Posts Tagged ‘resurrection’

Endurance is not a virtue

November 16, 2019

Pentecost 23 – 2019

Luke 21:5-19

Marian Free

In the name of God who loves us unconditionally, who forgives our worst offenses and who offers redemption in this life and the next. Amen.

I have my own, slightly unorthodox, précis of the faith for the uninitiated. Though it does not include the Trinity, it sums up what I believe to be some central tenets at the core of the Christian faith and does so in such a way as might make it accessible to those who have no knowledge of it or to those whose experience has been negative or destructive. The wording came to me at a time when I was teaching a multi-level class at Grandchester, west of Rosewood. The year had been particularly rewarding for me, because these children, aged from 9-12, who might never see the inside of a church, had been insightful and challenging. I wanted to be able to leave the Year Sevens with something simple and affirming. In other words, if they knew nothing else about the Christian faith, I hoped that they would remember that: “God loves us unconditionally, that there is nothing that we can do that cannot be forgiven and nothing so bad that it cannot be redeemed.” In my mind this covers the Incarnation, the crucifixion and the resurrection.

On reflection, I realised that this basic statement needed a rider. As someone who lives in the first world, I had had blinkers on when I wrote the last phrase. I was thinking of my own experience. I live in a wealthy, first world country in which it is possible to rebuild one’s life after a disaster and in which there are resources to help most of us weather difficult times. I had failed to remember that there are millions of people throughout the world who live lives of unrelenting hardship, poverty and grief; who are subject to war, famine and terror and who are oppressed, if not by their governments, then by unscrupulous money-lenders, employers or people traffickers. For such people redemption or resurrection in the present is an impossible dream. Survival is all that they can hope for. So I have adjusted my mini-creed to: “God loves us unconditionally, there is nothing that we can do that cannot be forgiven and nothing so bad that it cannot be redeemed, if not in this world then in the next.”

I mention my little mantra today, because the excerpt from Luke 21 ends in the middle of Jesus’ reflection on what the present and immediate future might hold. It suggests that Christians are to expect unrelenting suffering and persecution. Worse, read out of context, today’s passage seem to imply that endurance is some sort of Christian virtue. Our reading ends: “By your endurance, you will gain your souls” which gives the impression, that as believers, we are simply expected to put on a smile and to hold on no matter how difficult the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

It is one thing to continue to trust in God when the world is falling down around us, or when we are experiencing unimaginable hardship or grief; however, it is quite another thing to believe that endurance – perhaps for a lifetime – is a quality desired or demanded by God. Such a view of the faith can lead to an attitude at best of resignation and at worst a smugness and self-righteousness. (‘I am suffering so much everyone must know that I am virtuous’.) When endurance is seen as a necessary concomitant of faith, it suggests that God is responsible for our suffering or even that God inflicts suffering on us so that we have an opportunity to demonstrate how well we cope.

As I have said before, and no doubt will say again, when we are reading the scriptures it is important to see our passage in context. Holding fast when the world is falling apart around us not a bad thing in and of itself but when it takes on a life of its own it can become onerous and destructive. Endurance alone does not offer hope – only more of the same which, apparently, we are to accept with grace. Thankfully verse 19 is not the end of Jesus’ saying. Today’s passage, which began with a discussion of the Temple and which lists a number of occurrences that are bound to happen is a preliminary to the main event – the coming of the Son of Man. In verse 27 we read: “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Endurance is not an end in itself, but a way of standing firm in the chaos and disruption of this life as we wait with eager anticipation for the world to come, a world in which all of us (no matter the circumstances of this life) will be set free from those things that have bound us, damaged us and impoverished us and will be raised with Christ to a life that is free from grief, from pain and from all that limits us.

For all those who labor under unrelenting hardship and pain, the future resurrection is their only hope for release.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is not extolling endurance for endurance sake, nor is he suggesting that negative circumstances are sent ‘to try us.’ Rather he is reminding us that this world simply is a place of uncertainty, violence and natural disasters. At the same time he is pointing forward, reminding his listeners that there is always hope – if not in this life then in the life to come. When things seem impossible to bear “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

It’s not about words

November 9, 2019

Pentecost 22 – 2019

Luke 20:27-40

Marian Free

In the name of God whose ways are not our ways and whose thought are not our thoughts. Amen.

The current debates and schisms within the Anglican Church are disturbing and confronting. Just last month The Sydney Morning Herald reported that, “Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Glenn Davies has told Anglican supporters of same-sex marriage they should leave the church rather than “betray God’s word” in a scathing speech condemning progressive elements within the faith.”1 At the Synod in the Diocese of Melbourne a number of motions were passed – in particular a motion that expressed support with a break-away church: the Confessing Church of Aotearoa New Zealand – that sent shock waves through the church because they seem to indicate that that Diocese has put itself out of communion with Canterbury and therefore with Church as a whole.

