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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Behold, I am making all things new!

Texts: Acts 11.1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21.1-6; John 13.31-35

‘I am making everything new . . .  The old order of things has passed away’.  These are the words of the one who sits upon the throne of heaven in John’s apocalyptic vision.  John writes for a church that is being persecuted under the tyranny of Rome.  It is crying out with a grief and pain that echoes that of Israel under the Pharaohs in Egypt.  What the seer has to say is meant to create a new hope for all who weep.  He imagines a completely new world, a new universe, where the apparent gap between the present reality and the promised peace of God is finally and completely bridged.  God will himself come to dwell with his suffering people and every tear they have ever shed will be wiped away and the thirst of all who cry out for justice will finally be quenched.

This is a bold theology, a theology that many a self-proclaimed ‘realist’ is likely to decry with words that echo Karl Marx’s critique of religion as nothing more than an ‘opiate’ for suffering people.  Is the hope of the Seer false?  Is his theology merely a panacea for pain rather than a genuine cure?  Not, I think, if one also believes in the truth of the Easter proclamation that ‘Christ is risen’.  For in the writing of that other John, John the evangelist, we find an Easter hope that actually begins in the midst of reality as it is, the reality of suffering, pain and injustice.  ‘Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.’ (13.31).  This is John’s way of saying that the transformation of the whole creation from a dark place of suffering into a bright place of blissful peace is beginning right now with something that will happen to Jesus.  But when is it beginning?  Well, read the verse before this one.  ‘As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out.  And it was night.’  According to John, the transformation of the world begins not with Easter morning and with shouts of resurrection, but with the betrayal of Jesus by his friend Judas in the dead of night on a very ordinary Thursday.  This is where the transformation begins.  Here. With betrayal and failure and the departure of all that is good and true and noble.  The transformation begins then, in the midst of failure, the failure of all those moral codes that rule our society, our religion, our hearts.

That this breakdown can be not only an ending and a loss, but also the chance for a new beginning – a revolution, indeed – can be seen from the story of Peter’s vision at Joppa that we read in Acts.  Here we find out how the earliest church of the Jews learned that God loves the Gentiles too.  But it was a difficult lesson.  It was a lesson that the church could only learn with great a deal of pain and disorientation and loss.  For at the time of Jesus, Peter and Paul, most self-respecting Jews believed, deep down in their marrow, that it was only the people of Israel who were beloved of God.  Other races or ethnic groups, the 'gentiles' as they were called, had not been 'chosen' as Israel was, and were therefore unworthy of inclusion in God's family.  This understanding was carried into the earliest Christian church, which clearly believed that God's message of salvation in Christ was for the Jewish people only.  But all that is changed by a vision Peter saw one day in the trading city of Joppa . . .

Peter's vision was absolutely decisive for the earliest churches.  It showed them that Jesus had died not just for the Jews, but for everyone on the planet.  It also showed them that the most important matters of faith were not doctrinal purity and ethical legalism, but unconditional love and the works of compassion that flow from that love.  It's very instructive, I think, that the Spirit was given to Cornelius before either he or his family signed any doctrinal statement or made any promises about the ethical life.  God, at least, simply accepted them as they were.  Peter says of that experience, 'if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?'

Nevertheless, it seems there are a lot of folks around these days who want to oppose God's universal love.  And they invariably do it in the name of some kind of moral code that has not yet been broken by the gospel of transformative love.  There are some who do it more obviously.  People like those in the neo-Nazi movement, who believe that God's earth is only for people with white skin and an Anglo-Saxon or Germanic background.  Consequently they persecute and terrorise anyone who is Asian, Hispanic or black.  Or the right-wing extremists of Christian America who believe that Christian faith and being homosexual are mutually exclusive options.  So they set up programmes to 'rescue' gays from their sin.  Or, worse still, they form gangs who wander the night streets looking for vulnerable young men to harass.

