Acts 4.5-12, Psalm 23, John 10.11-18
Acts 4.5-12, Psalm 23, John 10.11-18
We’re in a locked room in Jerusalem, with the disciples and their companions in today’s Gospel reading. Their world has been turned upside down not once, but twice. First they’d lost Jesus, when he was dragged away to be crucified and, when he was dead, some of them had seen him buried in a stone tomb. But now rumours are spreading that he is alive again. People are saying they’ve seen him, that the tomb is empty. Two of his followers have come rushing in saying he’d walked with them to their home village of Emmaus, but that it was only when he broke bread that they recognised him. And then, suddenly, there he is in the room in front of them. It was all completely beyond them, overwhelming and surreal.
They stand there, stunned into silence, while Jesus tries to talk to them. In the end he gives up trying to make them understand, and says…“Have you got anything to eat?” They have, as it happens, broiled fish, so that’s what they give him. It’s as if he showed up in our own front rooms today, standing among us in all his shimmering glory, and announced “You know, I could murder a nice cup of tea…”
It all sounds a bit banal. What’s broiled fish got to do with the vanquishing of death, the opening of the gates of glory, the life everlasting and the new creation? Broiled fish are so mundane. But I think that is just the point. Resurrection is mundane; mundane literally means to do with this world, with the reality we see and know.
Our first reading was all about the real and the physical too. It’s an account of the aftermath of the healing of a man who had been lame from birth. Peter and John had come across him begging at the gate of the Temple. He asked them for money, but they had none. Instead, they offered him healing, something which would liberate him from his dependency on the charity of others as well as relieving his physical pain and disability. Straightaway he jumped to his feet, praising God. We don’t know what happened to him after his healing – did he join the disciples, or just melt back into the crowd? – but in real physical terms his life was transformed, and that seems to have been what mattered most to Peter. The life of Jesus, who he calls the Author of Life, life itself, had overflowed into this man’s life and brought about a change that was real and tangible.
Of course, we tend to come to stories like these – of resurrection and miraculous healing – with a lot of sceptical baggage. With our post-Enlightenment understanding, we often get completely stuck on their impossibility and can go no further with them. But we need to recognise that our viewpoint – and our problems – wouldn’t have been shared by those who first heard and told these stories. People of the first century, and many centuries before and after didn’t think resurrection or miraculous healing were intrinsically impossible, even if these weren’t things they expected to see happening. They believed the world was ruled by the will of God. If he wanted to heal or raise from the dead, he could. I don’t know what we would have seen if we had been there on Easter Day or at the Temple gates with a video camera. The people who wrote these accounts weren’t trying to answer our questions. They were just trying to express their own experience, that somehow Jesus was alive, and that his resurrection changed everything. God was at work in their midst, not trying to scoop them up out of the physical world, but within it, redeeming and transforming it.
We often think of Christmas as the great feast of the incarnation – God becomes flesh in the child of Bethlehem. But actually, for the early Christians Easter was just as much about incarnation as Christmas, and perhaps even more so. It too was all about a body; a body that lived and breathed, when no one would expect it to, a body that bore the scars of what had happened to it, a body that ate and drank. “You shall call his name Emmanuel” says the Angel Gabriel to Mary before he is born – God with us, in Hebrew. It is a fitting title for the baby in the manger, but in some ways, it’s even more appropriate for the risen Christ. God is with us, says the Resurrection, even though we have tried so hard to send him away into the shadows of death. God is with us, in the person of Jesus, raised from death, different in some ways, but unmistakeably flesh and blood too as he eats that piece of broiled fish, something you could smell and taste, with bones you had to pick out from between your teeth, and juices you had to lick off your fingers, as real as it gets. God is with us, and at work in the nitty-gritty things of life, just as committed to his world , in all its messy physicality, as he had always been.
The resurrection, just like Jesus’ birth, is a message that our vulnerable, fallible bodies aren’t some kind of prison for the far more noble spiritual material of our souls, prisons which we should look to rise above and long to be delivered from. They are a gift from God, who made the world and all that was in it, who looked at it and called it good, and not only came into it once as a baby in a manger, but came back to it in the risen Jesus, to bless and heal it.
That mattered to the early Christians, whose words we are reading when we read the New Testament. They didn’t have the physical presence of Jesus among them anymore, but they were still convinced that he was very much there. They believed that they met him first and foremost in one another, as they formed new communities, drawing together Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women. They were the body of Christ. Living as that body wasn’t about mysterious rituals or complex liturgy or abstract theological ideas, but about serving those around them in tangible, physical ways; washing feet, sharing their possessions, feeding the hungry, giving dignity to those who were most vulnerable.
