking the fact that Jesus was dead and entombed.  Furthermore, a huge stone had been rolled across the entrance to the tomb so that no one could enter, and the dead could certainly not leave.

Not unreasonably, on that first Easter day, when the women came to the tomb they were expecting to complete the burial preparations for Jesus, to tend to his battered body. The last thing that they expected was to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. Still, there were words for that, possible explanations that would make sense of the empty tomb. They could report that the found the tomb empty. They could speculate that grave robbers had rolled the stone away.

The problem was how to explain what happened next. What words did they have to describe the appearance of the two men in dazzling clothes who asked why they were looking for the living among the dead?” How could the women convince the apostles of their own newly formed conviction, albeit based on Jesus’ own teaching, that Jesus had risen from the dead?

It is no wonder that the apostles did not believe them. Who would? Resurrection from the dead was completely outside their experience, men in dazzling clothes simply did not materialise from out of nowhere. The apostles thought that the women’s words were “an idle tale” not only because the women did not have the words to explain what had happened, but because they had no reference point against which to measure the description of events. Resurrection of the dead, at least resurrection to life in the present was utterly beyond their comprehension. No matter how articulate Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women were, it would have been nearly impossible for them to report the situation in any way that could be comprehended, let alone believed.

During the course of this week, I have spent a great deal of time trying to think of something/anything that might come close to what these women saw and experienced. The miracle of childbirth, the terror of an earthquake, the awe felt in the presence of something extraordinarily beautiful – but nothing I can think of comes close. I can’t imagine anything in our own experience that might compare with the experience of the resurrection. Nothing this earthly is as explosive, as earth-shattering, as mind-blowing or as transformative as the resurrection. Nothing can capture what it must have been like that first Easter Day, when a group of women discovered that Jesus was not dead, but alive. No amount of words would be enough.

And yet, here we are, in church on a Sunday morning in the middle of a long weekend, attesting to the truth of the story those women told. Just as something convinced the women that Jesus was alive, so too, something intangible and inexplicable has persuaded us that Jesus not only lived and died, but that after death he was raised to life. Something that is beyond our explanation tells us that Jesus is alive, present with us in ways that are very real and yet very hard to put into words.

We are here because the resurrection is not an historic event, but a lived experience, a present reality, because Jesus once raised from the dead lives forever.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

What matters is that Christ has risen!

April 14, 2018

Easter 3 – 2018

Luke 24:36b-48

Marian Free

[1]

                           Four not one

In the name of God who, through Jesus, raises us to newness of life and empowers us with the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This Semester I am teaching a subject entitled the Synoptic Gospels. The course entails looking at the first three gospels to try to discern what each author is saying and why they chose to order their material in a particular way. We ask: what was it about the author’s own experience and the needs of his community that led him (we are fairly surely that the gospels were written by men) to construct the story of Jesus in the way that they did. The question of four gospels is one that has led skeptics to deny the validity of the gospels and pious believers to come up with a variety of different explanations for the differences. An explanation that I was given as a teenager was that if four different people witnessed something (a traffic accident for example) they would all report the story somewhat differently. Each eyewitness would have observed the scene from a different point of view and would have come to their own decisions as to what happened.

In reality it is unlikely that any of the evangelists were eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus.[2]We believe that the earliest gospel to be written was the gospel of Mark and that it dates to the late 60’s or early 70’s. Matthew and Luke were probably written in the next decade. Until then the early believers had been happy to use the Old Testament as their scriptures and to rely on oral tradition (and maybe the letters of Paul) as their source for the teachings of Jesus. (In fact there were some like Papias who believed that the oral tradition was more trustworthy than anything that could be written down because it was “first –hand”).

At around the time Mark’s gospel was written there were a number of differing forces that led to a desire to capture the stories of Jesus in a more permanent way. The Christian movement was becoming more and more dislocated from its roots with the destruction of the Temple and the spread of the faith into a Gentile environment. The death of the first generation of believers gave an added urgency to the task of capturing Jesus’ story. It was felt that a record should be made while there was still some connection to Palestine and before the memories became more than second-hand.

For the first forty years after Jesus’ death years, the stories of his life and teaching circulated orally. They would have been told differently by different story-tellers and have been given different emphases depending on the context in which they were told. (It is remarkable that we have only 4 gospels and not 400!)

