Monday, 30 May 2011

Since Christ is risen there is love

Sermon on John 14: 15-21, St Matthew's, 29th May 2011

The title of my sermon today is ‘Since Christ is risen there is Love’. But on thinking about it I wasn’t sure that this title makes much seAdd Imagense. Was there no love before the resurrection? Well of course there was. I think it means something like ‘Since Christ is risen we can think of love in a new way’ Or ‘Since Chris is risen God’s love is available to us in a new way’.

This sermon is part of a series of sermons all beginning: ‘Since Christ is risen’. We started with Steve showing us that ‘Since Christ is risen there is faith’. Then John explained why ‘Since Christ is risen there is hope’. Then Sally talked on the theme ‘Since Christ is risen there is life’. All these titles sort of make sense I think but ‘Since Christ is risen there is love’…Mmmm… I think Steve has given me a particularly hard title to talk to.

One sermon I think is missing in this series is ‘Since Christ is risen there is happiness’. Now superficially ‘Since Christ is risen there is happiness’ makes much more sense than ’Since Christ is risen there is love’. After all the traditional Easter Greeting begins is Hallelujah: Christ is risen. We’ll just practice that now: [Hallelujah! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, Hallelujah!]

Don’t you now feel a bit happier than you did previously? Just saying the word ‘Hallelujah’ surely makes us feel a bit happier. Just as smiling makes us feel happier. Try it. When we make ourselves smile, even if we don’t feel like smiling, we feel a little happier. Did that work for you?

So before talking about ‘Since Christ is risen there is love’ I want to talk a bit about ‘Since Christ is risen there is happiness’. Or rather I will suggest that there is a good reason why we haven’t got a sermon in the series entitled ‘Since Christ is risen there is happiness’ because this is patently untrue and then go on to talk about ‘Since Christ is risen there is love’ which sounds odd but I think is true, and the more you think about it, deeply true.

And here a bit of a confession and a bit of a plug. I am still, having written this sermon, not entirely sure about why ‘Since Christ is risen there is love’ as you will see. Perhaps love is such a big subject - connected with the fact that God is love – as St John tells us in his letter - that it’s difficult to get your head round. I publish my sermons in a blog if you want to read them. You can find this blog by Googling ‘Mike Rayner Sermons’. And they tend to be slightly clearer on my blog than when I give them in person. So please read this one later in the week and comments would be very welcome.

But first why is ‘Since Christ is risen there is happiness’ untrue? Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, patently unjust trial, mockery, torture and finally crucifixion was – to say the least – a source of great unhappiness to his disciples. So were they happy when he appeared to them? Well yes and no. Of course Mary was pleased to see Jesus when he appeared to her in the garden on that first Easter morning but what about the other disciples? Was Peter perhaps more apprehensive than happy when he heard from Mary that Jesus was back? After all Peter had told the servants of the High Priest, who at that point was interrogating Jesus, that he didn’t even knew his master. And the rest of the disciples had all run away. How were they going to face the risen Jesus?

Moreover does the resurrection just wipe out suffering and usher in lives of pure, unadulterated, happiness? No of course not.

So a few words about happiness. There is a lot about happiness in the news at the moment. This week the OECD – the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development - launched its ‘Better Life index’ (1). Statisticians at the OECD have been working on the Better Life Index for the past decade and it’s supposed to measure countries’ progress in a way that goes beyond purely economic measures such as ‘gross domestic product’. Basically it’s a happiness index. You may or may not be reassured to know that according to this index the UK is the 15th happiest country amongst the 34 OECD countries – sort of average really. Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the Nordic countries score best.

But what is happiness? Well according to the OECD it’s a combination of things ranging from having a lot of money to having someone to rely on at times of need, from having good health to living in a place without a lot of crime.

Some people seem to think happiness is all about having a lot of money. If you paid attention to the adverts you’d think happiness was all about having lots of things. That having lots of things makes you happy. Some adverts are shameless in this regard. Some of us remember the tv advert which tried to tell us that ‘Happiness is a cigar called hamlet.’ Happily this advert would now be illegal. A more recent advert for Lexus cars claimed that ‘Whoever said money can’t buy you happiness isn’t spending it right’. This advert works because of course it’s a joke. Even the owners of Lexus cars know that money can’t really buy you happiness.

Hence efforts by bodies like the OECD to define happiness in a broader way. But even their index still includes wealth as something to have which will make you happy. Their index in the end defines happiness as having stuff. Not just material stuff to be sure but having stuff like health, people to rely on, a crime-free place to live, etc. etc. Contrast this with what the Bible says about happiness.

A good place to start is the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus begins – according to Luke - with
‘Happy are you poor for yours is the kingdom of God
Happy are you that hunger now for you shall be satisfied
Happy are you that weep now for you shall laugh’

Now the poor, those who hunger, those who weep are people who don’t have things: money, food and loved ones respectively. Jesus here is explicitly saying that happiness has nothing to do with having things. What then does Jesus think happiness is? Note that he is not saying that the poor, hungry and those who weep now are happy now. He is saying that they will be happy in the future and that this is something to do with the coming of the kingdom of God.

Out Gospel reading today comes from John’s Gospel where John records what Jesus said to his disciples at the Last Supper. Jesus tells them what is going to happen to him and to them. The disciples are confused at what he has to say to them and not a little disturbed. He tells that in a little while he is going to leave them and that they will see him no more. As the Last Supper draws to close he tells them. ‘Truly, truly I say unto you, you will weep and lament…you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy….you have sorrow now but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice and no one will take your joy from you.’

