Sermon: April 3 2016

Readings

Acts 5:12-16

Revelation 1:9-13, 17-19

John 20:19-31

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Christ is risen, and now everything has changed; but, of course, nothing has changed.

Christ has risen, and Rome has fallen, but in her place have risen empire after empire, each one repeating that age old trick of dressing up thuggery in the respectability of marble busts and fine bone china.

Christ is risen, but the poor are still with us, as indeed he himself said they would be; this time, however, we have not wasted the choice nard to anoint his feet, but have instead stored up riches for ourselves under the eschatological vision that wealth trickles down. Meanwhile, since Good Friday last week, approximately 180,000 people around the world have died of hunger or hunger-related causes.

Christ is risen; meanwhile, we are witnesses to another kind of resurrection, of the old time demagoguery that appeals to our basest prejudices and insecurities. The most effective tool in the arsenal of the craven warmonger is the fear of the other, and boy do we fear the other. Thus, for every side of every bout of armed conflict, young men and women give up their lives, and all we have to show for it is an ever bloodier mess. First, it was the Jews we feared, and since then we have found others, and the cycles of preemptive and retaliatory violence have gone on unimpeded as the Neros of the world play on.

Christ is risen, and now everything has changed; but, of course, nothing has changed. Or, at least, we haven’t; not enough, not nearly enough.

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And yet, this—this sordid state of affairs in which we find ourselves, and which is of our own making—is precisely why we need to continue celebrating Easter, why we need the Paschal light that pierces the darkness, and brings warmth into a cold world.

Truth be told, Christianity has much more in common with nihilism than it does with any whiggish view of history, in which the world is getting inexorably better toward some beatific vision of a just and peaceful society. To be sure, we hope for such a world, but it is not offered to us on a silver platter. After all, surely we know better than most, that it is the severed heads of the politically inconvenient that tend to be thus offered.

There are, in the Christian life, no pat certainties, no guarantees of projected outcomes: ours is a risky enterprise, a sojourn in the wilderness, destination unknown, but for the pillar of cloud by day, the pillar of fire by night, the rising star. Christ is our help and hope, without whom we are lost for sure, trapped in our world of credit default swaps and sweatshops and factory farming and military-industrial complexes.

Hope is the operative word. Easter—the Resurrection—is our sacrament of hope: it is our rejection of the world that has been sold to us on the cheap, in which violence is the cost of peace, and poverty the price of economic growth; in which our conveniences and comforts are bought with the blood, sweat, and tears of anonymous others, kept far, far away for fear that if they too are allowed to prosper, then we would suffer as a consequence; a pale facsimile of the world that God loves into being. Christ—the subjugated Jew; the son of man who has no place to lay his head; the prophet, marginalised and ignored—(Christ) is risen. Christ is risen, and we are raised with him: raised into peace and out of fear, and out of our locked rooms into the world, led by the Spirit whom we have received, to forgive the sinners and wash the unclean and heal the sick, we who are ourselves the beneficiaries of healing, washing, and forgiveness.

This is the difference then, between Christianity and nihilism; and it is a difference that means that there is, for Christians, no room at all for the apathy of resignation or complacent cynicism. Popular opinion to the contrary, we are not about pie-in-the-sky-when-we-die, but about bread today, the kingdom of God come, the will of God done, on earth as it is in heaven.   

This is, after all, the faith of Martin of Tours; of Genevieve of Paris; of Thomas Becket; of Francis and Clare of Assisi; of Catherine of Siena; of Bartolomé de las Casas; of William Wilberforce; of Elizabeth of Russia; of Maximilian Kolbe; of Edith Stein; of Dietrich Bonhoeffer; of Martin Luther King Jr.; of Albert Schweitzer; of Óscar Romero; of Dorothy Day. We stand with these, and so many more, men and women—all doubtless fallible and flawed—but nevertheless beacons of the light of the Risen Christ. We have a great cloud of witnesses who have leaned against the windmills of conquering warlords and power-hungry kings and slave-traders and bigots and robber barons.