It is not surprising then that we have several different accounts of the resurrection. Mark’s gospel (as we saw on Easter Day) leaves us up in the air telling us only that the women saw Jesus but were too afraid to tell anyone. According to Matthew the women see Jesus at the tomb and are sent to remind the disciples to return to Galilee where Jesus commissions the disciples to make disciples of all nations. Luke has a number of resurrection stories that allow the author (through Jesus) to use scripture to explain Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Despite these differences there are a number of consistencies. In all three gospels women go to the tomb at dawn on the first day of the week and find it empty. In all three instances a messenger speaks to the women and tells them that Jesus has risen. The messengers also give the women a mission. They are to remind the disciples either to go to Galilee or to remind them of what Jesus said when they were in Galilee. In all three gospels Mary Magdalene is one of the women who was at the tomb on that morning. In other words, at dawn on the first day of the week, two or three women one of whom was Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found it empty. A heavenly messenger informed them of Jesus’ resurrection and tasked them with taking a message to the men. As a consequence of their experience and possibly of Jesus’ appearances to the disciples Jesus’ followers were convinced that he was alive – so convinced that they began to spread the message far and wide until a small movement begun in an insignificant part of the empire, spread throughout the entire world.

As an academic I am fascinated by the differences between the gospels, It excites me to try discover the motivations of the authors, the needs of the communities, the cultural setting of the first century, the distinct emphasises of each gospel, the particular message that the author is trying to get across and the unique picture of Jesus that they are trying to paint. In the end though, none of that matters. Whether there is one account of the resurrection or several. I’m not particularly concerned to know whether Jesus entered locked rooms, ate broiled fish or walked to Emmaus. What is important to me is that on that first day of the week, something happened that convinced not only the women who saw, but the men whom they told, that Jesus was not dead but alive and that as a result their lives were so dramatically changed that within two decades a movement had formed around the risen Christ and had spread beyond the bounds of Palestine to as far as Rome. What matters to me is that two thousand years later women and men are still convinced that Jesus has risen and they know their lives to be enriched, empowered and transformed as a result of that knowledge.

We don’t need to explain the differences or similarities in the stories told by the gospel writers, nor to we have to justify to others the fact that there is not one, but that there are four accounts Jesus’ life and teaching. We all have our own resurrection stories to tell. Let’s tell our story with such passion and conviction that what happened on that first day of the week will continue to inform and transform the world.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

 

 

 

 

[1]This cartoon was sent to me via email, so unfortunately I can’t acknowledge the source.

[2]Only about 25% of the population lived beyond their mid-twenties.

Not an ending – a beginning

March 31, 2018

Easter Day – 2018

Mark 16:1-8

Marian Free

 In the name of God who turns darkness to light, sorrow to joy, death to life. Amen.

 When something significant happens – a natural disaster, a mass shooting, the visit of a member of the royal family – not only does everyone know about the event but nearly everyone has an opinion on the matter. A certain amount of notoriety attaches to those who were close to or involved in the event and at the same time, those who were affected by what has happened need to talk about it because they have been so traumatized by it.

Why then does Mark’s gospel end on a note of silence. The women (who have seen the empty tomb and been told that Jesus has been raised) “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Silence is an inauspicious start for what was to become the Christian faith. Silence is an inappropriate response for something as extraordinary and unexpected as the resurrection. Silence and fear detract from Jesus’ victory over death, and silence defies the young man’s explicit instruction: “go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

There are a number of explanations for Mark’s terse and unsatisfactory ending – and I will come to them – but first let me take a step back. Those of you who followed the gospel in the pew bibles will be saying to yourselves: “but the gospel doesn’t end at verse 8.” If you look closely though, you will see that the second half of verse 8 is headed “The Shorter Ending of Mark” and verses 9-20 “The Longer Ending”. The problem is that there are no original copies of the gospels, the earliest manuscripts that we have come from the fourth century and these are copies of copies of copies. Significantly, the oldest copies of Mark end at verse 8, that, plus the fact that this is such a difficult reading has led scholars to believe that the original gospel ended here.

