Sunday, April 16, 2006

Hell Took a Body and Discovered God

There is a big difference between “He is not here,” and “He is risen!” Mary, and Peter, and John, along with the other disciples moved in this direction in their experience that first Sunday morning (John 20:1-18). The body of the Lord was gone and it took a while for the realisation to dawn that he was in fact alive from the dead and not just a stolen corpse. They moved from a startled confusion to a settled conclusion. The moved from the real absence of Christ to the real presence of Christ.

When my daughter Sophie arrived in church on Good Friday morning she gave me a big hug, and said, “Dad, I had a dream that you had died, but you didn’t.” I’m sure we’ve all had that experience, when we woke from a bad dream and felt a surging wave of relief that the horrors we had experienced were in fact an illusion and all was well again. The disciples must have had an experience somewhat like that. When Mary saw Jesus standing in the garden alive and well - more alive and well than ever - all that had happened over the last few terrible days must have seemed an illusion - a bad dream. Now all was well again.

But they did not get to this realisation as quickly as we do. It is impossible for us to work our way back into the experience of these early disciples, because we know the end of the story. It’s like watching a grand final match on video; it’s nowhere near as exciting as watching the game in the first place because we know the outcome of the match. We try to enter into the experience of the disciples when we dramatise Easter throughout Holy Week, with our Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and Holy Saturday vigil, during which we try not to make mention of the resurrection. But as much as we try we can’t really do it, because the fact remains - we know the end of the story. They didn’t, but we do.

Hubert Beck reminds us:

Easter means nothing if we do not recognize, as did those around Jesus, that death is death in all its horrible reality. Our celebration of Easter is too often framed by an idea that the resurrection is a “springtime,” the season when it is celebrated in the northern hemisphere. Perhaps those in the southern hemisphere have some advantage..for there Easter must be observed in the fall of the year when all is moving toward winter and the browning of the earth. In [the northern hemisphere] it is all too easy to point to the return of the leaves, the blossoming of the flowers, the greening of the earth as though they were "pictures” of Christ’s resurrection. All of that is fine and dandy, except for one simple fact: The greening of the earth is not a resurrection from any death; it is, rather, a re-emergence of life in dormant plants. They enliven again, bloom for a period of time, wither and return to sleep for another winter after which they will again begin the round of lively existence and dormant waiting. Dead plants do not return to life in the spring. If they were dead in the fall, they will not live in the spring; and if they die during the winter there will be no spring for them. Dormant things are only “life-hiding,” not dead! Dead things are dead, and that is that. They will not return to life. One can only weep over them, for their laughter is gone. (Hubert Beck, “Sermon on John 20:1-18,”)

When you a buy a garden bulb it’s just a dirty looking round thing with a few scraggly roots hanging off the end of it. It already looks half dead. But that doesn’t bother you because you know that when its time comes that bulb is going to blossom into a magnificent flower. But look into the coffin and see a dead parent, a dead child, a dead wife, husband, or friend, and you know they are not coming back. They’re dead and you are never going to see them alive again. You will never talk with them again, never hear their voice again, never know their touch again. They are dead. Dead as a doornail. Dead is dead and that's all there is to it. The only spring time they’re going to know is the springtime over their graves. (The image is drawn from the sermon, “The Unnatural Truth,“ by Barbara Brown Taylor in Christian Century, 20 March 1996.)

Why am I saying all of this on such a bright and happy day as Easter? Why am I painting such a bleak picture in such dark tones? Because we have to overcome somehow this idea that the resurrection is just a symbolic representation of a natural process. It is not that. It is wholly unnatural. It is supernatural. It runs so opposite to the direction of nature that it overturns nature and institutes a new creation. Yes, this is a day of rejoicing, but not because there is a silver lining on every cloud, not because there are no valleys without corresponding hills, not because tadpoles turn into tree frogs or grubs into butterflies, but because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!

In the fourth century John Chrysostom wrote a sermon which became one of his more famous ones and perhaps the most famous Easter sermons ever written. In it he asks:

Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!
Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!
Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!
If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.
To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavour.
The deed He honours and the intention He commends.
Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!
You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!
Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!
Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Saviour has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said,
"You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

What an incredible thought - “Hell took a body and discovered God! It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.”

The sceptic H. G. Wells once wrote: “When I think of the Resurrection, I am always reminded of happy endings that editors and actor-managers are accustomed to impose on essentially tragic plays and novels.” I think Wells was wrong. I think he was wrong because I believe in happy endings, and Easter is the happiest ending of them all. Next week on ANZAC Day we will remember our fallen dead. “Lest we forget,” is our national motto at that time. But Robert Runcie, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, reminds us, “the New Testament never simply says, ‘Remember Jesus Christ.’ That is a half-finished sentence. It says ‘Remember Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.’”