So here Jesus is saying that the resurrection will bring the disciples joy. It would be true to say that ‘Since Christ is risen there is joy.’ But joy, as Jesus understands it, is something completely different from happiness as we might understand it and the OECD tries to measure it. The joy Jesus is promising his disciples at the last supper seems to be for Jesus much more akin to understanding – the answer to all the questions the disciples have been asking him – than to straightforward pleasure. He seems to be thinking of something much more long lasting than happiness.

This then is why I think happiness is not the be all and end all of life. Even Bob Dylan – also in the news recently - knows this. He says ‘Happiness is not on my list of priorities. I just deal with day-to-day things. If I’m happy, I’m happy – and if I’m not, I don’t know the difference. Knowing that you are the person you were put on this earth to be – that’s much more important than just being happy. It’s not happiness and unhappiness, it’s either blessed or unblessed. As the Bible says, “Blessed is the man who walkest not in the counsel of the ungodly.” Happiness isn’t on the road to anything. Happiness is the road.’ (2)

So if happiness is not the point what is? Well of course it’s love. So back to the title of this sermon: ‘Since Christ is risen there is love’

But what is love? Is it something we feel or something we do? Well if you want a definition you cannot do much better than to turn to that familiar wedding reading from Paul’s first letter of to the Corinthians Chapter 13. Verses 4- 7 say ‘Love is patient and kind, love is not jealous or boastful, it is not arrogant or rude, love does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful, it does not rejoice at wrong but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.’

Note that in Paul’s view love seems to be mainly something we do rather than something we feel: something we do patiently, kindly, without jealousy etc. But is that the whole of it? Of course love shows itself in things we do but surely it’s also a feeling an emotion.

In today’s Gospel reading, as I said, Jesus is talking to the disciples at the Last Supper, about what is about to happen to him and to them.

Firstly he gives them some promises. He promises to send them the Holy Spirit or the ‘Counsellor’ with a capital C as the Greek word ‘parakletos’ is translated in the version we heard today. He also promises that they will see him again: ‘I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me’.

Secondly Jesus apparently gives them some instructions and information about love. He begins by saying ‘If you love me you will keep my commandments’. Now the two most important commandments you will remember are firstly ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and will all your strength’ and secondly ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (3).

But is this ‘If you love me you will keep my commandments’ a piece of instruction or is it rather a statement of fact: something that is going to happen because of what is going to happen to Jesus – his death and resurrection? Jesus goes on to say. ‘He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me.’

In either case here we seem to be back to loving as doing again. But remember that the most important commandment is ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and all your strength.’ So loving Jesus is not just abiding by the ethical principles to be found in the Bible such as the last six of the 10 commandments: thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not lie, etc. When Jesus is talking about commandments he’s not just talking about keeping the 10 commandments and such like, or even loving our neighbour as ourselves he is talking about actually loving God but what does this mean?

We think of the saints as people who really loved God, and not just those who lead relatively blameless lives. Here is story Rowan Williams tells (4). St John of the Cross was staying at a convent over Christmas and was observed by one of the sisters when he didn’t know he was being watched. St John picked up the figure of the baby Jesus from the crib, he hugged it close to his chest and then, with eyes closed, danced around the crib for a few minutes. Well that it seems to me is love of God. A devotion that clearly gives the person an all-pervading warmth and delight but also makes them seem a little mad. Certainly something which is difficult to communicate in words to others. Something not unlike happiness or joy in fact.

Some of us might remember that sort of feeling when we were first fell in love with people who became our lovers. Some of us may still have that feeling for those people. Some of us may feel it for our family and friends. The sort of feeling that makes us glad when we meet someone again after an absence. That makes us want to look after and care for them.

We sing about loving Jesus in many of our hymns and choruses. For example ‘Jesus we love you, we worship and adore you, glorify thy name in all the earth’. Or ‘Jesus we love you, so we gather here, join our hearts in unity, and take away our fear. You can no doubt think of many more. What do we feel when we sing these lines? And are we not back to where we started with. When we say ‘Hallelujah’ or when we smile we feel a bit happier. Don’t we feel when say or sing ‘Jesus we love you’ a little bit more loving towards him?

There are, however, lots of people who think that feelings are not important, it’s what we believe and do that is important. We shouldn’t expect to feel our love for Jesus, that loving Jesus is just about believing in him and being nice to other people, loving our neighbour, but then why two commandments: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart…’ and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. Surely loving God is similar to, but distinct from loving, our neighbour.

So for me just me thinking of the love of God as something I have either just to believe in or enact is not enough. I want some of that love that St John of the Cross seems to have and feel.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus goes on from, ‘He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me’ to say, ‘and he who loves me will be loved by my father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.’ Remember that Jesus is talking to his disciples about what is going to happen: that he is going to go away but then return to them. So here Jesus is promising that his death and resurrection will change – not perhaps the nature of God’s love - but its availability and also how we see it.

I can just about grasp this, as through a glass darkly. I am not like St John of the Cross. I don’t think I am ever going to dance round a crib with the baby Jesus clutched to my chest. I cannot even raise my hands in church in moving hymns or choruses but I know just enough about love – through my love for my wife, my family, my friends – to sort of see what Jesus meant by ‘he who loves me will be loved by my father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.’ I think the point of life is not the pursuit of happiness but the pursuit of love and in particular to find out more about the God who is love and who rather mysteriously seems to love us.

