Sunday, April 1st, 2018


This is the basic text of this morning’s sermon at Bradford Cathedral:

John 20:1-18

Do you realise that in the eyes of many, many people, by coming here this morning you are an April Fool? You are doing something ridiculous. Dead men do not rise from the dead – as the Guardian pointed out with great patronising cleverness on Friday. So, if you are here this morning celebrating Easter and the resurrection, then you are to be pitied by the commentariat and those who clearly know best.

I did an interview on BBC Radio Leeds this morning and the track played before I went on was Queen’s ‘It’s a kind of magic’. And I thought: “No, it’s not!” Easter is about plunging into the heart of human reality and resurrection is about the transformation of that reality, not some magical escape from it.

Did you know that one of the earliest depictions of the crucifixion was found scratched on a wall in Rome, dating probably from the second century? It is shocking. A man with the head of a donkey is strapped and nailed to a cross; next to the cross is a very badly drawn little figure wearing the short tunic of a slave – with, scribbled above it, the words: “Alexamenos worshipping his god.” We don’t know who did this, but they were clearly poking fun at Alexamenos. After all, isn’t the god of a slave inevitably a failure? Isn’t it a feeble god who gets himself crucified by the powerful Roman Empire? Wasn’t Alexamenos deluded and a bit dim to worship a god who is so obviously not worthy of common devotion?

Seen on Twitter, but unattributed

The early Christians did not invent the crucifixion and resurrection in order to establish a new religion, nor did they wake up one day and think to themselves: “You know, let’s perpetrate a fraud on the world and see if it brings us safety, liberation and prosperity!” Rather, the first Christians were compelled to worship the crucified God because they could find no other response that did justice to the facts of their experience. Dead men don’t walk; but, all the Romans had to do was present the body and Christianity would have been as dead as Jesus on day one. Why didn’t they?

In the face of oppression, unspeakable violence and widespread ridicule, these early Christians knew somehow that if just this one man did walk again, then the world is changed for ever and this God is worth the world.

The bit I struggle with every Easter Day is … joy. Not because I am miserable or pessimistic or worn out from a long Lent and Holy Week, but because we jump too quickly from the pain of Good Friday’s world-shattering loss, through the emptiness of Saturday (when we wake to the reality that this loss was not an illusion or a nightmare from which we will come round), to the “happily ever after” resolution of the problem. Shouldn’t the resurrection fill us with confusion and fear rather than joy that the nasty stuff has been sorted out? Shouldn’t we respond to the cry of “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” with a resounding whimper of something like: “Stop mocking us – you can’t be serious.”?

Let me explain by reference to the text.

“The two disciples were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in … but he did not go in. … Simon Peter … went into the tomb. … Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed. … Then the disciples returned to their homes. (While Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.)”

This certainly has the ring of authenticity about it, doesn’t it? No great heroics here. No building up of the future hero of the faith – Peter himself – by having him grow spiritual muscles that he then flexes fearlessly in the face of a by now wondering world. No. Here we have these men greeting the resurrection with fear, bewilderment, maybe even silence, and then “they returned to their homes”. To do what? Read the paper? Have lunch? Just carry on?

Well, this is probably what I would have done. How do I make sense of what I have just witnessed? I need to think about it. For goodness sake, don’t breathe a word about this: we might get accused of nicking the body. It doesn’t make sense of the world as we know it … or of God as we think God should be.

Isn’t there something powerfully real here? People respond differently to the absence or appearance of Jesus in their life. The first disciple would only enter the tomb once someone else had done so – not exactly what today in the Church of England we would call ‘Pioneer Ministry’. Peter goes straight in, impetuous man that he has proved to be throughout the gospel accounts of him. The quicker disciple, we are told, “saw and believed”. We aren’t told what Peter thought … or believed. The story is only just beginning and this is not the problem-solving end of it all.

But, then, I have to ask the question that this text begs of us. Why do the men respond like this, but the woman stays there and ponders in her heart while weeping? She, too, is caught in the moment and yet, when presented with the same evidence as the men, responds so differently. This woman disciple, the subject of a new film in the cinemas now, acts with raw emotion and determined will. Whereas the men go home in silence, having seen the empty tomb, this woman – Mary of Magdala – the first-responder, as it were, has already returned home … not to silent and bewildered contemplation, but to tell others what she had seen. She didn’t wait until she understood it. She didn’t assume that she needed to get her theological ducks in a row before she could dare to tell anyone. She didn’t worry about being thought dim or ridiculous. She went and simply told the men what she had seen.

