Sermon preached at Christ Church Cathedral, Easter, 2014
Sunday, April 20, 2014
Christo Anesti. Christo Anesti. He is risen, he is risen.
This is Easter.
The experiences that we are loved, have love, and can love – this is Easter.
We experience (from time to time) redemption… this is Easter.
You and I have resurrection experiences and stories of rebirth and new life. We experience the feelings of discovery and the jubilation of understanding.
We have glimpses of what it feels like to be free.
We dream of a day of peace when swords are beaten into ploughs. That is Easter.
We know what grace is and what it means to be forgiven even though we don’t believe we deserve it.
This is Easter.
In his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College David Foster Wallace, one of the great literary geniuses of our time, began with what he called the “deployment of a didactic parablish like story” which I will now insert here.
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What … is water?”
The immediate point of the fish story is (he said) that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about…[i]
This is Easter.
Our resurrection story, our Good News, our Gospel, Easter begins with Mary. It begins with a woman discovering that Jesus’s body is not in the tomb where he was laid and then she reports it. She is the first evangelist, the first messenger of good news, the first one ever oh ever to know, and she tells the disciples this is Easter.
There then is the famous disciple race – who will know next? The beloved disciple loves Jesus the mostest and he arrives at the tomb first before Peter. When he arrives he sees the burial clothes and the lack of the body and he experiences resurrection and he believes that Jesus lives and that he is Lord. He sees, he experiences and he believes. He is the second to know. And he is the next to share with others his Easter experience.
Mary Magdalene then returns to the tomb. There she experiences the risen Christ – the living Jesus - when he appears before her in the garden. She has been searching for him; she sees him but does not immediately know him. In fact she does not know him until he calls her name. “Mary.”
This is the very real experience of Jesus’ own teaching from chapter 10 verse 3: "The sheep hear his voice as he calls by name those that belong to him." "I know my sheep and my sheep know me." He says. Her response is to announce to the disciples that she has "seen the Lord."[ii]
These are different experiences of the risen Christ from two loving followers.
Some years later Paul too will have visions of the risen Christ and believe that Jesus is alive and that he is Lord. Paul becomes a loving follower himself. The bible tells us this is only a few of the many stories of resurrection.
The experience over the generations of the risen Christ is Easter.
Each story gives a sense that the risen Lord is known in many ways and experienced in many ways and is known to many people. While true belief will come with the Holy Spirit, we are given here in John's resurrection story the beginning of the new creation where the Gospel is available to all people.
Victory is won on the cross. The chasm that separated the earth and heaven is now breached. A new order and a new creation is even now rooting itself in the cosmos and in our lives.
Here is the beginning of faith which comes from experiencing the risen Lord – here in these stories we have the beginning of our Easter.
John's Gospel tells us clearly that resurrection is not simply a bodily - this world - experience but it is a resurrection into unity with God. We are reconciled with God and new life is ours – freedom, redemption, resurrection, love, grace, and forgiveness is all ours. It springs forth this most obvious, most ubiquitous, most important of realities.
This is Easter.
David Foster Wallace believed that we are deluded by the lens by which we experience the world – this is part of our problem and it hides the most obvious realities. He wrote, "A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded… [because] everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence... Think about it: There is no experience you've had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real”[iii] that it is difficult to hear the other voices. Wallace says, "As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head.”[iv] “In fact some of you are carrying on that conversation right now.”[v]
Easter, the resurrection is a vision altering, relationship altering, and monologue interrupting event for those who experience it.
The living God in Christ Jesus (who bursts forth from the tomb, is not recognized till he calls your name, appears by your side at the road’s edge, sits with his feet below your table and breaks bread with you and shares wine, and he comes to you in the locked room of your darkest night) – this appearing and showing up shorts out the “natural, hard-wired, default-settings [of our] self-centered lens.”[vi]
The resurrection invites us to move beyond abstract arguments. It invites us to wake up in a very real world where Easter happens… look around ourselves and see what is outside of ourselves. The resurrection invites us to choose what we pay attention to and how we interpret our experience and how to interpret meaning from our experience.