But there are others who oppose God's universal love in less obvious ways, which are nevertheless just as damaging.  This week the nation has celebrated ANZAC day.  ANZAC day celebrates a collection of myths that enshrine a particular moral code, a moral code that considers it a great good that a man or woman should sacrifice their lives for the glory of the nation.  The ANZAC mythology also says that it is a good thing, a thing to memorialized and celebrated, that a man or woman should sacrifice the prohibition against killing another human being for the glory of the nation.  People who do this, so the ANZAC code of morality tells us, will be treated as heroes.  They will be given medals and honoured in parades.  Now I know very well that this is not ALL that ANZAC day celebrates.  I know very well that there is a legitimate mourning for fallen and traumatised comrades there in the mix as well.  But consider for a moment the terrible contradiction that recognition sets up, both for soldiers and for the nation.  On the one hand, the solider is told to kill other human beings, and to do so for the glory of the nation.  On the other hand, the soldiers who do so are then condemned to live with the terrible horror of what they have done for the rest of their lives.  Today the guilt and depression of that heart of darkness has been psychologised as ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’, but that name erases as much as it reveals.  It erases the fact that even the most prestigious medal and even the most honorific parade cannot take away the simple fact that to kill another human being is to disown life itself, ANZAC morality notwithstanding.

Contrast the injunction to kill another human being for the glory of the nation with the compassion we are called to by Christ.  'A new commandment I give you' says Jesus.  'Love one another as I have loved you'.  The Greek word agape, here translated 'love' is probably being connected by John with a Hebrew word, hesed, meaning 'unconditional compassion or kindness'.  Compassion means, of course, to 'suffer with' someone.  And love in the agapic sense means to care for someone without condition.  So the love which Jesus calls us to exercise is a love like his own: an unjudging, unconditional compassion for all who suffer in whatever way.  It's the kind of love exemplified in our time by Mother Teresa, who cared for the social outcasts of Indian society, even though that meant breaking the very fabric of Hindu morality.  Such love perseveres beyond the boundaries of our various moral codes.  If any such code gets in the way of love, it must be broken!

The kind of love Christ calls us to offer is far from sentimental or traditionalistic.  It is very costly because it is a call to share the darkness of any who are hurting even to the point of shattering our most persistent notions of what is virtuous and just.  This is a very motherly kind of love.  A mother simply loves the ones she has given birth to, even if they pierce her heart, which they inevitably do to one degree or another.  A mother keeps loving even if her children go places and do things she would rather they didn't.  A mother keeps loving even when the pain of sharing her child's confusion and mistakes is very great.  So the call to love is a call to imitate the motherly love of God.

On this day which celebrates Easter, the ending that is a new beginning, let us learn this lesson: that the love of God is a shattering of the moral codes by which we live in order that we might be open to a world that no longer needs or depends on such codes.  Let us learn that the unconditional love of mothers actually provides us with a powerful picture of the transformative love of God in Jesus Christ.  For it shows us how love can plant a seed of hope in even the darkest of places, the darkest of times.  It reveals how such love may start a revolution that is eventually able to turn gentile-haters into gentile-lovers or betrayers of Christ into lovers of Christ.  In this we might even come to see that the hope of Christians is a real hope, a hope planted in the bedrock of what happened to the Christ who shared in our humanity. He was shattered on the cross, broken on the moral codes of Romans and Jews.  But when he was shattered, so were their codes, and ours!  For he rose to show us that the code of God is love, and therefore none of the ways in which we divide up the world into the virtuous and the less-virtuous will ultimately prevail.  Because Christ is risen, a new order has begun.  It is not yet entirely here, to be sure.  But it is coming.  It is coming!

This sermon was preached at St Columba's in Balwyn on the 5th Sunday of Easter, 2013.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Vindication of the Martyrs

Psalm 23; Revelation 7.9-17; John 10.22-30

A moment ago we heard from the Book of Revelation.  In the scene presented to us, the writer imagines that heaven is like a vast temple or throne-room.  The one on the throne is never named or described in any detail, but we are left in no doubt that it is the God of Israel, Moses and Elijah, the God and Father of our Lord Christ.  Immediately before the throne is one who looks like a Lamb who has been slain.  It is Christ, the paschal lamb who was slain to atone for the sins of the world.  Interestingly, in the Book of Revelation, the one on the throne can never be seen or addressed apart from a seeing and addressing of the Lamb.  One can never see the deity on the throne directly; every view is obscured by the Lamb.  This is very clever theology.  God may only be known by what God reveals of Godself in the face, form and voice of the Lamb.  The Lamb is God, that is, he is all we may know of God.  There is a resonance here with that phrase from Jesus in the Gospel of John:  “The Father and I are one.”  But that is not what I want to dwell on this evening.

