Sermon for Easter Sunday 2016.
Life often seems a matter of timing: take choices to act in this way or that, to face up to or to hide from God. We can choose to re-pledge ourselves to follow the way of Jesus today or in a please-far-distant tomorrow: we can choose to act wrongly, however hard we massage that wrong into right, or we can hold back from that same act. It may, as I said, be a matter of timing: we may be too filled with fear to take that first step; or cocksure we don’t need a God whom we can’t see, much less a Jesus who let himself die; or we may still be carrying a cross of shame that at a time of particular vulnerability we chose wrongly because all ways looked equally desolate. The hiding and the revealing may well be part of the timing.
Jesus in Nazareth wasn’t hiding from God as he grew up, but biding his time. When eventually asked by his mother to help out at Cana when the wine ran dry, his response was ‘Woman, my hour has not yet come,’ by which he meant the hour to submit to death at the hands of Roman authorities and return to his heavenly father. He dutifully followed his mother’s request and started his ministry, even though he knew and she later experienced that his relationship with her, with his birth family, would change in favour of the family of humanity. But had he spoken too soon near Jerusalem, he’d have attracted those urban crowds which the Romans would see as a threat – for dictatorships always fear urban masses on the move, five thousand plus women and children waiting for lunch way off in rural Galilee not being so feared. If his timing had been wrong, his revealing too premature by directly opposing the temple authorities too soon, or had he made clear too soon he was of God, not at best a trivial godlet, those religious authorities would have joined with the colonial authorities to cut him off before he’d time to teach enough to give us all a chance of understanding.
His patient teaching conveyed meaning through encountering individuals and groups and through healing, through discussion, metaphor and parable. The firm root was his being of and from God, but blossoming from that was the command to follow justice and mercy in all our dealings, to oppose exploitative domination, to reach out to and learn from the despised and alien, whether the Samaritan woman at the well or the leper, and to break rules which condone or even support behaviour wrong in his eyes. Christ died voluntarily once to show us through his resurrection that God lives here today, that God is with us: but he is asphyxiated again and again by our boxing God up into a neat Sunday-only package! It is so easy to domesticate Jesus, to control the level of our commitment, to avoid seeming ‘too religious,’ to fit in with family and neighbours or because it’s just more comfortable to smooth off that sharp edginess in cosy lip-service. Above all, stay in hiding from God’s challenge to live.
In a few minutes, when I add the water to the wine in preparing the chalice, I shall quietly say: God baptise us afresh and give us the guts to follow Christ’s way, just as we shall say to Matthias in baptising him today. Then I raise the elements, presenting all of us to God that all receive that of God from God. I know that at that moment, God is utterly with us, which is neither triumphal nor excluding: it just describes that moment. All too often, ‘God is with us’ rules out all those outside our cluster, leaving those within a happy band of look-alikes or act-alikes. In reply to Cornelius the gentile Roman centurion, Peter said: ‘God knows no partiality; anyone who respects and follows God is accepted by and accepted by God.’ But, we, as Cornelius, have to come out of hiding first.
God is patiently waiting to embrace each of us: but we have to let ourselves be found. St Teresa put it as neatly as ever: ‘God is willing to wait for us for many a day, and even many a year, especially when perseverance and good desires are in our heart.’ Addressing God directly, she continues: ‘You have willingly waited for me for many a day and even many a year. I have been, I know, slow to answer, unable and unwilling to do your bidding at once. But if I have you, God, I will want for nothing.’
Being slow to respond to God, to come out of hiding, is not wicked, though refusing to contemplate the journey from a base-line of stolid ignorance or arrogance is unwise. It took me till 1991, when I was rather older than Matthias, to realise on Maundy Thursday, in an incense-filled Melbourne Anglican church which rejected women’s ministry, that Jesus was and is the light of the world. Preparing these Holy Week services and meditations, it has been a delight to realise how much more I grasped than last year, much less 1991: may that long be the case. For all who journey actively, God, Creator, Mediator, Companion, will seem by turn both revealed and obscured, starkly bright and foggily faint, embraced and held at distance.
God in Jesus revealed himself to the faithful women through the angels today, those women who had stayed at the Cross, waiting to start their journey of faith. They were mocked by the disciples, but they spoke the truth: Jesus, whom they had anointed in death, was risen from death. The disciples found that hard to believe. Many nowadays get entangled in arguments over the biology and the facticity of the resurrection, or are equally enmeshed in their insistence that the event is ‘only a metaphor or vision.’ But whether fact as written or truth-filled story, the crucial point is: what does the resurrection of Jesus mean, what does the ascension of Christ and sending of the Spirit mean to each person here, and how will we let it into our lives?
The risen Jesus opens up the meaning of scripture, enabling all to be embraced by the forgiveness of God, and the risen Christ journeys with us, as he did when revealing himself to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, as the ascended Christ does in those fleeting moments when he is standing before us, beside us. In short, as both fact and parable, the risen Christ means ‘Jesus lives,’ a figure of the present, the here and now, not just the past. Now what this meant for the disciples was not a simple ‘this, therefore that’, a simple smooth progression from often inept learners to magnificent mission workers. We know they scarpered off from the Roman headquarters, less to keep themselves pure for the Passover than to save their skin. They didn’t believe the women: but Jesus, so often revealing himself to women – as the one who first named him Son of Man – once again revealed himself to a woman, Mary Magdalene whom he had cured from illness. But after Pentecost, the disciples begin to get it, Peter eventually realising, or accepting, that Gentiles count too, and on the same terms as Jews without becoming Jews first, a relevant point in current immigration debates.
They had walked with Jesus, seen Jesus dead and then alive: and were slow to understand. Some of us will have seen Jesus the Christ, some not, though there is no difference in virtue or faith in either experience. While we are all slow to understand, and perhaps slow to come out of hiding and offer ourselves to our God who seeks us, we are all on the same journey with the risen Christ in our midst. Those points at which we understand are embedded in the timing of our lives, those points when we fully accept that through Jesus’ acceptance of death for us but equally his rejection of unjust domination and exploitation by the powerful, we are forgiven by God, Creator Mediator and Friend. Let us be surprised by joy, let us let another candle be lit in our mind, and let us celebrate God’s transforming gift of the resurrection, the living with and for us of Jesus the Christ, and risk dipping our toe, our body, our soul, into the unending stream of God’s challenging love.
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping