This is the text of this morning’s sermon for Easter Day at Ripon Cathedral:

Acts 10:34-43 & John 20:1-18

Language matters. Describing the latest military attack on Afghanistan as the ‘mother of all bombs’ is shocking in its ‘boys’ toys’ trivialisation – or glorification of extreme violence. And it does not bode well at a time when nuclear war seems more likely than at any time since the end of the Cold War – especially given the unpredictability of the President of the United States and his predilection for changing his mind quickly and inconsistently. To say nothing about the Great Leader of North Korea.

An unusual way to begin a sermon for Easter Day? Maybe. But, this is the world we now live in at Easter 2017, and Christian worship cannot be an escape from it. But, rather than dropping high explosives onto other human beings, Easter explodes something different and more challenging into the world we know: Easter drops into the dark violence of the modern, sophisticated, scientific age the subversive light of resurrection.

And that is what we are here for this morning. We do not simply memorialise an event that happened two thousand years ago somewhere far, far away. We do not merely cross our fingers and wish for a deus ex machina to intrude into the insurmountable problems of human living and sort it all out. Nor do we rush with relief to resurrection before we have properly looked the cruelty of Friday and the horrifying emptiness of Saturday in the eye and lived with our mortality.

No, we are here this morning to have our lives transformed by an encounter with the risen Christ; anything less and we have missed the point.

It reminds me of the story of the bat that flew one night into the bat cave, hung itself upside down (as, apparently, bats are wont to do) and closed its eyes, blood dripping from its mouth. The other bats smelled this and said to him: “You’ve found something – you’ve got to show us where it is.” “Leave me alone,” said the bat, “I just want to go to sleep.” “Noooo,” cried the other bats, “you’ve found something – you’ve got to show us where it is.” In the end the bat gave up and said, “OK, follow me.” He flew out of the cave, followed by thousand of eager bats. They flew down the valley, around the hill, up over the crag and down into the next valley before rounding a wooded outcrop and turning into the next valley. As they approached a forest the bat stopped and hovered in the air, thousand of bats hovering behind him, full of anticipation. “You see that forest?” said the bat? “Yeah, yeah, yeah…,” hissed the bats. “You see that rock to the left of the forest?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah…”. “You see the tree next to the rock?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah…” “Well, I didn’t!”

You see, there is a difference between looking and seeing. And sometimes we see, but don’t understand. And sometimes we don’t understand, so we turn away and look somewhere else for we know not what.

So, consider the first evangelists: Mary Magdalene, Peter and the other disciple. Mary, a woman – significant in itself – sees the disturbed grave, but doesn’t venture in. Instead, she goes and fetches the blokes. They come running – probably suspecting a criminal religious or political plot – and Peter goes first into the empty tomb, followed eventually by the other friend of Jesus. Mary waits outside, distraught. And none of them suspect resurrection. According to verse 8, the friend “believes”, but this can only refer to believing Mary’s story that the body is missing. Mary, herself, just looks in and is distressed.

In other words, they look and they see, but what they see makes no sense. So, the men leave and go back to their homes. Back to their homes? Not even to their other friends to tell them the bad news? Not to the authorities to ask what they have done with the corpse? Not to the newspapers to report the scandal? No, they go back home – to the places where they know their place, where life is ‘normal’, where they have some control, where there are no surprises.

It is only Mary, the woman, who, having had her weird encounter with the characters in white and the supposed gardener, is given an even weirder message to convey to the friends of Jesus, and goes to find them: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” But, when she finds her friends she actually says to them, “I have seen the Lord.”

Now, this is not a merely incidental detail of a far-fetched story. Had I been Jesus I might have said to Mary, “It’s me … I’m back again!” But, Jesus gives her some theology to be getting on with. And he will not let her hang on to him like some sort of shrine god.

When we think we have grabbed hold of Jesus, we soon discover that he will not be contained or controlled – even by our most powerful need for comfort or resolution or healing from grief. He moves on … as we, too, must move on, taking responsibility for what we do with the – often unbidden and unwelcome – experiences we have had visited upon us.

But, back to the point: what we are doing here this morning.

Mary did not go back to church. She did not write a book about her self-fulfilment. She did not simply reflect on what some theologians call ‘the Christ event’; rather, she became an articulate witness. “I have seen the Lord.” And only having put her own credibility on the line did she then go on to tell the friends what the risen Jesus had said to her.

And for us? We cannot simply come this morning to celebrate a notional event, to worship a good idea, or to maintain the edifice of a credible faith. We come together to encounter the risen Christ, and then to go out into the world in the light of this and tell the good news: that contrary to Hollywood, the news and the rumours of what is normal, death, violence and destruction do not have the final word. Christian faith is rooted in the fact that Jesus who was fully alive before being fully dead is dead no longer. Not that he sprung back to life like some sort of zombie, but that, as the Apostle Paul put it, God raised Christ from the dead. That is where Christian hope lies: that God raised a very dead Jesus of Nazareth and brought new life – life that still bears the wound marks of human suffering and doesn’t simply wipe out reality – to a very confused world.