Shift your gaze to the scene before the Lamb.  A great multitude is gathered, so large that not even a Channel 7 film crew would feel confident in proposing a figure.  The multitude is composed of people from every nation, ethnicity and language under heaven.  They are robed in white and they have palm branches in their hands.  And what are they there for?  What is their intention and purpose?  Simply this: to offer a sacrifice of praise to the one on the throne and to the Lamb.  In this they are joined by angels, elders, and four living creatures.  The angels represent the hosts of heaven, the elders the people of Israel, and the creatures the whole creation of birds, animals and reptiles.  What we witness here, then, is the worship our own gathering aims to imitate, albeit dimly, as in a glass darkly: the worship, honour and praise that shall one day be offered to God by humans, beasts, and the whole creation:
Amen!  Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgivingand honour and power and mightbe to our God forever and ever!  Amen!
But let us return our gaze, once more, to the multitude arrayed in white.  Who are they, and how did they come to be there?  Well, conveniently enough for us, one of the Elders in the scene addresses exactly that question to the writer of Scripture:  “who are they, and where did they come from?”  It is, of course, a rhetorical question, and the writer barely has time to open his mouth before the Elder replies:  “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal, the time of trial; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  For this reason, they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night.”  He says are few more things as well, but I’ll come to that later.

There’s just one thing I’d like you to note from these words.  This multitude, those chosen by God for salvation, are in fact a group of martyrs.  The phrase “they have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb” is not there simply for decoration.  It means, quite literally, that these people have lived their lives in imitation of Christ.  By dying with Christ, by following his way even unto death, they succeeded in casting aside the evils of the world, the flesh, and the devil.  So now they are washed clean, raised to resurrection life with Jesus.  The Lamb was slain to atone for their sins, and these are they who left those sins behind by dying a death like his own.

Now, of course, there are martyrs and there are martyrs.  We happen to live in a world in which it is still very, very likely that you will be murdered because of your faith in Christ.  According to the American-based organisation, International Christian Concern, it is currently very dangerous to actually practise Christian faith (as opposed to having some private opinions about God) in the following parts of the world: Ambon and Aceh in Indonesia, Mindanao in the Philippines, China, Palestine, Nigeria, Pakistan, some parts of India, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Egypt and Morocco.  And I’m sure that’s not the whole story.  In places like this, faith is indeed costly.  You can lose your job or your home because you attend a church.  And you can lose your very life if you decide to oppose the social or economic policies of the government or the military in the name of Christ.  For Christians from these parts of the world, martyrdom is a daily possibility.  You could really be put to death after the manner of the saviour.

But then there is the martyrdom to which I believe WE are called, ‘we’, that is, who live in the democratic West.  According to the Book of Revelation, it is ONLY the martyrs who make is to heaven to be with God.  All of us are called to martyrdom in one way or another.  So how do we, here in the West, die after the manner of Christ, how do we forfeit our lives for the sake God?  Well, this is not a trick question.  The answer is pretty straight-forward really.  Being a martyr in the West is exactly the same as being a martyr in those countries where Christians are openly persecuted.  For the Christian is one who, by definition, has ‘unplugged’ from the Matrix, the basic principles and powers of the world, in order to live life by a different code and agenda—the code and agenda of Christ.  Every Christian who is literally martyred in Mindanao or Pakistan does so because they are already, in a sense, dead.  Baptism is the Christian’s funeral.  In baptism we die to all the powers and influences that colonise us—from the ‘terror’ rhetoric of governments to the consumer religion of television—and rise to share in the freedom of God’s radically new society.  Christ died because he believed the world should be different than it is, because he was motivated by a vision of God’s coming justice.  In baptism, the Christian renounces what Christ renounced and embraces what Christ embraced.  Anyone who does this, whether the consequence be a literal death or not, is a martyr to Christ’s cause.  The root meaning of the word ‘martyr’ is witness.  Anyone who dies with Christ in baptism witnesses to Christ’s way.  Whether one literally lives or dies thereafter is very much up to the community in which one happens to live.

Now, in that perspective, the resurrection we celebrate in this season of Pascha takes on a very specific meaning.  For the persecuted Christians of the late first century, the Christians for whom the books of John and Revelation were written, resurrection was primarily about vindication, the vindication of what we might call the “lost cause” of peace with justice.  To their eyes, the resurrection of Jesus was not simply a miracle, a display of divine magic to wow anyone who might be watching on television.  It was God’s vindication of Jesus’ cause, God’s stamp of approval on the life he lived for the sake of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalised and the wretched.  When Jesus was crucified it appeared, of course, that Jesus had been abandoned, that God was on the side of the Romans and their aristocratic Jewish collaborators.  But his resurrection burst forth like a neon-sign in the fog, a sign which declared that Jesus’ cause was God’s cause, that Jesus’ values were God’s values, that Jesus’ people were God’s people.

