Archive for the ‘Easter’ Category

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.

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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.

The body beautiful

April 2, 2016

Easter 2 – 2016

John 20:19-31

Marian Free

In the name of God who ‘did not despise the virgin’s womb’, but who in Jesus embraced human flesh – its mortality, fragility and all its messiness. Amen.

We only have to pick up a magazine to be reminded that in the Western world at least, we have a love/hate relationship with our bodies. We are constantly being bombarded with suggestions as to how we can make ourselves more beautiful though diet, exercise, make-up, hair cuts, fake tans, anti-aging creams or serums and styles of clothing[1]. We can “reshape” our bodies at gyms by focusing on our “trouble spots” or build our bodies so as to have firm pecs or a “six-pack”. Increasingly, we are being given the impression that some sort of major intervention is required if we are to be truly beautiful – Botox, dermal fillers, threading and even plastic surgery. Today it is possible to take bits from here and put them there, to make some parts thinner and others fuller, to extend or to shave our bones, to plump our lips, tighten our faces and to do so over and again as fashions change or as we change.[2]

A negative attitude to the body is often associated with Christianity. After all, isn’t it our bodily desires and needs that lead us to sin? Christianity has had an ambivalent attitude to the body for most of its existence. The ‘sins’ of gluttony, adultery are put down to bodily appetites (as if our minds were unable to exercise authority of our uncontrollable bodily urges). In this debate Romans 7 is often used to suggest that Paul struggled with physical desires,[3] as is the Pauline spirit/flesh divide. This view is a misrepresentation of the central tenet of the faith – that in Jesus God became human. The Christmas hymn puts this well, “God did not despise the virgin’s womb” but took on human flesh with all its limitations. If the creation story were not evidence enough, the incarnation puts the lie to any position that suggests that God has a negative view of the human body. If the divine can take on human flesh surely the human body is not simply impure, baseless and imperfect.

This view of the body suggests a negative view of the God who created the body and who declared it to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31). If the human body was a suitable vessel for the divine to embrace it should be good enough for us.

The source of the body/soul divide (and with it what amounts to the abhorrence of our physical selves) can be traced back, not to the early Christian believers but to the Greek philosophers. It was the separation of the church from its Jewish roots and its movement into the Greek world that saw the Christian faith adopt the dualism between the soul (good) and the body (bad). Plato (429-347 BCE), to whom this view is attributed, taught that all things had a perfect form. The soul pre-existed the body and would outlast it and was always seeking to be free of the body (which Plato called ‘the tomb of the soul’). Such a negative view resulted in all kinds of attempts to subdue or to mortify the body including extreme forms of aestheticism such as castration.

It is no wonder that we have such mixed feelings about our physicality – the body is our enemy, trapping our soul and leading us into all kinds of temptation and sin. Perhaps for this reason we do not often think of Jesus’ physical body and why a great deal of Christian art depicts him as a kind of androgynous angelic figure.

A closer examination of the gospels and of John’s gospel in particular reveal a different picture. In the gospels Jesus is not an ethereal, spiritual presence, but a physical, bodily presence. Jesus’ body could be touched and caressed both before and after the resurrection. Caravaggio has painted a wonderful representation of Jesus’ appearing to Thomas. Thomas’s finger penetrates under Jesus’ skin to feel the hole left by the spear. This is just one representation of Jesus fully inhabiting the human body. If we pay attention to the gospel accounts, we will be surprised by the physicality of Jesus. We will notice too that he is not afraid/ashamed to touch and be touched. So far as the gospels portray Jesus, he is very comfortable in his own skin. He is not at all anxious to be free of his physical form[4].

The Jesus of John’s gospel is perhaps the most spiritual of the four portrayals: “In the beginning was the Word”, yet the Word has no problem becoming flesh and living among us. The Word doesn’t simply appear to take on the human form he becomes one of us. One of the reasons that the religious authorities won’t accept him is because they know where he comes from – he was physically born to flesh and blood parents.

What is more, it is clear that Jesus understands the needs of the body – he changes water into wine, he asks a woman for a drink. In John’s gospel, Jesus himself distributes the bread and fish to the crowds and in the discourse that follows he uses the imagery of eating and drinking his flesh and blood to illustrate the intimacy of the relationship that we can have with him. Other evidence of Jesus’ physicality in John can be found in the fact that he is able to be grasped (the crowds want to take him by force), he makes a whip, he mixes mud and saliva and places it on the eyes of the blind man and he places the bread into the hands of Judas. The human Jesus does not look on from afar, but truly engages with the physicality of the human body. He does not recoil from the stench of death when he calls Lazarus from the tomb, nor does he draw back when Mary stoops to caress his feet with expensive perfume. Jesus himself takes a towel and washes the feet of the disciples (an act only recorded in John).

