Sunday, April 26, 2015

Fourth Sunday of Easter

John 10
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

As tempting as it is, we will never use clickbait to drive traffic to our website.

You’ve seen clickbait—you read an article online and you reach the bottom of the page and then you see it: ‘Eat these foods and lose weight’ or ‘Watch super cute babies eat sour food for the first time.’ Who can resist? So, if we resorted to clickbait, it might read like this:

‘You won’t believe what Team May has planned for coffee hour.’
‘Guess which upcoming events include small dogs!’
‘Is your minister ready for sailing season?’
‘These ground beef recipes will draw a crowd’
‘How many crazy typos can you find in the bulletin?’
‘What’s the latest news on feral cats in Mount Dennis?’

Maybe we should reconsider our clickbait policy. And as we reconsider, I can tell you that this newly ubiquitous form of online promotion is not limited to the average consumer or Facebook user. Recently we’re seeing an increase in clergy clickbait, attempts to drive traffic to sites like HuffPost Religion and Christianity Today.

Just his week I found an article with the provocative title: “It’s not a matter of obeying the Bible”: 8 questions for Walter Brueggemann.” Classic clergy clickbait. To be clear, Dr. Brueggemann actually said “it’s not a matter of obeying the Bible—it’s about obeying the Gospel.”* See what they did there? Famous biblical scholar says something seemingly outrageous, and your mouse seems to have a mind of its own.

I mention Dr. Brueggemann because of something equally provocative he says in this short interview. When asked a question about the difference between the Old and the New Testament, he says this:

I believe that running through the Old Testament and through the New Testament is an overriding question about the faithfulness or the fidelity of God—whether God keeps promises and whether God can be trusted.

It’s one of those summary statements that will either seem completely obvious or will stop us in our tracks. Can God be trusted? And if we agree with Dr. Brueggemann that God’s fidelity is an overriding theme through 66 books of the Bible, we should find evidence close at hand. Perhaps as close as the passage Joan read for us this morning:

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

As signs of fidelity or faithfulness go, few provide the assurance that we find in the shepherd metaphor. The shepherd will never leave us, the shepherd will speak words of comfort to us, the shepherd will lay down his life for our sake:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

You will find no greater continuity between the Old and New Testaments than the comfort that God will provide in the face of trouble. The shepherd psalm and the great I AM statement of John 10 come together to provide a more complete picture of what God provides. Our resident biblical scholar would call this ‘rewritten Bible,’ taking the familiar and rewriting for a new setting and a new age.

And one of the most arresting parts of this rewriting of Psalm 23 is Jesus refection on the hired hand:

“The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”

In effect, the hired hand is anyone who offers false comfort or false protection in the face of danger. The hired hand will make elaborate promises about protecting the flock, but when real trouble comes, the hired hand will be the first to flee. And in a world awash with trouble, there are plenty of hired hands.

And they seem to amplify each other, these threats and hired hands. The media will play up this or that threat, and governments will step in to offer us solutions. Crime rates and been dropping like a stone since the 1970’s, but you wouldn’t know if you watch the 6.30 news or follow the latest release from the ‘public safety’ branch of our government. Someone figured out that an American is far more likely to be killed by a toddler than a terrorist (mostly owing to careless gun owners) but you wouldn’t know it as drones increasingly fill the skies.

And this leads to the real threat of the careless hired hand and the false comfort he offers: that we somehow forget who we are. Dr. Brueggemann, in the very same article, decries the systems and beliefs that cause “us to be very afraid, to regard other people as competitors, or as threats, or as rivals. It causes us to think of the world in very frightened and privatistic forms.”

The good doctor then moves beyond the problem to offer a solution, one based in the same continuity of concern that ties the Bible together:

“The gospel very much wants us to think in terms of a neighborhood, in terms of being in solidarity with other people, in sharing our resources, and of living out beyond ourselves. The gospel contradicts the dominant values of our system, which encourages self-protection and self-sufficiency at the loss of the common good.”*

So if we can’t trust the hired hand to protect us, who can we trust? Trust in God would be the first answer, trust in the comfort that we already receive in the face of trouble. Trust in the comfort that we find throughout the scriptures, trust in the comfort God provides through others, through a community that ministers to one another.

