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!

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.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show with Sara Cox. Guests included UB40 and there are four of their song titles embedded in the text.

Well, if it’s all busy busy busy in the studio this Good Friday morning – and it sounds like it is – then you’ll already understand something of what was going on during the first Good Friday.

Far from being a deeply meditative religious experience way back in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, everyone was actually going wild. There was a massive political ferment, and loads of the people hoped they were on the brink of being liberated from Roman occupation. The city was full of parties and lots of red, red wine was flowing down the throats of people crying for freedom.

It all sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it?

Anyway, the man of the moment – and the cause of the trouble on this particular Friday – was being built up as the great saviour of the people by some, and the great enemy of the people by others. It’s a terrible position to be in, isn’t it – especially when you’ve just spent the last few years telling everyone to love each other to death. But, Jesus of Nazareth has a final meal with his hopeless mates, gets arrested while praying in a garden, then gets tried before an embarrassed judge, and, finally, gets nailed.

What a waste.

Well, the reason we call this Friday ‘good’ is not because it’s a good story; it’s because the death of this Jesus changed the world. It also changed the personal world of people who were part of it.

Jesus’s friends had just bigged themselves up: “Jesus, if they’re going to get you, they’re going to have to go through me first.” Then the big men caved in under challenge, and most of them ran away when it all got too hard. Betrayed, denied and deserted: that was how Jesus experienced Good Friday.

But, the good bit is that this wasn’t the end of the story. The misery of Friday’s crucifixion was followed by the unbearable emptiness of Saturday, but opened the way to a surprising Sunday. ‘Where did I go wrong’ becomes ‘light my fire’ when people disillusioned by their own failure discover that this isn’t the end of the story.

Good Friday? It’s a labour of love.

Happy Easter!

Today we celebrate God's inability to stay down. Death, violence and destruction do not have the final word in this world, after all; God does. It is 'resurrection'.

Christians are to be people who are drawn by hope, not driven by fear. They are a people who have been grasped by the outrageous good news that endings provide the soil for new beginnings. Christian hope is not rooted in any formula guaranteeing a safe or comfortable life; it is rooted in the person of the God who doesn't avoid a cross, but who empties a tomb and promises us new life.

Today is especially striking. There is a rumour abroad that the church in general and the Church of England in particular is incapable or unwilling to change. Well, here in West Yorkshire & the Dales we have opted for change in a serious way. The new diocese is born at midnight, ushering in the light of Easter. We face many challenges as a consequence of our willingness to take the risk of dying in order to live – but, we will face them as people of hope whose hearts and imaginations have been caught by Jesus himself.

We are an Easter people and hallelujah is the song that will not be silenced.


Yesterday I did Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2. Normally, you have to be in the studio at Western House in London to do this piece. However, yesterday Zoe Ball was standing in for Chris, and we couldn't make the holiday train schedule work to get me back to Bradford afterwards. So, I was asked to do it from the studio in Leeds. Which I did.

Imagine my grief when I got in and heard that the studio guests were the very funny Ross Noble and the magnificent Neil Finn. I have every Crowded House album and every Neil Finn solo album. And the stuff he has done with his brother. And there he was, performing live in the studio. And I was in Leeds. Oh, mercy…

It was while listening to Neil Finn singing Distant Sun that I remembered the first time I heard Together Alone – still my favourite Crowded House album. If you haven't heard it and loved it, you are a Philistine!

Anyway, 'together alone' seems a phrase that resonates through Holy Week to Easter and beyond.

  • Jesus is surrounded by friends, but is totally alone in understanding the reality the others cannot begin to imagine or to face.
  • Jesus celebrates with his friends, resignifying the meal and the story it tells; but, he is alone in seeing what it all means.
  • Surrounded by crowds, Jesus stands alone before Pontius Pilate. Surrounded by crowds, he is tortured and crucified. His friends mostly abandon him.

Yet, the friends are also together alone.

