Not Only But Also
A week after Easter, along with many in the faith community, I am left wondering, what was it all about? A good deal more, I very much hope, than what was offered in the nationwide ad from the Warehouse on the Thursday before Easter - EASTER’S IN THREE DAYS, - HAVE YOU GOT YOURS? And you’ve guessed it - Easter was summed up in a full page of Easter chocolate goodies, Warehouse style. Easter Egg cups. Easter egg with Jelly beans. Tres Bon Dark Chocolate Easter Egg with Almonds,. And even the “Giant Footy Ball Easter Egg - more than a third of a kilo of mouthwatering milk chocolate for the footy enthusiast in your family”. - all of which goodies, doubtless, have since been sold off at heavily discounted prices in giant post Easter sales - with disasterous results for our childrens’ already rotting teeth! So have you had yours for this year and are you now better informed, more intimately acquainted with the real Easter as a result? Joking of course! But hang on! Should I be joking at all? Easter is a serious business and we’re the Church - we know we can do better than that. But how much better?
I am struck by two certainties, one positive and other negative. The first is that Easter remains, despite all the shocks to Christian faith, the centerpiece for everything that Christians hold to be true. “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.” The Easter refrain is something that every Christian anywhere in the world, in whatever language and in whatever circumstance, can respond to with joy. As Paul said so graphically “ if Christ is not risen, then your faith is in vain” Funny thing, for me, that despite all the changes my faith has undergone since those memorable days when some of us went off to Easter camps with such excitement, there’s never an Easter comes and goes without somehow that chorus we used to sing coming back to mind . . . he lives, he lives, Christ Jesus lives today . . . some of you remember it well . . . and the ending “you ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.” And that still a certainty for many of us.
The second certainty may appear to some to be a contradiction. It is not for me. Rather, it confirmation as far as I’m concerned that my faith has grown and matured. It is that the Christ who is risen does not depend on ancient stories that defy all good human logic - a dead man walking and talking, a resurrected body, appearing and disappearing through closed doors. The real risen Christ is not, or should not be, the butt of every agnostic, critic, freethinker, rationalist or atheist that ever asked a searching question of the Christian faith. There is so much more to the Christian faith than the literal truth of a collection of resurrection stories, stories that were as idle tales at the time, and defy human credibility 2000 years later by several hundred times. So that’s my second certainty. Christ is risen indeed - but in ways that a literal reading of ancient texts does not require.
Yet we have the stories and we go on reading them - hopefully more in context
than used to be the case - not the source, but the evidence of the same living
faith we share with the apostles.. Some of the best stories are in Luke.
I discovered at Easter this year a phrase which has got an air of authenticity about it, . . Let me take you to the narrative from the 3rd Gospel . . we’re all pretty familiar with it - two men in dazzling clothes encounter the women as they come to the garden to anoint the body of Jesus . . they are startled - especially when they are confronted with the enigmatic question “why do you look for the living among the dead.? He’s not here - he’s risen as he promised.” Now they’re really scared, and they run . . . fast, back to the grieving disciples to pour out the startling news . . .
Now here’s the phrase . . .v. 11
I was brought up on the RSV which says “but their words seemed to them
as idle tales, and they believed them not.”
And then there’s the translation I have always thought was a good one -
The disciples thought their news was “ too good to be true.”
Both of which seem to suggest, almost, that here’s a community that wants to believe the news. They’re just having a struggle with their natural human credulity. . . . . just as many of us do!
Bruce Prewer, who I imagine is a far better Greek scholar than me, has offered
another interpretation that I hold up this morning for your examination .
. . . “they disbelieved for joy, and still wondered.” ( rep)
It struck me, very powerfully, that in these words, maybe, was the experience of the early church in those 3o years of oral tradition before the gospels were written, - disbelieving in the very joy of the awakening experience, and wondering at the enormity of the truth that was dawning upon them . . . .
this Jesus they had loved so much - yes, he’d been killed, but who could possibly destroy the truth of him . . . they disbelieved for joy, and still wondered.
Will you stay with me for a while with those words?
It’s the role of every church, surely, to encourage the life of faith, and I want to say that it’s my experience in our community here, Mornington/Glenaven, that I have often been encouraged by the evidence of faith as measured by the joy of the community. It’s not always something measurable, but you can more readily sense authentic faith father than measure it. Yet, at the same time, there is a higher degree of challenge and enquiry of the traditional faith than I have known before. We see it in many ways, but I am thinking very muich of the Mornington Explorers Group that for years has been examining and probing traditional ways of being Christian. And who are these “explorers”?. Are they a dissident minority, the trouble makers, - the one who a hundred years ago would have been taken before a church tribunal, judged, condemned and burned as heretics? Well, no they are not. I’m looking at some of them right now. They are the leaders of the Church and of the Parish, deeply committed to the regular worship, and often found leading it . . . not for a moment wanting to cast aside the faith once delivered to the saints, but earnestly seeking to enhance it, hone it, and to charge it with greater meaning and significance for the times in which we are all living. These people make it a stimulating Christian community to belong to . . . . they are the leaven of this Parish, the salt, the flavour, and of them I could justly say
“they disbelieve for joy, and they go on wondering . . .”
I looked up the other day some of the notes that have come out of the Explorers Group - these from a group I didn’t attend.
Acknowledge multiple identity: One single identity leads on to fanaticism.
“I’d wish to be recognised in my spirituality, not according to the labels people fasten on me.”
“What I can’t swallow in the Bible I turn into poetry.”