If that is the case, t is not surprising that the later copiests added to Mark’s ending. They would have found the lack of resurrection stories unsatisfactory and they would have wanted to find a way for Mark’s gospel to line up with the other gospels. The longer ending, for example, includes a reference to Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus (Luke) and the commission to proclaim the good news to all the nations (Matthew). It also contains disturbing “proofs of faith” that do not seem to go back to Jesus– “they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them.”

So why does the author of Mark leave us hanging? Why are we left with fear and silence rather than victory and joy?

There are a number of suggestions as to why this might be. One is that those for whom the gospel was written already know the ending. They know too that the story does not end with Jesus’ resurrection, but continues in their own lives and through the experience of the gathered community. Jesus’ is alive in their midst, they themselves are the proof enough of the resurrection. The author of Mark knows that the story is far from over. It is possible that he is challenging his community – the believing community to take their place in the story, to move the story forward. In some ways the resurrection is just the beginning of the story. In fact, Mark appears to set us up for an open-ended close from the start:

“The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, Son of God”. The suggestions is that gospel as written is not the whole story rather it sets the scene for a story that is just beginning[1].

Another perspective suggestion is that the women find the tomb empty because Jesus has better things to do. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t wait around for the disciples to come and process the resurrection, to chat with him, to eat with him. Jesus gets on with what he has to do and leaves a messenger to remind the disciples (in this case the women) of something that he said while he was still alive – that they were to meet up with him in Galilee where it all began. They are to go back to the beginning, but they go back as people who are profoundly different from the people that they were at the start of their discipleship. Having experienced the ending, the disciples are sent back to the beginning from where they will be able to see the story with fresh eyes. The contradictions and confusion that they experienced during Jesus’ ministry will, hopefully, now make sense to them. With any luck they will now understand that Jesus’ suffering had a purpose and that his vulnerability was in fact a strength[2].

Yet another explanation for the abrupt ending is that while Mark is well aware of the importance of the resurrection for the story and for the disciples, he is equally conscious that the ambiguity that attended Jesus’ ministry will continue in the lives of believers. That is, despite the resurrection, the believing community will experience suffering and rejection. Like Jesus they will be misunderstood and sought out for the wrong reasons.

Then again, Mark might just be chiding the community (through the women) for their lack of faith. Three times Jesus has explicitly predicted his death and resurrection and three times the disciples showed by their response how little they understand. Now, three days after Jesus’ crucifixion, the women come to the tomb expecting to find a body when they had been promised a resurrection. It is possible that Mark is challenging the community for whom he writes to maintain an openness to the possibility that God will do the unexpected so that, unlike the women, they will not be caught by surprised, they will not be traumatized and confounded when God does not meet their expectations and they will trust that God will do what God has promised to do.

Centuries later the ending of Mark’s gospel presents us with a mystery – a mystery with a purpose. It asks us to consider:

Do we understand that we are part of the ongoing story of the gospel?

Are we able to accept and to live with the contradictions of the gospel – that it is in service and through suffering that we draw close to and are formed in the image of God?

Are we aware that as followers of Jesus life will not always be easy and that we can expect the same treatment from our contemporaries as he received from his?

Do we trust that God will do what God has promised to do?

Finally, have we locked God into one version of the story or are we alert, open and expectant – ready for God to do God’s next new thing?

Mark’s gospel does not end tidily because there are no tidy endings. Indeed the story of Jesus has not and will not come to an end.

 

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

[1] David Lose. Working Preacher

[2] Lance Pape, Working Preacher

Living with the promise of the future not the guilt of the past

April 22, 2017

Easter 2 – 2017

John 20:19-31

Marian Free

 In the name of God who sets us free from sin and death and who raises us to newness of life with and in and through Jesus Christ. Amen.

It should be obvious by now that I don’t believe that shame and guilt are characteristics of a Christian life. As I have repeated throughout Lent, I firmly believe that God loves us unconditionally and that in itself makes us people of worth.

Having said that let me be quite clear about two things. Firstly if we have wronged someone or done something that we should not have done, we must take responsibility for our actions and at that point feeling ashamed and/or guilty is absolutely justified (if not essential). Shame and guilt can become a problem if, having apologized to the offended person and to God we continue to feel bad about what we have done. A second proviso is this, if we have been treated in such a way that leads us to feel polluted, weak or shameful we must not add to those feelings a sense of guilt about not being able to shake such feelings. As we have belatedly learnt, victims of abuse may need more than a lifetime to overcome feelings of shame, despite the fact that they are not/were not at fault. To impose on such people an insistence not to feel guilty is to perpetuate the abuse.

