Resurrection Sunday: Listen to the Women (John 20:11-18)

It’s Mary who first meets the risen Jesus, and it’s hard to tell if this is by design or not; after all, the male disciples are in hiding at this point, and even those who venture out to investigate rumours of an empty tomb don’t stick around long enough to talk to any gardeners. Mary becomes the apostle to the apostles, she’s an evangelist to the runaways and the denier. And why not? It was the women who stuck around, after all.

That legacy continues. A woman taught me to preach, the theology side of it anyway. I worship in churches where women lead and preach and manage. I’m grateful for writers and speakers like Kaitlin Curtice and Rachel Held Evans and Wilda Gafney and Rachel Mann and others like them. It’s patronising to suggest the Church is stronger for them; without women, the Church would collapse. And I know Paul wrote two thousand years ago about a particular church in a particular environment in a particular age, but we can’t see that as frozen in amber while the Spirit continues to call women to be prophets, pastors, preachers.

So yes, this blog is always going to support women in church leadership but that’s hardly a big deal. I grew up in the Methodist Church and so the idea that women can’t be ministers and preachers and deacons is an alien concept.

And yet still not as alien as the abuse and silencing and condescension and violence faced by women who follow the lead of the Holy Spirit and speak out. Because, and I’m speaking specifically to men here, if your immediate response to a woman speaking about Christ is to dismiss them as a heretic or uppity or a tool of Satan, it’s probably worth taking a trip back to the garden, to the morning where the men were cowards and traitors and liars and a woman proclaimed Christ risen.

So it’s Easter Sunday morning, and we listen to Mary, who stuck by the Saviour, who treated him with dignity in death and was the first to meet him in new life. And as we join together and announce that “Christ is risen!”, let’s remember that the first person to say this was a woman.

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Easter Sunday: A Nice Day to Start Again (John 20:10-18)

Mary is the first person to glimpse the new world, although she almost doesn’t recognise it. After all, the new world appears on the horizon unexpectedly, an encounter with a gardener who isn’t-but-is a gardener helping her to see a more glorious vision through the tears.

Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed!

This is a statement that reprogrammes everything, that reinvents and redefines our realities. If we proclaim, like Mary, a risen Jesus, we proclaim that the world isn’t how it once was, that a new Kingdom is inaugurated. We proclaim that our hearts are risen with Christ.

Therein lies a problem. Because too often we like the old kingdoms, those built on violence and power and privilege. And so we celebrate Easter as a transaction, we insure our afterlife like we insure our car, our house, and “Christ is risen!” becomes the shortest policy document ever written.

But Easter is far more than that, Easter is a cosmic reboot and that should affect everything. How we relate to others, how we spend our money, how we vote, how we speak, how we live. Easter should rewire us. The question is, do we allow this to happen?

Easter changes everything. It has to. And we can either pretend that is doesn’t or walk forward, with Mary, into a new world, new territory, new possibilities where we aren’t limited by what went before, where we can lean into a greater vision that isn’t limited by our institutions, our preconceptions, our prejudices, our fear.

For some this is liberating; for others it’s terrifying. Change always is. Transformation always is. We can roll with it or we can fight it.

Too often we try to co-opt it, but that won’t last, no matter how comfortable it makes us. Sooner or later Jesus will burst in and tip our tables, a warning shot before we try to crucify him all over again.

So it’s Resurrection Sunday. A time to start again, a time to confess, a time in which chains can be broken, things can be different, hope can be born. A time to let go, a time to stand up, a time to turn around, a time to find something new, something vital among the graves, in the quiet of the sacred morning.

The Desolation of Holy Saturday (Matthew 27:57-66)

Once, long ago, I lay curled up on my bed feeling hopeless and defeated and like every positive future had withered and died. I don’t talk about this often – this may even be the first time – and although the passage of time has taken away the feelings, I still remember the cloying numbness, the claustrophobic fog of depression.

That time passed, praise God, but the feelings return at times; many years later, weeks before going on holiday, I woke with the conviction that, if I went to New York I’d die. It was a lie, of course, a falsehood generated from who knows where. And I went to New York and saw the Statue of Liberty and a busker who looked like Hendrix tuning his guitar but never actually playing. I went to New York, because sometimes simply doing something good is a victory.

I won’t say I’m free of all this; it manifests differently now, I take medication and I get through it. And that’s why I often talk about the sort of faith that hangs over a cliff by its fingernails, because anyone who tells you that faith is pain free, that belief is a one way ticket to Big Rock Candy Mountain is trying to sell you something, or maybe just trying to cast their own spell to ward off troubles.

Holy Saturday sits at the heart of Easter weekend, an awkward heartbreak innoculating us against cheap triumphalism. There’s a season for everything, and Holy Saturday is a time to weep, a time to mourn, a time to lay flowers at a graveside. It’s a time to recognise trauma (let’s not forget Mary, who saw her son torn apart by scourges and nails), a time to cry out “This is wrong” and “That shouldn’t have happened” and “Never again”.

This is a time to acknowledge, in the silence, that the world isn’t as it should be, that the future is frightening, that oppression and persecution are real, that things are broken. This is not a time to pretend that pain isn’t a present reality, that troubles are simply the result of faithlessness. Your pain is real. But while this may sound naive and impossible, it’s not the end of the story.