  • Judas Iscariot ploughs a lone furrow in betraying the friend who truly knows him and yet not belonging with those who pay him off. He dies alone.
  • Peter stands surrounded by people, but experiences the brutal loneliness of realising that he isn't the big man he thought he was. He is isolated, even when faced by a young girl who asks the embarrassing questions.
  • The women stay with the agony of watching the man they love die slowly as the object of public humiliation. Surrounded by crowds, they suffer the solitude of grief that cannot be shared.
  • In the days following this disaster Jesus's friends hide. In a familiar city they feel isolated and afraid. The company of friends who shared the fear and disillusionment cannot hide the loneliness of fearful mortality.

Being alone in a crowd can be deadly.

Today, Saturday, is a day that has to be lived through. The sheer emptiness should not be avoided. The friends of Jesus woke up on Saturday not knowing that Sunday was coming. And Easter cannot be properly lived or understood unless, first, we have stayed with the empty agony of being together … alone.


This is the script of this morning's Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 with Zoe Ball.

When I was a kid in Liverpool I always felt I must be the stupid one. What could possibly be good about Good Friday? A bloke gets tortured and executed; his best friends – having sworn undying allegiance to him – all run away and leave him to the women (who obviously had stronger stomachs); then he gets buried and it all seems such a useless, tragic and embarrassing waste. He was only in his early thirties and all the raised hopes just lay bleeding in the dirt.

Not exactly for the fainthearted, is it? But, that is what Good Friday is about: Jesus of Nazareth coming to a grizzly end. That'll teach him to stand up to the authorities and to question the way the world is.

You know, the best bit about this story – the story that gives today its name – is that none of the people involved in it knew what might happen next. Jesus's friends never quite grasped what he was on about, and Jesus himself felt abandoned during his final moments.

Now, how real is that? I mean, let's not be squeamish – we've all heard on the news just now about Syria and Ukraine and the ferry tragedy in South Korea as well as other places where human suffering is all too real.

But, the story doesn't end here. Sunday is coming. And what looks like an ending is transformed into a surprising new beginning in which we are confronted at the heart of human grief with a man telling us not to be afraid. As I put it in an article recently, Easter cries out to us with the invitation to be drawn by hope and not driven by fear.

The great Leonard Cohen encourages us in one of his best songs to “give up your perfect offering; there's a crack in everything – that's how the light gets in.” He's right. And the beginning of freedom seems to come with the acceptance that all of us are cracked – or not all that we are cracked up to be.

Maybe that's why this Friday is Good. It reminds us to lose our pretensions and illusions. The story doesn't end with the cracks – Sunday is coming.


Easter Day. Resurrection.

A cellar was discovered in Cologne, Germany, in which Jews had been hidden in 1942. Among the various graffiti on the walls was this:

I believe in the sun though it is late in rising.

I believe in love though it is absent.

I believe in God though he is silent.

outside Jerusalem 086Resurrection Day tells us that Christian hope is rooted not in acceptance of a formula that guarantees escape from the horrors or routines of the world, but in trusting the person of God who raised Christ from death. In other words, whatever else the world throws at us, I will trust – in living and dying – in the God who raised Christ. The rest is detail.

After all, we have now lived the story from Christmas – God opting into the world and all it represents – to Easter – God appearing to fail, only to confound our expectations and understandings of the world. Resurrection isn’t the end – the nice, neat resolution of all the horrors of suffering, injustice and pain; rather, it reinforces the vocation/compulsion of God’s people to plunge themselves into the realities of the world, willing to suffer, not escaping from it all, but unafraid: because both our living and our dying have been transformed by God who raised Christ.

Happy Easter!

… but you have to go though Friday first.

(In the absence of time to write anything fresh, here is the text of my March letter to the Diocese of Bradford.)

I read an article recently about how electronic communication is speeding up the world and making us more impatient. As the technology improves, so do connections run quicker and our tolerance of delay diminishes. I don’t know about you, but it sounds about right to me. It is hard to stop and wait and enjoy the gaps between words and activities.

wpid-Photo-10-Apr-2012-1307.jpgI say this because Lent is leading us slowly towards an ending that will, in turn, become a new beginning. Lent beckons us to stop, to slow down, to force ourselves to step off the treadmill and make space for reflection and self-examination. Attentive consideration of God, the world and ‘us’ opens up the slow possibilities of repentance (literally, a change of mind), renewal and hopeful living. It is an invitation that is easy to decline – after all, it will involve us in walking with Jesus and his friends (and enemies) to the rubbish dump where a cross haunts the horizon, awaiting its terrorised victim.

