Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The questions Jesus asks along the road.

The Third Sunday of Easter
Year A
Luke 24:13-35

Standing in a high place you lose details but you get the whole picture in one sweep. Let's get right down to it, shall we?
Jesus breaks bread in the presence of two disciples and opens their minds through an exposition of the Scriptures. The downcast disciples are heartened by the encounter and go on their way much refreshed.  

That’s it – the Road to Emmaus seen from a height. 

The vicar in me wants to own this passage.  It’s about us, isn’t it?  Announce it on Facebook.  Stick it on the website.   This is what we do every Sunday – word and sacrament in one stop.

Which is precisely the problem with looking at anything from a great height.  Up here, things become small enough to slip into your pocket.  Small enough to be useful –  or perhaps misused, appropriated and domesticated.

There’s a mystical element in this passage from Luke which ought to growl at you as you attempt to slip a leash on it:   What do the disciples end up knowing and how do they come to know it?  Jesus joins the two troubled disciples on the road but they do not recognize him.  He expounds the Old Testament to them in considerable detail but it is not until he makes the physical gestures of breaking bread with them that they suddenly realize who he is.  Once recognized he is immediately taken from them – he passes from their sight and they find themselves alone but overjoyed.  They seek out the company of other disciples who have encountered the risen Christ.  They share their experiences.  It is not an easy story to summarize.  Mystical experience is hard to speak about.  If you boil it down to a few points you suspect you’ve done something unworthy. 

A few details which your bird’s eye view missed:  It’s not by accident that everybody is walking during their conversation and not sitting in a pew.  And - it is central to the passage that Jesus asks the disciples what they are talking about amongst themselves and that their unveiling of their problem is a part of the solution. 

I repeat:  Jesus is inordinately interested in what the disciples are already talking about:  "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" he asks. 

He’s apparently more interested in them than we are, oftentimes, in our own people. Why do we treat visitors, new members or "passers-through" as shoppers with empty grocery carts to whom we offer the valuable goods of the Church -  the creeds, the Mass, John 3:16, the social life of our parish, bells, hymns, incense or even the minister’s personality?

Most of the New Testament encounters Jesus has with people are genuine conversations. When we do take a positive step forward, we discover that the previous tumult is not negated.  It’s part of the process and why Jesus, sometimes, asks questions.

The details are important.

He met us on the road.
He wanted to know what our struggles were.
He reasoned with us over time.

We were conscious of engagement and love – love which made the next part possible. 

Thursday, 20 April 2017

The pain and the promise of believing again.

The Second Sunday of Easter
Year A
John 20:19-31

Our local paper in Victoria B.C. had a daily feature on the puzzles page where you looked at two complex cartoons and were challenged to discover at least five differences between them.  It took a bit of time but you soon discovered that the chair in one picture was closer to the wall than in the other or that the frame of a painting was slightly different in the second version. 

The school friend you bump into twenty years on – older, heavier, greyer - is no longer the same young person you drank beer with at the Student Union building even though he’s the same man.   Once he opens his mouth and regales you with stories from the old days, however, there’s no question.  It’s him.

Thomas might have said that he would believe Jesus had been raised from death (and that the other disciples had not suffered a group hallucination) if he could only hear him preach, or see him perform a miracle or watch him confront the Pharisees once again.  But no, he chose to make the task nearly impossible by saying that he would insist on seeing wounds on the body of the living Christ that were incompatible with life. 

Jesus shows himself convincingly to Thomas despite this harsh burden of proof.  He then chides him:  Thomas’ unbelief appears to be wilful unbelief.   Its purpose is not to establish a proper scale of credibility but, rather, to protect the wounded self (Thomas’ self) from being wounded anew. 

It is no easy matter to allow hope to return when hopes have been dashed.  It is exceptionally difficult to hope for love when love has been withdrawn in living memory.  You don’t see the horizon when you’re concentrating only one putting one foot in front of the other.

Jesus’ promise of new life conflicts with our vows.  The opportunity of living hopefully again rubs up against our survival strategies.  For what seem like very good and even noble reasons we vow to “make do” with very little hope and to live a life which is tailored to making it through the year or even just to the end of the month.  The substantial hopes of the wounded disciple become nostalgic matters set in the past as is evident from the words of one of the disciples on the road to Emmaus: “We had hoped…..” or shelved away awaiting a seemingly impossible outcome: “I will not believe unless….”.