Because of the resurrection we may see a sliver of what is offered - an invitation to reject wholesale the notion that the best it will ever be is a comfortable, prosperous, respectable, unconscious, adult life where we are slaves to our egos and end up in a day-in-and-day-out routine of death.[vii]
Because of a Jesus who will appear at any point in our life we are invited to look for him in the world around us and in the people around us. Because of a Jesus who appears alive we are to see the world for the living that is in it. Because Jesus comes to us in a companion along the road side or in the locked upper room we are to look for him in places we least expect to find him.
Because of a God who is obedient to his love for humanity and in so doing breaks death’s strangle hold on us we are able to experience love, grace, freedom, forgiveness, and mercy when we open our psychic tombs to the risen Lord.
We experience these things not from a self-centered way but because we open ourselves up to having our name called out by the other. We risk giving all that we have and all that we are. We are generous. We love. We love regardless of the cost. We love even to death and we love through death and to the other side.
You see Easter is awareness of life lived freed from death. What David Foster Wallace says of awareness in general is what we say of Easter - “It is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water.”[viii]
This is water… this is love… this is life… this is Easter.
This is Easter.
Friday, April 18, 2014
The crucifixion of Jesus is “Roman imperial terrorism” writes Marcus Borg. Crucifixion is the use of violence, suffering and death to pierce the heart of citizens for the sake of peace – the Pax Romana. It was reserved for runaway slaves and for rebel insurgents.
While they did not invent it they used it well. Crucifixion was not simply capital punishment.
Hung close to the ground for birds and dogs to devour, it was supreme in its suffering, in its humiliation, in its complete consumption of the body by the state. So complete was this public disappearance of the person that there was nothing to be buried. In fact only one body has been discovered in an ancient family tomb. The forensic evidence mimicking the suffering wounds of our lord.
Crucifixion was a public warning.[i]
Crucifixion is a public warning.
Scholar Raymond Brown writes: "The other gospels mark Jesus' death with miraculous signs in the ambiance: The Temple curtain is torn; tombs open and bodies of the saints come forth; and an expression of faith is evoked from a Roman centurion. But the Fourth Gospel [The Gospel of John] localizes the sign in the body of Jesus itself.” Very few words are spoken by Jesus.
In John’s Gospel Jesus’ last words, "It is finished" are a victory cry and not some pitiful words from a dying prisoner.
John's words have a triumphant nature and give us a sense that in this moment we have victory. In the moment of his physical dying there is victory.
Jesus in the fourth Gospel accepts death, in all of its pain and suffering, as the completion of God's reconciliation of the world (its earthiness and creatureliness) with the Godhead. That heaven and earth be combined – united – never to be torn apart again.
The fourth Gospel's death scene from the cross is a song of victory.
It relishes the death of death, the finality of sin, as the falling cross bridges the gap once for all between heaven and earth.
Brown explains it this way, "In John's theology, now that Jesus has finished his work and is lifted up from the earth on the cross in death, he will draw all men to him. If "It is finished" is a victory cry, the victory it heralds is that of …[obedience].
[These words are similar to the phrase] "It is done" of Rev. 16.17, uttered from the throne of God and of the Lamb when the seventh angel pours out the final blow of God's wrath. What God has decreed has been accomplished."[ii]
Crucifixion is a public warning.
And, Jesus’ words are a public cry of victory.
They are “words that comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”[iii] We are “marooned in our own heads,” in our hearts, and in our lives. “We are curved in upon ourselves,” says Augustine. In this moment of victory Christ calls out and allows us access into the other – into God.
We come to this moment of public victory to experience and to know that we do not suffer alone. We do not die alone. We may feel alone, but we are not. We are not alone in this reconciled world where empathy is possible and victory is certain.
In Jesus God is forever identified in our pain and we are forever identified in Jesus’ suffering. In the cross we see more clearly our own suffering as part of the whole. We see the suffering of others. We are united with God and with one another in the mutuality of death.
It is this public warning – this crucifixion - that unites us to God and God to us. We see that God knows and understands and feels our suffering. Not as a God from beyond but a God who is with us - A God who is so obedient to his love for us that he becomes us and dies like us and with us.
