Socks: A Post for Ascension Day

The Ascension is a weird story, a strange climax to the Gospel story in which Jesus levitates into the clouds leaving the disciples freaked out and wondering what was going on. It’s hard to know what to do with that; the Resurrection feels like the real end of story, reversing the Crucifixion and breaking the curse of death. The Ascension sometimes feels like one of those Marvel post-credits scenes that leaves half the audience going “Huh?”

But the Ascension plays on its double-meaning; this is the moment that Jesus ascends his throne. It’s the consolidation of his kingship, a cosmic coronation. Jesus leaves Earth to reign from heaven, which is another reminder of the inauguration of his Kingdom. The Ascension therefore shapes our identity – we serve as citizens of this Kingdom, and  as servant of our King.

That means the Ascension has implications; for instance, what does living under the reign of Christ look like? What does it mean in the ordinariness and mundanity of everyday life? If the Kingdom of God had always been a spiritual, other-worldly thing then we could get away with that sort of faith. But before he ascended Jesus incarnated into the mud and muck and complexities and blood of human life. That transforms what his Kingdom looks like.

So. Socks.

In seeing at what a Christ-centred Kingdom might look like, we need to look at Jesus himself. Here’s someone who typifies his reign through sacrificial love, by kneeling and washing the feet of his disciples. And this is where we run into incarnated spirituality, because we sometimes re-enact this moment in church. And although I can’t swear to this, I’d bet that a lot of people participating in the ritual wash their feet beforehand and change their socks. Do we erect a barrier against a spirituality that was designed for the dirt?

(Always remember that the disciples didn’t wear socks.)

If Christ is on the throne, and if we’re his followers, and if we’re inhabiting a spirituality that encompasses both soil and soul, then socks become totemic. Metaphorically they may be a barrier to us having our feet washed by Jesus; practically, they’re one of the most requested items at homeless shelters. And while washing our feet might be a powerful expression of intimate community, washing and clothing the feet of someone who hasn’t changed their socks for weeks embodies the Kingdom in places it’s most needed. It’s interesting that the Ascension takes place on the Mount of Olives, a day’s walk from the city – the Kingdom of God is often found in liminal spaces, emerges out on the margins.

This isn’t just about social justice, although don’t kid yourself that the suffering around us isn’t our concern; it’s incarnating the reign of God in the world, setting up a beachhead against all the things that seek only to steal and destroy. The Ascension knits two worlds together and makes them one.

In a world that’s shaking, maybe we need the Ascension more than ever.

Breakfast (John 21:1-19)

Waves lap the beach and the sun sneaks over the horizon as a band of fishermen finish an unsuccessful night shift. With the benefit of hindsight we know they’re disembarking into a moment of redemption, the story of Peter being forgiven and reinstated echoing through a million and one sermons. We’ve heard all about the different Greek words for love, we know the symbolism of sailors and shepherds, we smile as Jesus reruns a miracle to reawaken the memories and the faith of his disciples. But we miss one thing.

“Come and have breakfast,” Jesus says. Because the disciples were hungry.

These aren’t rich men, and they’ve just pulled an all-nighter. Much as we’do love them to be spiritual sponges, soaking in the presence of Jesus, remember that they go into this story tired and confused, bad tempered and guilt-ridden and gagging for a decent meal.

Let’s be honest here, quite often that describes Sunday morning. We put on our nice clothes, and cajole and threaten the kids into the car, and smile as the steward hands us a newsletter, but what we really want is a fry-up and an extra hour in bed.

For others among us, that’s a luxury. We’ve had to choose between breakfast and turning on the central heating. Something went wrong with the car and now the overdraft’s starting to creak. The ink on that redundancy letter is just about dry.

Here on the beach there’s a reason that, before he’s a prophet, before he’s a liberator, before he’s the good shepherd, Jesus is a cook. He sits by a fire cooking fish for his friends. Yes, he’s about to give Peter forgiveness, but first he gives him breakfast.

We try so hard to separate the ‘spiritual’ from the ‘practical’, but that’s such a false dichotomy. We can can have all the right doctrine and all the right theology, but sometimes, before all that, people are desperate for a mug of coffee and a couple of slices of toast because they’re stressed and exhausted. We can have rockin’ worship and a 45 minute sermon, but that’s going to be hard work for anyone who hasn’t eaten that morning.