In saying that shame and guilt are not characteristics of a Christian life I mean that we are not intended to carry around our wrongdoings or a sense of worthlessness, because God has already accepted and overlooked our faults. If we are weighed down by actions in our past we may not able to move forward and to get on with living the life that God intends for us.

Jesus’ resurrection assures us that we can leave the past behind and begin again. Knowing the power of the resurrection in our lives enables us to experience the life, joy and freedom that Jesus’ death and resurrection makes possible.

The message of the resurrection is twofold. Jesus’ resurrection opens for us the way to eternal life. What is more important in the present is that the resurrection of Jesus models for all believers the power of dying to our old life and rising to the possibility of a new beginning. As followers of the risen Christ we are encouraged to continually let go of the past – past behaviours, past sins, past sorrows – and to step into a new way of being, a new way of behaving, a new way of living.

If Jesus resurrection were not enough to convince us to leave the past behind and to move into the future, surely Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances confirm Jesus’ loving, forgiving nature and his willingness to overlook past mistakes and to look future possibilities. I don’t need to remind you that all the disciples failed Jesus and failed Jesus badly – betrayal, denial, abandonment. To make matters worse all, with the exception of Judas, had promised to remain true and even to die with Jesus. When it came to the point however, Peter who had assured Jesus that he would never deny him, did so three times. The disciples who had promised to remain even till death disappeared at the first sign of trouble. Jesus died alone, without the comfort of the twelve men who were closest to him.

Yet when Jesus appears to the disciples, he doesn’t mention their failures to support him nor does he express disappointment that they fled when the soldiers came and that even though they know he has been raised from the dead, they are still cowering in terror. Jesus does not hold the disciples to account, nor does he try to make them feel responsible. He does not reprimand them for failing to be true to their word. Jesus does not behave in a way that would cause them to squirm or speak to them in such a way as to humiliate or mortify them.

From Jesus’ point of view it is as though nothing untoward had ever happened, as if everything were as it was before his arrest. When Jesus appears to the disciples, his forgiveness and grace are expressed in four ways: he does not bring up the past; he offers the disciples peace; he commissions them to do his own work and he gives them the Holy Spirit! In other words, even though the disciples have demonstrated that they are completely and utterly untrustworthy, Jesus not only expresses his continued trust in them and in their abilities but he trust them and empowers them to continue the work that the Father sent him to do.In other words, Jesus makes this unlikely, unsuitable group of disciples his agents in the world because Jesus looks not to the past but to the future, Jesus sees not the disciples’ flaws but their potential.

As that old collect says: God who created us, knows of what it is we are made. God knows that we are weak and foolish and timid. God understands that we are likely to fail – not once, but over and over again and, not once, but over and over again God puts us back on our feet and allows us to start over.

This is what it is like with God. Once we have honestly faced up to what we have done, once we have admitted our fault to ourselves and to God, it is as if it never happened. We begin with a completely new slate, restored, whole and at peace with the world and with ourselves.

We owe it to God, we owe it to ourselves to try to accept the peace of the risen Christ and to aim to live each day with the promise of the future, not the guilt of the past.

Do your worst. I still love you.

April 15, 2017

Easter – 2017

Matthew 28:1-10

Marian Free

In the name of God who no matter what we do never, ever gives up on us. Amen.

I can still remember the television footage of the moment when the father of Scott Rush first met his son in the prison in Bali. Scott you will recall had been arrested with eight others for attempting to bring a 1.3 kg of heroin into Australia. I imagine that at the moment of Scott’s arrest his parent’s lives will have been completely turned upside down. Their son who had had the advantages of a comfortable upbringing and had attended a good private secondary school was now facing a lengthy jail term, if not death, in a country whose culture and legal system are very different from our own. Scott’s parents Lee and Chris had had to drop whatever they were doing to fly to Bali. No doubt they incurred considerable disruption and expense in the process, not to mention the anxiety and fear that would have attended the news of their son’s arrest. Imagine the embarrassment and shame – visiting Bali as parents of a drug smuggler, facing their friends and acquaintances at home and being exposed to intense media interest.