It is on that basis, and that basis only, that any of us could dare to die with Christ, to live and die with him in the service of the forgotten and forsaken.  For if Christ is risen, then his cause in just.  It is God’s cause, and so we can count on God to vindicate all that we do in imitation of Christ, even if the powers that be make life very difficult (even impossible) for us.  Even when we walk through the valley of the shadow, we need not despair.  For the Lamb that was slain is risen to be our shepherd, the one who knows what we feel and seeks to befriend and protect us in the night-time our fears.  Because he is risen, we are assured that God will never loose us from God’s grip.  He will hold us tight to Christ, so that even if we die with him, we shall also live with him. 

All of us, then, are called to be martyrs.  To worship Christ and his ways even unto the ridicule of our friends, even unto the loosing of jobs and homes and reputations, even unto death.  But God promises that if we do so, that if we will only let go of such things, we shall experience a freedom and a joy we never imagined was possible.  The joy of the redeemed who, even though they die, yet they live—and far more abundantly than even the Murdochs or the Packers.

This homily was first preached at South Yarra Baptist Church on the fourth Sunday of Easter 2004.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Called to Ministry

Texts: Acts 9.1-20; Psalm 30; Revelation 5.11-14; John 21.1-19

Today we take some time to reflect upon the implications of being called to minister in Christ's church.

According to the readings we heard just now, the call to ministry comes directly from the risen Jesus himself and, somewhat counter-intuitively, it comes to those who least deserve it!  Note, however, that while the call to ministry comes with bucket-loads of grace, the stringency of its demands on the one called are not thereby diminished.  Ministry asks that we lay everything at Christ's feet - possessions, plans, ego, work - everything!  Ministry is therefore very, very costly.  The reward, however - in keeping with God’s disproportionate measure of grace - is an extraordinarily new quality of life, life lived in colour rather than in the black and white.  All of this can be summarised in a short phrase from the Acts reading:  'being filled with the Holy Spirit'.  When the Spirit of Christ fills us up, the mundane becomes extraordinary, the profane becomes sacred, the activities of mere flesh and blood become the fulfilment of God's dream that the whole creation might be renewed in peace and love.  When the Spirit comes, she equips us to serve that dream after the way of Christ our Lord. . . . .    But I’m already moving too quickly.  Let us return to the beginning.


The call to ministry comes from the risen Christ himself.  Simon Peter hears the call in the midst of a meal of bread and fish on the shores of Lake Galilee.  The host is a stranger who turns out to be Jesus.  Peter is asked, three times, to nurture and teach Christ's church.  Saul of Tarsus hears the call as he rides between Jerusalem and Damascus.  The risen Christ appears to him in a blinding light.  He is told to go into the city and wait for further instructions.  After three days (that repeat and mirror Christ’s time in the tomb) he is baptised, the scales fall from his eyes, and he receives a commission to preach Christ's message to both Jew and Gentile.  My own call to ministry came through an encounter with the Christ of the Gospels.  As a thirteen year old, I was already weary of what the usual path in life seemed to offer.  Alongside my usual diet of science fiction, I began to read the gospels.  One evening I read the following in Matthew's sermon on the Mount:  'Seek first God's kingdom and his justice, and all of your hungers will be taken care of' (Matt 6.33).  Right then and there the written words came alive in a way which made my spine tingle.  I felt a presence in the room which seemed to be ADDRESSING me.  I said 'OK Jesus, I'll take you at your word.  I'm hungry for something greater.  Let's see if you can deliver the goods'.  All these years later I can report that while I'm still hungry, the goods are being delivered everyday, very often against the odds!

The call to serve Christ also comes to those who least deserve it.  Simon Peter had abandoned Jesus in the moment of his greatest need.  Luke tells us that while Jesus was being taken away to be tortured, Peter denied that he knew Jesus not once, but three times.  Yet it is this same Simon Peter whom the now risen Jesus calls to lead the fledgling church at Jerusalem.  In a striking reversal of the three-fold denial, Jesus invites Peter to affirm his love for Jesus three times.  And with each affirmation, Peter receives the commission to feed Christ's sheep.  There is a grace in this three-fold restoration which speaks of the resurrection itself.  Whatever we have done to trample God underfoot, whatever we might have contributed to the dying of life’s light, God’s grace is more than sufficient to forgive, to heal, and to breathe the life of the Christ who defeated death itself into our feeble frames!