I don’t like half finished sentences and I don’t like half finished stories. Every story has a denouement. The so-called "Lowery Loop" describes an identifiable shape to most narratives. We start with a setting, something occurs and there is a crisis, the crisis then deepens, then comes a realisation of how the situation is going to be restored, then comes the actual reversal in the situation. Finally there is the "denouement" - what happens after everything has settled. This pattern can be characterised by the words Oops, Ugh, Ah Ha, Yippee, and Aaaah. This cycle is certainly identifiable in the Easter story. "Oops," Jesus has been arrested and crucified. “Ugh,” he has died and been buried in a rock sealed tomb. “Ah Ha,” the tomb is empty, perhaps his words have been fulfilled and he really has risen. “Yippee,” he’s alive again! But where is the “Aaaah…!”? Where is the denouement? Where is the part of the story that happens after everything has settled? Sisters and brothers, you are the denouement! The denouement is in our Acts reading today (Acts 10:34-43). “They killed [Jesus] by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day [and now we are here to announce that] everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” This our Easter proclamation today: “Forgiveness has risen from the grave.”

There is the denouement of the story. The New Testament itself and the believing community are the ongoing outcome of these tremendous events. The message of Easter is not only that Jesus has risen but that those who believe in him are also risen with him and constitute a new type of community - the community of the resurrection. Paul told the Ephesians that they were raised up with Christ and seated in heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6). He told the Colossians “When you are buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” (Col. 2:12). Paul wrote in the epistle for this week, “This is what we preach, and this is what you believed.” (1 Corinthians 15:11). What the apostles saw, they preached, and what they preached you and I believed, so you and I are the denouement of the story.

Consider for a moment the impact of the resurrection. The religious authorities were greatly disturbed, violence erupted in city streets, persecution that lasted three centuries ensued. Steven was stoned to death. The believers in Jerusalem were scattered. King Herod arrested Christians, executed James and imprisoned Peter. In Iconium, the people of the city were divided at the message of the resurrection. In Lystra, Paul was stoned and left for dead. In Philippi, he was imprisoned for “throwing the city into an uproar.” Riots broke out in Thessalonica and people complained that the disciples had “caused trouble all over the world.” The people of Athens sneered at Paul’s preaching of the resurrection. Rioters opposed Paul and his colleagues in Ephesus and there arose a great disturbance about the Way.” In Jerusalem Paul had to appeal to his Roman citizenship to prevent his being mobbed to death , but he was arrested there, and just like his Master, from that point on his fate was sealed. Festus, Roman governor of Judea under Nero was totally at a loss to know what to do with his prisoner. “They did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected. Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive.” The next day when Paul gave his defence Festus interrupted and said, “You are out of your mind, Paul! Your great learning is driving you mad.” So when H. G. Wells and other famous sceptics scoffed at the resurrection, as people still do today, it really wasn’t anything new.

Can we move today from “He is not here” to “He is Risen”? Can we move from startled confusion to settled conclusion? Can we move from the real absence to the real presence of Christ? Can we move from the fear of hell to seeing hell in an uproar because it has been overthrown? Hell took a body but discovered God! It took earth, and encountered Heaven! It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Spring Street Wesleyan Methodist Church
Easter Sunday 2006

The final image on this blog entry is by Welsh artist David Jones "The Resurrection of Christ (from the Book of Jonah)" wood engraving 1926 8 x 7.5cm

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

"Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November"

I saw V For Vendetta last night with the Boy Wonder and Wisdom88. It's a corker. Best film I've seen this year no contest. How can the Warchowski brothers write two such great screenplays as The Matrix and this and churn out two absolute duds in between? Maybe it was the Aussie director on V that made the difference. It's Orwell, it's Brave New World, it's Bush's America, it's Thatcher's (and Blair's) England, it's the English Revolution, it's Anarchy in the UK, it's Zorro, it's the Phantom of the Opera and it's all rolled into one two and a half hour cinematic bundle. Why the original author of the graphic novel doesn't like it, I'll never know (it's way better than the last attempt to film one of his creations - The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). OK, so it's propaganda for the Left but hey, haven't we been swamped with enough from the other side? Do yourself a favour and go see it.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Bring the Troops Home

America is stuck with 100,000 troops in a very ugly war in Iraq which shows no sign of letting up anywhere soon, and seems likely to become a full blown civil war before much longer. "Blowback" is a term first coined by the CIA to refer to the internal domestic chaos caused by their covert operations, and now being used in reference to the overt miltary invasion of Iraq. That "blowback" in Iraq is spinning completely out of control is clear. According to Gary Dorrien at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University, even though the US is estimated to be killing 2000 insurgents a month, between April 2003 and April 2005 the insurgent population grew from 5,000 to 19,000 fighters! Added to this, the Sunni population supports the insurgents, Sunni and Shi'ite are at each others throats, Sunnis being particuarly angry that their persecutors, the Shi'ites, are collaborators with the US invaders, and so the Sunnis are increasing the number of their militia death squads to counter Sh'ite ones against themselves. According to the Washington Post, Iraq is attracting more and more foreign terrorists. Even the oppressed Kurds are getting more radical in demanding posession of Kirkuk an oil-rich area that Saddam populated with Arabs through forced migration.