(3) Luke 10: 25
(4) Rowan Williams (1994) Open to Judgement, Darton, Longman and Todd, p27

Resurrection: the transformation of sadness into joy and fear into peace

Sermon on John 16: 23- end, St Matthew’s, 29th May 2011: a correction to my sermon a fortnight ago.

Today, since I am preaching at the 10.30 service today I thought I would just correct something I said when I last preached at this service two weeks ago. You may have noticed that the Gospel readings for the last three weeks at this 8.30 service have all been from Chapter 16 of John’s gospel. First –two weeks ago we had John Chapter 16 verses 16-22. Then last week we went backwards in that chapter to its beginning: verses 5-15 and just now, today, we have had verses 23 – 33. So the Gospel reading for today is actually a continuation of the reading we had two weeks ago and actually I think makes more sense if the two passages are read together.

You’ll remember that the context is the Last Supper and Jesus is telling his disciples what is going to happen to him and to them. In fact Jesus is drawing to a close and today’s reading brings to an end his explanations. After this he stops explaining and begins praying for his disciples.

The disciples have been confused at what he has to say to them and not a little disturbed. After all he tells that in a little while he is going to leave them and that they will see him no more. ‘What does this mean?’ they say to one another. ‘What is this little while of which he speaks. We don’t understand what he is talking about.’

Two weeks ago I said that Jesus’ answer, at that point, was to tell them a parable, a short parable, in fact just one verse: ‘When a woman is in labour she is sad that her hour has come. But once the baby is born her joy makes her forget the suffering because a child has been born into the world!’

I said that this parable was confusing because it didn’t make sense but I have been thinking about it and perhaps it does make more sense than it first appears. Though I still think it is a bit mysterious and like all Jesus’ parables intriguing.

In today’s reading there seems to a clear reference back to parables like the parable of the woman in labour when Jesus says ‘I have said this to you in figures of speech. An hour is coming when I shall no longer speak to you in figures but shall tell you about the Father in plain words’ And the disciples, a little later , say – and remember Jesus is coming to the end of what he has to explain to them – ‘There, at last you are speaking plainly without figures of speech’. Perhaps the disciples, like John, also found the parable of the woman in labour initially confusing but on thinking about it found it helpful and remembered it.

So I wanted to say a little more about the parable. There is, I said a fortnight ago, an obvious connection between the suffering and joy of childbirth and the suffering and joy in the crucifixion and resurrection respectively. As we all know, even if we had no direct experience of it, a lot of suffering involved in giving birth to a baby. But when the baby is born this is generally the occasion for much joy, not just on the part of the woman who has given birth, but for the father and their family and friends. Jesus seems to be suggesting that the disciples are about to suffer but that their suffering will turn into joy, just as woman has to suffer for a child to be born.

But this is all a bit odd firstly because surely it’s not the disciples who are going to be doing most of the suffering in the immediate future: it’s Jesus himself. It’s he who is going to have to suffer on the cross to bring about the joy of the disciples at the resurrection. But remember here he is talking about their future suffering not his own: ‘You will weep and go into mourning, while the world will rejoice, you will be sad.’ Not ‘I will weep…I will be sad’

And secondly it’s odd because of how Jesus starts the parable ‘When a women is in labour she is sad (lype) that her hour has come’. Lype is the word that Jesus has just used to predict how the disciples will feel at his leaving them: ‘You will be sad (lype)’ But is a woman actually sad that her labour has started? This opening premise surely just doesn’t make sense. Surely sad is the wrong word here? A woman might be apprehensive, even fearful but surely not sad?

And yet this parable does begin to make sense if you begin to think about it.

Firstly in relation to the question of who the woman represents: the disciples or Jesus. Now Jesus in his final words to his disciples constantly talks about how, in the future, he will dwell within the disciples and they in him . For instance in Chapter 17 he will pray ‘that [the disciples] may be all be one, just as you, Father, in me and I in you, that they also may be [one] in us’ and ‘that they may be one just as we are one, I in them and you in me.’

And in another parable Jesus gives the disciples at the Last Supper – the parable of the true vine – Jesus says ‘I am the vine and you are the branches. He that remains in me and I in him is the one who bears much fruit’

Perhaps it is not then surprising that the woman in the parable of the woman in labour could represent Jesus or she could represent the disciples. Since Jesus is saying that the time is coming when he will dwell within the disciples, and that they in turn will somehow live within him, his suffering will be their suffering, their suffering will be his suffering. And moreover his joy will be their joy, their joy will be his joy.

Secondly in relation to the odd choice of the word sad or ‘lype’. Lype does mean sad and is frequently translated as sad. When Jesus predicts that the disciples will be lype when he leaves them, the most obvious way of translating lype is sad. But lype also means more than sad. It also means ‘apprehensive’ or even ‘fearful’ as a woman in labour might well be. Childbirth is a risky business even today. It’s risky for both the child and the mother.

Of course the over-riding emotion of the disciples when Jesus was killed was grief or sadness. But Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane is not primarily sad he is bloody terrified. He sweats blood in his fear at what he thinks is going to happen to him. When Jesus is arrested the disciples must have been apprehensive and fearful and in fact mostly all run away. Peter follows Jesus but denies that he knows him not out of sadness but out of fear. Even after the crucifixion the disciples were fearful. For instance the doors of the room where they were gathered on the first Easter Sunday evening was locked for’ fear of the Jew’s.