The Bible says very little about life after death, and a great deal about life before it, about everyday justice, everyday hope, everyday acts of loving kindness. If our faith doesn’t touch our lives on Monday mornings, in daily work, in friendships, in family life, in the way we speak to the person at the supermarket checkout, then it is not a faith worth having, not a faith that will ever convince anyone else that it is worth seeking. We discover and proclaim Jesus in the “broiled fish” of life. It is the small things, things which might not seem important, which usually turn out to change everything. Who knew, when they bought that fish at the market, and built the fire over which it was cooked, what a role it would play, that it would be the sign that God really was present and at work?
So this week, I wonder what the “broiled fish” will be for us, the places where God will suddenly appear, if we have eyes to see him, the ways in which we will discover, and proclaim, the love of God, still with us, still at work, still bringing the hope and healing we all need?
As anyone who knows me will tell you, I love a good story, whether I am telling it or listening to it. The satisfying thing about stories, especially traditional ones is that, by and large, they tend to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and at the end there is some resolution. The criminal is unmasked, the lovers get together, things are rounded off, if not neatly then at least enough to feel it had been worth ploughing through the rest of it.
By that reckoning, Mark’s Gospel is a bit of a failure, to be honest. The passage we just heard was the end of it. “Terror and amazement seized [the women]; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid…” And that’s it
I mean, it’s a bit rubbish isn’t it?. As an ending. It doesn’t even really make sense, because if they said nothing to anyone, how did anyone find out that the tomb was empty, that Christ had risen? How did the story of the resurrection - the whole Christian faith - ever get off the ground?
If you’re beginning to smell a rat, you wouldn’t be the only one. Biblical scholars are pretty convinced that at a very early stage in the transmission of Mark’s Gospel, within 50 years or so of its composition, the last page simply got lost. We have to remember that this was long before printing, let alone the kind of digital technology we take for granted. When documents were hand written, there wouldn’t have been lots of copies around, especially at the beginning of their life. If a page got lost, that was probably it. There was no 2autosave function to come to the rescue.
The early church wasn’t a big organisation, just small groups of Christians dotted around the Mediterranean. It had no power or wealth, and its members were intermittently persecuted. It didn’t have libraries or archives to carefully store the writings of its early leaders, so it’s perfectly possible to believe that the last page of a loosely bound pile of papers, or the last part of a scroll, might have been damaged or torn, or just left behind somewhere.
Attempts were made to put things right early on by adding endings, based on the other Gospels, but the original is what it is, a document that finishes with fear and amazement and silence.
And maybe that’s no bad thing.
I suspect that the reason we like stories with beginnings, middles and ends is that, in reality, life isn’t like that. We can’t remember our beginnings. We don’t know our ends. We are stuck in a perpetual middle. Even if we think we have got life sorted we soon discover that there are more problems to be solved, new developments – good or bad – we hadn’t anticipated. We don’t know what’s around the next corner.
This last year has shown us that, even if we didn’t realise it before. Whatever any of us thought 2020 would contain, I doubt we had a pandemic on our radar. Yet here we are, picking our way through a landscape that has often felt completely alien, learning new skills, facing new challenges, bearing new burdens, but also, sometimes, finding new joys as well, strengthened bonds with one another, a deeper appreciation of what we have. In truth, disaster planners had long put pandemic disease right at the top of the list of likely threats to the world, but I’m guessing that most of us didn’t see it coming, or, if we did, we didn’t know how it would affect us or what it would involve.
And, of course, it isn’t over. We are still in the middle of this part of our story, not knowing how long it will last, or what the world will look like when the tide of disease finally retreats, what flotsam and jetsam will be left behind.
Real life isn’t like the stories of which we are so fond, at least not from our point of view. Easter Sunday isn’t a happy-ever-after ending. It isn’t an ending at all in fact. The women who fled in terror from the tomb and the angel’s message knew that. According to the other Gospels, they did indeed do what the angel told them to – they went and told the other disciples what they had heard and seen. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here now, still telling the story. But I’m not surprised that they were terrified. They knew that this message, for all its joy, would bring them unimaginable challenges. Maybe, as Jesus lay in the tomb, they had started to resign themselves to slinking off home, hoping people would forget they had been followers of this apparently failed Messiah – a good man perhaps, but someone who’d never stood a chance, like all the others who’d stood up to the might of Rome. But the resurrection proclaimed that Jesus hadn’t failed, and that his way was the way they should still be following. It proclaimed that hope, love and life had triumphed over despair, hatred and death. It called them, and all who still follow the risen Christ, to live life in the light of Easter, daring to expect that tombs which appear to be sealed shut can be opened, that injustice that seems entrenched can be remedied, that divisions that seem to be unbridgeable can be bridged.
“Do not be alarmed” said the white-robed messenger who greeted them at the tomb. Angels are always saying that “ Fear not, don’t be afraid!” It’s their trademark opening line. But whenever an angel says that, we know that it’s because people are alarmed and afraid, usually with good reason, and so would we be. Good news can be just as challenging as bad news, even if it turns out to be a lot more exciting and fruitful in the end than bad news.