“My visitors , the people I counsel, want me not as ‘Christian’ but as one who listens.”
Truth for me not necessarily truth for others.”
Is God incarnate in humans only? God is like disco balls - prisms - many facets of truth.”
What are these? Heresies - or the Easter enquiries of Easter people?
We catch only occasional glimpses of the original Christian community . . . mainly from the earliest letters of Paul, from Luke’s Book of Acts, and sometimes from occasional references in early manuscripts. I’m speaking of that very tiny group of believers left with the memory of Jesus after he’d died - people whose only comfort and support was the growing sense that this Jesus had endowed them with his spirit.
They had no written record of his life and his teaching as we do - they were the tiniest of tiny minorities - they had no organised church as we do - and they had to contend with the hostility and cynicism of a community around them that argued against their faith, faith in one the public record clearly said had been tried and executed as a criminal. . . . So how did they survive? How was it their faith flowered and eventually captured the empire - not by intellectual debate on the question of whether dead men rise . . . but because they knew, beyond all doubt, that the spirit of Jesus was alive in them. They also, like him, were Easter people.
I’ve often preached at Easter about Easter people, and the two I give
you today may not suit you - they’re both controversial, but the authentic
Easter will always be controversial. They have in common that they both hate
the war in Iraq, and with a passion that has led them to step out dangerously
for their conviction. Harmeed Sooden and Fl Lieut Malcolm Kendall-Smith. .
They hate the war - but for totally different reasons. One a military man
- he loves the Airforce, we’re told. The other a pacifist committed
to Christian peacemaking. One was in Iraq to tend to the soldiers as a doctor
and surgeon. The other to reach out to the victims of the war. Each one faced
a sudden and unexpected crisis in his approach to the war and his role in
it. It was a crisis that in each case exposed the heart of their integrity.
For one, the assembly of his own evidence that the invasion of Iraq was illegal, and his orders to return for a third tour were also illegal. He refused. . Arrested and charged.
The other, kidnapped by the very people he came to help, held for ransom,
and under the threat of execution.
For Kendall-Smith, court marshal, condemned as arrogant by the presiding judge. Dishonourably discharged from the Air Force he loved and imprisonment. Public opinion, we’re told. Is not on his side and most people believe he deserved what he got.
For Sooden, after many months of privation, a dramatic release by the very military forces he opposed, and a return to New Zealand to face difficult and even embarrassing questions.. He says he’ll go back - an action which will surely earn him further contempt from his critics.
But the contrast between Sooden and Kendall-Smith goes much deeper than that, - differences that were remarkably embodied in Jesus himself . . on one hand standing tall before principalities and powers, uncompromising - regaling both Caiaphas and Pilate with the force of his own integrity - “you have no authority over me except that which is given you from above.” Yet, when evil and treachery were determined to have their way, submitting with the dignity of the suffering servant . . . even to death on the cross.
They’re Easter people, both of them, all the more as we continue to
reflect on Anzac Day, and a dimension picked up by Shirley Murray in the Anzac
Hymn you sang last Sunday. They embody the very best traditions of those who
have bet their lives passionately for justice, peace and love - and prepared
to live, or die, with the consequences..
“Not only, but Also” was a very popular British comedy programme of the late sixties featuring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Cook and Moore were a classic act . Cook , tall elegant and rapier witted, outrageously funny with a straight face. Moore was short, unpretentious and could spoof any human situation, and for whom his partner’s wit was sometimes so overwhelming he could scarce contain himself.., Both talented comedians, but together they were a package you could never forget. Not only, but also!
Jesus of Nazareth was such a person, a paradox - prophet and healer, evangelist and dreamer, friend and stranger., “not only but also”.
One of the most respected evangelical leaders in America is Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourners Community. For many years earlier in ministry I read their magazine, a publication that more than anything else helped many in my generation to make important connections on vital issues of race, gender, sexuality, justice, war and the environment.. I had not heard much of Wallis in recent years until an interview with him was sent to me recently, culled from the Melbourne Age. There were many things in the interview of deep interest, among them Wallis’ comments on the way the so called religious right has assumed such an influence on the Bush Administration, the way that conservative religion and conservative politics have joined forces to drive the policies of America.
Asked whether he wanted to see the religious right countered by the religious left, Wallis says “No” . Those terms are fast becoming meaningless. “Deeper,” he says. deeper into the values of the Jesus on whose life and teaching the faith depends. The morals debate, he says, has given the Christian faith a bad name - the world needs a values debate. The values that allow half the world to be impoverished while the other half has more than enough. The values of a culture built on ruthless capitalism, the cornering of health, the despoilation of the environment, global warming, trade protectionism, and a brand of patriotism built on the exploitation of one’s neighbours - all issues that strike at the heart of the policies embraced by the Bush administration.
Wallis has a wider view of evangelism than many in this country, and he lent
One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, "My son, the battle is between 2 "wolves" inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, , regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, and all those other nasties . . .
The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith."
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: "Which wolf wins?"
The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed." by the critics. There is no excuse for a nonsensical faith. But there is no substitute either for a faith with passion, one that makes connections between Jesus faith and the huge issues of social justice that pursue us all today. Not only but also.
And so I end where I began, a cry from the faith of the true Christian community, and from the Methodist tradition to which I belong . . . an evangelical appeal to all who hear it for your mind and your heart.
Disbelieve if you must, - you’re in good company - but disbelieve for joy, and never, never, stop wondering at the grace of God in Jesus Christ.