Perhaps then lype is a good word for Jesus to use.

I said two weeks ago that, since the parable of the woman in labour is supposed to be about turning the disciples’ sadness into joy, it isn’t entirely logical. I am now not so sure. If you look more closely at the parable, what Jesus seems to be saying is that fear and anguish, not just sadness, is turned into joy through his death and resurrection?

And of course it’s not just joy that the resurrection will bring but other things as well. Whereas the opposite of sadness is joy, the opposite of anguish is peace. When we think of the birth of a baby we don’t automatically think of that as bringing peace. But there is a sense in which the birth of a baby brings to end the anguish of labour and ushers in sort of peace, at least for a while.

In today’s reading Jesus ends by saying, ‘Tthe hour is coming – indeed has already come – for you to be scattered each on his own, leaving me alone.’ Jesus here is talking about their and his future fear. But after this he says ‘I have said this to you so that in me you may find peace’. He has already – at earlier points in his last words to the disciples at the Last Supper - promised that his going away will eventually bring them peace. For example in Chapter 14 he tells them ‘Peace is my farewell to you. My peace is my gift to you’. And you’ll remember that the first words he says to the disciples gathered together in the ‘upper room’ when he first appears to them is ‘Peace be with you’.

So as we remember Jesus’ death and resurrection in the bread and wine of this communion let us think about what those events signified: the transformation of both fear and anguish into peace, the transformation of grief and sadness into joy. Everything was changed, everything was altered if we just begin to think about it.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Joy as understanding

Sermon on John 16: 16-22, St Matthew’s, 15th May 2011

Today my sermon is about the joy that comes from understanding what we didn’t or couldn’t understand before. Of course joy doesn’t just come from understanding but for me understanding is a big part of joy. This is partly because I am a scientist and we scientists spend quite a lot of our lives trying to understand the way things are, and we find joy in making sense of things.

For me my faith helps me to make sense of the things that science and scientific methods cannot – if they are based purely on analysing the data from our senses together with logic. My faith helps me answer questions of why am I here, why is there so much suffering around, what is going to happen to me after I die? And the answers give me joy.

I also find joy in other things besides answers to questions: in the glory of a sunset, in winning competitions, in talking with a friend. But I wonder however whether there is a distinction to be drawn between these temporary ‘pleasures’ and the more lasting joy we get from answered questions. The sun goes down and the sunset remains only in our memory. The answer to a question remains with us in a way that is more permanent.

Our gospel reading today is part of John’s account of what Jesus said to his disciples at the last supper in order to help them understand what was going to happen. Jesus begins this part of his farewell discourse with, ‘In a little while you will not see me any more, and then again in a little while you will see me’. Here Jesus, rather obliquely to be sure, seems to be telling his disciples that in a little while he will die so the disciples will not be able to see him, but a little while after that he will rise from the dead and appear to them so that they will be able to see him again.

This will he says give them both joy and understanding. Verses 22: after his mini-parable about a woman going into labour – ‘So it is with you too – you are sad now; but I shall see you again and your hearts will rejoice with a joy that no one can take from you.’ And the beginning of verse 23: ‘And on that day you will have no more questions to put to me’. However it is a bit difficult to see how all this all encompassing joy and understanding was to be accomplished by the resurrection appearances.

Firstly when Jesus appeared to the disciples were they completely over-joyed to see him? Surely their joy was also tinged with guilt at deserting him and in Peter’s case of denying that he knew him. Did Peter really want to see Jesus again after what he had said in the high priest’s courtyard? Might the disciples not have even felt angry that Jesus had apparently deserted them? Most bereavement is associated with anger. It is very common to be angry with the person who has died. Would this anger just have disappeared when the disciples saw Jesus again? Would they not have felt some residual anger that all the grief had apparently been for nothing.

Similarly when Jesus reappeared did it all instantly make sense? Surely his reappearance raises more questions than it answers? Jesus has a lot of explaining to do after his resurrection, on the road to Emmaus he expounds upon the scriptures to show how his death and resurrection fit into world history, in the upper room he tells the disciples about the forgiveness of sins in the light of his death and resurrection, on the mountain in of Galilee Jesus tells them about what they need to do next now he has been raised from the dead. Was there ever a time when there were no more questions left?

The verses that I just read, ‘[When I] see you again…your hearts will rejoice with a joy that no one can take from you. And on that day you will have no more questions to put to me’ look difficult to believe, if ‘when I see you again’ and ‘on that day’ refer to the resurrection appearances. Some people – St Augustine amongst them - have thought that Jesus is not talking here about the resurrection appearances but his coming again – his second coming. And indeed if we are to apply these verses to ourselves it seems clear that – even knowing what we know – we surely do not rejoice with a joy than no one can take from us, we still do have questions we would like to put to Jesus. These verses are surely a promise that has yet to be fully realised.

And yet the promises are set in the context of, ‘In a little while you will not see me any more and then again in a little while you will see me’. As I have said before but its’ worth repeating: the resurrection of Jesus changes everything. Both in the way things actually are and the way they appear to be.