And why is coffee always served after a service rather than before?

All needs are practical, all needs are spiritual. What does that mean in a world of alt-truth and food banks? What does that mean for how we plan our services, our worship?
Jesus cooking breakfast was an act of love, maybe one of the easiest acts of love to emulate. All you need is a toaster.

Running Down The Road From Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)

This post was inspired by a recent edition of the Pulpit Fiction podcast.

A man called Cleopas walks towards his home. It’s been a difficult few days; death and violence, rumours and confusion, blood and whispers. The day is drawing to a close, and Cleopas just wants to sleep, if he can, just wants to cover the last few miles to Emmaus.
He turns and sees someone approaching, a Stranger on the road. They strike up a conversation, small talk at first, pleasantries about Passover. To be honest, Cleopas doesn’t much want to talk; the Messiah’s been crucified, maybe the disciples are next. That thought, and the look on his face, seem to beg a question; the Stranger asks what’s been happening. That’s all the excuse he needs; Cleopas gets the events of the weekend off his chest: Jesus is dead, and a messianic dream with him, despite disjointed whispers of an empty tomb.

The Stranger reacts strangely; instead of nodding and taking in this news, he instead launches into a free-former exegesis, ancient scriptures and the words of the prophets dancing with this very weekend. The group walks through the dusk as their shadows lengthen, Cleopas listening with rapt curiousity as the jigsaw of his faith is reassembled with the help of a different picture.

As the sun sinks, and everyone pulls their cloak around them, the laws of hospitality kick in and Cleopas invites the Stranger into his home. They continue talking as they throw wood on the fire, as the table is laid, as the Stranger takes bread and breaks it, as the eyes of Cleopas are opened and he suddenly recognises the face and the scars of Jesus himself. And suddenly Jesus is gone and all Cleopas can think of is finding the other disciples and singing of what he’s seen. He needs to go back to Jerusalem.

But here’s the thing: this is all taking place at night, centuries before street lighting, before night buses. Bandits lurk beyond the threshold, prowling the streets between Emmaus and the city. Under normal circumstances, most people would stay safe behind closed doors; this, however, is Easter Sunday, a day that takes those normal circumstances and transforms them, illuminates them, raises them from the dead.

So Cleopas runs out into the night, no thought for the bandits, stumbling along the way in the moonlight, abandoning safety in favour of proclamation. He runs into Jerusalem, ignoring the looks from all those people who hang out on city streets at night. He finds the disciples and tells them what he saw as the Stranger broke the bread. That’s where we leave him, in the Upper Room, celebrating and singing as the chains of guilt and abandonment quietly fall to the floor.

Today the journey feels dark. We walk through life knowing that our leaders are in love with nuclear missiles, knowing that our theologies can sometimes become weapons, knowing that economic and social gears creak and grind as the innocent are caught in their teeth. It would be easier to stay home, safer, easier to stay in our pews and sing and mingle and wait for the dawn to come.

But it’s not that simple, is it? The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. The resurrection has come, and even though it’s dark outside we need to tell of what we’ve seen by its glory. We run through the night unafraid of its shadows and holding the hands of those we find there as we wait for daybreak.

May we encounter Jesus on the road to Emmaus, but never let this be the end of the journey; let us always be found on the road from Emmaus, dancing through the dark because the resurrection breaks the power of the shadows, because freedom is found in broken bread, because even though the night feels long, a beacon shines as we sing of the dawn that’s come.

So Mary wasn’t a prostitute… But what if she had been?

A few days ago, an article appeared in the Washington Post, explaining that, although Mary Magdelene is traditionally portrayed as a repentant prostitute, this is actually a medieval amalgamation of several of the women in the gospels. Fair enough so far; Even the Catholic Church no longer views Mary as a prostitute and, the logic goes, we shouldn’t demean her as a sex worker.

Into this debate stepped Nate Sparks with a series of Tweets pointing out that framing the conversation in this way is problematic – saying that Mary is slandered by being called a prostitute actually dehumanises people who’ve been involved in sex work. The thread is well worth checking out, because, well, what if it turned out that Mary was a prostitute after all?