I just wonder how we respond to this story? Or, perhaps putting it a little more sharply: not to the story, but to the content that the story conveys? The reality of a surprising and world-shattering encounter with the risen Christ who shows us the face of a God who will not be defeated by the misery of pain and loss, but shines light where even eyes are closed and darkness is at least familiar. Where we look, but don’t immediately see; where we see, but don’t understand; where we are surprised and confounded, but still go away and become articulate witnesses of how the risen Christ transforms our living and our dying.

Of course, this is only the beginning. Meeting the risen Jesus in the garden of death and decay becomes the impetus for challenging death and decay wherever we see or experience them. On Good Friday we were compelled to look death and destruction in the eye and not look away. No romanticism; no religious escapism; no convenient spiritual comfort; no relief from all that the world can throw at God and us. No. We were offered the gift of staring in the face our mortality and the immense power of death – living with the loss and the emptiness and the abandoned desolation of seeing our hopes and faith bleeding into the dirt of a rubbish tip outside the city walls – and finding our grief interrupted by the gentle, whispered sound of our name being voiced by the one whose all-too-real death was not the end.

Today – Easter Day – we are being invited to meet this risen Christ and to take the good news of resurrection into a world dominated by too much bad news. To offer the refugee and asylum seeker the hope that there is a future to be lived and a new life to be enjoyed; to question the political priorities of leaders whose vision dehumanises or breaks people down; to challenge injustice and public practices that exalt the mighty and denigrate the meek. After all, the risen Jesus is the same Jesus who challenged the religious securities of Pharisees who were content to use excluded and abused people to make theological points in their petty little power games. The risen Jesus is the same Jesus who healed the wrong people on the wrong day and in the wrong way. (Read the gospels and you will see what I mean.) The risen Jesus is the same Jesus who taught his friends to pray that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven, but then embarrasses the pray-er with the obligation to be the answer to his or her own prayer: “Forgive us our sins … as we forgive those who sin against us.” The risen Jesus is the same Jesus who exposes our insecurities and fears, offering freedom in the company of others and the healing that comes from mercy and love.

Do you see the point? We can sing our hymns and pray our prayers this morning and leave as we arrived – perhaps warmed by the experience, but indifferent to the need for commitment and a clear willingness to belong to this risen Jesus who sends us out – like Mary Magdalene – not with a solution to a problem or a heart-warming spiritual experience, but with a compulsion to tell the story of redemption and hope, and to work out in the company of friends what all this stuff means for us and the world in a world that now looks very different.

It is this experience that led Paul the Apostle to write to beleaguered Christians facing imperial threat that “for me to live is Christ, to die is gain”.

What we are doing here this morning is nothing less than the stuff of life and death, of living and dying. The worst we can do is to be indifferent to it.

Later in this service we will be invited to come forward to receive bread and wine – or to receive a blessing which is freely offered. Bread and wine are tangible and taste-able tokens of all I have spoken about just now – the body and blood of Christ who poured himself out that we might be free to live differently, confounding the depressing narratives of the world we inhabit and promising life out of death. Like Mary Magdalene, Peter and their friend, we come to a place of death and loss and bewilderment – and maybe even hopelessness – and we come with empty hands and opened eyes. We cannot grab or demand or hold onto what we receive. We simply receive what is given – what is gift – and we consume them. They become part of our body – the fullness of God’s promise in the flimsiness of a wafer and a sip of wine. We thank God for them, and for what they represent. But, we are then sent out into the world (in the power of the Spirit) to live and work to the praise and glory of the God who raised Christ from the dead. That’s the deal.

So, I invite you to come with honest hearts and eyes wide open, not hiding behind a fear of being found out, or the pride of thinking that I can’t dot all the Is or cross all the Ts. Come with your fears about your living and your dying, about loss and love and pain and joy. Come with empty hands and a will to live life from today as a resurrection person amongst a community of resurrection people who have the same experience as you, but cannot escape the haunting claim of a God who loves you to death and beyond.

Maybe – for some of you – today might be an Easter Day on which your own transformation might begin. Surely, this is good news. Surely, this can draw from us a Hallelujah of relief and praise – one that means that from this day forward we know ourselves to be a people no longer driven in a threatening and uncertain world by anxiety and fear, but drawn by hope in the God of resurrection who comes to us, where we are, speaks our name, and sends us from the place of death to live life.

This is the mother of all hope – the mother of all mercies.

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.

 

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.

I cannot read the haunting lament of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas without hearing his voice from an old recording:

Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

A gorgeous, warm, bright spring day brought out the tourists in droves yesterday – baring substantial amounts of unsunned flesh. Driving through the Dales, it looked and felt like summer was on its way (so, it’ll probably snow next week). The beauty and the nascent new life bursting from trees, flowers and hedgerows seemed incongruous, however, with what I was going on to do later in the afternoon.