Saul, too, is called out of disgrace into ministry.  A chief persecutor of the first generation of Christian disciples, he is nevertheless chosen by Jesus to be a travelling missionary, carrying the word of life to the furthest reaches of the ancient Roman world.  His encounter with Christ makes him blind, and he remains in that netherworld of darkness for three days.  When Ananias comes to baptise him, Saul puts away his old self, the self that was God’s enemy.  He nails it to the cross with Christ.  In the power of Christ’s resurrection, he rises to take a new name – Paul – and become, in time, the architect of Christianity as we know it.  Witness, again, the power of the call of Christ to forgive, to heal, and to set even the most vehement sceptic on the path of ministry.

Paul’s story reminds me of a friend, a fellow named David, a minister of the gospel in the Churches of Christ.  One of the roughest characters you would ever meet.  An alcoholic and a junkie, a bikie who beat people up in pub brawls, a consummate abuser of relationships, he trashed three marriages.  But, by David’s own account, God took him by the scuff of the neck and said, and I quote, 'Come with me, Thompson'.  He's still a rough character.  He can still sink a lager or two.  But he's one of the most real and honest pastors of Christ I've ever met.  He knows how to listen, how to share your pain.  And people are healed and comforted because Jesus called Dave Thompson to ministry.  I tell that little story to make a single point.  God calls all of us to ministry, no matter what state we're in when the call comes.  Paul once wrote that ministry was like a glittering treasure which is carried around in jars of clay (2 Cor 4.7).   That means that even you and I, with all our secret fears, anxieties and sins, are still God's chosen vessels for this marvellous word of life.  So, my friends, we have no excuse.  If we are baptised, we are called to ministry.  It is as simple as that.

Finally, the life of ministry is characterised by a peculiar paradox.  On the one hand, we are to sacrifice everything we possess and everything we are for the sake of Christ.  Yet, by doing so, we are promised a life of joy, and riches beyond our wildest dreams.  When Jesus commissions Peter he warns that the freedom to which he has become accustomed will eventually be done away with.  He speaks of a time when people will bind him up and lead him away to be crucified.  Similarly, when Paul is commissioned by Ananias, the Lord says that Paul will suffer for Christ's name.  And we know from Paul's own letters, that he is eventually put under permanent house arrest in Rome because of his unwillingness to accord Caesar greater homage than Christ.  Such is the slavery and the sacrifice of those who are called to ministry.  The modern martyrs of El Salvador, Iraq, the Philippines and many other places, those who die because of their love of the poor in Christ's name, are a permanent challenge to us about the quality of our Christian discipleship.  They call to us from their graves saying 'are you really willing to follow Christ wherever he may lead you?'  I am constantly floored by Christ's words in Mark: ' Any who seek to follow me must take up their cross and follow in my steps.  For the one who would save their life will lose it, but the one who loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it' (8.34, 35).  These words sound like absolute foolishness according to the conventional wisdom, do they not?  The TV tells us to buy, to consume, to get richer, to make ourselves more beautiful etc., etc . . . But Christ tells us that gaining the world is the same as losing your soul, losing the sense of what life is about, losing life's joy and purpose.  But that's why the way of Christ, a way through suffering and sacrifice, is also the way to life.  Because it's only by resisting the conventional wisdom, it's only by swimming against the stream, that we'll find out what life is all about.  Luke says it like discovering that there's a land of light and colour out there when all your life you've known only the darkness of being blind.  It's like scales falling from your eyes to reveal the beauty of God's earth.

In closing I simply want to note that the call to Christ's ministry does not usually come as some kind of experience subsequent to our conversion.  Rather, it comes as part of the conversion experience itself.  Thus for Paul.  Thus for us.  To be converted, to be baptised, to be filled with the Spirit, to be commissioned for ministry - these are all experiences and decisions that belong together.  In your conversion and in your baptism, you were filled with the Spirit and equipped with everything you need to begin on way of discipleship, which is also the way of ministry.  Today the risen Christ says to all of us 'I love you.  I forgive you.  I have given you are ministry to perform in my name.  What are you doing about it?'