For at least the past twenty years bishops have broken with accepted protocol by crossing Diocesan boundaries to take part in consecrations in churches that have split from the communion. Most recently Australian bishops travelled to New Zealand. The NZ bishops wrote a heart-felt response. “Here we acknowledge that members of our church are very concerned to see photographs which clearly identify that among the consecrating bishops at the ordination were bishops in communion with our church who have crossed boundaries without informing either the Archbishops of this church or the Bishop of Christchurch or the Bishop of Te Waipounamu. The disrespect for the normal protocols of the Anglican Communion and the lack of courtesy show to our church is disturbing.”

The secular press runs headlines such as “Crisis Point: The Anglican Church is riven by worse divisions than ever before”.

Clearly, the past year has not been a good one for the Anglican Church of Australia. In fact, it is possible to make the argument that the past two decades have not been good for the world-wide Anglican Communion as a whole. Ever since a decision was made to ordain women as deacons, priests and bishops, cracks have been appearing. These have become wider and deeper as Dioceses such as that in the United States have approved the blessing of same sex-marriages. Protocol that has kept the diverse church somewhat united has been blithely ignored and long traditions, such as the Lambeth Conference have been undermined.

At the heart of the problem is how we understand the bible. Many Anglicans believe in what they call “the plain truth of the bible” while others argue that the bible is open to interpretation and that we must examine it carefully to understand the original intention. To give one example, if the bible says in 1 Corinthians 14:34 that women must be silent in the church, the former group believe that this cannot be seen in any other way. On the other side of the debate are those who read in an earlier chapter that “when women pray and prophesy in church” (11:5) they must do so with their heads covered. The former group back up a more literal approach by pointing to other scriptures such as Colossians 3 (which appears to encourage women to be subject to their husbands), whereas the latter can see the presence of strong women in leadership in many places, particularly in the letter of Paul.

The problem of factionalism and differing interpretations lies behind today’s gospel. In the Judaism of the first century there were a number of factions as we can see from the NT. The Pharisees were a group of devoted laymen whose concern was with the law and in particular the oral tradition that had grown up concerning the observance of the law. Zealots were a group of enthusiasts who wanted to oust the Romans from their nation. At least one group of Jews (the Essenes) were so disillusioned with the state of affairs that they withdrew into the desert where they recorded scripture, underwent ritual cleansing and lived a communal life. The Sadducees were the power base in Jerusalem. They belonged to the upper class and probably included in their number the priests (who at that time were appointed by Rome and were not of the tribe of Levi).

At one time or another, all of these came into conflict with Jesus. Pharisees accused Jesus of breaking the law and the priests, scribes and Sadducees tried to expose Jesus’ ignorance and their greater wisdom by putting to him questions that they were sure he could not answer.

In today’s gospel it is the Sadducees who attempt to bring Jesus into disrepute by presenting him with a conundrum that they believe will trip him up. The question relates to an ancient practice, according to which if a man dies childless, his brother must marry his widow to ensure the bloodline is continued. As the passage make clear, the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. Their line of attack was to try to show that the idea of the resurrection was ridiculous – if a woman has to marry seven times will she have seven husbands in the resurrection?! Jesus is not at all phased. He points out that it is they who are foolish. Heaven, he explains is not simply a continuation of our earthly existence, but is something entirely different – a place in which earthly standards, laws and ways of behaving simply do not apply.

In the end, it is not about words, or about who shouts the loudest, nor is it about who has the most detailed argument or the largest number of adherents. In the end, it is not about one interpretation of the bible or another. In the final analysis it is about the life that God offers to each and every one of us – a life that extends beyond our physical existence to a life that defies description, and which bears little or no resemblance to this present life. That life, as Jesus suggests is not bound or limited by our interpretation of scripture, by our earthly relationships and least of all by our ability to comprehend. It is a way of being that is beyond anything that we currently know and beyond anything that we can begin to imagine. It is a way of being that is determined by God alone and no amount of arguing about what the Bible does or does not say will make any difference in the world to come.

1 The Archbishop has since clarified his comments saying that his comments referred to Bishops of the church and not LGBTI people as a whole.

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!

Second-guessing God

April 29, 2017

Easter 3 – 2017

Luke 24:13-31

Marian Free

 In the name of God who alone knows all things. Amen.