John of course understands this and so perhaps, when reporting Jesus words, isn’t worrying too much about time. After all, the nature of time and the way we see it are also changed by Jesus’ resurrection. So Jesus’ promise of joy and understanding are both realised by the crucifixion and resurrection – if we could just but see it – but also a promise of things to come. A parallel verse to, ‘In a little while you will not see me any more, and then again in a little while you will see me’ can be found earlier verse in Jesus’ farewell discourse. There he says: ‘In just a little while the world will not see me any more but you will see me because I have life and you will have life’ (John 14: 9). Here Jesus is clearly talking about more than the resurrection appearances but something much more longer lasting, a new sort of life that will outlast the resurrection appearances.

But back to joy that comes from understanding. Firstly there is of course an obvious connection between seeing and understanding. To see is sometimes even used as a synonym of ‘to understand’ as when someone says ‘I see’ when told of something happening. That person does not mean merely that they can recreate what has happened in their mind’s eye but that they can understand it in some way. They understand why it happened.

It was important for the disciples to see the risen Jesus for them to actually believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. It was more important for some than others. And the story of Thomas having to see Jesus’ actual wounds before he believed speaks of that. But it was much more important for the disciples to understand why Jesus had risen from the dead not just to see that he had.

At the last supper the disciples are clearly confused about what was going to happen and why. ‘What does this mean?’ they say to one another. ‘What is this little while of which he speaks. We don’t understand what he is talking about.’ Jesus knows what they are thinking but he does not really explain what he has just said, perhaps even he doesn’t know himself what precisely is going to happen or fully why. Only when he and they have seen will they understand.

In answer to their questions Jesus tells them a parable. Parables are rare in John’s gospel (at least in the form we find in the other gospels) but here is one. It’s just a verse. ‘When a woman is in labour she is sad that her hour has come. But once the baby is born her joy makes her forget the suffering because a child has been born into the world!’

There is in child birth a clear connection here between suffering and joy. I know this even though I am not a woman but I was there when both my daughters were born. It seems fairly obvious that what Jesus is saying here is that the disciples ’joy when they see him again will ‘make them forget the suffering’ of the crucifixion. That the suffering of the crucifixion will then be understandable in the light of the resurrection.

So far so good but because this little story is a parable it is odd and even shocking, like many of Jesus other parables. It’s odd firstly because of its opening premise: ‘When a women is in labour she is sad (lype) that her hour has come’. Lype is the word that Jesus has just used to predict how the disciples will feel at his leaving them: ‘You will be sad (lype).’

But is a woman actually sad that her labour has started? This opening premise surely just doesn’t make sense. Surely sad is the wrong word here? A woman might be apprehensive, even fearful but surely not sad? Perhaps lype doesn’t mean sad? It can, in fact, be translated as ‘apprehensive’ but then why would the disciples be apprehensive at Jesus leaving them or even dying. Surely their over-riding emotion is going to be grief not apprehension. The feelings of the woman and the disciples don’t really match up.

Secondly in the parable it is the woman whose sadness/apprehension is turned to joy. Her friends and family aren’t in the picture. If the story is supposed to be a sort of prediction of what is going to happen then Jesus is saying, ‘I am like a pregnant woman whose hour has come. I am going to suffer but my sadness/apprehension is going to be transformed somehow into joy’. But remember Jesus is talking about the disciples sadness not his own. ’You will be sad but your sadness will be turned into joy’ it says in the verse immediately preceding the parable’. Who then is the woman supposed to represent: Jesus or his disciples? There seems to be a disconnect, a jump in the logic.

Perhaps then the parable is also saying that turning sadness into joy through suffering isn’t in the end logical. Nevertheless that sadness was turned into joy because of Jesus death and resurrection is the clear message of the gospel. And moreover it is clear that only through resurrection that suffering – not just Jesus’ suffering on the cross but all suffering - becomes understandable. Not perhaps in any logical, scientific way, but understandable nevertheless. There is in the end, I think, no real difference between joy and understanding and that these two gifts of the Holy Spirit are not really distinct. For joy flows from the fact that we can come to know and understand Jesus.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Resurrection: the transformation of evil

Sermon for the Sunday after Easter, St Matthew’s, 1st May 2011: John 20: 19-23

This is the second of two sermons on the resurrection. My first was at the 10.30 service last Sunday. In that sermon I talked about transformation – firstly as looking back, secondly as turning round and thirdly as acceptance. My sermon was based on the first resurrection appearance described in John’s gospel: to Mary Magdalene, in the garden, in the early morning of that first Easter Sunday. Our gospel reading today comes immediately after that story. It’s now the Easter Sunday evening and while the other disciples have heard from Mary that she has seen Jesus, and at least two of them – Peter and another disciple – have been to the tomb and have found it empty with the grave clothes just lying there – they haven’t actually seen Jesus yet.

One of the striking things about this account of Jesus appearing to the disciples in the locked room is that it is so short: much shorter than the account of Mary meeting Jesus in the garden and very much shorter than the account of Jesus meeting the disciples on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in the next and last chapter of John’s gospel. And yet so much happens in just a few verses. For example this is John’s account of the conferring of the Holy Spirit to the disciples – which Luke records as happening on a separate occasion. The passage also contains what I think is a very difficult verse: the last verse in our passage and apparently Jesus’ last words to the disciples before he leaves them for the time being: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

Why does John feel it necessary to record these words in particular? This is what I want to explore a little today. I can’t explain what they mean entirely but I think they are interesting for as much as what they don’t say as what they do.

But first going back to what I said last week about transformation based on Mary’s encounter with the risen Jesus. I said that the resurrection changes everything though casting the crucifixion in particular, and suffering in general, in a new light. But for that to happen we have firstly to look back: just as Mary must return to the tomb in order to find the risen Jesus. This return is surely almost ‘hopeless’ (Mary has seen Jesus die, what is there to find at the tomb?) But return we must.