The Gospel readings in the Sundays of Easter centre around the appearance of Jesus to his disciples following the Resurrection and his invitation to them to enter the abundant life which that resurrection has now made possible.  I hope you will give some thought to those disciples – daring to risk once again and weighing, in their two hands, both the pain and the promise of decision.  Consider what vows you have made – often in response to very real conflict and disappointment – which keep you from hoping, from loving and ultimately from living life to the fullest.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

What have you witnessed?

Easter Sunday
Year A
John 20:1-18                                                                      

What have you witnessed?  

It's the sort of question a police officer or a judge might someday require you to answer - that you describe, audibly or in writing, the details of what you have seen or heard at a particular time and place.  Memories play tricks and entropy takes its toll even on recall. 

Sometimes it takes the collected memories of a series of witnesses before the real story can be reconstructed or the reliable core of the story can be established.

Know this, though:  a small number of disillusioned and failed followers of an itinerant prophet from Nazareth were transformed, in a very short time, into agents of hope. They transformed their world and went on to refashion ours.  Resurrection not only "was" something - with reference to God's raising of Christ on the third day - but it "meant" something.   We know its reality not only in the collecting of testimonies from the four Evangelists but by the history of what followed.  

When you throw a stone into the centre of a pond the ripples travel out to the edges. Truth is spoken to the powerful by humble people who, seemingly, have no fear.  The great persecutor of the early church becomes one of its chief apostles and advocates.  The boundaries which separate the wealthy from the poor, the Jew from the Gentile,
fade away.  God has not only raised Christ from the dead, he has raised us as well.  This power over death and meaninglessness is extended to the lives which we lead.

The ripples of Easter do not stop with the list of events that occurred on the third day surrounding the man Jesus.  The power of Easter is what folks across the ages since have seen as the agent of transformation in their current world.  The power of Easter is something you would rejoice in seeing at work in your lives.  It would be something you would mourn the absence of, should that be the case.

What the disciples saw, and heard and touched with their own hands will be the subject at hand this Sunday.  But that is only the beginning.  The Sunday readings between now and the day of Pentecost move into what this unique event means for his followers.  Christ in his resurrection is "the first fruits" of a harvest to come.  "Christ is risen....and therefore.....". 

What has happened now to you (and what will happen in the future) is part of the story.

The invitation to live abundantly has been extended to us as well.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

You and Pontius Pilate - where and when you live.

Passion Sunday
(with the Liturgy of the Palms)
Year A
Matthew 27:11-54

The church of the first two or three hundred years often added names and fanciful stories to nameless characters in the Gospels.  One of the subjects of later expansion is Pilate’s wife (nameless in Matthew’s Gospel) who sends word to her husband during the trial to have nothing to do with the man Jesus since she has had a troubling dream about him.  In due course the Church assigned her a name:  Claudia Procula.  In the eastern Orthodox tradition, she is revered as a saint.  The Ethiopian church inherited a legend that Pilate himself eventually became a Christian and reveres both Pilate and Procula as saints on the 25th of June.

It’s all quite unlikely – unproveable at best.  But you might wonder why Pontius Pilate gets the air time that he does in church.  He appears in the middle of the Apostle’s Creed and also the Nicene Creed which we recite together as a community at Mass every Sunday.  Why?  What is there about this middle to upper range Roman bureaucrat to grant him star billing on Sunday along with God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit?

It has nothing to do with the fiction of his later discipleship.  History pretty much swallows Pontius Pilate.  If anything, his name figures in the Creeds expressly to combat the human tendency to live in a world of legends and make-believe where Procurators become Apologists as a matter of course.  Heading in the opposite direction the Creeds attempt to do what the Gospels do and anchor the story of salvation in a world of place and time, bricks and mortar and all the prominent personalities of the world in which they occurred.  This really happened.  It happened here during the prefecture of Pontius Pilate.  It happened with these people present.  It wasn’t storyland or “once upon a time”.  You can put a mark on the calendar or a pin in the map.   

It’s as if the Fathers of the Church were saying that the “x axis” of God’s activity across time intersected with “y axis” of a moment in history and that all this is terribly important for us.  Is there some pastoral purpose for zeroing in on time and place and personality in the Creeds? 

Well, where do you live and in what times?  Donald Trump is the President and Britain is on the edge of Brexit.  Italy is awash with refugees, the blossoms in the Auvergne are in full bloom and the snow is beginning to melt in Montreal.  You can smell the coal fires in your Scottish village.  You are married to the spouse you are married to.  These are your children.  Count them.  Your job or your primary endeavour is what it is, for the moment, and is not another thing.  In such a world, and in none other, God asks you to discern the movement of his Spirit and to be faithful.  None of these particulars can or should be avoided.  They form the bowl into which you have been poured.  

Deal with it.  Rejoice in the opportunities it provides.