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.


A Meditation For Those Who Stand At The Front

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You stand at the front of church and you see a sea of faces in front of you. Each one of them has a different story: some are facing questions about their career or their relationships or their future. Some are watching their partners grow more distant; others are watching their parents fade away through Alzheimer’s. Some are lonely, some are depressed; some are cutting themselves, some are throwing up their breakfast, some are figuring out the easiest way to stop the pain and slip out of this life. Some like booze too much, or money, or power.

Some are disabled, some are disgruntled,  some are dismissed. Some are figuring out their sexuality and their identity; some are figuring out what to do about their cancer diagnosis; some are trying to decide if they’re safe to discuss any of this stuff with the person next to them.

Some are sitting there desperate to worship; some are desperate to get out of there; some are just desperate. Some are scared, some are oppressed, some are waiting to see if your words are going to hit them with hope or hit them with condemnation.

Some need to be forgiven,  some need to forgive,  some need a safe place to be angry,  some need a safe place where they’re not going to be beaten. Some need permission to get the hell out of Dodge.

Some think they’re sinners while others think they’re saints, and the truth is they’re probably both. Some you love, some you like, some drive you crazy, and as you look at them you realise they’re also a mirror of the things inside you.

You look at that sea of faces and you’re faced with a choice.

You can be the one who throws a punch before twisting the knife.

You can be the one who keeps adding to the load, adding and adding and adding.

You can be the one with the most impressive PowerPoint and the most impressive platitudes.

Or you can be the one who reaches out and pulls back the curtain and helps them, and you,  find hope, because you look out into that sea of faces and see Jesus in the midst of them.

Did Cain Have an Identity Crisis? (Genesis 3:15)

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This post is inspired by a sermon I heard fairly recently but I can’t remember who gave it! I’ll update this when I find out.

Did Cain have an identity crisis?

He rocks up presenting God with an offering of fruit and vegetables and then next thing we know he’s murdering his brother and going into exile; frankly, Genesis 4 is depressing. But does Cain’s behaviour have its roots in something that happens earlier.

In Genesis 3:15, as Adam and Eve are thrown out of Eden, God tells them of the future: there’ll be hostility between the Serpent and Eve’s offspring, leading ultimately to the Serpent’s destruction. In Christian thought this is the Protoevangelium, the first hint of God’s plan of redemption that would culminate in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Straightforward enough, but here’s where the identity crisis kicks in – how might Eve and Cain have misinterpreted things?

See, Eden must have been a painful, recent memory casting it’s shadow over everything that happened after the Fall. And then Eve gives birth to Cain and maybe, just maybe, hope is reborn, maybe Cain is the offspring to crush the Serpent’s head. Maybe there’s even a chance to get back to Eden.

Thinking like that, is it really a surprise that Cain grows up to be a farmer? Maybe he’s preparing to return to the Garden. Maybe he thinks he can create a new Eden himself. Maybe his offering of “the fruits of the soil” is an attempt to return to God the Fruit that caused all this mess in the first place.

Lots of maybes, sure, but it would explain his rage against Abel, who is adapting to this new world as a nomadic herdsman and whose offering is acceptable to God. It may also help explain some of the tension Genesis shows between herdsmen and settlers. Even after Cain becomes a murderer he’s still trying to get the world under control by building a city.

When someone thinks they’re doing God’s will without actually involving God in the process, that’s dangerous. A crusade to crush serpents, empowered only by broken sinfulness is a terrifying thing. Hey, why wait for Jesus’s thoughts on things? Aren’t we capable of weeding out the Devil ourselves?

You’ll recognise those crusades by the trail of destruction left in their wake. Cain didn’t crush the Serpent, he crushed his brother instead.

And while this is a weird reflection in run up to Christmas, it’s relevant. The Christmas story presents us with kings and emperors trying to bend the world to their will, but real power comes in the form of a baby, in the actions of God and the true descendant of Eve destined to crush the Serpent. Let’s not second guess God, let’s just faithfully listen and learn and follow instead.

After all, Jesus is a way better Gardener than we are.

The Woman at the Well: Innocent as Charged? (John 4:1-30)

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Sometimes you’ve got to challenge your preconceptions.

Take the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4. Jesus goes to Samaria and asks a woman to draw him some water from the local well. It’s noon and it’s hot and no-one in their right mind wants to be carrying heavy jars full of water at that time of day. The inference is that the woman is there, alone, for a reason; that’s backed up later in the conversation when Jesus reveals that she’s had five husbands and she’s not married to the guy she’s currently with.

So, test your preconceptions: why had she had five husbands?

The traditional explanation I grew up with is that she was immoral. Put bluntly, she’d been sleeping around town, and she went to the well alone because she was an outcast. The man she’s currently with? Just her latest conquest.

Okay, so where exactly does John say that? There’s an argument to say it’s inferred, but adultery wasn’t the only ground for divorce at the time. It’s possible she was just too outspoken. It’s possible, if statistically unlikely, that she’d been widowed five times. It’s possible that she couldn’t have children. Why do we assume immorality?

Sure, living with someone who wasn’t her husband could imply a problematic relationship in that culture. But maybe that’s less about remorseless promiscuity and more about finding comfort where it can be found. After all, losing five husbands and a community is going to leave scars, regardless of who’s responsible. Maybe it’s a case of outcasts banding together.

Of course, it’s possible that she was guilty as charged, but look at how the story plays out – she becomes, effectively, an evangelist bringing the townsfolk to Jesus. We don’t hear “Go and sin no more” and the encounter it’s most reminiscent of to me is Jesus’s first meeting with Nathaniel. There Jesus displays supernatural knowledge of a situation and ends with the calling of a disciple. Nathaniel’s sarcasm, the woman’s marital status… Where these people started is less important than where they end up.

(There may also be something a little subversive about how the outcast woman ends up discussing theology and evangelising, while the male disciples are off sorting out food for everyone.)

Whatever her circumstances, this anonymous woman ends the encounter as both a recipient and an agent of grace. Maybe we need to recognise the ambiguity of the meeting, to use it to place ourselves within the story. No matter how sordid or oppressed or abusive our past, healing and forgiveness and grace are freely available. And if that’s not true for society’s outcasts then it’s a cheap parody of ‘grace’ that’s really just legalism disguising itself with nice hymns.

This ambiguity should also force us to ask questions, to see these people individuals. It’s easy to stereotype people, or turn them into icons that obscure their humanity (look at how Mary of Nazareth and Mary Magdalene have come to represent the dichotomy between virginity and promiscuity when the reality is far more complicated and human). Jesus treated the woman at the well as a individual; the church should do no less when meeting with outcasts, when thinking about making proclamations.

“Be kinder than is necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.” The woman at the well was in that situation, so are the people we meet, so are we. Our preconceptions and prejudices hinder rather than help; following Christ should challenge our assumptions and lead us into a bigger, richer, wilder and more complicated world than we ever imagined.