But secondly after looking back we must turn around, turn away from our suffering, not in order to forget it but to move on into a new way of life, transformed by the hope of resurrection. Just as Mary must turn away from the tomb and turn around to recognise the stranger, who she has assumed to be the gardener, as her friend Jesus.

Finally for our lives to be transformed we have to accept that the transformation is possible, to accept the vocation to which we are called. When Jesus meets Mary her whole way of seeing things is changed. But only for a purpose. Jesus tells her to go and tell the other disciples and give them a message – that he is ‘ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’. She has to accept this task and she does so willingly.

The resurrection, therefore, changes our perspective on suffering. Through the lens of the resurrection the events of Jesus’ last week, his betrayal, arrest, humiliation, suffering and death, begin to make sense. But the resurrection also changes our perspective on evil.

It is perhaps significant that Jesus first resurrection appearance – according to John and Mark is to Mary who was, in no way, implicated in Jesus’ death. She doesn’t even desert Jesus at his crucifixion, but is to be found - according to John - at the foot of the cross. Mary’s return to the grave is not because she feels guilt, but only grief at his loss.

For the male disciples, on the other, hand the resurrection of Jesus is surely much more complicated. Are they not partly, at least, responsible for his crucifixion? Judas is the one who actually betrays him but at the last supper they all uncertain who it is going to be. Might each one worry that it might be them? Peter is the one who actually denies that he knows Jesus when questioned whether he knows him but where are the rest of the disciples at Jesus’ trial? They are there at his arrest but do nothing really sensible to protect their Lord. The disciples, in effect, at best do nothing to prevent the crucifixion and at worst (like Judas and Peter) actively collude with the authorities in bringing it about.

We too may not be actively involved in evil - the violence and injustice we see all around us - but surely we too collude – at least to some degree – in that violence and injustice – if only by not protesting enough about it, by being part of a World where people are still treats people as the authorities in first century Palestine treated Jesus. We too are partly responsible for the death of Jesus.

The disciples, hearing from Mary – that Jesus was alive might well have had mixed feelings about his reappearance. Would he condemn them for what had happened or would he forgive them their role in the events of the past week? Interestingly he does neither explicitly but his words firstly bringing peace to them and secondly about forgiveness of sins, in the context of showing them his wounds are surely relevant to the question.

Jesus firstly does not deny what has happened: far from it. He confronts the disciples with his crucifixion. He shows them his hands and his side. He is still the crucified one, the unjustly condemned man, the victim, their victim. They needed to recognise that the resurrection isn’t a reversal of death, doesn’t put the clock back to a time sometime before the crucifixion. We might assume that the locked room is the same room as the room that Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Last Supper but was it? Probably not: that would have been too neat and tidy.

The resurrection doesn’t diminish in any sense the responsibility of the disciples for Jesus’ death. But Jesus had already told them he had not come to condemn the world but to save it.

But although Jesus doesn’t say, ‘I forgive you,’ he does say, ‘Peace be with you’. The disciples, surely at that point, let out a collective sigh of relief. What he does say is about forgiveness is ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

This sounds shocking I think because we are accustomed to thinking that it is really only God who can forgive sins. What right or ability do we have to forgive sins? It is hard enough to forgive people who sin against us. Do we have any right or ability to forgive the sins of say the Nazi’s who were responsible for the Holocaust or the murderer who appears to be laughing on the way to his execution and that you can see portrayed here? Or closer to home do I have any right or ability to forgive myself for hitting my daughter on one particular occasion that I can remember quite vividly – not for what she had done but because of how I was feeling at the time.

Well yes, thought the death and resurrection of Jesus I think we do. Jesus’ resurrection changes everything, even the possibilities for forgiveness. ‘If you [my disciples i.e. we ourselves] forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven’. ‘If you [we] do not they are not forgiven.’ This all sounds presumptuous (even glib): especially when it comes to forgiving not just those who sin against us but those who sin against other people (Nazi’s responsible for the Holocaust, the laughing murderer). But I think Jesus is saying that just as we have colluded in violence and injustice we must now join with God in forgiving that violence and injustice, even that done by and to ourselves.

Our own forgiveness is closely tied up with our forgiveness of others as the prayer which Jesus taught us makes clear. ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’ we will say later in this service. We need help (the power of the Holy Spirit – that Jesus has just given to his disciples in the locked room) to forgive other people’s sins against just as we need God to forgive our sins. We can do neither on our own.

All Christians appreciate that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is closely connected with the question of forgiveness (as well as the meaning of suffering). We, at least those of us from an evangelical tradition, tend to think of the work of the cross in relation to our own personal sense of forgiveness for what we have done in the past and/or for things we continue to do in the present. But in this, the first occasion when most of the disciples meet the risen Jesus for the first time Jesus talks to them not about, how they are forgiven, but what will happen if they forgive.

Jesus tells the disciples that that the whole nature of forgiveness has been changed. Jesus is the victim who does not condemn. Through his resurrection, the evil that led to his crucifixion is vanquished, not abolished but forgiven and thereby transformed. There will always be injustice and violence in the world but through the resurrection everything looks different and is now truly different. John tells us in just one word what the disciples felt. ‘Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord’. Hallelujah Christ is risen..

