Sunday, April 15, 2012

John 20.19–31 – The Church of Locked Doors

Try to think for a moment of all the things which might attract you to a Church. Good music? Friendliness? A particular style of worship? Interesting sermons?  Well, whatever you think makes a church an attractive proposition, I doubt any of you think ‘locked doors’, ‘panic’, ‘fear’. Surely any church which had those characteristics wouldn’t last long? But it’s to exactly this kind of church that Jesus comes in this morning’s gospel reading. We find a group of disciples locked in a room, terrified, perhaps thinking that they might stand accused of stealing Jesus’ body, perhaps fearing that they might very soon, quite literally have to follow their master in taking up their cross. This didn’t look like the kind of church that was going to set the world on fire.

But it’s into the midst of this frightened group that Jesus appears. The locked doors aren’t able to keep him out. And so there he is. How would the already terrified disciples feel? Perhaps they are a bit nervous about what Jesus would say to them. They’d already deserted Jesus when he was being tried and crucified. Now, even after Mary had told them that she had seen Jesus risen from the tomb, they aren’t rejoicing, but trembling. Into this trembling crowd Jesus doesn’t breath a word of condemnation, but says ‘peace be with you’. The peace Jesus speaks about here means much more than ‘don’t be afraid, don’t stress out’. Jesus pronounces the peace and forgiveness and the restoration of all things which God’s kingdom brings. The trembling church becomes the forgiven church. It also becomes the church which has its doubts addressed – Jesus shows them his wounds. And it also becomes the commissioned and gifted church – Jesus sends the church as the Father sent him and breathes the Holy Spirit into them so that the mission of God can be fulfilled. This church had absolutely nothing going for it, except that this was a church which Jesus had broken into and had chosen to be present with.

The church of locked doors – Maybe our doors aren’t physically shut and locked, but have we shut the doors in other ways? Are there ways in which we not only try to shut out a world which we feel is terrifying and hostile, but also, perhaps, try to shut out Jesus, who we feel ashamed of having let down? The church in the twenty-first century, including our congregation, looks in many ways a lot like the church of locked doors. What on earth has a church like this got going for it? Well, everything and nothing. Nothing, because, in truth, left to ourselves, we have very little to offer, and a huge task to do. Everything, because we are not left to ourselves. Perhaps the timid, cowering church is the closest thing to being a real church as we can ever get, because when we know how little we have to offer, we know that what we do offer genuinely comes from God.

There are lots of interesting things in this story, and lots of questions to ask. The real surprise for me, which I don’t think we often pick up on because we’re so obsessed with ‘Doubting Thomas’, is that the disciples only a week after Jesus had appeared to them, given them peace and pardon, breathed the Holy Spirit over them and commissioned them to take the good news to the word, are back in a locked room! And into this locked room Jesus comes again, and pronounces peace again, and addresses the disciples’ doubts again. When the disciples’ are afraid, Jesus grace increases. Jesus keeps returning to us, he keeps giving, that’s just the kind of God he is. There is nothing that we do which can ultimately shut him out.

But even though the doors we lock ourselves behind aren’t a barrier to Jesus coming to us, he doesn’t want us to stay locked up. He doesn’t even want us to just open the doors. He wants us to leave the building: “ As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Jesus’ gift to us, his Spirit, is primarily given so that we can share the good news of Jesus with others. It’s impossible to talk about spirituality without talking about mission. This isn’t trendy modern CofE, here are some words from William Temple, one time Archbishop of Canterbury:

         “We must not expect the gift while we ignore the purpose. A Church which ceases to be             
           missionary will not be, and cannot rightly expect to be “Spiritual”.”  
           (Temple, Readings in St John’s Gospel, 386)

To move beyond being the church of the locked doors, to be able to do any good in the world, the earliest Christians needed Jesus with them. Jesus was with them breaking down the doors they had shut themselves behind, beckoning them outside, letting them know that they were loved and forgiven and that God had big plans for them, helping them to realise that it was God’s work they were engaged in and not theirs. The same is true for every Christian in every generation.