They—we—are Easter people, the people of the resurrection, the people who are called to have our candles held up high, to bring the hope that we have been given into the world that knows it not yet, not enough, not nearly enough. Therefore, in the light of the resurrection, let us gather in Solomon’s Porch, together with all the saints. And let the sick and unclean be carried to us—let us carry them, all those who suffer in body, mind, or spirit—and let not just our shadows fall on them but the Paschal light himself, who refuses to be extinguished, but lives forever and ever. Amen.

Sermon: April 12th 2015

Readings

Acts 4:32-35

1 John 5:1-6

John 20:19-31

So, what happens now?

Christ is indeed risen, and death is indeed defeated, and the world is forever changed by the events of Holy Week. Nothing will ever be the same again. And yet, of course, they are.

Christ is indeed risen, but we have not seen him, neither touched his hands nor felt his breath upon our faces nor heard him say our names, as he did Mary Magdalen’s in the garden.

Death is indeed defeated, but we carry on in our ageing and dying and decaying, neither like Lazarus nor like Christ himself, tasting life afresh.

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Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe, he says, and he is speaking to us, perhaps more than he is speaking to Thomas. So be it: we are blessed then, those of us who believe having not seen, even if our believing is a sort of faithless and feckless desperation to see. Blessing (whatever that amounts to) sometimes feels like a poor substitute for evidence or certainty. Or, put another way: it would be nice, after all, to touch his hands, to feel his breath upon our faces, to hear him call our names.

It would, of course, scare the living daylights out of us, if Jesus did walk through our walls and extend his bleeding palms, so we could stick our curious fingers into those wretched, blessed wounds. “Peace be with you”, he would say, and we wouldn’t hear him, for all our fear and trembling. It is well known that we are, among animals, perhaps uniquely cursed with the knowledge of our own mortality, which leads unsurprisingly to the fear of death. But we are, in some sense, also afraid of the dead, which is why people have always and everywhere taken such pains to dispose of human remains. We sealed Jesus behind a rock, and yet here he stands. “Peace be with you”, he has to repeat himself, and the warmth of his breath reassures us that he is somehow alive after all.

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Receive the Holy Spirit, he also says to us, and then also, If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. Which is to say: we are his people, sealed by the power that conquers death, and tasked with the duty of discerning the identity and boundaries of this new people. Whose sins will we forgive? And whose will we retain? Who’s in?; and who’s out?

Every community has its principles of demarcation, whether explicit or implicit. It is naïve to pretend that the Church is any different, as much as we want to tell ourselves that it is so big a tent as to include everybody. It is one thing to say that everybody is welcome, and quite another to say that everybody is already in. But then, what kind of place is the Church? What does it mean to be the people of God in Christ after the events of Holy Week: to be Easter people, resurrection people?

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The theologian’s temptation is to insist that the Church is a Mystical Body and an eschatological reality, and not an empirical entity. And this assertion is true enough: the Church is not, in the first place, a conglomeration of human beings who happen to have some things in common. Even so, it is not a silly question to ask: what should the Church look like? What is its ministry and mission?

Every one who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God, and

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. From our second lesson this morning.

Or, if you prefer, from our first lesson:

Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common, and

There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.

The New Testament has diverse opinions on this point, and so it is that we still disagree about what the Church is and should be:

Some say the Church is a community of believers; specifically, a community of those who believe certain things about this Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Christians are those who believe in Jesus.

Some say the Church is a moral community, bound by certain rules, to be found in and extrapolated from the Scriptures. Christians are those who obey commandments.

Some say the Church is primarily a political community, with alternative processes and structures pertaining to power and resource distribution. Christians are those who share all they have in common, such that no one is in need.

These are, of course, hardly mutually contradictory propositions. We can—in classic Anglican fashion—all be correct: the Church is that gathered body of the Risen Christ, which confesses with Thomas that Jesus is Lord and God, and which lives in love and obedience in what looks remarkably like a socialist utopia.