Because Holy Saturday isn’t a nihilistic full stop. It’s part of something bigger, of which pain is a part but so’s hope. That spluttering candle glimmer may be faint but it’s there, the light at the end of a narrow tunnel. It’s Saturday, as the preacher might have said, but Sunday’s coming.

We have to hold on to a vision of hope, all of us, because even if we’re not going through our own dark night of the soul, we can stand in solidarity with those who are, we can weep and march and sit and pray and stand with others. There are too many paid-off guards peddling fake news and weaponised visions, and so we need Holy Saturday to remind us that our own pain and history and honesty can be a beacon, so many Marys in the garden who’ve seen the stone rolled away.

Today we sit and mourn, and while we may still be doing that come the dawn, we’ve made it through the day, and the sun still rises.

The Song of Good Friday (Mark 15:33-37)

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus gasps these words from the cross at the height of his suffering. We read them and hear abandonment, despair, a fracture in the order of things. This is, after all, ‘Good’ Friday, the day we took the artist behind the universe and smashed nails through his hands, sanitising our violence through theology and am act of nominative irony.

But to this blood-soaked hill, to this skull-shaped memento mori, to this violent, enraged species, to this lynch mob, Jesus sings.

It’s easy to miss, even when you know that Jesus is quoting Psalm 22. We’re a literate culture, we’re used to individualistically reading the psalms in our bibles. But Jesus would have recognised it for what it was, a song.

So when we picture Christ bloody and battered and bruised, maybe we need to hear him gasping out a song, finding expression and comfort in ancient lyrics. Music is powerful, after all, a source of empathy and visions. In the midst of pain and crushing despair we often turn on the radio and find hope in singing along; maybe Jesus was doing the same with the ancient songs of his people.

Or maybe the message was for us, for those who come to the cross and try to find glimpses of a future, any good future, in the asphyxiated, shattered saviour held in place by both love and nails scientifically deployed to prolong the agony. Maybe the message was for us, because while Psalm 22 begins in violence and defeat, it’s a musical journey towards hope, towards grace, towards a future. It begins with godforesakeness heads towards conviction:

For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one;

he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.

There are times when we don’t have the words and we need to borrow them, especially in times of great pain; why shouldn’t the fully-human Jesus do the same?

But let’s not race to the end of the song, let’s not ignore the suffering because we’ve caught a dimple of a better world. For now it’s still Friday, and Jesus still hangs on a tree, surrounded by terrorists and lynchings and weeping and pain. This is the day Jesus dies; a day for sad songs and mourning.

But as we do, remember that even sad songs can crack open a door through which life gets in, even sad songs help us press through the pain, even sad songs help us see Sunday from the broken depths of Good Friday.


Putting the Chairs Away (Maundy Thursday): John 13:1-5

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My eldest son loves putting chairs away. Give him a church full of chairs that need stacking and he’s happy as Larry, giggling and bossing people around as he tidies up. And while I love his enthusiasm, sometimes I just want to get home for lunch, you know? I mean, surely he can leave some chairs for someone else?

And that’s when I realise that my lanky autistic 13 year old has a greater servant heart than me. Because when he gets to the end of an act of worship, he doesn’t just want to drink his cup of tea before escaping to the comfort of the living room sofa, he wants to help put things away, to collect hymn books, to wash up.

I’m reminded of this here on Maundy Thursday, when we commemorate Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. The King stoops to do the job of a servant out of grace and compassion, even though the disciples don’t understand, even though he’s washing the feet of a traitor. The power of this moment extends beyond our squeamishness and our repulsion at washing another; it reveals the heart of God and as such it isn’t a ritual, it’s a fact of life.

Some churches latch on to this, making their Maundy Thursday events an act of service. Trinity on the Green in Connecticut holds a foot washing and examination service where they provide podiatric support for homeless people who, on average, walk 8.5 miles a day. There’s something of the original power of the story reflected through this – I doubt Peter ever had a pedicure. The heart of service reflected here isn’t a mere ritual, it’s genuinely showing the love of Christ to people in dire situations, a pair of socks becoming a blessing. Maundy Thursday becomes an act of remembrance of those who are too easily forgotten. In that sense we should also be convicted.

We also remember those carers who embody this every day, when they wash a child or a parent or a spouse who can’t wash themselves, when they clean up after visits to the toilet, when they stay up all night making sure that their loved ones are safe until the morning. And this brings with it stresses and strains, but it’s done out of love, as a way of showing a loved one that they are precious and protected and cared for. And those being washed are made in the Image of God and we also remember that, even when they’re persecuted, dehumanised, neglected. Maundy Thursday is a singularity of compassion; we turn it into an annual ritual at our peril.

Last Sunday I was out preaching, and eldest was with me, and at the end of the service while I’m shaking hands, he starts collecting books and washing cups and charming old ladies just by being helpful. And he’ll never be asked to preach, he’ll never lead worship, but he’s embodying the heart of Jesus and that’s far more powerful.

Many will go to foot washing services tonight. Maybe during those services there’s an opportunity to remember those who wash and clothe others, to take our rituals and turn them into practice. And as we remember Jesus washing feet, maybe the lasting power isn’t just about remembrance and sacrament, maybe it lies in the grace of putting chairs away at the end, of doing the washing up, the grace of showing up, of a clean pair of socks.