The Americans made a big mistake invading the country in the first place. There were no weapons of mass destruction and Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. They got Saddam Hussein and now he sits in an Iraqi court and mocks the whole process! No one would argue that ridding the country of a dictator like Saddam was a desired end. But it was an Iraqi problem that they should have been left to sort out on their own with diplomatic pressure from foreign powers not firestorms. Why doesn't the US just cut its losses and leave? Dorrien believes that the continued US presence in Iraq is bolstered by an imperialist ideology and may only be the first of other first strikes on other non-democratic states (Bush has already brandished his sword over Syria, Iran, North Korea, and even Saudi Arabia and Pakistan).

"The aggressively interventionist ideology that guides the Bush administration and the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party goes by several names: unipolarism, global dominion, American Greatness, liberal imperialism, full-spectrum dominance. Begining as an especially militant form of anti-communism, it morphed into a vision of global empire after communism collapsed. It trades on the historic American myths of ionnocence, exceptionalism and manifest destiny, and offers a vision of what the United States could do with its unrivaled global power. In its most rhetorically seductive versions, it conflates the expansion of American power with the dream of universal democracy." (Gary Dorrien,"Nightmare in Iraq," Christian Century (4 April 2006), 38.) After 9/11 this ideology grew more aggressive. Apocalyptic militarism sees the war in Iraq as a holy war between two competing civilizations, one of which must triumph if the world is to be saved. If this is the case then God help us because no one could ever win such a war.

When pressed on the blowback problem Bush has replied like a schoolboy, saying in effect, "They started it, not us." "We didn't ask," he says, "for this global struggle but we're answering history's call with confidence and a comprehensive strategy." (Dorrien, 40) I don't know about you but that kind of cowboy politics makes me very nervous. Look, this isn't an anti-American post. I'm not anti-American in my outlook. I love Americans, many of whom I count as dear friends. The US is a beautiful country with a magnificent history that has made significant contributions to the betterment of the world. I don't enjoy the cheap-shot antiAmericanisms that Australians often trot out just because of their own cultural inferiority complexes. All I am saying is enough is enough. Please Mr. Bush end this madness in Iraq. Bring the troops home(you too Mr. Howard) Stop the killing. Admit your mistake. Humble yourself before God. All of us will have to answer to God for the way we have lived our lives. It's not too late to repent and withdraw from Iraq.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

This Office Opposes the War in Iraq

A lot of people don't know that John Wesley was a pacifist. He could not see how Christianity could possibly be compatible with war and he saved some of his most stinging criticisms for so called Christian countries who went to war against their enemies or (as was most often the case in his day) against each other. In Sermon 22 of his Standard Sermons, Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount Discourse II he recalls how the pagans once observed of the early Christians, “See how these Christians love one another!” But would they say the same thing today?

“These Christian kingdoms which are tearing out each other’s bowels, desolating one another with fire and sword! These Christian armies, that are sending each other by thousands, by ten thousands quick into hell! These Christian nations that are all on fire with intestine broils, party against party, faction against faction! These Christian cities, where deceit and fraud, oppression and wrong, yea, robbery and murder, go not out of their streets! These Christian families, torn asunder with envy, jealousy, anger, domestic jars, without number, without end! Yea, what is most dreadful, most to be lamented of all, these Christian churches! – Churches (“tell it not in Gath” – but alas, how can we hide it, either from Jews, Turks or pagans?) that bear the name of Christ, the Prince of peace, and wage continual war with each other! that convert sinners by burning them alive! that are “drunk with the blood of the saints!” – Does this praise belong to [the Roman Catholic Church]? Nay, verily; but reformed churches (so called) have fairly learned to tread in her steps. Protestant churches too know [how] to persecute, when they have power in their hands, even unto blood. And meanwhile, how do they also anathematize each other! Devote each other to the nethermost hell! What wrath, what contention, what malice, what bitterness, is every where found among them, even where they agree in essentials, and only differ in opinions, or in the circumstantial of religion! Who follows after only the ‘things that make for peace, and [which] edify [others]? O God! How long?” ''

He then closes with a positive exhortation (I'm paraphrasing now). Fear not little flock. God will eventually put an end to all war and religious strife. All people will love as God loves and be made perfect at last. Even though that day hasn’t come yet, be part of the first fruits of that harvest now by loving your neighbour as yourself and ask God to fill your heart to overflowing with such love until “every unkind and unholy temper” is swallowed up in love!

Leaders of the "free world" take note. God puts you on notice - Love your enemies, don't bomb their countries and burn them to a crisp.


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