And trust that God is working through the well-intentioned, working to build-up rather than tear down, working to strengthen our commitment to each other rather than drive us apart, and working to reduce the complexity of caring to one simple principle—love your neighbour.

Jesus said, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” In expanding our sense of neighbour, we expand our sense of ourselves: that we belong to more than one community or one tribe, that we have more in common with others than we first though, that every effort to drive us away from our neighbours should be met with the same steadfastness that God first met us.

May we never cease to worship ‘the God who cares,’ who provides comfort in times of trouble, for us and for our neighbours. Amen.


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Third Sunday of Easter

Luke 24
41 And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence.
44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Some people collect hockey cards, but I like to collect stories of obscure Anglo-Saxon saints.

Take, for example, Egwin of Evesham, third bishop of Worcester. Born a prince of the Mercian royal house, he was a well-known monk who was elevated to bishop by popular acclaim. He was a disaster. He thought that the former pagans he ministered to should act less like pagans and more like Christians, and he thought the priests that he supervised should act like priests.

Soon everyone was angry with Egwin. So he resolved to do what every angry bishop did in the 700’s, he went to Rome. Surely the pope would support him, constrained as we was by the poor examples that surrounded him. And just to reinforce his position, he shackled his legs with chains, and threw the key into the River Avon.

Fast forward a few months (shackles tend to slow you down) and Egwin is praying quietly as he is about to meet the pope and plead his case against his disappointing flock. Just as he is set to enter, one of his servants bursts in with the key to the shackles, found that morning inside a fish caught in the Tiber. Unshackled, and with a great story, his mission is a success.

Back in Worcester, the combination of a great fish story, a note from the pope that likely read “listen to Egwin, even the fish have his back,” he begins again. He founds one of the great monastic houses at Evesham and seems to learn how to make nice with his flock. After his death the abbey becomes a moderately popular pilgrimage site, until Henry VIII knocks it down.

It seems every time something important is about to happen, a fish appears. Jonah gets tossed overboard, and a fish appears. A crown of five thousand shows up for lunch, and suddenly a couple of fish appear. Jesus told the disciples to fish from the other side of the boat and suddenly 153 fish appear—so many they can barely pull in the net. And when Jesus appears to them in our passage this morning, he asks ‘do you have anything to eat?’ and suddenly a fish appears.

Fish appear throughout the the Bible, with the greatest concentration during that time a group of fishermen follow Jesus. There are so many fish stories, we even omit some from our three-year cycle of readings. Case in point, Matthew 17.24ff:

24 After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”
25 “Yes, he does,” he replied.
When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”
26 “From others,” Peter answered.
“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. 27 “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”

This passage makes no sense and so we’ll never speak of it again. Actually, I think the point of the passage is something is happening, then something else, and then suddenly a fish appears and everything is better.

And the greatest fish story, the one that trumps all others is found in the concluding chapter of John:

When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.
10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.

Notice how incredibly close we came to having communion made up of bread and fish. Between the final meal recorded in John and the feeding of the five thousand, I’m sure someone in the early church made a pitch for bread and fish. ‘Wine is expensive,’ they might have said, ‘and Welch’s grape juice even more,’ so lets make it fish shared instead of wine poured.’ But it was not to be.

So why is the Risen Christ suddenly hungry and why did they offer him broiled fish? What is the connection between something important happening and sudden fish appearing? I have a couple of theories, but first, why is he hungry?

Somehow, the disciples need to navigate the transition from dying Savior to empty tomb to risen Christ and see that there is some continuity. These final resurrection appearances happen in the mysterious space between dwelling with God and returning to God. They demonstrate that he is still present to the church, but the shape of this presence is changing, and will likely change again. In the meantime, taking a bit of fish will mark a spot in the transition, somehow here but not really here.

In the earliest complete communion liturgy we have we pray ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.’ Somehow the disciples need to understand that these appearances are a foretaste, and a confirmation, and a tender parting. Yet even now, we struggle to understand what all this means, except to say ‘he lives.’