This homily was first preached at South Yarra Baptist Church on the 3rd Sunday of Easter in 2001.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Breaking Out with Jesus

Text: Luke 24.1-35

Do you ever get the feeling that you’re going around in circles?  Do you ever get the feeling that the record is stuck, that you’ve heard it all before?  I got that feeling as I watched the evening news last night, and now I feel sick to the stomach.  For even as we gather in this season on which Christ rose from a violent death, the ancient feuds continue unabated. In Columbia and Afganistan, in Iraq and the Sudan, the cycle of violence and despair turns yet again: an eye for an eye, a church for a mosque, a wrong for a wrong.


To my mind, what we see in all this is what Nietzsche called ‘the eternal return of the Same’, the irrepressible tendency of human beings to crave what they have always craved, to believe what they have always believed, and to know what they have always known.  With the eternal return the rhetoric of ‘new life’ is just a figure of speech, because nothing new is really possible.  The circle returns, endlessly, to where it began.  Violence begets violence, and despair begets only despair.  In the end even the most hopeful amongst us are seduced.  We begin to believe that we’ve seen in all before, that there is nothing new under the sun.


The reality of the Resurrection, which we celebrate this morning, confronts this cycle absolutely. For the resurrection of Jesus is about the in-breaking of something that is so new, so different, so unheard of, that, strictly speaking, we cannot even describe it.  It is, as J├╝rgen Moltmann says somewhere, an event entirely without comparison or analogy.  It is an event which shatters every established pattern, every expectation, every shred of certainty we may have had about the way things are.   It is like the T-Shirt which I bought at a U2 concert a few years back which said “Everything You Know is Wrong”.  It is the explosion within Sameness of a reality which is totally and radically other than anything that we could ever think or imagine:  it is the arrival of God.  And what is the purpose of this interruption?  To change things.  To change things so entirely that we will never again become captive to all that seems predictable, or ‘necessary,’ or ‘fated’.  When Christ rises he does not rise, like Lazarus, to a life lived as it had been lived before.  When Christ rises, he rends not only the entrance to his tomb, but also the very fabric of the way things have always been, so that God’s creatures may never be slaves to the Same ever again.


Here we find ourselves inside Luke’s story of the Emmaus road.  Like us, the travelling companions live in that time after the resurrection.  The women had been to the tomb and witnessed its emptiness, but scarcely able to understand what had happened themselves, find that they cannot make themselves understood amongst their male companions, who remain trapped inside their cycle of grief, anger and despair.  Like many of us, they are stuck within the endless cycle of expectation and disappointment: their messianic hope had been shattered on a Roman cross.  Still, it is here, in the very centre of that circle, that the Christ chooses to meet them. 



As two of these disciples journey toward Emmaus, Jesus joins them, listening to their woeful story of hopes dashed and despair grown large again.  But then he does something rather surprising.  He begins to preach to them from the Scriptures, but not in the mode of many of the sermons I’ve heard, which do little more than confirm and comfort me in what I already know.   No, this is a profoundly dis-confirming preaching, which first castigates them for their lack of faith in the prophets, and then proceeds to deconstruct their Scriptural knowledge so radically that the meaning of the same is utterly and irreversibly altered.  The results were, I imagine, terrifying.  Suddenly the disciples begin to see that everything they had ever known and believed was wrong.  Yet despite the upset, there is something compelling in what Jesus says that compels them to hang onto him. 


So when they urge Jesus to join them for the evening meal, he consents to do so.  And there he does something which really dislodges their expectations.  In a careful repetition of what he had done at the last supper, Jesus takes bread, says a prayer of blessing, and breaks it so that all gathered may eat.  At that moment, we are told, the companion’s eyes are opened.  They recognise that the stranger is Jesus, their friend, the crucified one.  And yet he is not that one.  He is radically different.  He is somehow other.  If that isn’t weird enough, Luke then tells us that in that precise moment of recognition, at that very nano-second, Jesus vanishes from their sight and is seen no more. 

Turning to each other in wonder and excitement, the disciples declare the way in which their hearts were ‘burning’ within them when they heard the word preached.  Note the word: ‘burned,’ as in purged by a bushfire, not ‘warmed’, as by a cosy open fire on a winter’s night.  The disciples rise from where they are and return to the place of despair and forlorn logic from which they came.  They return to Jerusalem with a distinct and special mission:  to declare and confirm that Christ had indeed been raised, and that he had make himself known to them in the breaking of bread.  Which is to say, they returned to Jerusalem to dis-confirm the miserable logic of the Same which held sway there, to interrupt and fragment its omnipotent power by the burning joyfulness of all they had glimpsed in the risen Christ.