Too often, we make up our minds about people and situations without having all the facts at our disposal. For example, many of us (myself included) feel that we are in a position to make statements about the present political situation in the United States and elsewhere, about the war in Syria or about the housing crisis in Australia. Using information that we glean from news sources, radio or TV programmes or from our own experience, we confidently utter what we believe to be truths even though we do not necessarily know the complexities of the situation. Truth be told we would probably find it difficult to engage in social conversation if we hadn’t formed some sort of opinion on these issues. With any luck our conversation partner might add some further information that helps us to rethink our position or to engage in some proper research around the issue so that we are properly informed.

We do the same with people don’t we? Sometimes we form an opinion on the basis of only half the story. When someone behaves in a way that we don’t expect or that doesn’t meet with our approval, we can be quick to form a judgement about him or her. On closer acquaintance with the person we may learn something about their background and history that not only explains their behaviour, but that also challenges our first impression and forces us to rethink our opinion.

Cleopas and his companion (his wife? have made up their minds about the recent events in Jerusalem. They are returning home from the festival of the Passover – despondent and confused. So much has happened over the past few days and, try as they might they cannot make sense of it. Based on their preconceptions, they had come to believe that they knew who Jesus was and what he might mean for Israel. Although (unusually) we have the name of one of the pair, we know very little about them. Apparently they, with thousands of others, have been in Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. Given that they know the disciples, it is possible that they themselves were already members of Jesus’ circle. At the very least they had been drawn into the excitement and anticipation that attended Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. They had been caught up in the things that he had said and done over the past few days. Along with many in the crowds they had believed that Jesus was “the one who was going to redeem Israel”. But all their hopes and expectations were dashed when, on the eve of the Passover, Jesus was put to death in the most horrible and unexpected way.

Now they do not know what to think. They are ill equipped to interpret Jesus’ violent and shameful death. Even though there are reports that Jesus has risen they are returning home as planned assuming that the story has ended – that Jesus was not “the one”. Their life, they believe will go back to the way it always was and they will continue to wait for a Redeemer.

Cleopas and his companion leave Jerusalem and begin walking the seven miles to their home. As they walk they revisit the events of the last few days, trying to make sense of what had happened. How could something that began so well end so badly? How could it be that something that appeared to be so certain came to nothing – worse than nothing? What could it possibly mean? Where was God in all of this?

The pair is so caught up in their own thoughts that they don’t pay attention when someone catches up and begins to walk with them. They certainly don’t recognise the person as Jesus. The stranger recognises their grief and draws them out. Using the scriptures he explains that the events of the past few days make perfect sense in the context of Moses and the prophets. More than that the idea of a suffering Messiah is perfectly consistent with God’s purpose and will.

It is not clear whether or not the two are comforted or reassured by Jesus’ words, but he has said enough that they seem anxious to continue the conversation when night falls and Jesus makes as if to walk on further. When they are at table and Jesus breaks the bread they finally see that it is the risen Jesus who has joined them. At last all the pieces of the puzzle are in place. Once they have seen for themselves that Jesus really has risen from the dead, everything else becomes clear, the words of scripture begin to make sense. Jesus’ death was not the end that they had thought it was! They had drawn the wrong conclusion – everything had happened just as it was supposed to. God had acted in history as Moses and the prophets foretold. Jesus was the Redeemer of Israel! Even though it is now evening, Cleopas and his wife leave for Jerusalem at once so that they can share the good news with the remainder of the disciples.

Having all the information enables us to make sense of the world around us. It helps us to put events into perspective and to make intelligent judgments about current affairs as well as about the people we encounter.

When things trouble us, when the world does not make sense, it is important not to jump to conclusions, not to believe we can work things out for ourselves and most importantly, not to second-guess God. Sometimes, with the benefit of hindsight, we will be able to find meaning in events that at first didn’t make sense. Sometimes we will be given or will find information that fills in the details that were missing and that helps us to put the pieces of the puzzle together. At other times we will simply have to keep going with our lives, believing that Jesus will draw beside us as a source of strength and meaning.

Only God has the whole picture. Hard as it is, there are times when we will have to put all our trust in God, believing that God will pull us through and that at some point – in the near or distant future – we will at least come to understand the rich tapestry of joy and sorrow, tragedy and triumph that makes up our lives.

 

Choose wisely, your future depends on it

August 27, 2016

Pentecost 15 – 2016

Luke 14:1, 7-14

Marian Free

 

In the name of God whose ways are not our ways. Amen.