I grew up in a church community where it seemed we tried to get from Good Friday to Easter Sunday as quickly as possible. We celebrated the cross as God’s victory… instead of learning to live the story of God’s apparent failure or absence. We just couldn’t stay there as the world falls apart; nor could we live through the sheer emptiness of loss, bereavement and world-ending fear that is Saturday: the dead Jesus in the tomb and the world collapsed. No, we want to get to resurrection and make it all happy again. We escape the painful darkness and embrace the brightness of resurrection day.

But, this is problematic. If we don’t stay with Good Friday and live with the appalling emptiness of Saturday, then Easter itself will be meaningless. We are not supposed to just entertain ourselves theologically with Easter; no, we are supposed to live it, experience it, cry through it, search through it, long through it for hopeful resolution. And when Sunday comes we are to be surprised, bewildered, shocked even.

As a church we are called not only to live the story in our worship and contemplation, but also to use it as a lens for looking attentively at our society and world. The massive increase in food banks, the enormous injustices that are enshrined in our economic systems, the poverty that destroys the lives of ordinary people: all these things (and others) represent for those afflicted by them a long ‘day’ of crucifixion – a slow death of potential, health, esteem, hope. There are people in every parish who might find themselves here.

Berlin August 2010 027Yet, the Christian community is not simply to shout at the darkness or rage against the sinfulness of such a situation. No, we are called to speak the truth about the things that corrupt, that nail godliness to a cross, that destroy hope and potential; and then we are called to offer a glimpse of what Walter Brueggemann calls ‘newness after loss’. This means enabling people to be surprised by Sunday when Friday and Saturday seem so endless.

May your Easter be blessed as we celebrate the resurrection light that confounds the darkness and opens up new hope for God’s world. Let us together light a candle of resurrection in protest at the mock powerfulness of the dark… and then go where the light shines in order to make an Easter difference in the places where God calls us to stay awhile.

This evening we began the service in darkness and watched the light grow as we read the story of God’s freedom in Bradford Cathedral. I baptised five adults and confirmed more than twenty. The sermon was for them and the text follows here:

He has been raised (Mark 16:1-8)

I want to give you some advice – whoever you are and however old you might be: if anyone ever asks you to lead a tour of the Holy Land, try to say ‘no’. I have led several and I can only compare the experience to trying to herd cats… or attempting to get mice to walk in a straight line into a trap. Schedules go out of the window and any hope of sticking to time quickly becomes a fantasy. Go to Skegness instead.

However, if you do ever get the chance to go on a tour of the Holy Land, don’t hesitate. It will be wonderful and memorable. Just don’t agree to lead one, that’s all. And, if you do get to Jerusalem, here’s a question to ask people randomly around the streets (before the police come to pick you up, that is): “Can you tell me where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is, please?” Whatever answer you get, follow it up with another question: “OK, can you tell me where the Church of the Resurrection is?”

You see, they’re the same place. Western Christians have traditionally called it the ‘Church of the Holy Sepulchre’, but Eastern Christians know it as the ‘Church of the Resurrection’. And I guess the two questions this provokes are: what’s the difference, and does it matter? After all, aren’t they just names?

Well, the difference is more than just names or semantics. Some Christians stop at the cross and see Jesus bearing the sins of the whole world and thereby setting us free for forgiveness and new life. Others go through the cross and the empty tomb and emerge surprised and bewildered, but in a new world – or, at least, the old world lived in differently and seen differently… shot through with new colour and unsuppressed joy.