The excellent and wonderful Marie Curie Cancer Care trust has moved its annual bereavement service in Bradford from October to March. At least this aligns the appearance of real daffodils with the symbol of the Marie Curie charity. Everyone in the congregation of a couple of hundred had two things in common: (a) they were bereaved in the last eighteen months and (b) they are mortal. The service creates space and a vocabulary for loss and grieving and thinking about our mortality – in a place that gently reminds us of it anyway. For over 700 years people have worshipped, lived and died in this place. On the way in to begin the service I noticed a memorial plaque on the cathedral wall which poignantly recorded the deaths of the three infant children of a bereft couple in the early nineteenth century. This cathedral has witnessed the living, suffering, celebrating and dying of generations of people like us.

Cutting through the potential verbiage to the heart of the matter, I tried to account for Christian hope in a way anyone could understand it. Based on Revelation 21 three things seemed pertinent:

1. Christian hope is rooted in the God who comes to us. We talk about us ‘going to heaven’, but it is the other way round. In the Genesis 3 narrative it is God who goes walking in the garden in the cool of the day asking ‘Adam, where are you?’ – the same searching question that confronts every human being. Adam and Eve do not seek him out; he seeks them out. God makes the first move. In the Incarnation it is the same – God comes among us. And the imagery of Revelation 21 tells the same story: the heavenly city comes down from heaven to earth, not vice versa.

2. The resurrection is key to Christian hope. Jesus did not spontaneously come back to life in some great act of resuscitation: as Paul notes, ‘God raised Christ from the dead’. And this points to…

3. … Christian hope is not located in a scenario or a formula or schedule of what happens when the body closes down. Christian hope is rooted in the person of God. That’s all. I turst and hope in God, not heaven or some expectation of what happens after death. I trust in the God who raised Christ from the dead – and the rest is detail that doesn’t need to bother us very much.

The old Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, put it like this:

God is. God is as he is in Jesus. So there is hope.

The great German theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, put it like this:

God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.

Which, of course, is the beginning of a conversation and not the final word.

Berliner DomI have just launched myself into a series of five conferences (one ended today) which will keep me away until 2 October – though I hope to keep blogging. I leave early tomorrow morning for Rome and then Blackburn (!) followed by Kassel (Germany) – and end up preaching in Berlin Cathedral before returning for the final blast at Swanwick. Roll on October…

At the residential conference which ended today the recently-retired Bishop of Thetford, David Atkinson, shared his great wisdom with his usual quietly-spoken humility. While answering a question about the most pressing agenda for the Church of England at the moment, one of the things he identified was climate change. I have to confess that I am a bit worried about ‘climate fatigue’ setting in – there is so much being said and written about it that I think many people are beginning to glaze over instead of waking up. I hope I am wrong.

What woke me up was David asking: ‘Will we let future generations speak to us?’ In other words, will we have the imaginative courage to hear the blessings or cursings of our children’s and their children’s generations as they suffer the consequences of our refusal to change our costly lifestyle? Will we simply bequeathe to them a broken world with a broken climate because we are too greedy and selfish to hear their cry?

This struck me because it reminded me of a verse from the Old Testament book of Proverbs that says:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.

An older version of this formed the title of a remarkable book I read years ago when studying German political history – particularly about the failure of the Church in relation to the Jews during the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in the early 1930s: ‘Open thy mouth for the dumb.’ It is a potent demand.

Auschwitz gateThe prophetic challenge has always been that people who bear God’s name should see through God’s eyes and speak on behalf of those who have no voice. I have always simply assumed this could refer to those who have no voice in contemporary affairs – the poor and the marginalised. It had never occurred to me that it could be a challenge to listen to the voices of those as yet unborn who will one day – long after we have moved on – pay the price for our greed and complacency.

This also resonates with Wolfhart Pannenberg‘s understanding of the resurrection as the ‘proleptic invasion of the end in the present’. Big words, but a simple concept: the resurrection of Jesus by God is the ‘end’ being brought forward into ‘now’ and enabling us to live now in the light of the end. So, Christians live in the here-and-now in the light of having seen the promised end – resurrection. And this actually goes to the heart of Christian hope. For Christian hope is not wishful thinking and does not lie in an anticipated series of events taking place (all that ‘End Times’ nonsense from the USA). Rather, it lies in the person of God who raised Christ from the dead and thus invaded the now with his final word. We trust in God, not in heaven.

Now, I cite this bit of theology because there are those who think the climate change stuff needn’t bother us on the grounds that God will soon intervene and bring it all to a glorious end anyway. And it is precisely this sort of stupid theology that needs to be firmly knocked on the head.

earth_mainThe prophetic challenge mentioned earlier has always been dismissed by those who spiritualise themselves out of responsibility. But the simple equation cannot be avoided: our faith in God (as well as our theology) can only be seen in how we live now in the light of the future. And that means that our ethics now must be shaped by our imaginative and informed understanding of what future generations might be saying to us if only they could speak for themselves and if only we could hear them.