Posts Tagged ‘resurrection’

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!

Answering our critics

November 9, 2013

Pentecost 24

Luke 20:27-40

Marian Free

In the name of God who remains constant in the face of change, challenge and confusion. Amen.

There are always people who want to discredit Christianity. The most articulate and voluble critic of recent years has been Richard Dawkins, but another caught my eye recently. It is in fact old news, but The Courier Mail only mentioned it only in the last couple of weeks. Apparently, in 2006 a man by the name of Joseph Atwill published some research arguing that Jesus did not exist but was a creation of the Roman Empire who designed a new religion in order to keep the peace. From what I can gather, Atwill draws attention to the god myths surrounding the Caesars and demonstrates the similarities between these myths and the story of Jesus. Some similarities exist, but to draw the conclusion that Jesus was a cleverly designed myth seems to me to draw too long a bow. Many Christian scholars would argue that the reverse situation is true – that similarities exist because Christianity adopted some of the language of the empire in a way that was subversive and confrontational. The very fact that Christians adopt the language of “Lord” or “Son of God” for Jesus could be seen as an act of sedition against a state which held that the Emperor was god. The creation of a new god is certainly not outside the religious practices of the time, but I wonder why an empire would create a religious myth that, apart from anything else, led its adherents to abandon Emperor worship which was a key tool in ensuring unity and peace in the empire.

I have not read Atwill’s original work, so am unable to enter into fruitful dialogue, but his thesis demonstrates that information can be put to quite different uses depending on one’s point of view. In this case to suggest that Christianity is a myth created by Rome, or that its adherents quite deliberately used the mythology surrounding the divine status of the Emperor to challenge and undermine the Emperor cult.

That it is possible to draw different conclusions from similar information or beliefs is demonstrated by today’s gospel. The Judaism of Jesus’ day was not a monolithic structure, but one that encompassed a great deal of difference. One area of dispute was the validity of the Temple rituals which many Jews, including the Pharisees, believed had been corrupted by the Sadducees cooperation with foreign rulers. Another point of difference was belief in the resurrection of the dead. A reading of the OT and of the Psalms in particular reveals that resurrection was a newer addition to the belief system of the Hebrews. The Pharisees believed that the dead were raised but the Sadducees did not.

It was this difference of opinion that the Sadducees thought they would be able to exploit to their advantage. They hoped be able to make Jesus look foolish and thereby to reinforce their own authority. Of course they were unable do this. Jesus knew and understood his scriptures, he had a deep grasp of his faith and an intimate, unshakeable relationship with God. Jesus’ response to their challenge is interesting. In the first instance, he does not say that they are wrong. He simply presents a different point of view – one that challenges their own. Heaven is not an exact replica of earth, the spiritual existence will be quite different from the earthly experience, he says. Jesus continues with a reference to scripture, something both he and they believe to be true. According to Moses, God is the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob. Moses speaks of these long-dead men as if they are still in some sense alive. If they are alive, Jesus argues, then they must have been raised from death. The Sadducees had hoped to out manoeuvre Jesus, to demonstrate to the crowds their superior wisdom. Instead, of embarrassing Jesus, they have forced the scribes to admit that Jesus has answered well.

On a number of occasions the religious authorities try to embarrass Jesus, to discredit him in front of those who believe in him. However, no matter how hard they try, they cannot put one over him. Jesus is too confident, too sure of himself and of what he believes to waver.

We are living in changing times. We can no longer be sure that our faith is understood by a majority of the population, let alone accepted as the norm. In our society, there are many people who are resentful of the privileges that the church seems to enjoy, there are many others who are angry with the church because their experience of church has been harmful or demeaning and there are many who are disappointed that their questions were not answered and who no longer believe in God and who want to convince others to share that view. (Just last night I read that a new, non-religious organisation called Sunday Assembly is coming to Australia. Its founder says: ”it has been called the atheist church, but we prefer to think of it as all the best bits of church but with no religion and awesome songs. Their motto is “live better, help often and wonder more”, and their mission is to help everyone live this one life as fully as possible.”)

