Navigating our way through this current virus-induced catastrophe is not exactly a walk in the park, is it?

I went for an actual walk in an actual park yesterday evening and came across this:

I assume it once protected a path – an entrance to the garden of a long-gone house, maybe. Now it stands by the brook, next to a tree. And it serves no purpose other than to intrigue the imagination and make for a nice photo.

I also wonder if it is the sort of image that casts some light on our current predicament. Reports this morning (especially in the Sunday Times) do not point to a government in any sort of competent control of our national response to the virus crisis. Ideology, ambition and incompetence appear to be the drivers. Which makes the constant repetition of “the government has been absolutely clear” mantra by ministers at the daily press briefings even more bizarre.

The clarity of a message is gauged by how it is heard and received by the audience. The first rule of communication is that what is heard matters more than what is said. Saying we have been clear is not the same thing as actually being clear. It would do no harm for politicians to ban the use of the word ‘clear’ from their lips and use the time gained to work hard at how words might be being heard and understood.

And here is the challenge. There have now been so many flip-flops by government and local authority messaging that it is hard to keep up with what is the latest ‘guidance’. Clarity is sacrificed on the altar of expediency.

The gate in the photo is strong, resistant to the forces around it and clearly once had a simple and single purpose. Now it is a picturesque curiosity – a useless, redundant bit of historical architecture that serves no practical purpose. One can only wonder, in the face of reports of today’s rudderless leadership, whether the UK’s polity is the same.

In the Christian calendar today is called ‘Low Sunday’. Last week we exploded with joyful surprise at the resurrection and its impact on the disillusioned friends of Jesus. Today we settle down to the hard, sometimes tedious, job of carrying on with the journey, trying to work out what it all means for now and the future – for politics and economics, for public and private ethics, for my life and our lives together. The daily challenge continues.

And these questions cannot simply stand as a relic of some past purpose. A faith – just like a political settlement – that points only to some past glory is redundant. It is a mere curiosity – effectively pointless. Even if it makes for a nice photo.

Easter Monday. All sorted, then. We’ve had the glorious light of new life and the future is all bright.

Well, not quite. Like everything in life, the end is always just a new beginning. And the beginning will demand of us not some sort of relaxation into spiritual satisfaction, but a new engagement. The journey continues.

The text I always go to today is Luke’s account of the two friends of Jesus walking back from Jerusalem to their home in Emmaus. They are still trying to work out what the whole Jesus experience was about. He wasn’t supposed to die – that doesn’t fit the theological or political template for ‘messiah’. Now, you can come to terms with the finitude of death – after all, it is an incontrovertibly factual phenomenon. But, how are we supposed to make sense of the reports that the dead man is now appearing to his friends again – the same, but different; recognisable, but strange. And those wound marks …

How to make sense of this? How to fit experience into a fixed theology or re-shape theology in order to account for real experience?

So, as they walk together – possibly a married couple – they try to work it out and get nowhere. Then a stranger comes from behind and joins them on their walk through the hills. But, instead of simply telling them how to make sense of it all (which would have saved a bit of time and proved his credentials), he asks them what they are talking about. They tell him: the weird stuff that has been going on in Jerusalem. “What stuff?” he asks. “Are you the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on?” they ask. Jesus willing to sound ignorant, irrelevant, out of touch?

Jesus lets them tell their story in their terms. Only when they have framed it in their way – noting that it doesn’t compute – does Jesus offer to re-tell the story of God and his people in a way that re-describes both experience and theology.

Yet, it is only when they get to the couple’s home that they eventually recognise who their accompanier was. Yes, the penny dropped while they were breaking bread together; but, what they noted was that their hearts had been burning within them while they were listening to him ‘re-describe reality’ (in Brueggemann’s phrase) and frame the Scriptures afresh.

And us?

Today we are invited to walk – maybe for the first time – in the company of others who don’t quite ‘get it’, asking the real and powerful questions and trying together to work it all out. No just saying “This is the word of the Lord” as we so readily do in church, but, rather, a wrestling with the meaning of this stuff as if our life depended on it. Taking it (and Jesus) seriously by arguing with him and listening to him. Not just passing on as if he is theologically interesting so long as he demands no shaking up of me or my thinking.

The Church’s calendar takes from Easter on a journey of re-discovering this Jesus – rehearsing the story and trying to hear it afresh. It invites us to find someone else, read the story again together, argue the toss about what it all means, and see where it leads. (Which might be back to Jerusalem, but changed by what happened on the way to our Emmaus.)