Resurrection: the transformation of suffering

Sermon for Easter Sunday, St Matthews, 24th April 2011; John 20: 1-18; Jeremiah 31: 1-6

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia

The resurrection changes everything. Everything is transformed: even the crucifixion. Today I want to look at the way the resurrection transforms the way we see things: our world, ourselves, other people, even God, but also how it transforms, not just how we see things, but how they actually are. I want to look at transformation as looking back, as turning around and finally as acceptance.
But first transformation is all around us. I can’t give you a sermon without mentioning food. And since the kids are out hunting Easter eggs and we in here I thought we might have our own Easter egg to remind us of transformation.

Chocolate eggs do not just appear instantly from nowhere; they are produced with much labor using ingredients – derived from plants and animals – that were created by God for food. Milk chocolate is made from cocoa beans which grow in places like Ghana, sugar which grows in the Caribbean and East Anglia, and milk from cows that live - well in lots of places. It is I think worth remembering – as you eat this chocolate – where it has come from – how it has been transformed from the stuff of creation.

In a sense – the plants – the cocoa and the sugar - if not the cows – had to die to provide us with the ingredients from which other people could make this delicious substance called chocolate.

And of course eggs have come to symbolize Easter for a reason. They consist of a tomb-like shell – out of which new life breaks forth. Breaking into an egg reminds us, too, of breaking the bread in the communion service.
There is much talk of late of transformation in our world. Many countries in North African and the Middle East are currently going through a period of rapid transformation. And we, in this country, also regularly hear from our politicians, of all parties, how they plan to transform society. Today it’s David Cameron’s new – or at least newish - ‘Big Society’ idea with which he proposes that we ‘build a bigger, better and happier country’ according to the Big Society Network website. Transformation is the basic stuff of politics.
Our Old Testament reading today speaks of God’s promise of transformation to Israel after its destruction. Here is just a part of it ‘[God says] I will build you up again, and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt. Again you will take up your timbrels and go out to dance with the joyful. Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the farmers will plant them and enjoy their fruit.’

And our Gospel reading tells of Easter morning and what happened when Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb and finds it empty. She assumes that the body has been stolen and tells the disciples what she has found and what she assumes. They check out her story but she remains disconsolate until Jesus appears before her in the Garden and then her life is transformed. ‘Mary!’ he says. To which she replies, ‘Rabboni!’
It is not just the way Mary feels that is transformed. It is her understanding. The crucifixion of her friend, Jesus, must have been shocking and sad – but surely also inexplicable. OK Jesus was always annoying the authorities so it was just a matter of time before the Jews or the Romans would try and shut him up. But surely Mary didn’t expect that to lead to death in the most humiliatingly and horrible way possible?

The whole process of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial, humiliation, suffering and death must have been overwhelming for Mary. But now in the Garden how does it seem? Well transformed. But in what way and how?
So firstly transformation as looking back, as seeing things in a new way.

If we look back at the events of Easter week - horrific as they were for Jesus and his friends - we can see through the lens of the resurrection that there were glimpses of light in the darkness: things which we might miss if we are not careful and presumably Mary and the other disciples did miss at the time.

Firstly on the way to Calvary – when Jesus was carrying his cross through the presumably crowded streets of Jerusalem - there was found one man - Simon of Cyrene - to help him. Was Simon a friend or just a passerby? The gospel writers don’t really say but they all agree that he was forced (presumably by the Roman soldiers) to carry Jesus’ cross. Did he then carry the cross willingly? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But he was there to help Jesus, as a friend would in a crisis. Here is a picture of Simon of Cyrene helping Jesus carry the cross. He has his arm round Jesus like a friend.

We tend to assume that all Jesus’ friends, the disciples, abandoned Jesus after his arrest (that is those that hadn’t betrayed him or denied that they knew him) but in fact we still find some of them at the foot of the cross – some women including Mary Magdalene , Mary Jesus’ mother and the disciple Jesus particularly loved according to John. So even in the deepest darkness: friendship.

Then there is – even as Jesus is dying on the cross – a ‘last’ encounter between Jesus and someone who needs him, with the thief called by tradition Dismas – who defends Jesus against the taunts of the other thief Gestas and confesses that his past life justifies where he has ended up. Jesus, because of what Dismas says, tells him ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’ So even in the deepest darkness repentance and forgiveness.

Then there was one ordinary Roman – a centurion involved in the crucifixion – who at the last recognizes Jesus for who he is. ‘Truly this man was the son of God’ he says when Jesus finally dies. And even Pontius Pilot, when asked by the chief priests to change the notice on the cross which read, ‘The King of the Jews’ tells them, ‘What I have written I have written’. So even in the deepest darkness truth

When we know about the resurrection the crucifixion looks different.
‘God’s call, says Paul is to be drawn into the mystery of the Body of Christ, to share in his life, suffering, death and resurrection. The power of the resurrection, Paul says, is only experienced through suffering and the cross. This perplexing mystery belongs to the way of God in the world.’(1)

The significance of the crucifixion cannot be grasped in isolation from that of the resurrection. ‘Without the resurrection the cross would be a cause for despair, without the cross, the resurrection would be an escape from reality’ (2)
But how do we reconcile the mystery of the suffering and death of Jesus with the miracle of his resurrection. Surely this question is at the heart of our faith, at the centre of our life as a Church? How do we become a people ‘strong enough to bring our weakness, open enough to bring our different experiences of pain, and hopeful enough to recognise that these could also be transforming gifts?’ (1)