Our bodies – awkward, ungainly, unique – are the way God made us[5]. If Jesus was not afraid to embrace the human form, perhaps it is time that we started to become more comfortable with our bodies, time that we learned to accept the irregularities that make us who we are, time that we rejoiced in the absolute marvel of the human machine – that despite the complexity that is required to drive it manages to allow most of us to live and breathe, to walk and run, to work and relax, to embrace and to be embraced. In the words of the musical “Hair”. “What a piece of work is man (sic)!” What an extraordinary, wonderful, beautiful, precious thing is the human body!

In Jesus the human and divine are united as one, should not that be the model for us?

[1] Of course, I’m not even starting to name all the beauty options that are out there!

[2] Bigger breasts that were a good idea in our twenties can be reduced when in our thirties we regret our decision. Faces can be sculpted and resculpted until the surgeon’s knife achieves the desired look.

[3] This is a topic I have dealt with in the past. The ‘I’ in Romans 7 is not Paul but Adam. We only have to read Philippians 3:3-6 to be convinced that Paul had no problem at all with the flesh.

[4] As the later (gnostic) Gospel of Judas would have us believe.

[5] The Psalmist reminds us that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps 139).

Resurrection – the refusal to give evil the last word

March 26, 2016

Easter Day – 2016

Marian Free

 

Christ is risen! He is risen today! Alleluia!

Jesus Christ is risen today! The strife is o’er the battle done!

Throughout Western Christendom today, songs of triumph will ring out as believers gather to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. In the light of recent events such triumphalism seems like a slap in the face for all those who are grieving the victims of the Brussels attacks; for those who face weeks, if not years of surgery and therapy as a result of their injuries and for those who are left wondering “who or what next?”

How is it possible to make sense of the resurrection in the light of the attacks in Brussels, the Royal Commission into child abuse, the coroner’s investigation into the Sydney siege and the pictures of the millions of refugees who would rather face a dangerous sea voyage or wait desperately at border crossings than live with war or poverty? How can we speak of victory in the face of the suffering in Syria, Yemen, Nigeria and countless other places where people just like you and I face the daily horrors of war, the gnawing pangs of hunger and that constant knowledge that it is beyond their power to do anything to protect their children?

There are days when it is difficult not to despair, to wonder if the resurrection of Jesus is an ancient fairy tale or an empty gesture. There are times when we can be forgiven for asking whether Jesus’ death and resurrection made any difference at all. It is clear to anyone who looks that the world that Jesus came to save has not changed. Everywhere we look we see poverty, oppression, injustice, discrimination, warfare and terror. Sometimes it seems as though the signs of life are overwhelmed by the ever-present evidence of death.

And yet, in the midst of horror and despair there is often evidence of life – a refusal to give in to fear and to hate, a determination to hold on and a commitment to live more fully than ever before – to demonstrate that darkness cannot extinguish the light.

It is interesting to note, that in the increasingly secular world, it is Christian symbols, symbols of the resurrection to which people turn when tragedy strikes – the light of a candle, the image of the cross, the placing of flowers, the utterance of prayers, the gathering in memory. The world may not have changed, but the resurrection is deeply embedded in our collective memory. Whether they believe in Jesus or not, at times of despair, people turn to images of the resurrection – images of hope for the future, images that remind us that life can be wrought from death. They seek comfort and support in communal ritual action and in the words of Christian hymns and prayers and they lay flowers in remembrance. Unconsciously, even those who claim not to believe will at times of trauma, turn to the story that provides the world with hope.

On Easter Eve, the Paschal Candle is lit from the new fire. In the darkness of the night the flickering flame is a reminder than when death and terror have done their worst, there is still hope, it is a sign that ultimately the darkness cannot overwhelm the light, nor evil triumph over good. The resurrection is at the centre of our faith – the extraordinary truth that God raised Jesus from the dead, so that all might live. As if that were not enough, the resurrection is also a daily reminder, that it is possible to rise above the ugliness and baseness of human nature, that human beings can and do perform extraordinary acts of selflessness, that in the midst of horror we find courage, strength and compassion and that in the presence of evil we refuse to be cowed or to live our lives in fear[1].

In a world that is far from transformed, the resurrection of Jesus gives us confidence that good will triumph over evil, that love will conquer hate and that life will prove to be stronger than death. Jesus’ resurrection is a sign of hope, a light in the darkness, a reason to hold on when all seems to be lost.