That is the point of the church in the days to come.And we can do this on the phone, on Zoom, on FaceTime, or in any other medium. We can do it over the garden fence or across the balconies. We can do it any way we like.

We just need to take it seriously enough to do it. The journey starts with a single step.

Easter Day. The day when Christians rise early, watch the sun come up and join together in numbers to celebrate the resurrection. We belt out those great Easter  hymns, listen to those breathtakingly dramatic Gospel readings, and, in my case, hold back the tears as the cathedral choir sings the Gloria from Mozart’s Coronation Mass.

Not this year. Today our churches will be empty and silent. There will be no cry of “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” to which the congregation should always be tempted to respond “What?! You must be joking!” Instead, we will be in our homes, joining together remotely or in distant prayer.

In other words, the church of Jesus Christ will be living the Easter faith for real. What we really believe will be seen in how we, bearing the wound marks of sacrifice, offer hope to a weary world. For we are not afraid and we look at how to love our neighbours by keeping our distance from them. And we will learn whether we really do think prayer is worth the effort.

Wherever we are and however we worship today, we will be confronted afresh by the shocking and outrageous “proleptic invasion of the end times in the present” (in the words of Wolfhart Pannenberg, if I remember them rightly). It will only come as a shock, however, if we first have lived through the bewildering agony of Good Friday and the empty fear and disillusionment of Empty Saturday. Only then can we experience – imaginatively – the disorientating irruption of the extraordinary into the normality of life.

We appreciate the light when we have stayed with the darkness. We can be surprised by joy once we have loved with the loss and the pain.

The thing about the resurrection narratives is that they don’t do propaganda. Surely the risen Christ would have put everything right, wiped out the pain, turned disfigurement into glory. But, no, the gospel writers clearly lacked that sort of imagination. For, the risen Jesus still bears the wounds, the scars of torture and violation. A reminder of the past, or a glorious statement of the present reality – that this risen Christ is still earthed, no stranger to the horrors of human existence for too many people.

(I recall the late Dennis Potter, in his final interview, saying that “religion has always been the wound and not the bandage”.)

And, as Mary discovers in the garden, this risen Jesus cannot be held onto. He can’t be possessed or commodified. He can’t be corralled into my own securities or illusions. He can’t be appropriated to make my life happier or better or safer.

Yet, he knows Mary’s name. He knows our name.

Easter whispers to a world that isn’t expecting or waiting for him that violence, death and destruction do not have the final word in this world – or in our broken and seemingly fragile lives. God does, and the word is ‘resurrection’. Which is why, some years ago when wondering how to condense the mystery of Easter into a tweet, I wrote that “Easter means … being drawn by hope, not driven by fear.” Why? Because Christians, if they have truly been grasped by the resurrection, put their hope in the person of the God who raised Christ from real death, and not in some formula for guaranteeing personal security.

And that is why I can wish everyone a Happy Easter. To do so is simply to invite anyone to be open to the surprising possibility that the world is more than meets the eye.

Empty Saturday. The worst.

You know what it is like when you have been bereaved. You somehow get through the hours that follow and life is thrown out of kilter. There is a sense of real unreality about what has happened. The world has changed for ever, but the rest of the world just keeps turning as if nothing remarkable had happened.

Eventually you get to sleep. And when you wake up your mind plays games with your mind. And you gradually work out that the death was real and the loss is total. It wasn’t a bad dream; it is too real. Everything in us wants to make it better, heal the deep wound of grief. But, there is no magic sticking plaster, no easy healing.

In fact, as Asian theologian puts it in his ‘Three Mile and Hour God’, when we are led into this sort of desert of emptiness, the key is not to obey the instinct to get out as quickly as possible. We need to stay there, facing the pain and the grief and the raw loss – living with it and going through it, not running away from it. For, it is through the experience itself that eventually we will be ready and able to be surprised by the light of healing.

So, today I need to stay with the pain. Resist the temptation to run away or distract myself as some sort of psychological or spiritual anaesthetic. Stay at the tomb. Feel the confusion – it wasn’t supposed to end this way. Live with the questions and face the horror.

And wait. Wait. Wait.

Good Friday. Darkness. Loss. Suffering. Death.

