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.

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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.

Helter Skelter

I feel weird writing this. It’s rooted in strange thoughts that have been rattling through my mind since I heard that, at a New Year’s Eve concert last year, Paul McCartney made a surprise appearance at a Killers concert to sing Helter Skelter.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course; he’s one of the Beatles, he can play what he wants at any concert he wants. But Helter Skelter is a song with a strange history: McCartney apparently wrote it to sound like the fall of an empire, while Charles Manson used it as a code name for his deranged race war conspiracy. It was scrawled on a fridge at the scene of a mass murder, for goodness sake.

So hearing that Helter Skelter heralded 2017, a year in which white supremacists and resurgent Nazis march with torches, in which world leaders tweet and dream about spraying nuclear fire across the Pacific, well… The image is haunting and I can’t shake it. That’s probably why I’m writing this.

Because there’s a counter thought emerging: that as people of faith, we need to protest and resist the darker shadows of our society, and envision and embody a different world. We don’t have to ride the Helter Skelter; we can nail the OUT OF ORDER signs to the whole skeletal fairground.

We can, but too many of us are joining the queue to pay a misplaced tithe to the carnival barkers and the rowdy mesmerists. And all the while the frogs of war croak in the chill swamps of night.

This is why we need to stop, and kneel, and gather round the bread and the wine, not just like our lives depended on it, but those of everyone else as well. Our hope is found in the Eucharist, in the body and blood that unites us rather than divides, in the power that reveals itself not through empire, but in a cross outside the city walls. This is where the strength and the character of the Church is formed; not by the games of Caesar but by meeting around the table and seeing that we’re brothers and sisters sharing in a Kingdom banquet.

There are plenty of people who scream with joy as they Helter Skelter through what’s left of 2017. We don’t have to join them, we don’t have to be formed by them. We have to eat, and drink, and sing a different song.

Socks: A Post for Ascension Day (Acts 1:1-11)

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.