Monday, April 09, 2012

John 20.11–18 - Hearing Jesus Call Us

It can be hard to be all that enthusiastic about the joyful news of Easter when you’re very used to the story. Some of you might have been here for the first Eucharist of Easter last night when we welcomed the risen Lord. For others, Easter might have come around all too soon. “The Lord is Risen! He’s risen indeed… again…”. If you don’t feel that way right now, I guarantee that in seven weeks time, when we are still greeting each other with “Christ is risen!” you will. Well, for the Easter weary, the Gospel of John is just for you.

There is no suspense in John’s story of the first resurrection encounter. As we read it, we don’t have to try to pretend that we don’t know how the story is going to work out. The power of John’s story about Jesus’ encounter with Mary Magdalene is in the lack of suspense. We know that Jesus is risen. We know that Jesus is the gardener. Generally, when John looks at the resurrection, he looks at it from the perspective of how people respond to encountering the risen Jesus. So the power of the story we read this morning doesn’t come from our gradually realising the awesome reality of the resurrection, but by seeing what it is that leads to Mary recognising Jesus and how she responds to him. 

Mary recognised Jesus when he spoke her name. He spoke into the finest details of her life, to the roots of her identity. He knows her, calls her by name and immediately the scales fall from her eyes. “Rabounni”, “my teacher” she calls out. I am sure that, on some level, the same is true for every Christian. God calls our name in some deeply personal way and we know that we are his beloved children. True Christian faith is more than just peace when enjoying the beauty of a church or a sunset, it is more than feeling lifted by evensong or by gazing at an icon. True Christian faith is more than just a feeling of peace found when praying. It is certainly more than just intellectually believing the right things. True Christian faith is hearing in and through these things, and many other things besides, the voice of Jesus calling us by name. 

Some of you might know that my greatest theological hero is thirteenth-century priest called Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas wrote some of the most breathtaking theology the world has ever known.   His work was breathtaking not only in its complexity and brilliance but in its magnitude! His longest work was the Summa Theologi√¶, and it’s massive. Aquinas never finished the Summa. And this is the story of how he came to stop writing. On St Nicolas’ day 1273, Aquinas was presiding at the Eucharist and heard Jesus speaking to him, from a Crucifix. Jesus asked Aquinas if there was anything he wanted. Aquinas answered, “Only you Lord, only you.” And from that moment he never wrote again, he wouldn’t finish the Summa, nothing. All this was much to the annoyance of his assistant Reginald of Piperno, who asked why Aquinas wouldn’t finish his work. Aquinas replied “Reginald, I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me.” Three months later at the age of 49, Aquinas died. He’s called a doctor of the church. I like to think that its not because of the theology he wrote, as marvelous as it is, but because he came to realise that words on a page can never be a substitute for hearing Jesus call your name.

This really is the first question we need to ask in response to the story of Mary Magdalene hearing and seeing Jesus: how do we here him calling our name? Do we hear him calling our name? It doesn’t matter whether you hear your name being called through liturgy, or through incense or through the beauty of creation or other people or breathtaking theology or whatever, the important thing is that you hear it.

But in this wonderful story we don’t just see what leads Mary to recognise Jesus, we see how Jesus responds to her reaction. It seems as though Mary probably fell at Jesus’ feet and embraced them (Mt. 28.9). She was so overwhelmed with seeing him that all she could think of doing was holding his feet.  At this point though, Jesus says something strange, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Jesus is in the process of ascending to his Father in heaven, so Mary’s relationship with Jesus is going to have to change because there’s going to be a time when she won’t be able to see him, or hear him, or touch him. Instead, Mary is given a job to do. She has to go and preach the good news of the resurrection to Jesus’ disciples. Mary Magdalene, the first Christian preacher of the good news of the resurrection.

As important as it is to hear Jesus voice calling our name in some way, it’s equally important that we learn to grow from that experience. Mary heard Jesus calling her name, but the calling went much deeper. It was a call on her entire life. A call to testify to the resurrection of Jesus. A vocation. Are we tempted to hold onto Jesus? It might be that we are content with coming to church, or praying, or reading the Bible because it helps us know that we are God’s beloved children, and that’s great. But sooner or later Jesus is going to say to us, “don’t cling onto me… go… share”. The message of Easter to Mary Magdalene whilst it was personal, wasn’t individualistic. It was personal but it wasn’t to stay personal, it was a message to be shared. And if we are going to be people who follow Mary, we’ll follow her in sharing the good news of the resurrection.