Media reports suggest that Scott was a drug user who was already known to police and who was wanted in Australia on an outstanding warrant for stealing nearly $5000 from an Australian bank. While he may have been caught up in something bigger than he realised, he was no innocent.

When Scott’s parents arrived at the jail surrounded by TV cameras, they didn’t remonstrate with Scott. They didn’t say: “why have you done this to us?” or “what were you thinking?” They didn’t reproach him for humiliating them or berate him for being so foolish. At what must have been an extraordinarily difficult moment, Scott’s mother Chris said to the journalists who crowded in on them: “I love him”. When his father Lee comes face to face with Scott for the first time, he says, as I recall: “you’re a good boy.” “I love him.” “You’re a good boy.” In the eyes of the world, in the eyes of every parent whose child has become addicted to drugs and especially in the eyes of the Indonesian legal system, Scott was anything but “a good boy”. To his father however, he was and remained “a good boy”.

Drugs – the addiction, the temptation to make vast amounts of money with relatively little effort – show humanity at its worst. Vulnerable people are taken advantage of, dealers use violence or threats of violence to protect their patch, to extract money for debts and to prevent people from breaking free of the habit. Addicts turn to crime and sometimes to aggressive behaviour to pay for their next fix. It is a dark and shadowy world that I am glad to have no part of. Scott might have only been on the fringes of that world, but he was part of it. Yet his father can say: “You’re a good boy”.

The events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion depict humanity at its worst. The disciple who for reasons unknown sells his teacher and friend for thirty pieces of silver, the remaining disciples who promise to be with Jesus even to death, but who abandon him and deny him, the priests who fabricate evidence against him, the solders who mock him, the governor, swayed by the crowd who refuses to do what he knows is right, the lynch mob who bay for Jesus’ death, the crowds who revile him and the soldiers and fellow criminals who taunt him. An innocent man is condemned to torture and death in order to preserve the status quo and to please the crowds.

The story might have ended there. The body of Jesus sealed in a tomb and guarded by soldiers. After all that the people (friend and foe alike) had done, God might simply have thrown up God’s hands in horror and washed God’s hands of an ungrateful and uncaring humanity. God had sent Jesus into the world to save the world, instead God watches humanity spurns the gift, as Jesus endured first betrayal, then trumped-up charges and finally an excruciating death. Imagine for a moment, God’s having to watch humanity behaving in such a debased, immoral and cruel way. Such behaviour would try the patience and love of the most loving and forgiving parent.

One might be excused for thinking that God had done enough for God’s people. God chose them from among all the nations, sent Joseph to Egypt to save them from the famine, brought them out of Egypt when they were no longer welcome and remained loyal and loving despite their waywardness, their lack of confidence in God’s power to save and protect, their failure to listen to the prophets and their chasing after other gods. As a last resort God came among them as one of them in the form of Jesus but they responded by murdering him and with him all hope of salvation. If at that point, God had decided that enough was enough no one would have thought that God was being unreasonable or vindictive. If God had walked away from creation in despair most would think that that was what humanity deserved. Yet God remained steadfast, God did not withdraw God’s love but instead raised Jesus from the dead. In effect God said to the world: “you’re a good boy, you’re a good girl – I love you.”

“I love you. You have done your worst, but I love you. You have shown yourself to be weak, disloyal, fickle and cruel and yet I still love you.”

“I still love you.” The most sure and certain proof of God’s love for us is the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection assures us that no matter what we do, no matter how far we stray, God’s boundless endless love will never be withdrawn.

Humanity can do its worst, but God’s love will always triumph.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.

 

 

Fusing our will to the will of God

May 7, 2016

Easter 7 – 2016

John 17:20-26

Marian Free

 

May we be one with Jesus, as Jesus and the Father are one and may our union with Christ result in our union with one another. Amen.

Taking two things and making them one has a number of advantages. The result of the combination can create a stronger, more durable or more flexible product. Natural fibres mixed with synthetics have all sorts of properties that the original did not have – longevity and stretch among other things. Carbon, added in various amounts to iron creates a stronger, harder metal (steel) that performs better under stress. Flour, butter and sugar can be mixed in a variety of ways to produce both savoury and sweet dishes that are vastly different from the ingredients that go to make them up. Given the correct circumstances, non-animate elements can be joined together to create something that is completely different, but which is often more useful and functional than the individual elements alone.