When I was a vicar we used to start at the church door on Good Friday and walk around the building, re-telling the story of God and his people, Jesus and his friends, and end up leaving in silence to the sound of a nail being hammered into wood. It was visceral. This year we accompany Jesus and his friends as they experience distance, fear, disorientation, dispersal and aloneness. I think it is a gift to go beyond mere imagination and into the experience itself.

Most of Jesus’s friends deserted him. They ran away and hid. And Jesus, to whom some of them had pledged total loyalty and allegiance, went to his gallows alone, naked and abused. (Although the women seem to have stuck with him all the way.)

So, where is God in all of this? And isn’t this precisely the question many people are asking during these days of viral death and debilitation? It is the question – not always articulated – that always arises when life gets a bit (or a lot) rubbish.

The trouble is that the question assumes that God is somewhere else when things are bad. Yet, the biblical narrative tells a different story. It is a story rooted in the real world of material substance, physical existence, uncontrollable events in a contingent cosmos. Christians who think discipleship is about mere spirituality, somehow divorced from the real world, are simply missing the point. Disembodied spirituality can easily become a sort of self-orientating fantasy.

The biblical story recognises the reality of being human in this contingent world. Suffering, pain, injustice and death. “What did I do to deserve the death of my loved one?” Nothing. It has nothing to do with merit or desert. If we live as mortal beings in the world, then we are subject to all that this world can throw at us. No exemptions. And being Christian means plunging into this world and not trying to escape from it.

The point here is that it is God who keeps opting in. In the Genesis story, when Adam and Eve mess it all up, it is God who comes walking in the garden in the cool of the day, asking that eternal searching question: “Adam (mortal being), where are you?” God doesn’t wait for them to come looking for him. They hide, fearing that they can now be seen through (‘naked’) and finding that to be a threat rather than a liberation. But, God takes the initiative. As he does again in the prophets. And then, Jesus fulfils what was always the calling of his people, by coming among us as one of us. He gives himself for the sake of the world and then calls those who bear his name to live out what was fulfilled in him in the first place.

In other words, God opts into the world – with all its violence, death and destruction – and does not exempt himself from it. So, our response when life is rubbish is to know that we pray – baring our heart and soul and grief and anger and confusion – to one who has no illusions about what we experience. Faithfulness is not an opt out; it is a commitment into. And it is there we find God.

So, our response is to scream and shout and weep and grieve – to complain and lament and stare into the abyss of loss. Not to avoid it, but to know that through this we will find that death does not ultimately have the final word.

Today I will contemplate the cross, entering imaginatively into the aloneness of the hunted Jesus of Nazareth. I will ask myself where I stand in this story: with Jesus as he suffers and dies? with his mother as she watches helplessly? with the friends who have run away and despise themselves for their cowardice and bewilderment? with the onlookers who wonder why someone might not do everything to stay alive rather than walk openly to their death?

I am not sure where I belong in this. but, I do know I have to stay with the emptiness for as long as the darkness persists.

Maundy Thursday. It’s all closing in. Jerusalem welcomed Jesus and his friends when he rode in on Palm Sunday. But, the tension is growing, the drama heightening.

In my diocese we would normally be joining together in one of my cathedrals – Wakefield this year. The clergy would re-affirm their ordination vows and all of us – clergy and lay – would recommit ourselves as disciples of Jesus Christ. We would bless the oils and celebrate Communion, then being sent out to journey through Good Friday, Empty Saturday and Resurrection Day. Not this year. There will be an online ‘service’ from the cathedral, but physically we will be separated, distant, dispersed.

While not welcome, this experience of disorientation and dispersal might just help us enter imaginatively into the experience of Jesus and his friends – particularly his friends. They come together to celebrate the Passover, the foundational story of God’s liberation, but Jesus re-signifies the whole business for them. And it seems they don’t quite comprehend it.

To make it worse, Jesus says some strange things about betrayal and desertion, rejection and death. And, while doing all this, he kneels in front of his friends and washes their feet. In this simple and costly action he overturns their expectations of status, leadership, sacrifice and service. Remember, he kneels at the feet of Peter, Thomas, James & John, and Judas.

Those who claim to follow this Jesus must be people who kneel at the feet of their friends and enemies, their deniers and betrayers and doubters, and serve them. In other words, as in the story of God and his people from the beginning of the biblical narrative, godliness means giving yourself away. Sacrifice. Cost. Really hard.