You see, the whole point of the Jesus story is that it didn’t end with death –even death on a cross. In a world of violence in which the mighty Roman Empire exerted its power by making people very afraid of dying and death, Jesus of Nazareth opens his arms on the gallows, taking whatever nastiness the world can throw at him, and doesn’t throw it back. He takes it… and it looks as if he has massively miscalculated. The Messiah was supposed to lead God’s people to freedom – just like Moses led them through the waters of the Red Sea towards the Land of Promise; yet, here he is, hanging dead on a cross, mocked by his killers and deserted by his friends. What a pathetic disappointment.

The problem with Jesus is that he has gone walkabout with a load of friends for a couple of years and has raised their hopes. They thought that he might just be the one to trust – the one who would not let them down. As they went about their rather odd business, he began to use words to fire their souls and did things to make people think that God himself might at last be among them again. The words of the ancient prophets echoed in their deep memories when they saw sick people brought to health and the most unlikely people discover that God was on their side – despite the strictures of the religious leaders. They thought they were on a roll – that triumph lay ahead.

But, here he is, hanging limp and bloodied on a cross. Rome has won again. All the hope was simply blind illusion – fantasy. What a let-down. And now what do they do with their minds and hearts? Do they go back to where they were before Jesus met them on the beach and asked them to go for a walk with him? Or do they rationalise their experience and return to business as usual, but with a new religious perspective?

In fact, they did what you and I would probably have done: they ran away and hid and cried and tried to make sense of all that had gone on – and worried that they might be next up on the Roman executioner’s job list. Their world had fallen apart. Not just their rational understanding of God and the world, but their entire world view – the lens through which they saw God, the world and themselves lay shattered and bleeding in the dirt of the rubbish tip that was Calvary.

Now, we know the end of the story – what happened next. But, they didn’t. They knew only that their world had ended and they had only fear and bewilderment to lead them through Friday and Saturday and into yet another dreaded day of emptiness. They hadn’t been able to figure Jesus out when he was alive and with them; they certainly couldn’t figure out what was to happen next. It just all looked bleak – their world had ended.

Let’s come back to now – Bradford in April 2012. Easter services throughout the world will begin with the priest proclaiming to waiting congregations: “Christ is risen!” And, with loud voices, the people will respond with: “He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!”

I think this might be wrong. We speak of Easter joy because we know what happened next. But, I think that if we were to really live the story of Holy Week and Easter, we wouldn’t respond like that. I think the priest would proclaim: “Christ is risen!” and the congregation would say: “What? Really? You’re joking! Don’t be so cruel.” If we were honest, that is.

When Mary Magdalene went to the garden on the day after the Sabbath, she did not expect to find an empty tomb, did not expect to be met by a young man in white, and did not expect her world to be turned upside down. She went there to mourn and weep. She went there expecting to find the world the way it always is: violence has won, might is right, power always defeats justice, goodness is feeble when faced by fear. She expects business as usual in the same old world.

But, when she and Salome come to the tomb, their world is challenged, their expectations confounded, their grief confused, and their destination redesignated.

Easter is not about death and destruction – business as usual in the tired old world. It is about life and surprise and transformation and hope. For, in their arriving at the empty tomb they are surprised by life and bewildered by hope. The old rules have been broken: death does not have the final word, destruction is not the ultimate victor, violence need not be accorded honour and respect. Indeed, we are offered new life not because Jesus absorbed the sin and muck of the world on the cross, but because having done so, God then raised him from the dead.

I once told a famous songwriter that I had changed the words of one of his songs. He asked which, and I said it was an Easter song in which the last line of the first verse said: ‘Back to life he came’. “No, he didn’t,” I argued; “as Paul put it, ‘God raised Christ from the dead.” Or, as Mark puts it in our Gospel reading this evening: ‘He has been raised.’ Jesus did not resuscitate. He did not come back to life. The molecules of his body did not simply reassemble after a couple of days of decomposition. No. The good news (the Gospel, that is) is that God raised Christ from the dead. God did it. Jesus was dead, not just a little bit tired and swoony. Dead as dead can be. And God raised him. As we see later in the story, he was the same, but different.