Just as the Sadducees’ place in the religious world of their time was being challenged by new ideas so too is ours. We can no longer expect that those around us will share our faith or even that they will understand why we should have faith.

In this day and age, one thing that we can be sure of is that our faith will be questioned – by those who want to trip us up in order to prove that their view of the world is right, by those who want to discredit Christianity by pointing out its past failures and present sins, by those who want to convince us to hold a different world view or by those whose hurt and anger at the church’s betrayal of them causes them to lash out at anyone who represents that church.

It is important for us to be ready for such confrontations so that we can respond with confidence and truthfulness and not be left feeling ashamed, outsmarted or confused. While it would be wonderful if every Christian knew their scriptures as well as Jesus did, it is unrealistic to imagine that everyone will become a biblical scholar or a theologian. However, we can all work on our understanding of our faith and on our relationship with God. We can think about what it is we believe, what our faith means to us and how we might explain that faith to someone else.

Sometime, ask yourself: What is central to your belief? What is it that gets you up on a Sunday to come to church and engage in this curious ritual? How do you envisage God? Think about what is central to Jesus’ teaching and what do his life, death and resurrection mean for your day-to-day existence? Consider what is it that keeps you believing when your prayers appear to go unanswered, when calamity strikes or when your life doesn’t work out the way you expected? How do you respond when someone says: how can you believe in a God who does this or that?  What language would you use to share your answers to those questions with others?

Having done that you might like to ponder some questions that those who do not believe regularly ask. For example: if God is love, why is there suffering in the world, how could God let that (say, the death of a child) happen? How would you respond to the accusation that it is religion that causes division and wars?

Increasingly it will not be strangers who question us, but our own children and grandchildren who will wonder why it is, in the face of scientific advances, the evidence of the church’s failures in cases like child sexual abuse, the church’s conservatism in the face of social change and the increasing number of alternatives to the Christian faith, that we continue to believe in and worship Jesus Christ.

It is important that we honour the doubts, questions and challenges of others, that we listen and respond with respect for their point of view. It is equally important that we hold fast to what we believe and that we do not compromise those beliefs in order to be accepted or to fit in. When your faith is challenged, when you are asked questions designed to embarrass or outwit, how will you react? Will you, like Jesus, be able to respond with love, with dignity and with confidence in the faith that you hold?

Our place in the kingdom

August 31, 2013

Pentecost 15

Luke 14:1,7-14

Marian Free

In the name of God whose kingdom recognises no distinction between rich and poor, foolish and wise, leaders and led. Amen.

In the last five years or so, we have witnessed a number of British state occasions – the wedding of Kate and Will, the Consecration of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the funeral of Margaret Thatcher. All of these events have been the result of careful planning and adherence to codes of etiquette that are centuries old. If you had observed any or all of these ceremonies, you would have noted that the guests (who were pre-determined and specifically invited) were all seated in allotted places. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh have their own chairs which (in St Paul’s at least) are distinct from those around them. In the processions likewise, everyone has their place. No one would dare to break with convention and disturb the order of things. That would lead to embarrassing consequences – not least their expulsion from the event and their almost certain exclusion from their peers.

A dinner at Windsor Castle or at the White House or the Lodge is similarly orchestrated. Guests will have been carefully chosen and notified of the dress code. An enormous amount of effort will have been put into ensuring that the guests are seated in such a way that no one has any excuse to feel slighted. With matters of state, it is not just a matter of ensuring that the most senior invitees are assured of the places at the head of the table, but also of making sure that the representative nations are accorded the status that they might feel they deserve. Of course, the guest list will have been carefully thought out in the first instance so as to avoid any embarrassment and place cards will make it easy for guests not to make a mistake.