What strikes me this year is the question: what does it mean for me to love my neighbour – to wash their feet – in a context where I cannot see or touch them in a common act of worship and commitment?

I think the answer is deceptively simple, but very costly. Foot-washing this year means not washing feet, keeping distance, prioritising the needs of vulnerable people by staying at home, not going into church, playing my part in ensuring that no transmission of any virus can happen through me. It is strange, but loving my neighbour means keeping away from him or her. And this takes priority over my yearning for worship, familiar sacred place or spiritual encouragement.

This year I have to ask how those most vulnerable can be served through a church that takes this Jesus seriously. It means that our churches who are doing amazing work with foodbanks, community care, keeping local people connected, are doing some serious foot washing. Not denial of Jesus, but denial of our own comfort for the sake of others.

And the question for me today is this: whose feet do I find it too hard to contemplate washing? And who are the people who, for reasons for which I am responsible, will find it difficult to wash mine?

Wednesday of Holy Week. One of the friends of Jesus is Judas Iscariot. I have sympathy for him.

I grew up with the notion that Judas deserved what he got. He betrayed his friend with a kiss – death by intimacy. If he then went off and hanged himself, then it was only a measure of the depth of his lostness.

But, I never found this enough. Judas haunts the imagination as guilt lingers in the aftermath of pleasure. It can’t be as simple as this: Jesus good, Judas bad. Was he really the one bad apple that any group, any organisation, has?

Why did. Judas betray his friend? He had been the group’s treasurer, so knew what had kept Jesus and his friends going for those couple of years. He also had a deep political, moral concern for what we would now call social injustice – the fate of the poor under the jackboot of the military occupiers and the local collaborators. His heart beat for justice and and end to oppression.

So, why betray Jesus to the ‘powers’ he despised?

Judas is known simply as the man who betrayed his friend with a kiss. I wonder if he did so because he himself felt betrayed by that friend. After all, he had heard Jesus talking about a new kingdom, he had witnessed sick people being made whole, lost people being found, despised people having their dignity and identity restored. He had caught the vision of a different world in which the ‘powers’ would serve the interests of the people under God and not dominate or exploit them for the sake of their own security or profit.

And, yet, here, today, as the people celebrate at Passover the foundational story of liberation, the Exodus, Jesus appears to be missing the point – or, at least, the moment. I wonder if, driven by his impatient sense that now has to be the time for Jesus to declare himself, show his hand, turn over the powers and bring in his messianic rule, Judas now tries to force his hand. The failure of Jesus to save himself, to overturn the times, leads Judas to the despair of a disillusionment rooted in a sense of betrayal.

This Judas whose feet Jesus knelt before and washed at their final meal together.

There is much to identify with in Judas. Amos Oz wrote a wonderful book simply called Judas and followed it up with a lecture (which I think is only available in German, but I might be wrong) called Jesus and Judas in which he explores these themes. I find myself having been committed to a way of seeing or acting, only later to see it in its wider context and contingency and feel embarrassed.

But, I look at Judas and hold a mirror up to my own convictions and commitments. Do I see Jesus as there to serve me and my ends? Is Jesus there to make my life fulfilled? Or to deliver my political views? Is he there to vindicate me and endorse convictions that arise elsewhere but get coloured with his words? Do I get impatient when the world doesn’t get reshaped in my direction at what I think is the right time?

Do I shape Jesus in my image, or, in following him in the company of others he has also called, do I allow myself, my convictions and commitments, my thinking and seeing, to be re-shaped in his image? That is the question.

Tuesday of Holy Week. Why does Jesus have to make it so complicated?

As he walks towards what will become his place of execution, he keeps talking to his friends in terms that need a bit of unpacking. Read John 12:20-36 and you’ll see what I mean.

One issue is that his friends don’t seem to have a mental or theological slot for an outcome that involves death and an end to their adventure. They’re not being deliberately blind or resistant; it just doesn’t hit their radar.

So, when Jesus tells them “to walk while you have the light” and that a “grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies”, they might well wonder what he is on about. No wonder he concludes: “My soul is troubled.” But, Jesus knows that there are some things that will pass them by now, but later will be recalled in hindsight with greater clarity. Not everything in life (or church) has to be immediately accessible.