It is a different story with human beings. No matter how much a couple is in love, and no matter how well-adjusted the members of a family are, there is no magic formula that can turn a couple or a family into one person. True, some are better at being on the same page as others, but ultimately they remain separate beings, with distinct personalities. On a larger scale it becomes even more complicated to create agreement and uniformity. The bigger a group the harder it is for them all to think and act alike. As our political parties continually demonstrate even a shared ideology does not lead to uniformity of opinion or a common view on policy.

We hear in today’s gospel that before Jesus died, he prayed for his disciples – that they might be protected (in a world that will hate them); that they might be sanctified in the truth (in a world that is not); that they might be with him and see his glory and finally that: “they may all be one”.

The Jesus of John’s gospel experiences the world as a hostile place as we hear in the very first chapter:  “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (Jn 1:10,11)[1]. Obviously, Jesus believes that the disciples will experience the same rejection and antagonism that he himself experienced. Just as Jesus did not belong to the world, so the disciples do not belong to the world. Given that the disciples are both in and not in the world, it is not surprising that Jesus prays that they be both protected from harm and equipped for the work that lies ahead of them. Nor is it surprising that Jesus prays that they might see his glory and be with him that his presence might give them hope in difficult circumstances.

But what does Jesus mean when he prays that the disciples “may all be one”?

In recent history, this verse (17:23) has been used in a number of ways to promote church unity – both in the ecumenical sense[2] and as a weapon to prevent dissension (for example with regard to the ordination of women).  Did Jesus expect that the disciples would somehow become indistinguishable from one another, or combined in some way to form something completely new, or did he have some other idea in mind?

I suspect that the answer is a little of all. Jesus hoped that the disciples – while remaining individuals – would be united in love, but I believe that the prayer goes further than that and shows us how that might look in practice. In fact, Jesus adds a rider to the prayer that helps us to understand how the disciples might achieve the oneness for which Jesus prays. He asks that: “the love with which you (God) have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

A consistent theme of the fourth gospel is that of Jesus’ unity with God. Jesus claims over and again that those who have seen him have seen the Father, that he is in the Father and the Father is in him, that he and the Father are one. In other words, from the opening verse “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God”, the author of the fourth gospel is clear that there is ultimately no distinction between Jesus and God.

What is astonishing is this – that here in Jesus’ prayer and elsewhere, Jesus suggests that this extraordinarily intimate relationship is one that the disciples (we) can share. Just as Jesus and the Father are one, so the disciples (we) can be one with Jesus and therefore with God.

Jesus is praying then that in his absence the disciples might be able to share the intimate relationship that he has with the Father, that the disciples might be sufficiently willing to allow themselves to become fused with God such that people no longer see them alone, but the presence of God in them. It is this, as much as any effort on the disciples part that will enable them to be as one. When their own needs and desires are fused with the will of God, there will be no place for dissension with one another, for the will of all will be the will of God and they will be one as Jesus and the Father are one.

Today some outsiders could be forgiven for thinking that the church is a body at war with itself. Jesus’ prayer for the disciples (ourselves) appears to be largely unanswered. It will continue to go unanswered until you and I and the church as a whole submit ourselves wholly to God and allow ourselves to be overtaken by and absorbed into the divine. Then and only then will we share the intimacy that Jesus shares with the Father, and then and only then will we truly be one.

 
[1] On the other hand, the world is the place that “God so loved” (3:16) and the world into which the disciples are sent (17:16).
[2] Today marks the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

We can’t change the world, but we can change ourselves

April 30, 2016

Easter 6 – 2016

John 14:23-29

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who gives us that peace that the world cannot give, so that we might give peace to the world. Amen.

When I was confirmed my priest suggested that I, along with the other candidates, create a rule of life. It was his hope that, having been confirmed, we might all become people who took our spiritual growth seriously. The problem with this approach was that we were twelve years old. Many of the children in the group were being confirmed because it was the thing to do, rather than because they were making a commitment to the Christian faith. His idea was destined to fail, either through lack of interest or because it was an ambitious task to impose on children about to enter high school and their teenage years. I did take the idea seriously. I remember trying to accomplish what I set out to do and giving up early because I failed spectacularly. That said, it obviously made an impact on me, because I still remember writing the rule for myself.

