Sunday, 1 May 2011

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.

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