For the truth is that we harbor inside a silent and private dread of loneliness and angst about death. As David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest, says: “[we have a collective] dread of being trapped inside a self (a psychic self, not just a physical self), [it] has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me.”[iv]
I believe that in the crucifixion God is acting out and redeeming us – but as in all good reconciling acts we must first come (as Wallace says of art) “face to face with what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.”[v]
The crucifixion as public warning has been turned upside down and in upon itself to become the sign of public victory over the powers of this world. What was a victory cry in the first century against an oppressive invading imperial force today is a victory cry over everything that oppresses us, our “culture’s mediated gratification”, image of perfection, and consumption.[vi] The cross of Christ itself becomes a warning in its victory, an antagonization of our senses and pricks at our conscience’s self-perpetuated lie that death is finality; loneliness is all there is, and loss is inevitable. It challenges the powers-that-be who depend on our attention and money for increased wealth and power in this world.
What is poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it threatens everyone who invites this public disobedience in a spiritual and emotional way. Crucifixion’s contemporary public warning is that you risk looking foolish, uncool, “melodramatic, naïve, unhip or sappy.” Those who wish to live within the shadow of the Christ’s victorious cross must be willing to sort of die in order to be moved and to move others. To actually live a life freed from the power of crucifixion and under the guiding reality of Christ’s victory cry we must have a kind of courage.”[vii]
To behold the cross of Christ is a public act of courage, and art of living, to confront loneliness, death, and loss and in so doing to receive life and live into Christ’s public victory.
Crucifixion is a public warning.
Jesus’ words are a public victory.
To behold the crucifixion is to engage in the personal art of a public dying.
For as Christians we believe that the cross of Jesus Christ, is a power greater than ourselves, and can restore us through an acceptance of death into life.
Jesus’ words are a public victory – Jesus’ death is a cosmic one. Victory is certain and we are not alone.
As D. G. Myers, author and literary critic, in his essay on dying writes: “We are today and everyday entirely ready to have God receive us exactly as we have become, without the opportunity for additional effort”[viii] or success having tried our best and failed many times over.
Edna Hong in the Downward Ascent writes: “There are so many fake props to knock down. And the end of the painful road is not perfection, but perfect humility. Not morbidity and self-loathing, but a humble and contrite heart.[ix]
So, we humbly ask Him to make light of our failures… and we stop all magical thinking that we are becoming ever more perfect.[x]
Living in the victory of the cross is always and everywhere an act of defiance that death does not have the last word and nor does culture or the powers of this world.
Jesus’ words are our public victory.
Crucifixion after all is a public warning…that to behold Christ Crucified is to engage in the art of a personal and public dying for sake of living.
[i] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week, 2006, 146.
[ii] Raymond Brown, John, vol II, Anchor Bible, 931
[iii] 1993 interview by Larry McCaffery with David Foster Wallace author of Infinite Jest. http://www.dalkeyarchive.com/a-conversation-with-david-foster-wallace-by-larry-mccaffery. The images I am using of what is taking place in our witness to the crucifixion are adapted from this interview.
[viii] D.G. Myers on the Art of Dying http://dgmyers.blogspot.com/2014/04/dying-is-12-step-program.html
[ix] Edna Hong, The Downward Ascent, 50-51.
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- "Christianity is not a theory or speculation, but a life; not a philosophy of life, but a life and a living process." Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- "Most people are willing to take the Sermon on the Mount as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer." Oliver Wendell Holmes
- "Perfection, in a Christian sense, means becoming mature enough to give ourselves to others." Kathleen Norris
- "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." John Wesley
- "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." G. K. Chesterton
- "One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans." C. S. Lewis
- "When we say, 'I love Jesus, but I hate the Church,' we end up losing not only the Church but Jesus too. The challenge is to forgive the Church. This challenge is especially great because the church seldom asks us for forgiveness." Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey
- "Christians are hard to tolerate; I don't know how Jesus does it." Bono
- "It's too easy to get caught in our little church subcultures, and the result is that the only younger people we might know are Christians who are already inside the church." Dan Kimball