Similar social norms existed in Jesus’ time. Members of society were ranked according birth, wealth and position and everyone knew their place in relation to everyone else. Only members of one’s own class of people would be invited to a meal and those who were invited would have been sensible of their status relative to the other guests. Tables were arranged in a U-shape so that the servants could move freely around them and guests were seated according to their position in society. It is probably not surprising then, that at the meal Jesus is attending the guests began to seat themselves. Even without place cards, they would have had a reasonable idea as to where they might be seated. (If they were of equal status they might have tried to get a better seat than their fellows in order to claim some form of superiority.)

One of the things that is clear throughout the gospels is that Jesus consistently disrupted and subverted the accepted order of things. He welcomed children and spoke to unaccompanied women. Worse, he ignored the religious scruples of his fellows and disturbed or, should we say extended, the practice of hospitality. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners and allowed a woman of the street to interrupt a dinner to anoint his feet. Instead of upholding the traditions of his forebears, Jesus consistently undermined or reinterpreted them. Here he is, doing it again.

Jesus has been invited to the home of a Pharisee. He is not a comfortable guest and it is clear that there is a certain expectation that he will not be so on this occasion. We are told: “they (presumably the other guests) were watching him closely.” What, they seem to be wondering, will he do this time? Jesus doesn’t disappoint. First of all, he throws out a challenge with regard to the law: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” he asks. The lawyers and Pharisees are silent, so despite it being the Sabbath, Jesus heals a man and sends him on his way.

Then, Jesus’ notices the guests beginning to take their places at the table. This leads him to reflect on the social practice of priority in seating. He tells a parable which will certainly hit its mark. In a culture in which status, honour and shame are all important, the humiliation and disgrace of having to give up one’s place is one thing with which all the guests will be able to identify. Not one of those present would want to be singled out and told to take a lesser position at the table. If a person was asked to move having first seated themself it would suggest that they had a false sense of their worth and indicate a failure to acknowledge someone of greater status than themself. It would be impossible to outlive the shame and the loss of face that such a demotion would entail.

This parable will have got everyone’s attention. Jesus presses his point home by directly addressing his host. It is all very well to provide a banquet for those who can repay the favour, Jesus says, but how much better to fill the banqueting hall with those who have no hope of ever returning the invitation.

Verses 11 and 13 tell us where Jesus is going with the parable and the teaching. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” and “you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Jesus is speaking less of the present situation, but of the life to come. Resurrection life, he suggests, is going to be very different from this life. Kingdom values are the reverse of worldly values. Jesus is less concerned about the social conduct of the dinner party he is attending, than he is about how people will fare in the life to come. God has no favourites. In fact, as the author of Luke has made clear from the beginning of the gospel, Jesus’ coming heralds a great reversal. In the kingdom which Jesus proclaims, the mighty will be brought down from their thrones and the humble will be lifted high. The poor will be blessed and the hungry filled.

Heaven is a place in which status counts for nothing. In the world to come those who think themselves better than others, will discover that God has different ideas and those who have no idea of their own worth will be astonished to discover how much God values them. If Jesus’ fellow diners would be mortified at being asked to move lower at the table, how much worse would it be to experience such shame at being demoted at the resurrection. Better to identify with those of lower status now than to be cast down before all in the kingdom. Similarly, if it is the poor who are to inherit the kingdom, better to make yourself at home with them now, than to find yourself a stranger to them at the end.

Rank, status and recognition are beguiling. It is human nature to want to stand out from the crowd. Jesus is saying to his fellow guests and to his host, as clearly as he can, that there will be no distinctions in the life to come therefore it would be well to be prepared and to stop observing such distinctions now.

BUT ….

March 30, 2013

 

Easter Day 2013

Luke 24:1-12

Marian Free

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

I don’t know if it still happens, but I know that people in workplaces were taught that when they were giving feedback to staff it was important to begin with an affirmation. That sounds all very well – emphasising the positive rather than the negative. However, the whole point of feedback is to let someone know how well they have been doing and if they haven’t been doing so well in their work at some point in the process this has to be pointed out to them. What happened was that those being reviewed came to expect the “but”. “Your telephone manner is very good but …”, “You have good attention to detaiL but ….. and so on.