No wonder, then, that she is seen as the first evangelist of resurrection hope. No wonder that her first reaction to the fearful experience of the missing body was to tell and bring others to see what she had seen.

And isn’t this encouraging? We will all respond differently to the news of the resurrection of Jesus. Some will doubt and some will just drag others to have a look. Some will weep with emotion whilst others withdraw and try to work it out in their head. Some will draw all sorts of conclusions, but do so knowing that their conclusions are not conclusive and the story does not end here.

Yet, isn’t this all a little bit abstract? OK, we see how several friends of Jesus encountered the resurrection event two thousand years ago, but, … so what?

Well, today we might encounter the resurrection in a variety of ways. We might ponder the wonder of it all and find ourselves being transformed by the implications of it for our own life and values and behaviours. Or we might look at the historical evidence – of which there is plenty – and draw some conclusion on the basis of probability as to what happened … and how we must now respond. Or we might find ourselves overwhelmed emotionally at the realisation that, despite the ridicule of the clever world around us, the whole world is challenged and changed by the presence of a God who confounds – in real time and space – the ‘normality’ of a world too often coloured by violence, fear and chaos.

Of course, the resurrection is not just about individual discipleship of Jesus in a changed world. The resurrection and its impact on these first Christians was not a mere private pursuit of people who needed a crutch with which to limp through a hard life. The resurrection was what we might call ‘public truth’ from the word go. The Romans wouldn’t have been worried for one moment, would they, by a group of Northern peasants entertaining private religious devotions and devising cliquey rituals for celebrating their delusions? Of course, not. But, these followers of the crucified and risen Jesus proved difficult from the beginning because resurrection posed a fundamental challenge to the world order of their day. If Jesus is Lord – and resurrection as the ultimate defiance against imperial power, against the threat of violence and death, against a social order shaped to keep the mighty on their thrones (to steal a phrase from the Magnificat) actually happened – then the clear implication is that Caesar is not Lord. And if people start thinking that there is one more powerful than Caesar, to whom ultimate allegiance must be owed, where will it end? Clearly, this is subversive of natural order; clearly, this is fundamentally seditious and must, therefore, be stopped.

You can see the problem. But, Christian faith has to be subversive: subversive of narratives driven by fear and not drawn by hope; subversive of habits of worshipping the way the world is – with its global business and financial systems, powerful data companies, nasty ideologies, rogue military and paramilitary forces; subversive of any capitulation to fear or fatalism or resignation. Those who follow the risen Christ are free from these paralysing fears. The world does not have to be the way it is.

Did you know that one of the reasons the Romans found the early Christians offensive was that they kept looking after the poor, the vulnerable and the destitute? Not just their own Christian poor, vulnerable and destitute, but even those pagan Romans who had no Christian faith in the first place. This was the scandal: indiscriminate love; generous mercy; reckless compassion; a quiet but resolute challenge to the fundamental values – the basic understanding of why people do or don’t matter – of a society that is threatened by goodness.

This was – and remains – revolutionary. Christians, fired by resurrection hope, respond to the selfless love of God in Christ by imitating him – loving as he has loved us, giving ourselves as he has given himself to and for us. We are an Easter people who, like Mary and Peter and Thomas and all the others, will fail a million times and feel our bewilderment at being grasped by this love. Yet, like resurrection after death and loss and emptiness, we find that this is the love that will not let us go (even when we try to escape it for ourselves).

And this is the love – the love that will not let us go – that compels us to challenge any social order that kills and demeans and diminishes any people. Racism, antisemitism, imposed poverty, industries that enslave and drugs that steal people’s souls, politics that prioritise ideology over people and sacrifice truth on the altar of power. And that includes the church in which, historically, abuse has been allowed, the shame of which is being exposed in the light of day. A resurrection people will find themselves to look deeper, then whisper to a sceptical world: “That way lies darkness, emptiness and death; the way of Christ empties the tomb and opens the way to light and transformation.

Is this the day you peer into the tomb and decide to follow this Jesus? Is today the day you choose to walk the road of faith in defiance of the ‘evidence’ that might always wins? Is today the day you catch a glimpse of light scratching away at the darkness of your loss, and drawing you away from resignation towards hope? Is today, Easter Day, the day you decide the world does not have to stay the way it is … because God, having surprised earth with heaven by coming among us in the baby of Bethlehem, has not exempted himself from all that the world can throw at him (or us), but has drawn the sting of all deathliness and opened the gate of glory?