Now, this is a strange and wondrous story by any standard.  So strange and wonderful that I am certain that almost everything I intend in speaking about it this morning is not quite right.  But this is how it is with the resurrected Christ.  He comes to us as the word that is strange and in/credible, not conforming to the logic of what we know and experience to be real and trustworthy.  He comes to us not to confirm what we know or to reinforce our sense that things will never change.  He comes to transform that inclination utterly, to show us, in the blazing light of his risen glory, that the Eternal Return of the same is killing us.  Slowly killing us, but killing us all the same.  And who can doubt this word?  Hasn’t life become genuinely banal for us in this neo-pagan world of circles?  Hemmingway wrote famously that most people live lives of “quiet desperation”.  The writer of Ecclesiastes complains that all is ‘vanity’, by which he means that human beings, despite all their apparent thirst for experience, tend to look only for that which may be easily integrated into the logic and the framework which is always already there: the framework of violence, the strong over the weak, the deserving over the less deserving.  But Christ is raised to shatter that logic, to undo the idolatrous gaze that works such vanity into all that is seen and touched and felt.  Christ is raised to set us free.


This I believe, and this I declare to you today.  But I want you to note two important implications of this belief.  And these reflections are guided directly by Luke’s text.  First, resurrection belief is sustainable only if one believes what Luke says about the disappearance of Christ at the very moment that we recognise him.  Remember what we heard from Moltmann. The resurrection is an event without analogy.  No matter how much we try to understand and describe him, the risen Christ will always and everywhere elude and elide our grasp.  We see him as in a glass darkly; he is a flash of light at the corner of our eyes, which, if we turn to take squarely into the full ambit of our gaze, will disappear into invisibility.  The Celtic tradition speaks of the Christ who always comes in the guise of the stranger, a stranger who is gone even before one realises who he was.  In precisely that mode, the Emmaus story tells us that no matter how ingenious our resurrection accounts and theologies become, they will certainly not secure a Christ who may be domesticated for our own use and purpose.  Christ will not allow himself to be manipulated like that.  He will not join us in our crusades against those we see as our enemies.


Which leads into my second point, and a rather perplexing one at that.  Perhaps you will have noticed how Luke structures his story after the model of a first century worship service?  First there is a Gathering of companions, who come immediately from the circle of despair, and they are joined there by Christ.  Then there is a Service of the Word, a recounting of the Scriptures and a preaching; and it is Christ himself who does this; yet he is not recognised by those who hear.  Then there is a Eucharist, where Christ is again the anonymous presider who breaks bread, blesses, and share it with his companions.  And then there is a Mission.  The disciples, having finally discerned the risen Christ, are then driven out by the burning in their hearts to dis-confirm and question the logic of the world from which they came. 


What Luke is telling us here is simply this: that it is in the gathered worship of the Christian church that Christ chooses to reveal his radically new word and reality.  That worship itself is the mode by which he interrupts and fractures the logic of despair.  For in the reading of Scripture, the preaching of the word, and in the breaking of the bread, Christ himself comes to call us out of whatever trap of fate or necessity in which we have become ensnared.  In worship he gives us a glimpse of that world in which violence and despair have been done away, absorbed into Christ’s death on the cross.  In worship we learn that Christ is risen to make another world, another logic possible, the world and logic a transfiguring love which is able to cast out all fear—even the fear of our enemies.


But how can this be?  How is it that this ordinary human language of worship may become the language of Christ?  Didn’t I just say to you that Christ comes to interrupt our language and to un-say all that we might say of him!  Well, there is a great mystery here, a mystery tied very much to the mystery of Christ himself, who, in the incarnation, is said to be God in an ordinary human life.  Perhaps all that one may say about this mystery is something like this:  That in the human language of Christian worship, Christ speaks himself so resolutely that even where our liturgy seeks to enlist him to our wars against others or enrol him in our logic of violence and despair, Christ is able to address us in his own voice, from the margins as it were.  Even from that marginal place, Christ is able to speak powerfully: to so dispossess our liturgy of the meanings we intend, that, somehow, even as we say it, we hear it said back to us with a meaning not our own, in an inflection and tongue not our own, so that our hearts burn with confusion, and terror, but ultimately with the holy joy of people who are really being liberated from their bondage to the same old thing.  Christ will not succumb to the tombs we may make for ourselves or for him.  Christ will break free.  He will always break free, and he will break us free with him. 