 

One of the most contentious issues of our time relates to that of refugees, in particular, how the should the world respond to a crisis that threatens at times to overwhelm us? At the present moment around 60 million people are displaced. That is 60 million people have left their homes as a consequence of war, oppression, persecution, drought or poverty. Sixty million people are today seeking refuge from horrors that few of us can even begin to imagine.

Last year, the war in Syria saw an unprecedented number of people flocking to Europe by any means possible – by land and by sea, by foot, by boat and by train. Thousands lost their lives at sea as unscrupulous operators, used unsafe and overcrowded boats to ferry desperate people – not for humanitarian reasons but to line their own pockets. There were so many escaping horror that receiving countries were simply unable to cope. Not only could they not process the vast numbers seeking refuge, but fears about housing, feeding and providing work to the millions who were knocking at their doors led many European countries to close their borders. Terror attacks in France further raised the general anxiety about accepting people from countries that were also home to extremist groups such as ISIS.

Increasingly, compassion and welcome has turned to disquiet and distrust, generosity and openness have turned to protectionism and exclusion. The recent Brexit vote in the UK was as much about keeping Britain British and closing the borders as it was about the economic advantages or disadvantages of being a part of the EU. In Germany, the country which has been most determined to keep its borders open, recent attacks by traumatized refugees has highlighted the difficulties of providing adequate care for those whose mental health has been seriously affected by their experiences of war, displacement and the dangerous, uncertain escape to safety.

Issues surrounding migration and refugees are central to the Presidential campaign in the United States where there is talk of building walls, limiting the intake of refugees and so on. Here in Australia the issue is no less contentious. Discussions surrounding who to let in and who to exclude can be highly volatile. The debate has become so politicized and so divisive that it can be difficult to discuss the problem rationally. Fear of the other, defense of our standard of living and way of life and anxiety related to radical Islamism all mean that it can be hard to see the majority who are genuine behind the minority who may or not intend harm.

We are rightly appalled at the unscrupulous profiteering of people smugglers distressed by the deaths at sea as desperate people risk their lives to escape violence, oppression and discrimination at home but we cannot agree on how best to respond to those who take enormous risks hoping to find a safe haven.

It is not always easy to find the balance between caring for others and caring for our own. How do we determine at what point does generosity and compassion end and fiscal irresponsibility and prejudice begin?

It is a complex issue and I don’t claim to have all the answers, but it seems to me that today’s gospel gives us something to think about in relation to these questions. To recap: Jesus has been invited to a meal at the home of a Pharisee[1]. By now Jesus has gained a reputation and people are keen to see what he will get up to next. They are not disappointed – he challenges them to provide a reason as to why he may not cure a man who has dropsy and they are silent.

Then the situation is reversed. Jesus becomes the observer. In the first instance he observes the way in which people take their places at table and then he turns to his host and makes an observation about the guest list.

Jesus makes two speeches. The first provides practical advice to the guests on how to avoid humiliation while the second challenges the host to rethink his guest list. Interestingly the speeches take the same format – Jesus’ observation, a statement regarding what not to do, a comment on what to do and finally a theological rule. In the first speech Jesus observes the guests’ tendency to take the places of honour and he makes a pragmatic suggestion: “Take the lowest place so that the host might ask you to go up higher.” The practical nature of the speech changes with the conclusion that, though it is sensible advice, also points in a theological and an eschatological direction: “all who humble themselves will be exalted and all who exalt themselves will be humbled”. The future tense and the passive mood of the verbs tell us that this is not only a consequence that will occur in the present, but that humbling and exalting are actions that God will take in the future – at the judgement.

Having addressed the guests, Jesus turns his attention to his host. He suggests a radical reversal to the social norms of the day: “Don’t invite your friends or those who can return the favour, invite those who cannot repay you then you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” This time Jesus’ conclusion points very clearly to the resurrection – those who welcome the marginalised and the outcast are those who not only will be blessed in the present, but who will be welcomed at the resurrection.

The message of the two speeches is clear – God does not see as the world sees and, our behaviour in this life will affect what happens at the resurrection. The dinner party foreshadows the heavenly banquet and the place we take will reveal our self-assurance or our dependence on God. The invitation list for the wedding banquet reveals whether our concern for our reputation and our social position outweighs our compassion for others.

The place we assume will affect the place we are given, the welcome we give will determine the welcomes we are given. Choose wisely, Jesus suggests, your future depends on it.

[1] It is important to note that not all Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees were antagonistic, but that Jesus was happy to social with Pharisees and they with him.

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!

Conviction or blind belief?

April 19, 2014

Easter 2014
Marian Free

In the name of God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Amen.

