Sunday, April 20, 2014

Impossible hope

A sermon preached at today's dawn Easter service at Reservoir Park, Paddington.

But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said."
- Matthew 28.5-6a (NRSV)

Impossible. The execution was thorough. The tomb was sealed. The dead are dead. Cellular degeneration begins when the flow of oxygen ceases. The Galilean preacher was merely the latest victim of imperial oppression. His startling claims vanished as he gave up the ghost.

Cruelly for the disciples, the world did not end on Friday, but Saturday’s sun rose on a world unchanged, indifferent to the execution of another pitiful Jew. Abandoned to the catastrophe of a failed messianic promise, the disciples are scattered sheep. Self-preservation instincts kick in as they flee and hide, bitterly awakening from their three year dream. Pilate’s wife tries to banish her nightmares with a stuff drink. Pilate breathes a sigh of relief, feeling that he somehow dodged a javelin. Joseph of Arimathéa keeps his head down after his rash act of generosity to a condemned man. The centurion can’t shake a lingering unease. Simon of Cyrene digs a few splinters from his shoulder.

The sun shuffles its westerly way and another day departs. Sabbath rest. Sabbath grief. Sabbath shock and disillusionment. Sunday dawns and a new week begins, as it always has. The globe turns and life goes on.

"Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said."

Impossible. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The human frame returns to the humus from which it came. The worm turns. The circle of life. Our atoms are recycled. The extinction of the individual into the cosmic ocean of being. Entropy is all.

"He is not here." Impossible. The world will not stand for resurrection. The finality of death is the one certainty on which we may rely. The grave’s silence reassures us that our failures, faults and fumblings will be washed away by memory’s receding tide, that our self-destructive habits, our myopic obsessions, our petty bickering and fruitless labour are ultimately ephemeral, excusable, indeed already on their way into the oblivion of time.

"He has been raised." Impossible. The wounds humanity bears, the wounds humanity inflicts, can be staunched, but not ultimately healed. All the forests bulldozed, all the rivers poisoned, the wetlands drained, the coral reefs bleached, the oceans plundered, the glaciers melted, the climate heated, all the species lost, lost, lost. These wounds, these open wounds, may one day close – whether or not human hands remain to bind them. But the scars will persist.

"Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said."

Impossible, surely.

But imagine: what if it were true? Yes, it would be an amazing biological miracle. Yes, it would mean that Pilate’s guilty verdict has been overturned by God. It would mean that the disciples who abandoned Jesus in his hour of need could have a second chance, a fresh start. It would mean that Jesus’ amazing claims to represent God in word and deed have been vindicated. It would mean that God has indeed publicly appointed Jesus as Messiah. It would mean that death’s ubiquitous triumph has been breached; its power to silence, to shorten, to sully has been compromised and the trumping threat of all tyrants has been weakened. Yes, it would mean that acts of love, of hope, of tenderness and compassion, are not merely heroic defiant gestures in the face of an uncaring universe, but instead are lisping attempts at speaking the native language of the cosmos.

"He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said."

Impossible. But if this were true, it would mean something even more exciting. If Jesus is indeed God’s Messiah, the representative not just of God to humanity, but the one in whom the future of all humanity and all of creation is revealed, and if God raised Jesus from the dead, then that is a picture, a promise, a precedent of what God intends to do with the entire creation (1 Corinthians 15.21ff). If Jesus has been raised, God promises to raise our bodies too. If Jesus has been raised, God promises to liberate the entire groaning creation from its bondage to decay, in the words of the apostle Paul (Romans 8.18ff).

But how? The details are not spelled out; the tomb is empty, the angelic message is brief, the recorded meetings with the risen Christ tantalisingly under-narrated. But the implication seems clear. If Jesus has been raised, then no longer is it possible to hope for redemption from the world, for escape, for flight from the impossible conditions of mortal life into an otherworldly bliss. If Jesus has been raised, Christian hope can no longer speak of redemption from the world, only the redemption of the world.

God did not give up on Jesus. He didn't throw his body in the rubbish and start again. And God hasn’t given up on us or on his world, despite all our problems. We don’t need to be afraid. He is not the kind of builder who walks into a house, notices the shaky foundations, the peeling paint, the broken windows, leaking pipes and says, “tear it down, start again!” God is not a demolishing developer. He is into transformative renovation, renovation of our bodies, renovation of his good, very good creation. To renovate something is to make it new. Amongst the last words spoken by God in the scriptures is the wonderful promise: “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21.5). If God raised Jesus from the dead, then God has started to keep this promise.

If God raised Jesus bodily from the dead, leaving an empty tomb and a living man who could be touched and embraced, then matter matters to God. Our bodies matter; our ecosystems matter; our art, food, sex, music, laughter all matter. God has said ‘yes’ to our embodied existence, yes to our planetary home, yes to our humanity, yes to every act of love, hope, tenderness and compassion. Yes to forests, fields, frogs and fungi. Yes to our neighbour and yes to each of us.

If we accept the angel’s word, the resurrection of Jesus does not answer all our questions, it only generates more: what does it look like to embrace life in light of following one who has been through death? How can we face our own death when Jesus has walked out the other side – not just the resuscitation of a corpse but the transformation of a life into something genuinely new? How can this message touch a society bent on self-destruction and seemingly willing to take most of life on earth down with us? The resurrection does not answer all our questions, but it says, in the deepest way possible, that such questions are worth asking. It invites us onto a dangerous path, where we are invited to follow Jesus in taking up our cross, putting aside our hopes of riches, of security, of fame, of comfort – not because these desires are too big, but because they are too small. We are instead invited to hope for nothing less than the renewal of all things. To hope: and thus to find ourselves unable to put up with an as yet un-renewed world. This hope doesn’t pacify us, distracting our gaze to some otherworld and so rendering us passive. No, we hope for the resurrection of the dead and the renewal of all things, so how can we sit idly by while our neighbours suffer? We hope for all things to receive the fullness of life that we glimpse in the risen Jesus, so how can we treat non-human life as expendable resources, as raw materials for our short-term projects? How can we remain content with the status quo when the regularity of the one immutable law – the law of death – has been shattered? The resurrection invites us into a grand experiment in resistance: resistance against the tyrants who wield the fear of death; resistance against the logic that says the only things of value are things with a price tag; resistance against the advertising lie that happiness lies in our next purchase; resistance against the comforting apathy of seeing my neighbour’s plight as someone else’s problem. The resurrection of Jesus, if we begin to suspect it might be true, invites us into the humble service of a suffering God and a groaning world.

"Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said."

What if it were true? No, no: impossible. Surely an impossible dream. Better to roll over and go back to sleep. Better to ignore old wives tales. Better to enjoy some soothing religious rituals on a Sunday from a comfortable intellectual distance. It’s safer that way.