I pray to God that Christ may do just that, even with what we say and do this morning. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

On Aboriginality

Yesterday I went for a drive with my extended family in northeast Tasmania along the coast road between Bridport and Musselroe Bay, where we were able to clearly see the islands of the Furneaux group to the immediate north.  This is a part of the state that I love very much, not least because it was my ancestral home. Like a great many of my contemporary brothers and sisters in the Palawa (Aboriginal Tasmanian) community, I am a direct descendent of the Pairrebeennen chieftan known as Mannalargenna.

As we sped past the sacred mountain, Mt. Cameron, where the clans traditionally gathered for trade and sacred ceremony, my father-in-law initiated a conversation about a live dispute between his church and the neighbouring Aboriginal Centre about the placement of a fence.  He observed that the Aboriginal community in question was probably made up of people who had come from other parts of the state, because 'there were no Aborigines in Burnie when the settlers arrived.'  I informed him that there were a number of Deverells involved in the Palawa community in Burnie, to which he responded (and I quote), 'Oh, the Deverells are as Aboriginal as I am'.  Since my father-in-law's ancestry is strictly Scots and German, I assume that what he meant by this is that the Deverells - myself included - are not really Indigenes of Tasmania at all, and that our claims to the contrary are therefore spurious at best.

I have to confess that I was rendered quite speechless. Which is not a condition I am used to. Not at all.

This incident raises, yet again, a question I have been dealing with all of my life.  In what sense can a white-skinned and red-headed lad from Sheffield, Tasmania - who, incidently, happens to have an Irish family name - claim to be Aboriginal?  If Aboriginality is not primarily about the colour of one's skin and the keeping-intact of traditional notions of blood, culture and habitation, then what could possibly remain?

I will not, here, rehearse the history of colonialism in Tasmania.  Others have done that very well - Lyndall Ryan and Henry Reynolds amongst them. I simply want to summarize what these scholars, amongst many others, have concluded: that Aboriginal identity in not primarily about the dominance of a particular biological inheritance over and against others; nor is it about the preservation of a particular, primitive and tribal, way of life.  Aboriginal identity is about the perseverance of a sense of indigeneity - both of place and of kin - over and against the will of a dominant culture and society that has demonstrably sought to erase these things. Given the devastating success of the colonizing will, especially in places like Tasmania and Victoria, this means that Aboriginality is most often preserved in the form of a memory and a deep-down sorrow pertaining to what has been lost or stolen - land, kin, spirituality - a sorrow that is manifested in various forms of grief and mourning, but also in the search for a justice in which these things might be returned, or at least acknowledged as having been stolen, along with appropriate gestures towards repentance and recompense.

My own Aboriginal identity is manifested, I believe, in the way I look at the Tasmanian landscape.  What I see and the way I see it is very, very different to the way in which my father-in-law sees it.

As we drove along the coast-road yesterday, my father-in-law very often spoke of the productivity of the farmland, the breed of the dairy-herds, the people he knew who were, or had been, engaged in the mining and farming of the land.  He spoke with the pride of a family that had come from the other side of the world and made itself prosperous by the sweat of its collective brow.  It was a discourse of celebration.

What I saw and felt could not be more different.  I saw a land that was filled with older memories.  At each creek I imagined a small group of kin searching for swan's eggs.  At each open plain I saw men chasing kangaroos and wallabies with spears. As we passed Mt Cameron I imagined the ecstasy of dancing, the shrewdness of trade, the skill of legal and theological storytelling and dispute.  When we stopped by the bay, I saw women diving for shellfish, and fires on the beach around which proud families gathered to consume stories and news along with their food.  I also felt the loss of these things: the drying-up of foodstocks as new 'settlers' pushed up the rivers; the hunting and stealing of people and of land; the agonizing deaths wrought by new diseases.  I looked across the straits at the Islands and saw the devastation on my ancestor's face as he realized he was been consigned, along with the peers he had sought to rescue, to the world of the dead.

This is a sensibility that I wish I could successfully share with my father-in-law and the wider community.  I have tried to do so in various ways across a number of years.  But I fear I have failed, for the look of incomprehension so often remains, even after telling my stories many times over.