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So, what happens now?

The world looks the same as it did last week. The news is as depressing as it always is. Our lives are as quietly desperate as they have always been.

And yet, and yet, there is a new world. There is a new world that began in a garden, when he called her name; in a locked room, when his scars touched them, and they felt the Spirit on their faces. There is a new world in which marginalised women get to forever be hailed as Apostle to the Apostles, and in which cowards and doubters leave their attics to create this subversive society in which “no one says that any of the things which he possesses is his own” and “distribution is made to each as any has needs”.

God knows, a week after Easter—2000 years after Easter—this new world is still a pipe dream, and, God have mercy, that’s on us, we who have the power to loose sins or bind them, and have had our moral priorities mislaid; we who have been called into peace and blessing, and have turned instead to violence and selfishness.

So, what happens now? I’m pretty sure we know already. It really doesn’t take a biblical scholar or systematic theologian to give us, in broad strokes at least, a vision of the Church and world as they ought to be in the shadow of the Cross and the light of the Resurrection.  We can debate till kingdom comes about what this or that parable or commandment means in this or that particular situation. But Jesus’s attitudes toward the poor and otherwise needy are not exactly subtle, nor for that matter, was his relationship with money and power.

Even our hypocrisy and wilful ignorance is forgiven us, thank God. But all the same, we’ve got work to do. There is peace to be received and shared, sins to confess and forgive,  possessions to give up and be given up by, needs to meet. There is a new world to live in.

Sermon: April 14th 2013

Readings

Acts 9:1—20

Psalm 30

Revelation 5:11—14

John 21:1—19

 

Who are you?

Struck blind as his friends are struck silent, he gasps at the stranger he cannot see. Lord, he says, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps half-knowing in the way we all know only in halves what we mean in our own speaking. Like Freudian slips and other inadvertent truths that spill forth from our faces, betraying our proclivities and prejudices, surprising even ourselves.

Who then is this Stranger-Lord, this voice that has managed to reach into his, even Saul’s, head; this light that shines and shines into his, even Saul’s, heart?  It is all very unexpected; how odd it is that he—the Pharisee of Pharisees, the ruthless persecutor—is counted among those to whom Jesus appears, among his own apostles and disciples? And yet, whoever Jesus is, he surely is the one who confounds our limitations, the boundaries we put on his mercy.

 

Who are you?

Mouths full and skin wet with salt and sun, they dare not ask his name. They know, or they think they know. It is the Lord, of course, is it not? And not just any old lord—any old sir, old social superior—but their Lord, the Lord. And yet they do and do not recognize his face, in the way that we all sometimes do and do not recognize the faces of the ones we love most dearly, even our own faces. Like syllables uttered too many times in repetition, the sounds turn funny and unfamiliar, the face of their friend is, to them for a moment, foreign.

Who then is this Stranger-Friend, this face they love with fire like burning charcoal, these hands that feed them fish and bread? This too is unexpected, he who was dead—they saw it, they remember all too well—is alive after all, and, of all things, having a picnic on the beach. It is not, as it was with Paul, a voice from Heaven that came to them, but a human being, with rumbling tummy and sandy toes and warm skin, pink from the sun. It was neither ghost nor reanimated corpse, but something else altogether; some kind of transformation, translation, transfiguration before them, the same Jesus, but different. Whoever he is, he forces us to rethink our categories, to rethink what it is to be human, to be alive.

 

 

Who are you?

We think we know, and perhaps not unreasonably so. After so many years, so many sermons, so much prayer. We think we know, after so many centuries of theological reflection, so many scholarly tomes on the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. We, those of us who claim to follow Jesus—with Paul on Damascus Road who knew that Jesus was a dangerous fool and Peter in the high priest’s courtyard who knew that Jesus was done for—with them, we are ever tempted to believe that we know who this Jesus is. And worse, we domesticate him, we co-opt him for our own purposes, personal and political, confining him to a tomb of our own making. And yet, of course, the tomb—flanked on either side with angels—is like the Ark of the Covenant in our old Hebrew stories—it, with cherubim flanking on either side—both tomb and ark are empty precisely because God resists definitive description, transcends comfortable categorization, refuses to be carved in stone or steel or sentences. We think we know, but we do not know, and yet, at the same time, of course we do, because God has revealed himself fully in this Stranger who is both Friend and Lord.