Social media has made a vast difference to the world. It is now possible to broadcast news across the globe in seconds, to announce engagements and births, to share poignant stories and funny or moving video clips, to distribute music and to maintain friendships over time and space. A quick word or photo now and then can keep a person much more connected with their friends than the annual Christmas letter. On a political level, social media can undermine authoritarian governments, gather crowds to protest movements and disseminate film clips of police or army brutality all within a matter of minutes. On an intellectual level, social media can provide people with access to stimulating articles and ideas to which they might not otherwise have access. Of course there is also a lot of rubbish and quite a deal or misleading and even mischievous information, but there is no denying that we are all much closer to each other and to what is happening in the world than we ever were before.

In the last few days for example, I have been able to read a number of interesting articles relating to child slavery and chocolate, Good Friday and Easter. I found two of these sufficiently interesting that I uploaded them on to Twitter. One by John Dickson presented: “Top Ten Tips for Atheists this Easter” and the other by Elizabeth Farrell was entitled: “A Meditation on the Cross.

(http://www.abc.net.au/news/thedrum/; http://www.smh.com.au/comment/meditation-on-the-cross-20140416-zqvdm.html)

Both articles challenge us to consider what it is that we believe, why we believe and how we might try to express that belief.

Dickson writes his article “in the interests of robust debate”. He challenges eight arguments put forward by atheists to discredit Christianity. I want to share with you just two. Atheists criticise Christians for believing things without having any evidence to support that belief. That, he points out, is not the way we use the word “faith”. Faith for a Christian is not blind belief in something for which there is not rational explanation. Rather the word “faith’ is used by Christians in the sense of “have trust in”. Christians do not blindly trust God, but have faith on the basis of a variety philosophical, historical and experiential reasons. We have faith in God, because it seems reasonable to believe that there is something behind the creation of the universe, because for millennia others have trusted this same God and because we experience God in some way in our lives. It is only on the basis of reasoned conviction that we place our trust, have faith in, God, faith in anything less substantial would be easily shaken.

A second related argument is to understand the basis on which people are persuaded. Dickson reminds his readers that Aristotle argued that few people – and that includes Christians – are convinced by purely objective evidence. With regard to a variety of different information, people are persuaded by a combination of intellectual, psychological and social factors. Even if those three factors line up, people are only really convinced if they feel that the person sharing the information with them can really be trusted. (A doctor might present information based on the latest medical research, but it might take a lot more than that to convince a patient to undergo a new and radical procedure.) New information often needs to have a personal relevance or impact before it is accepted. If a person is sure he or she is going to die, they might try to trust the doctor for example. This is as true of objective scientific discoveries as it is with regard to matters of belief. People of faith are no more or less likely to be open to persuasion that any other member of the community.

Farrell’s meditation is a reflection on why, when most of her friends are “lackadaisical or downright opposed to Christianity”, she is “impelled by a craving that the mundane world does not fill – a craving for deep time, old nature and transcendent spirit stuff.” She feels a need for a spiritual dimension not only for her own life, but for that of the world. Farrell confesses that she is “addicted to where the quest for goodness and yearnings of the spirit is accepted currency.” For her, paradox is the core mystic message – the idea that we must lose ourselves in order to win eternal life.” “Paradox”, she says, “and the parable needed to express it, lives at the heart of Christian traditions: darkness in light, poverty in riches, pain in beauty, death in renewal. Paradox is the mystery and the enchantment.”

Every Easter you and I gather to celebrate an event that had no witnesses, that cannot be supported by scientific evidence and that defies all rational explanation. We acknowledge the paradox that victory over death is won by death, and we rejoice that contrary to human logic – the Jesus who suffered a shameful, ignominious and violent death is in fact God incarnate, that what appeared to be a disaster turned our to be a triumph.

It is difficult to explain and to defend the resurrection because it is beyond explanation. Yet, for centuries people like you and I have come to the conclusion that the resurrection is a paradox that can be trusted, that it is a contradiction that somehow makes sense and that it is real because it has the power to change and renew lives. It is possible that we believe without objective evidence, but it is not true that we believe without reason. Our hearts tell us that Christ is present with us, our heads tells us that 2,147 billion people must have some basis for their belief in Jesus’ resurrection and our history books remind us that people have risked their lives and poured themselves out for others, all because they believed that Christ had been raised from the dead.

It doesn’t matter whether we use the more personal language of Farrell to explain ourselves, or whether we apply academic arguments in our discussions with atheists as does Dickson. What does matter is that when millions are elsewhere, we are here because our conviction that Christ is risen cannot be shaken by doubters or critics. We know what we know and that is all there is to it.

Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed!


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