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

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This is the basic text of my Maundy Thursday sermon at Wakefield Cathedral when the clergy gather to reaffirm their ordination vows:

2 Corinthians 4 (with reference to 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 and John 13:1-17, 31-35)

Treasure in clay jars. We don’t need any reminder of that, do we? We have no illusions about our fragility.

When I was a teenager I picked up a book from the bookstall at the front of the church I belonged to. It was white and it bore the title: ‘With a Church Like This Who Needs Satan?’ Even then it didn’t strike me as the most optimistic question. But, it also made me start thinking about what the Church should look like.

Of course, the problem with being a teenager is that you harbour ideals that you hope won’t get crushed by the onslaught of time and experience. Many of them do. Growing up inevitably sees the dreams and fantasies of youth get tempered and reshaped by the realities of life, events and other people.

It is equally true of the church that I as a teenager wanted it to be. I couldn’t understand why Christians were so consistently disappointing – or so obviously contradictory. Why couldn’t they just ‘get’ the gospel as I did and change the world? Why the constant passive aggression? Why the competitiveness and self-aggrandising self-regard – the holding onto roles or ministries as possessions and service as privilege? Of course, the irony passed me by: that here was I, arrogantly complaining about the arrogance and constant complaining of everybody else. Humility and humour have more than the first three letters in common.

I recall this encounter with Christian literature simply because any romantic notions about the church would certainly not survive scrutiny by the media or courts today. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has just completed its first look at the Church of England, spending three weeks looking at the historic failures to protect vulnerable children and adults in the Diocese of Chichester. More will follow in the next fifteen months, and the discomfort and shame will continue. That a church could allow the conditions within which children could be abused so terribly is a source of shame with which those who love the church must learn to live.

However, I am not ashamed of the Church herself – or of those who are working so relentlessly to change the culture and make our churches safe for everyone. I am immensely grateful to those who, despite the barrage of inherited historical failures in safeguarding matters, keep plugging away at making it better. And, contrary to those who complain about the bureaucracy involved, or the cost of training and so on, we are attending to this because the church of Jesus Christ should never be an unsafe place for anyone. It goes without saying that people – especially vulnerable people – should find in the church a place of safety, hope and healing … not a place of threat, fear and exploitation.

I make no apologies for speaking of this miserable situation this morning. This week it is impossible for any of us to be romantic. In the story of Jesus and his friends we see a mirror of humanity and a face head on the reality of fickle human contradiction. Peter pledges macho allegiance to his friend, but caves in when confronted by a girl in a garden; Judas longs for his friend’s glory, but betrays him with a kiss; crowds shout praises, but soon call for blood; the men who had their feet washed by their friend now run, leaving the women watching to the end.

No illusions. No mystery. No tidy solutions. No glorious heroes.

Yet, emptied of fantasy, these people – people just like us – watch their hopes and dreams bleed into the dirt of a hill outside the city, leaving them crushed and empty. And, to their eternal surprise, they will discover that this world of shame and fear, of contradiction and disillusionment, will find itself whispered into hope as the emptiness of Saturday is followed by the surreptitious Sunday smile of a tomb with something missing.

Yes, this is the real world, too. This, too, is the world in which violence and shame and self-saving, flip-flopping destructiveness find themselves drained of power – their raging potency extinguished by a love that opens its arms to the world as it is and refuses to hide its face. This, too, is the real world in which death howls with resentment at the realisation that, despite the evidence of centuries, it does not, after all, have the final word.

This, brothers and sisters, is where our gospel hope is to be found – not in negating the pain and shame, but in seeing through it all to the reality of the inextinguishable light of a God who loves us to death … and beyond. And this is the gospel which compels us to give ourselves in service to this God and our neighbour.
When Jesus shared his final meal with his friends he knelt at the feet of the one who would soon deny knowing him, the one who would soon doubt him, and the one who would shortly betray him. Yet, these are the people he calls his friends. These are the people on whom he will build his church. These are the people whose illusions of self-satisfaction and self-sufficiency will be stripped away in the cruellest of crises, leaving them exposed to the darkness which will, in turn, give birth quietly to the light of what Walter Brueggemann calls “newness after loss”. And these are people like you and me.

And if this is not the real gospel which drives us, then we are missing the point; we are wasting our life; and the Church is perpetrating a fraud.

The Apostle Paul gets this. In his first letter to the church at Corinth – the earliest account we have of the Eucharistic meal – he doesn’t indulge in some pure or abstract theology. He doesn’t pontificate about the mysteries of the Eucharistic feast, exploring the competing ideologies of sacramental sensibilities. Rather, he describes how the Christians have already lost the plot that lies at the heart of John’s account of the Last Supper. Instead of sharing their food and mixing as an undivided and mutually committed community of people who bear the name of Christ, they hide their food, collect in cliques, and ignore the hunger of those they either dislike or disdain.