A rule of life is a monastic principle and it involves making a commitment to a number of spiritual disciplines – prayer, bible reading, giving and so on. It is “an intentional pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness.[1]” The reason for taking on such a rule is that it helps us to work on and to dRule of Lifeevelop our relationship with God, to create a rhythm to our days that enables us to focus on the presence of God in and around us, to be nourished by the grace of God and to be transformed more closely to the image of God.

A Rule of Life then, is intended to be a help not a hindrance, a pleasure not a burden. Just as physical exercise improves our physical health, so spiritual exercises are designed to improve our spiritual and emotional health. We take on spiritual disciplines to ensure that we grow and develop spiritually. A rule of life therefore has to be tailored to the individual. What works for one person may not work for another, what one person needs will not be the same as what someone else needs. What is life-giving for one person, might be stultifying and limiting for another so it is important for each person to discern what might and might not suit them, what will assist growth as compared to something that over time will become an empty practice.

It is clear that the fact of being baptised does not in and of itself infuse us with holiness. Few of us from birth truly embody all the characteristics of divinity that were displayed in Jesus and that are, ideally, are required of us. It is too easy for most of us to get caught up in the distractions of the everyday, to be absorbed by our own needs and bound by our own fears. Surrendering our lives entirely to God, allowing our lives to be completely directed by the Holy Spirit, freeing ourselves to be transformed into the image of God takes practice and discipline. This is why we use expressions such as “practice”, “exercise” and “discipline” when we are talking about something as indefinable as spirituality.

Prayer, bible study and spiritual reading all draw us closer to God, but the ways in which we can become aware of the presence of God in our lives and allow ourselves to be transformed are many and various. They include silence, attention, gratitude, forgiveness, generosity, being present, being compassionate and developing an attitude of openness to God’s abundant love and goodness. Such practices are not always part of our daily life or of our nature. For this reason it is important to identify those aspects of our lives that we need to work on and then adopt a practice or a habit that enables us to change. We may find that we need to learn for example how to stop and listen or to find out how to forgive or how to show compassion. There is no magic formula. If we want to truly reflect the image of Christ to the world, we must discipline ourselves to become like Christ. Just as we practice to become a better cook, a more competent cyclist or a more knowledgeable doctor, so we must practice those things that make us a better, more competent, more knowledgeable Christian, so that our lives are transformed and that Jesus can known through us.

It is not all hard work – we do not develop a rule of life or take on spiritual exercises to mortify the body or repress our God-given human nature. Spiritual exercises include play and rest, an appreciation of beauty and moments of pure joy, time to build relationships and time to dream. Our practices have to be onerous or time-consuming. I have heard of someone who places a coin on a lintel in her home. Every time she passes through that door, she remembers to be thankful. Another makes the sign of the cross before he gets up each day as a simple reminder that he belongs to God. Whatever we chose to do, it is important that it is achievable. Starting small and building up is much more likely to succeed than being too ambitious then failing and giving up.

In today’s gospel we hear the familiar words of peace. Jesus bestowing on the disciples that peace that the world cannot give.

The peace that Jesus offers is not a peace that ends world strife, or family discord. It is a peace deep within that transcends whatever is going on around us, a peace that enables us to be calm in the midst of the storms of life, a peace that fills and surrounds us no matter what else is going on. Sadly there is far too little evidence of this peace in a church that continues to argue and posture on issues such as theology, the ordination of women and the marriage of homosexuals.

It is easy to despair, to wonder what we can do in the face of what sometime seem to be insurmountable odds. True, we can’t change the world or the church, but we can change ourselves – by adopting spiritual practices, by working on spiritual exercises and by disciplining ourselves to be constantly aware that it is what we do and what we say that determines how non-believers make up their minds about God.

[1] The CSLewis Institute – http://www.cslewisinstitute.org. Other websites provide information about a rule of life: http://www.northumbriacommunity.org, http://www.westcott.cam.ac.uk are a few. A physical example can be found at https://ruleoflife.com/2015/03/10/paul-clarks-rule-of-life/. Images for Rule of Life provides an interesting example of how different Rules of Life can be.


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