Posts Tagged ‘experience’

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 we don’t know is so much greater than what we do know

August 10, 2018

Pentecost 12 – 2018

John 6:35,41-51

Marian Free

In the name of God who stretches our minds and expands our imaginations. Amen.

Having been in Italy and finding myself in Geneva, I am conscious of the schisms created by the Reformation and the sometimes vast differences between the different arms of the Christian Church and of the passion with which members of different denominations hold (or held) to their truths. Arguments raged in my own tradition about whether to kneel for communion or to use the sign of the cross. There were some who died rather than renounce their position on particular issues and bishops who only two centuries ago went to jail for using candles as a part of the liturgy. Today, most of the animosity between traditions has disappeared. The ecumenical movement has led us to understand that the heart of our faith is the same even if some of the externals differ.

That is not to say that the churches have achieved unity – externally or internally. New issues have emerged that are at least as divisive as those of the past – the ordination of women and the marriage of same sex couples to mention two. Again, those on either side of the debate present their arguments with equal intensity and with equal conviction that it is they who are most faithfully interpreting the scriptures and the will of God.

Where we stand on these and other issues depends on many factors including our personal experience and the tradition in which we have been born and raised. Sometimes our opinion is formed or altered by our education or our exposure to those who differ from us – though it must be said that education and personal experience do not always challenge pre-existing views.

Our particular experience of church and of faith also impacts on the way in which we approach change. There is so much at stake that it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to change direction. To give a personal example, even though my sense of vocation was powerful and strong, there were moments when a verse from scripture made me waver, made me wonder if the opponents to the ordination of women did in fact have it right. My life’s experience and the teaching I had absorbed as a child were so deeply ingrained and so much a part of my understanding of salvation that it was hard to isolate the voice of the spirit from the accretions of practice and tradition.

So – perhaps we should not be so hard on the hapless ‘Jews’ who are Jesus’ opponents in John’s gospel. As we saw last week, Jesus’ communication could be confusing at best and obtuse at worst. Furthermore, he was taking traditions that had been held for generations and turning them upside down. In today’s gospel we hear Jesus claiming that he is to the Jews what the manna was to their ancestors. In fact he is asserting that he is much more. Using the language that God used to identify himself to Moses, Jesus claims: ‘I AM’. ‘I am the bread of life.’ ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

Jesus, whom everyone in his audience knows to be the son of Joseph, is now insinuating that he is God. As God he is able to guarantee life eternal to those who believe. It is an extraordinary claim for which Jesus’ listeners are completely unprepared. Nothing in their past experience, nothing in their religious practice, nothing in their tradition or teaching could have led them to expect the outrageous claims that Jesus is making. It really is not surprising that they found what he had to say difficult and incomprehensible.

Perhaps the question that we should ask ourselves is not why Jesus’ opponents did not believe, but ‘what was it that enabled at least some to believe?’

Complacency and self-satisfaction can be the enemies of a deep and authentic engagement with the divine. They can give us a false sense of what should be and make us blind and deaf to what really is. We cannot, and will not, ever know a fraction of what there is to know about God.

Instead of arguing over trivial and superficial issues perhaps we as believers should unite in a concerted effort to suspend all our certainties and be caught up in the great adventure that is a relationship with God – Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer and Life-Giver – who is ultimately beyond all our efforts to comprehend and who will always be beyond our grasp.


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