And the point is simply that they fail to reflect the One who has washed their feet. They do not look like a community shaped by the priorities of Christ. However well they might have started, they no longer reveal to themselves or observers of their common life the character of the One they apparently claim to serve. The deal is not hard to understand: if you claim to have been claimed by the crucified Christ, then people must see in your life together the Christ they have heard about and encountered in the stories of Jesus of Nazareth. Look at the Christian Church and you should see Jesus – not Caesar.

Of course, this is not new. The cry of the prophets held the people of God to account centuries before either Jesus or Paul appeared on Middle Eastern hills. Spirituality cannot and must not be divorced from sociology. How you eat together speaks of the authenticity of your theology. Don’t claim to be the children of a God of justice and mercy if you betray him by “trampling on the heads of the poor”, as Amos puts it. Don’t ask God to forgive you if you haven’t first forgiven those who have grieved you – as Jesus put it in the one prayer he told his friends to pray.

Now, is this the vision that fires us in our shaping of the church in the Diocese of Leeds at Easter 2018? Do we see only as far as the contradictions and the frustrations and disappointments that real life always throws up at us? Do we focus on the things that diminish us or our love for others? Or do we find ourselves haunted by the echoes of another world, another way, another voice whose love just will not let us go?

These are not abstract questions. If our congregations are to grow in confidence and attractiveness – which is, basically, what church growth is all about – then we as ministers of this gospel must be bearers of hope, articulators of grace, heralds of newness, nourishers of healing. That is the vocation set before us in the ordinal. But, we cannot minister to others if we have not first allowed ourselves to be ministered to – even by our betrayers, our deniers, and our doubters.

Are we up for this?

In his challenge to the Corinthians Paul is crystal clear that his ministry is not his possession – it is not a product he can claim or a commodity that he can trade in. He is a mediator of grace and a shaper of a community of grace. In his account in 1 Corinthians 11, set in the context of warning the Christians to sort out their scandalous divisions and look out for the needs and sensibilities of one another (something he reprises in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians where hierarchy had to do with status and not with order), Paul uses three verbs – verbs that are instructive for us in our ministry: “received (from the Lord) … handed on … proclaimed.”

No claim or demand. We receive the grace of God – that is what baptism is primarily about: receiving what we cannot claim. Gift. Sign.

We hand on this gift and this grace on the grounds that we can do no other. We receive, but we do not hold. We hand it on in the same spirit in which it was gifted to us. Then, in the light of this experience – receiving and letting go – we proclaim the what and why of what this good news is all about. It must not stop with us.

Brothers and sisters, does this characterise your ministry and the ministry of those you nurture and serve and lead? Receive … hand on … proclaim?

Ministry is always exercised in the real world and ministers need not fear the realities of the world. After all, the world is God’s and the mission is God’s. Our ministry in his name is exercised in the power of his Spirit. And, as our readings this morning make abundantly clear, this God has no illusions about us and our fragilities. We share bread and wine with empty hands outstretched; we know our need; but, we know the grace of a God who has lived among us, who has walked our way and lived with fickle friends like us, and yet who still calls us to go with him into the unknown future.

Thank you for the ministry you offer. It is often tough. Some of you thrive whilst some of you struggle to survive. Some laugh and don’t understand why others are weeping. Some weep and are suspicious of those who sit light and smile at the darkness. Some just keep going, hoping that one day soon the light will shine and the load become easier.

I speak for the bishops in thanking you – in encouraging you, along with us, to encourage one another. To reject collusion in suspicion and fatalism. To be agents of hope and mercy, sharing bread and wine at the beating heart of worship that powerfully transforms because it is no empty ritual, but pregnant with the expectation that God in his glory will be present as we receive and inhabit and hand on and proclaim this wonderful gift of grace. Heaven in ordinary. God’s surprise.

And now, as we prepare to commit ourselves afresh to Christ’s ministry of reconciliation, let us lay down the burdens of self-justification we too readily carry; the destructive compulsion to prove our worth, rather than the responsive joy of knowing we are loved; the weight of self-judgment in the face of a Christ who sets us free. And let us open our eyes to see afresh the glory of the cross, our ears to hear again the whispered prompting of God’s generous call, our minds to play with the limitless wonder of God’s grace, and our hearts to receive in simplicity and joyful humility the freedom of God’s embrace.