When Jesus tells his friends to “walk while you have the light”, I wonder if he is also suggesting to them that something painful is on its way. For the light doesn’t just offer warmth and visibility, it also exposes all the rubbish. All the stuff we would prefer to keep hidden. And his friends are going to discover what they really believe, what they are really made of. For example, the big men will soon find out that they are not as brave as they had thought.

If Holy Week works well, it invites us to expose ourselves to the searching light of love and grace, that is unafraid of the darkness and unintimidated by the threat of reality.

Monday of Holy Week. We continue the walk with Jesus and his friends, thinking about what all this stuff means in a pandemic-shaped western society.

One of the elements of the narrative that can easily get missed is the nature of the disciples themselves. Jesus’s friends form the sort of group no one would have chosen if the aim was to change the world. They are people like Simon who is impetuous and doesn’t always get the right end of the stick; James and John, the ‘Sons of Thunder’, the big boys who think themselves entitled to positions of prestige; Judas who is socially aware and prioritises those who are poor, impatient to see Jesus work his magic and bring in his kingdom now. Thomas the evidence-seeker.

Simon will deny knowing Jesus and then abandon him at his end. James and John run away. Judas betrays his friend to those who know they have finally nailed him. Thomas will want a bit more proof before believing.

 

Read their stories in the gospels and we find that these friends of Jesus are people like us. We put a plate around their head, call them ‘saint’, then remove them from the real world we all experience. But, the friends of Jesus are just like the people we know or are. Fickle, indecisive, misunderstanding, inconsistent, theologically stubborn, shortsighted.

This should be encouraging to those of us who need no persuasion to see our failings and failures. It is people like me and us whom Jesus called to walk with him. What’s more, it is Jesus who calls them and we whose job it is to walk with him together. That is, the job of the followers of Jesus is to get on with the common job of discipleship with those whom Jesus has also called – whether we like them or agree with them or not.

This is why the church is to be a company of people whose sole claim is not to unanimity, but unity. We get in with it anyway. And we cannot be a church in which we tell Jesus who he should call to come with us.

Palm Sunday. Normally Christians would be walking through the streets with a bemused donkey before beginning Holy Week in church. Not this year. This year we have the unwelcome and uninvited gift of stepping back and re-focusing on what Christian faith – rooted in this Jesus who enters Jerusalem with us friends – says to us while the church is being the church differently.

When Jesus turned his face towards Jerusalem he knew what might await him there. You don’t challenge religious authority or the military powers of the Roman Empire without considering the likely cost. Messiahs were popping up all over the place (see ‘The Life of Brian’) – all offering ultimate solutions to those who ‘believe’, but all ending up on crosses. Jesus was, like the Old Testament prophets, open-eyed about power and resistance and cost.

The trouble is that his friends don’t get it. They have invested their hopes in the Galilean carpenter being the best chance of messianic liberation. When the crowds come out and cheer, they think they are on to a winner. Jesus suspects differently. This always makes me recall Cromwell’s remark to Fairfax when riding through cheering crowds, that they would equally have shown up to see him hanged. Crowds are fickle; affections and convictions can be turned over in seconds; people who think acclaim has the final word are usually shortsighted.

I can only imagine the loneliness of Jesus – accompanied by friends who just don’t get what is going on here … in the words of the great Crowded House song, ‘Together Alone’. It is often harder to be lonely in a crowd when you see what no one else sees.

So, Jesus is alone in company. His friends don’t spot this aloneness and read the ‘now’ as the end. And the crowds will soon turn when the wind blows in a different direction.

Jesus is going to challenge power – social, political, military, religious – right at its heart. But, he is not going to do it in the way anyone might suppose. He will look feeble and ridiculous. He will look like he has lost the argument. The crowds – even some of his friends – will suspect he’ll has been a fraud all along. And Jesus knows they won’t even begin to understand all this until much, much later.

I think Palm Sunday opens up the space to re-think who Jesus is and what he is about. If I think he really is the messiah, then is this because he simply confirms to an image (an assumption?) of what messiahship looks like? Is it because I find it convenient to my theological preferences? Or am I as open as his friends ultimately needed to be to re-think, re-imagine, re-conceive what hope, freedom and commitment look like through the eyes of this Jesus?

Am I with the crowd – Jesus to offer quick entertainment and easy solutions; with his friends – hopeful, but stuck with a prejudice of what Jesus ought to be, do and say; or with Jesus himself – prepared to stare even my own convictions in the eye and examine them afresh under the silent gaze of the man heading toward a cross?