The problem with “but” is that it has the effect of negating everything that has come before it. All the positive sentiments are seen in a different light when followed by “but”. A common response to positive feedback was “Yes, but?” as the expectation was that any affirmation would be followed by a criticism.

In Greek it is often the small words that you have to look out for. “Νυνι δε”, “μη γενοιτω”, “μεν”, “but now”, “no indeed”, “rather”. These words often carry a lot of weight which may or may not be obvious in translation. So it is in the 24th chapter of Luke’s gospel. Chapter 23 concludes the traumatic events of the Friday. The women observe where Jesus has been laid, go home to prepare the spices and to rest according to the law, because it is the Sabbath. To all intents and purposes that is the end of the story. Jesus, whom many had followed and supported all the way from Galilee to Jerusalem was dead as were all the hopes and dreams that his teaching and presence had fostered. All that remained was to see that his body was treated respectfully according to the tradition of the Jews and that part of the disciples’ lives would be over.

BUT – “on the first of the sabbath at deep dawn”, “BUT when they went in”, “BUT the men said to them”, ‘BUT these words seemed to them an idle tale”, “BUT Peter got up and ran to the tomb.” At least six times in twelve verses “but” contradicts what has come before – Jesus is laid in the tomb .. but. The women find the stone rolled away .. but. The women are terrified, but the angels said to them .. but he has risen. .. The women tell the apostles but …. The eleven do not believe the women, but still Peter got up and ran to the tomb. Everything that has happened has been negated, nothing is as was expected – a tomb is opened, a body has disappeared, terrified women are reminded of Jesus’ teaching and told he has risen, even so, no one believes the women and yet Peter goes to the tomb.

On the Friday the story had come to an end. Their leader dead, the disciples were frightened and confused. They had no hope or expectation for the future. Then all that changed and a new story began. The “BUT” at the beginning of  chapter 24 stands in defiance of all that has previously happened, it turns the impossible into the possible. In the midst of terror and confusion there is hope. Jesus’ body is not in the tomb, heavenly messengers speak to the women and Peter, against all his cultural conditioning, cannot help but go to see if what the women said was true.

Despair is turned into expectation, resignation to hope. Perhaps the end of the story will have to be re-written. In fact, the end of the story is nothing more than the beginning of a new story.

Jesus’ resurrection contradicts all that we know about life and death. It explodes the natural order of things, expands our horizons and opens our eyes to a different way of being. The resurrection demonstrates that evil and violence do not have the last word – goodness can and does triumph even though it may appear to have been defeated. It exposes our timidity, our cowardice and fear and replaces them with boldness, courage and confidence. The resurrection stands in defiance of all that is wrong in this world, by showing us what can go right. It thumbs the nose at the brutality, hatred and greed which tear people apart and points to a different way of being. We do not have to resign ourselves to terror, to poverty, to war and oppression. We can hope for and expect compassion, peace, equality and encouragement. We need no longer be held captive by death but can embrace life for ourselves and struggle to bring life to others.

The story doesn’t end with the tomb. Jesus is risen and nothing will ever be the same. Jesus is risen and our lives are charged with the power of the resurrection. Nothing is impossible. We have no more excuses. All our “maybe’s” are turned to “yes”, all our “buts” are exposed as procrastination – a failure to trust in Jesus’ presence and strength with us and in us.

Our story begins with the resurrection and our sharing with Jesus in the resurrection life. It is a story full of contradictions. A story in which death is overcome. A story that has no end but is full of new beginnings as again and again we die with Christ only to discover that it is in dying to the things of this world that we become more truly alive.

Jesus died – BUT he rose from the dead. That is our story – a story of new beginnings, fresh starts, opportunities to make good. Our story is the story of new life. So no more “buts” – let us embrace the life that God has given us and the new life that Jesus has won for us, that through us God may bring life to the world.


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