Donald Eadie and who lives with serious spinal condition writes: ‘A friend [Michael Wilson] wrote of his discovery ‘of a freedom within the prison of illness, handicap or cell’. To be human is to live this freedom within limitation, frailty and complexity. It is to dare to come out of hiding from behind our masks, to be open and honest, to be gentle, to let tears of laughter and joy stain our face, to own our rage, to be passionate, to make mistakes, to recover our playfulness. It is to embrace pain, to become pain bearers, absorbing in our bodies evil, suffering grief and shame willingly. It is to catch a glimpse of the passion of God not in the abstract but through embodiment. It is to live within what Rowan Williams calls the ‘vulnerability that is the heart of transformation’ (3)

Donald Eadie also tells stories of transformation: of ordinary people whose lives are transformed by the things that happen to them: things which might seem bad to others.
Perhaps we can think of stories of transformation in our own lives. Looking back we can sometimes see how God has been at work in the things we have suffered, to make of them something good, to use them in ways that somehow we can move on from, learn from, that transform us. It is difficult, I find, to tell such stories of myself. I have never really lost anyone I love except my father and my dog. I haven’t really suffered except when I was in a bad motor-bike accident when I was 19 and broke both legs. I think you’ll say I have had a relatively comfortable life but yet I know the people and the animals I have lost, the things I have suffered have changed me. I hope for the better.
Now transformation involves not just a looking back but a turning around. Simon of Cyrene is stopped and must go another way. Dismas - the thief on the cross – meeting Jesus for the first time in somewhat unusual circumstances - at last gives up his life of thieving if only for the last few hours of his mortal life. The centurion at the foot of the cross who thought he was helping to execute an ordinary Jewish agitator is forced to change his mind and admit that this time the prisoner is someone extraordinarily different. All these encounters with Jesus involve a turning around.
‘For Jesus the prime metaphor for the mystery of transformation is the sign of Jonah’ (1). In Matthew Chapter 12 Jesus says to the scribes and Pharisees, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah.’ And he says this again in Chapter 16 in case you missed it in Chapter 12. Jonah, you’ll remember, had to endure much hardship – three days and three nights in the belly of a whale - before he turned back.

Mary also has to turn back. In the story we heard today she goes back to the tomb not once but twice. Why go to the tomb at all when she has seen Jesus die on the cross. Why bother with a dead body? Even in the extremity of grief Mary returns to the one she loves – even though he is dead. Only in facing up to the reality of suffering will it and we be transformed.

Even then there is more for Mary: ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him’ she tells the disciples and when on returning to the tomb a second time still weeping, she sees a man who she assumes is the gardener she demands of him, ‘Sir if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him.’ Only when the gardener, who is in fact Jesus, calls her name: ‘Mary’, does she turn for a third time and recognize him.

Here as Rowan Williams puts it ‘John unites for us the moments of recognizing (or remembering) self and recognizing (or remembering) God. The crucial instant in which the stranger who appears to have robbed or deprived or diminished turns out to be the savior is the utterance of the particular and personal name. Mary is offered her name, her identity, the name which specifies her as the person with a particular story, And in this context the utterance of the name re-establishes a relation of trust and recognition.’ (4) Mary in turning around gets her name, herself, back.

And in a sense we all find ourselves in our friends. And the friendship we have in Jesus is where we find ourselves with most honesty, with most truth.

And finding ourselves involves a turning around, away from the way we would by inclination be going and towards the light.
Finally transformation is a gift we have to accept

If we like Mary dare to hope, to turn back to the grave, we may too find the risen Jesus. If we answer that call, we will find our story given back to us with a new meaning. We are given both a past and a future, a vocation to a particular identity. That assurance of future grace is given through our connectedness with Jesus, as we deliberately and consciously articulate our commitment to being with Jesus by uttering the word ‘Rabonni’ which means ’Teacher’. In other words we have to accept this gift of a new past, a new future, a new identity that Jesus offers.

‘This,’ Thomas Keating writes, ‘is the terrain of transformation, the trusting into the unimaginable beyond, the consent to be transformed.’ (1)

‘Openness to receive the gifts of God through encounters which may seem to threaten us always also includes the possibility of transformation.’(1) As Dismas discovers in his encounter with Jesus on the cross. As hundreds of other people discovered when they met Jesus in his earthly life as we know from the Gospels, as Jesus himself discovered in his encounters with people like the Syro-Phoenician women. As Mary discovers in the Garden that first Easter morning and as many of Jesus’ other disciples discovered later. As we too can discover if we seek Jesus out. But not just seek him out, accept his gift of transformation.

‘In the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and Simon Peter’s difficulty in accepting this, it is as if Jesus is saying to us, ‘If you are not able to receive you can no longer be a disciple of mine’ (1).

As we receive the gifts of bread and wine later in the service let us remember the gift of our transformation through both the death and the resurrection of our Lord. Let us remember that through Jesus’ resurrection everything is changed. The way we see things, the way things are, the way things will be.

(1) Donald Eadie (2011) A ‘Reflection on Transformation’ – the full version of which will be published in the April 2011 edition of Ministers-at-Work (see
(2) James Dunn (1998) The Theology of Paul the Apostle, T & T Clarke
(3) Donald Eadie (2008)The Human Condition: Being Truly Human, Magnet 84: 4-6
(4) Rowan Williams (2002) Resurrection. Interpreting the Easter Gospel. Dartman, Longman & Todd.