So, although I do like a good story, I also really like the fact that Mark’s Gospel has this unfinished ending. It’s a reminder that each of us is called to be part of this story, the Easter story, the Resurrection story, taking up the thread of it in our own lives, letting it open our eyes to the hope, love and life that our world needs, living out that story in the places God has called us to.
Easter isn’t a moment when we close the book, with a sigh of pleasure, and think to ourselves “that was good…now what shall I read next?”. It’s the moment when a new world dawns, when we are invited to step out on a new journey with the God who lived, died and rose again for us.
The sermon and music from the service for Maundy Thursday.
1 Cor 11.23-26, John 13.1-35
One of the things I have been particularly aware of this Holy Week is just how physical our observance of it usually is. It is full of material things - Palm Crosses, service sheets, candles, Messy Church paint and glue and tinsel. Hot cross buns and Easter eggs shared in church, interactive prayer stations which people can gather around and perhaps stick things to or write on, singing, processing, and of course the bread and wine of communion. We’ve never gone in for ritual foot-washing here at Seal, and perhaps that’s just as well because that’s one thing I haven’t had to try to rethink or scrap this year – everything else has had to be risk assessed, adapted or abandoned. We’re doing our best, but there’s no denying that without all those physical things, Holy Week feels a bit anaemic, a bit thin. Here we are celebrating the gift of the Eucharist, the wine and the bread which symbolise Christ’s presence with us, but I can’t give you the wine, and the bread will be delivered with tongs, an awkward process at best… Of course, for many people even being in church at all is impossible at the moment. All they are getting is worship through a screen or a disembodied voice on a podcast, or even just printed words on a page. It’s not how we’d want it to be. The Word became flesh, but it feels we’re having to turn it back into words again at the moment.
But that is because this year we have had to recognise that physical matter – including our own bodies - can be problematic as well as a gift. The virus that has given us so much grief is a part of the physical matter of the universe, just as much as the beauty of the sunrise, the hand of a friend, the food we eat. It is the fact that we are physical that causes the problem. Physicality brings pain as well as delight.
And yet, the Word became flesh – not just in an adorable baby in a manger at Christmas time, but also on a cross, suffering and dying. God didn’t send an idea to redeem and rescue us. He sent a flesh and blood person, into the mess of the world, a bodily being among the rest of us bodily beings. He did that because our God is a God who loves bodies and the physical stuff they are made of.
At the time of Jesus there was a school of thought which regarded the body as a prison, something to be denied, subdued until it could be cast off and the spark of light that was trapped inside us, the true self, could fly free. Those who held ideas like that were often called Gnostics, though there wasn’t ever an organised movement that bore that name. It’s a very persistent idea, though, which has lurked about throughout history, and still does. People often think that Christians believe in disembodied soul, imagining it as a wifty-wafty thing floating up to heaven when we die. It’s understandable that we think like that. Our all-too-solid flesh (I speak for myself) can be a trial at times, with its aches and pains, and its tendency to start falling apart and generally deteriorating after a while. But the Bible reminds us from beginning to end that this mortal flesh, this temporal life, this here and now, is God’s gift. When he created it, God looked at it and said “that’s good – I like it”, and when things all went wrong, he didn’t abandon it. He came, as flesh and blood himself, to be part of it. He didn’t scoop us up out of the physical world; he came into it. He was hungry and thirsty, tired and in pain. He eventually died, and was raised, a physical being. That’s why it is so important in the stories of the resurrection that Jesus eats with his friends, and shows them the wounds in his hands and feet and side.
It would be quite understandable if we were fed up with flesh and blood this year, with having to protect it by wearing facemasks and keeping our distance and not being able to do the things we want, but it is because we recognise that it is blessed and precious that we do this. Our care in the way we have used our bodies this year – all that “hands, face, space” stuff – is an act of thanksgiving for the gift of bodies, our own and others. It’s a statement this life matters, that matter matters.
It’s no accident, then, that Jesus’ tells his disciples on the night before he dies that something as basic and physical as eating and drinking will be the place where they’ll encounter him in the future. And he doesn’t say that it should be some sort of special ritual meal. Any meal will do. The God who was present with his disciples in the flesh and blood of Jesus is still present with us in the stuff of the world around us, blessing it and declaring it to be good, if we have our eyes open to see him. The God who was present with his disciples as he washed their feet is still with us in the practical care we give to one another, even if it has to be rather “hands-off” at the moment. As the choir will sing later in a recording Philip has edited together from our separate voices and instruments, “Where love and loving-kindness are, there is God”. It’s a quote from the first letter of John. “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est”, as it is in Latin.
We may not be able to touch each other today. We may not be able to do many of the physical things we would like to, but God is present in the love we show and share, including the loving act of protecting each other’s bodies by not touching or getting too close to each other so we don’t pass on the virus. Whether we are able physically to receive the bread and wine of the Eucharist at the moment, everything around us, everything that is us reminds us that matter matters to God, and so it should to us. It is blest. God loves it.