It’s Easter Sunday, the church’s great explosion of grace and mercy. Are we saying, on this day of all days, that the first witness to the resurrection, the apostle to the apostles, couldn’t have been a prostitute? Because that would seem to undermine the Kingdom and the Creation that was born in that garden when she first heard her name whispered by the risen Jesus.

Over the years, Mary has become an iconic, liminal figure, her story woven with mysteries and mythmaking: she was, some say, the secret wife of Jesus, the Mother of a hidden bloodline stretching down through the centuries. It’s hard not to see this as a contrast to the treatment of Christ’s mother; if that Mary is going to be portrayed as the eternal virgin, then Mary Magdelene will always be defined in terms of her sexuality. While it’s hardly healthy to downplay sexuality, there’s something misogynist about its treatment when it comes to the Marys – the two iconic women of the gospels are reduced to their supposed virginity and promiscuity; heck, add Jezebel the femme fatale in there and you’very got a whole trinity. It’s simplistic. It’s not listening to the text. It’s unhealthy and it’s erasing.

And anyway, we never have conversations about Paul, even though the writer of most of the New Testament was a murderer transformed by the blinding mercy of Jesus. We don’t bat an eyelid about naming Matthew the collaborator and Simon the terrorist as apostles. They may be brief moral lessons, but their personal histories don’t become the entirety of our interest in their work. We downplay Mary’s involvement in the gospels because we’re too busy thinking about who she slept with.

(Some of this is down to how the Church sometimes seems more comfortable with violence than it is with sexuality, which is a whole other can of worms.)

It would be nice to be able to treat this as an interesting theological head-scratcher, but it has immediate consequences for the way in which the church incarnated into a complex and untidy world. How we think about Mary affects how we think about sex workers who may find their way into our pews or, more tellingly, have been shunned because of their pasts or how they’ve made money. When we read gospel stories involving prostitutes, we don’t often stop to ask some intense questions: had they been raped? Had they been trafficked? What brought them into sex work in the first place?

We don’t ask these questions. We pass judgement, frown and move on to something more ‘wholesome’. And that’s our sin, not theirs. It’s a sin that affects how we relate to sex workers and victims of trafficking and survivors of abuse. It’s a sin that locks down the gospel, because when our moral messages dehumanise and ignore individual stories, instead trading in hackneyed stereotypes, we’re forgetting the Easter grace we’re supposed to celebrate.

And that’s the last thing we should do on Resurrection Day.

Gardens and Gates (Matthew 19:13-14)

This morning at church, Easter was accompanied by a dedication service, a happy baby boy grabbing for the mic and being blessed in the name of Jesus. And as part of all this, the pastor quoted from Matthew’s gospel: “Let the children come to me.”

It’s not an Easter reading, not traditionally, but in other ways it’s something that’s deeply, intrinsically bound up with today. Because the disciples are driving children and their parents away from Jesus, self-appointed religious gatekeepers conspicuously jangling the keys to the Kingdom. Jesus, however, snatches that job from them, throwing open a welcome to those others would reject.

The Church sometimes acts more like a machine than a family, gears grinding too many of the faithful between their teeth. We build walls and guard the gates and set up metaphorical machine gun nests upon the parapets. The gatekeepers are real, their swords are being sharpened. And yet Jesus still calls people to him, hanging out in gardens, cooking fish on beaches, eating dinner with sinners. Each of these welcomes is a transformation, a liberation, a resurrection.

So Jesus meets Mary the marginalised. He meets Peter the denier. He’s raised to life and in that first dawn of the new creation he doesn’t go to temples, he doesn’t shake hands with priests, he seeks out the ignored and the forsaken,  the broken and the lost,  the victims of racism and misogyny, ableism and homophobia. He appears on the margins, he seeks the mourning, he walks through locked doors and brings hope, not through the righteousness of saints but through the wounds torn through his wrists. In doing so he sabotages the machine, because he threw himself into the gears; never forget that the gatekeepers sought to keep out God himself.

Easter embodies grace, bleeds forgiveness, resurrects hope. Nails pick the locks on our gates and build a Kingdom out of the broken. And the gatekeepers can dance with joy over this, or they can keep feeding the machine. But machines rust, they erode, they crumble; resurrection grace, nail-pierced love, Calvary’s redemption? They shine forever.

Other posts for Easter 2017 are here.