 

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It is the Second Sunday after Easter, and the Risen Christ is, in his rising and speaking and sending and absolving and eating, is, whoever he is, the one who changes everything, overturning old ideas for minds renewed, rendering old categories null and void, empty as his tomb. He appears to his friends and foes, and they know and do not know him, and yet are found by him, and fed, and forgiven, and freed from their pasts to live the lives we remember still these centuries later. Peter, who once betrayed Jesus is, by Jesus, entrusted with the care of this fragile new community. Upon this rock, Jesus will build his Church. Paul, who once tried to kill the infant Church, is tasked with growing it far beyond its traditional social, national, and ethnic borders. And here we are today, against the odds of any betting man, the Church still here, and we in it, kings and gentiles beyond the ends of the earth. Here we are today, remembering that it began with traitors and haters, struck blind and speechless by their strange friend and master.

 

That is to say, we do not know how stories end. It is interesting to textual scholars, and to very few other people, that St. John’s Gospel ends at least twice. The last two verses of the twentieth chapter is clearly an ending of sorts. And yet, it is not the ending of the story, because we now have the twenty-first chapter, assigned as our Gospel text for today. Thus, this story ends not with knowledge—with the dissipation of St. Thomas’s doubt in Chapter 20—but with love, with the reversal, in Chapter 21, of St. Peter’s previous betrayal. It ends with love, and yet it does not end at all, pointing as it does into the future and, in the closing verses of the book, asserting the necessary incompleteness of all tellings of Jesus’s story. We do not know how stories end, not Jesus’s, not Peter’s, not Paul’s, not yours or mine, or anyone else’s.

 

We do not know how stories end precisely because, whoever he is, Jesus is the one who ever exceeds our expectations; who is more comprehending of the foibles we count most mammalian, more forgiving of the sins we count most shameful, more merciful to those we count our most bitter enemies. No less than St. Peter’s, our own betrayals are not the final words about us; no less than St. Paul’s, our own prejudices are not our epitaphs. The same that is true of us and those whom we meet in the pages of Scripture, is also true for those whom we meet in the pages of our newspapers and in our television screens and on our city streets and in our own lives. Our sins, and theirs are, for all their differences, exactly the same, not least in that they are inconclusive. We are not ourselves written off, given up on, and we must therefore fight the urge to close the pages on someone else’s story, to write off as hopeless those who have betrayed us and hated us in both petty and profound ways.

  

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It is the Second Sunday after Easter, and the Risen Christ is our strange friend and master, whose new life is ours because he has shared in our deaths, in our darkest hours. He is indeed a heavenly voice in the midst of great light, as St. Paul encountered him. And he is a lamb, on a throne, slaughtered, just as he was revealed to St. John Divine who was told—just before this eruption of angelic praise we have heard today—to expect a conquering Lion of Judah. Once again, Jesus is the great violator of expectations, turning on their heads our ideas of what victory is, what glory is, what conquest looks like. Heavenly voice, enthroned lamb and, all the same, a quiet camper, hands dusty with bread and oily with fish, and smelling of smoke and sand. Glorious and humble, he is human like us, and like him our stories are unpredictable, neither mine nor yours, nor the people about whom it is believed that all hope is lost, the men and women, the relationships and families, written off by the power structures of State and Church, society, by you and me. Our calling, our following Jesus this side of the empty tomb, is therefore not to define each other and ourselves, or to categorize or to conclude, but to tend and feed and love in the convicting hope that the weeping may indeed linger only for a night, to make way for morning’s joy.