This is why, even in the midst of despair, we can say with absolute confidence “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

 

[1] Within hours of the explosions in Brussels, locals had arrived at the airport volunteering to drive travelers to other cities. When the earthquake struck Christchurch, people mobilized to get food and water to those who were cut off. When the traffic was stuck because of a major accident, a woman bought bottles of water and distributed them. Simple actions, reminders of the goodness of human nature, the willingness to make sacrifices – small or big and of the determination not to let evil or tragedy have the last word.

Defeating evil, by submitting to evil

April 4, 2015

Easter – 2015

Marian Free

In the name of God who turns darkness into light, despair into hope and tragedy into victory. Amen.

I don’t think that anyone would dispute that we live in a world that is full of inequity, injustice, oppression and cruelty. By accident of birth, most of us have escaped the horrors that abound in nations too many to name. In this country we have a democratically elected government and sufficient wealth that our children do not die of hunger or of preventable disease. Few of us have had to flee our homes because we are terrified by relentless bombing or the approach of an enemy that is known for its cruelty. Our children are not at risk of being killed or kidnapped simply because we choose to educate them. It is very unlikely that we will be sent to prison (or worse, ‘disappeared’) because we challenge government policies or laws or expose corruption or injustice. Our labour laws ensure that the vulnerable cannot be exploited and our poor are not so desperate that they risk life and limb eking out a living from rubbish dumps nor would they sell their daughters into prostitution or their children into slavery.

The awful reality now, as in every previous generation, is that all over the world innocent people suffer and die in ways that we cannot even begin to imagine. Impossible as it is for most of us to imagine, an over-riding desire for wealth, status and power drives some people (even groups of people) to exploit, oppress or silence others.

These are not easy issues to contend with. When we think about the unspeakable suffering that is inflicted on some people in order to gratify the needs of others, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation. We can’t even begin to grasp the horror that is the daily existence of millions of people throughout the world and we feel both impotent and ill-equipped to do anything to change things. We are frozen by indecision and do little or nothing.

One of the things that is different about Jesus is that he faced evil head on, he determined that evil would not have the final word, that violence, injustice and oppression could be both confronted and defeated. Jesus refused to play by the rules of his enemies. He understood that it is impossible to defeat evil with evil and that violence only leads to violence. By refusing to resist arrest, by accepting the false accusations, by submitting to the taunting, by enduring the flogging and by accepting the cross, Jesus proved that in the final analysis, violence and evil are powerless to destroy goodness and life. For good triumphs over evil not through violence or war, not through oppression or force, not by resistance or compulsion.

Jesus defeats evil by submitting to the power of evil. By freely accepting his fate, Jesus made it clear that the powers of this world in fact had no power over him. By choosing to relinquish his right to defend himself, Jesus demonstrated how ineffectual his opponents really were. By refusing to fight for his life, Jesus made it clear that those who sought his death had not power over him. Throughout his trial and even on the cross, Jesus remains in control – his enemies might take his life, but they cannot destroy him.

The resurrection is proof positive that by submitting to death, Jesus has frustrated the powers of this world and shown how impotent they are. Injustice and cruelty do not have the final word, their victory is limited, temporary. Jesus refused to be bound by worldly values that give success, influence and possessions priority. He was prepared to lose everything, even life itself rather than lose his integrity and play the game the way his enemies played.

It is all too obvious, that Jesus’ victory over evil and death was not the final solution. As we have seen for millions of innocent people the world continues to be a place of horror and suffering. That said the resurrection is a powerful demonstration that while evil might persist in the world, it does not ultimately have the power to enslave us.

We have a choice. We can choose to resist evil. We can make the decision not to be governed by the forces that control this world. We can resolve to live by kingdom values – seeking above all the well-being of others and our own self-aggrandisement. We can play by different rules and in so doing expose the failings and the evils of the rules that govern behaviours that result in exploitation, injustice and oppression. We can cling on to power, possessions and status, or we can give it all away for the ultimate goal of life for all in the present, and life eternal in the future. Jesus’ victory is our victory, if only we chose to share it.

Faith and doubt – two sides of one coin

April 26, 2014

Easter 2

John 20:19-31

Marian Free

In the name of God who, far from demanding blind faith, challenges us to think for ourselves. Amen.