And the point is this. I want to be an Eastern Christian in Jerusalem. I want to live in the light of the resurrection, not stop at the crucifixion. Easter is not possible without having first gone through Good Friday and Empty Saturday; but, if we stop at Friday or Saturday, we have believed the lies of the old world – that violence, death and destruction have the final word in this world after all. The Holy Sepulchre is vital, but we move on to be the Church of the Resurrection – a people filled with hope, confident to live in the old world in the light of the new world of resurrection life. We are an Easter People and ‘resurrection’ is our cry.

This evening we baptise a number of people and confirm many more. Why? What for? What is going on here?

Well, baptism is not something we do; it is something that is done to us. We receive the grace and love of God that cannot be earned, grasped, claimed or nobbled. We are marked with the indelible cross and know that we have passed from darkness to light – from the world of destruction to the one in which the God of resurrection surprises us with a joy and confidence we didn’t expect. Then, marked thus, we discover that we are in the company of millions of others who – as we now see – have also been marked with the sign of Christ, the cross that makes a mockery of the world’s powerful pretensions. We are not in this alone.

In confirmation we stand, marked with the sign of Christ, and take our place – consciously and deliberately – in Christ’s resurrection company. We take responsibility – as did Mary Magdalene and Salome and Peter and Thomas and all the others – for telling the story and daring to suggest that the world and its fears look different when we are marked with Christ’s cross and belong to the company of those who dare to defy the old world’s expectations and miserable resignation to violence and death. We are in this together. Filled with the spirit of that same Christ – empowered and equipped by that same Spirit of God who raised Christ from the dead – we dare to live differently in the world for his sake. Our eyes have been opened and we can do no other.

Brothers and sisters, let’s celebrate that tonight the darkness – however real and however dark – is not the end of the story. Let’s celebrate that tonight the darkness will be penetrated not by choirs of angels, but by the quietness of a bewildering encounter with the God who always surprises us – and who always has the final word in this world and the next.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!

Yesterday saw a group of people discovering that they weren’t as big as they thought they were. James and John, preoccupied with their own status have gone. Peter (or ‘Rocky’ to his friends) has contradicted every pretension and disowned his friend. And Pontius Pilate, a man with only the vocabulary of violence and power, of threat and of fear, stands in feeble judgement on the man who, silently refusing to play the Empire’s games on its own terms, stands in judgement on him. That was yesterday – the day hope lay bleeding in the dirt of Calvary.

Today is empty. The end of the story is unknown. A world has collapsed and only darkness beckons. Maybe Pilate was right: only power, domination, violence, destruction, threat, fear and death actually do matter in the real world we all know.

But, this will not be the final word.

Tonight, with the fires lit and the candles burning, we will be surprised – a surprise bigger than the Bradford West by-election result. Good Friday and bleak Saturday have been an experience of crisis (literally, from the Greek meaning ‘judgement’). We all – along with Pilate and the Empire – stand judged by the tortured man who looked to have been getting it all wrong, missing the point about real power. Surely God should look a bit bigger and a bit stronger than this man from the hill country of Galilee? Surely the ‘liberator of his people’ should make a bit more noise and, at least, collect around him some powerful people? But, Jesus collects around him a ragbag of ordinary people who, most of the time, have little idea of where this is all heading. He takes people like us and through them changes the world.

This Easter we face huge challenges in our own society. Economic struggle is accompanied by fear for the future… which looks uncertain for many people. Many people question the basis on which we are building our common future – a moment of crisis, a moment in which we are being judged according to what truly drives us. But, even in this context, the surprising Easter message is one of challenge and encouragement:

  • On the cross Jesus opens his arms, embracing the world, absorbing all that we can throw at him and not throwing it back at us.
  • Death, violence and destruction do not have the final word: God does – and that word will be ‘resurrection’.
  • God is in the business of bringing new life out of what is dead.
  • In the empty tomb God quietly points to the power of love and hope and new life.

God has come among us, as one of us, and nothing in this world holds any surprise for God; the world might be wobbly, but God calls his people to hold those who wobble; we are loved to death and beyond.

No wonder the risen Christ says to his frightened friends: ‘Do not be afraid.’

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