I can clearly remember July 20, 1969 – the day Neil Armstrong stepped on to the moon. The space landing was considered such a significant historical event that we were given a half day off school to go home and watch it on TV. As my family did not have a television, I went home with a friend and saw it as it happened. America really did manage to land someone on the moon. Amazingly, though the event was broadcast live and watched by people all over the world, there were still those who didn’t believe that it was real. At one extreme, the grandmother of one of my friends who steadfastly clung to her naive belief that the moon was made of green cheese and at the other end were those who held all kinds of conspiracy theories – including one that the whole thing was filmed somewhere in the Australian outback.

New discoveries or new ideas are not always readily accepted. Most of us take time to absorb new information or to adjust to new ideas. All of us, before we accept something new or different, have to make decisions about who and what we trust. Confronted by new information, we have to weigh up the evidence before us and come to our own conclusion before we change our mind-set. This is true not just for advances in science, but also for revisions in the way in which historical data is interpreted over time. So for example, one of the questions which requires a response at the moment is whether climate change is real or whether its proponents are hysterical nature lovers who want to impose their ideals (and their limitations) on us. Another challenge is to come to a conclusion about the way in which historians are revising the story of the Gallipoli landing. Could it really be true that the calamitous campaign was as much the responsibility of the Australians as it was of the British or are the historians just trying to create controversy and draw attention to themselves? Faced with new data, we also have to decide whether our failure to accept it is based on a rational examination of the new facts, or whether we are held back by sentiment, conservatism or a dislike of change.

This need to question, to test ideas, is no less true in regard to issues of faith. It is reasonably easy to demonstrate that Jesus was an historic person who lived and was crucified in the Palestine of the first century and it does not require a great intellectual leap to acknowledge that Jesus’ teaching contains wisdom and guidance for life that crosses the barrier between secular and divine.

The resurrection however is a different matter that creates a number of difficulties. There is no rational, reasonable explanation for the resurrection. There were no witnesses to the actual event and there are at least four differing accounts of the risen Christ – more if John 21 is considered original to the gospel. There are consistent elements – the women at the tomb and Jesus’ appearing in locked rooms – but they are reported slightly differently by each evangelist. Both John and Mark record a meeting with Mary Magdalene and Mark and Luke suggest that the risen Jesus met travelers on the road. Some stories are unique to the individual gospels. Jesus’ appearance to Thomas is recorded only in John and Luke alone suggests that the risen Jesus is able to eat. If we had only the original Markan gospel we would have only the account of the empty tomb and the fear of the disciples to convince us that Jesus had risen.

And yet we believe. We believe despite the lack of eyewitnesses; the apparent absurdity of the claims and the paucity of the evidence. We believe despite the centuries that separate us from the events themselves. Does that mean that we suspend our reason, that we allow ourselves to pretend that belief or faith requires that we do not need to question or to think, that we can just ignore the difficulties presented by a dead man returning to life?

I don’t think so. We don’t believe without a basis for our belief. Like Thomas we ask questions and we test what we believe and like Thomas, we believe because, we have had an experience of the risen Christ and because we know Jesus’ living presence in our lives.

Over the centuries, for a number of reasons, Thomas has had a lot bad press:.he questioned the experience of the other disciples, Jesus’ asked him to have faith and his lack of confidence in the other disciples led to the expression ‘doubting Thomas’. This has caused many to come to the conclusion that faith requires unquestioning belief in what others tell us. The reality is that for many, doubt and questioning are essential ingredients of faith. Jesus himself was not free from doubt – before he died he wondered if God could do things differently and on the cross he doubted that God was with him.

Doubt need not be an indication that faith is wavering. It can be a sign of faith that is growing into maturity. Questioning, searching often indicates a movement from a faith that is dependent on the word of others to a faith that is based on personal research and experience – a faith that is truly one’s own. Questioning is not only healthy, but as the example of Thomas indicates, it can lead to a deeper understanding – a richer experience than is possible if faith is based on second-hand knowledge or experience.

It is important to note that Jesus does not censure Thomas for his failure to accept the word of the other disciples, nor does he deny Thomas the opportunity to have the same experience that they had. Instead Jesus allows Thomas not only to see, but also to touch and feel – to discover conclusively for himself that what the others said was indeed true. The result is powerful. Thomas falls to his knees declaring: My Lord and my God.”

Thomas should be remembered, not for his lack of faith but for his recognition of Jesus – as Lord, but more importantly as God. In this Thomas is a ground-breaker, a leader – anything but a doubter or a failure.

We do not believe because someone else has told us to. We believe because like Thomas we know Jesus Christ as our Saviour, as our Lord and our God.

 

Christ is risen.

He is risen indeed! Alleluia!


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