So back to the fish. The first theory is fish as comfort food, fish as the thing people longed for when they felt dislocation or discomfort. One of the clues for this is found in one Numbers 11, as the Israelites resume their complaining:

4 The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. 6 But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!”

We have lost the sense of how ubiquitous fish was in the ancient world. Of all the odours you would encounter if you managed to time-travel back to the Mediterranean world, fish would be about the strongest—and likely one of the most pleasant, as hard as that is to believe. If they were not eating fish they were covering everything with fish sauce (garum) much in the way we use ketchup. So that scene in the upper room was perhaps about comfort food, something to connect them to Jesus.

The other possibility is that the appearance of fish marks their return to the old life. We recall from the last couple of weeks that Jesus is busy appearing to the disciples—breathing on them the Holy Spirit, casting off doubt by showing his hands and side, but then something happens. First, we get this editorial from John:

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe[b] that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

So there was even more! And now we’re primed to see where this will go next, what great acts of faith the disciples will undertake, what miracles will be performed in the name of the risen Christ—and so we turn the page, and we read this: the Sea of Galilee...Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. 3 “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

That’s it? The greatest two weeks in the history of the world have just unfolded, Jesus died on the cross, God and humanity were reconciled, Christ appeared and said “as God has sent me, so I send you” and they went fishing? Fishing? Of course, they went fishing, because they didn’t know where to start.

But Jesus gives them the answer. Jesus eats the grilled fish, and tells them to reread their Bibles, reminds them that the whole story is there along with what they must do next: take the message of God’s forgiveness to all the nations. Put your nets aside, and do that thing I invited you to do way back at the beginning: follow me, fish for people, forgive in my name, Amen.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Second Sunday of Easter

John 20
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

There are two schools of thought on what’s important.

In the first school, it’s the last thing you say that is clearly the most important, because you left it to last. “Your mother and I are going away for the weekend so please don’t have a party.” Moments later kids with cases of beer begin to appear. But no matter, because that last unheeded word was clearly the most important.

The second school of thought says that the first word, the one spoken after “now listen carefully” is clearly the most important. Forget for a moment that timeless gag when Max says to the Chief “can you repeat everything after you said ‘now listen carefully?’” If you say it first, it must matter most.

So we have a dilemma and a biblical test case, so we better get to work. The disciples have retreated to an undisclosed location to ponder last week’s startling news and perhaps make a plan. They meet behind closed doors, firmly locked for fear it says, and Jesus breaks in once more.

But before we tackle the first word-last work debate, we need to sound a note of caution about reading John. The Gospel of John remains my favourite, despite the nascent anti-semitism that appears in the book. Case-in-point is the first verse that Taye read for us. “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”

Technically this statement is true, since the leaders that might seek to harm the disciples were Jewish. But since everyone in the room—everyone hiding—was also Jewish, the use of the descriptor “Jewish leaders” has another intent. John is already trying to draw a line between church and synagogue, a line that would not exist for decades. And later, when the competition between Jews and Jewish-Christians is in full swing, these early attempts at creating division will make more sense. And still later, when the church is powerful and the synagogue is weak, this line-drawing will fuel anti-Jewish feeling. And sadly, it still does.

Better to say ‘religious leaders,’ since we remember from a week-ago Friday that a religious man was crucified at the behest of religious leaders, not from a competing tradition, but from the very same one. Suddenly the lesson from the cross that ‘we crucified Christ’ and that ‘he died for our sins’ makes much more sense since this event happened within the family of faith. It might be easier to say the Jews did it or the Romans did it—certainly easier than admitting that we did it, and might do it again given half the chance.

So where was I? Back to our passage, the first word is really a salutation or greeting that has its origin before Jesus and gives us a glimpse of his life with the disciples:

Peace be with you.
And also with you.

For our Muslim brothers and sisters it is “As-salamu alaykum” (“peace be upon you”), a greeting commended by the Prophet (peace be upon him) in the same manner that Jesus said "When you enter a house, first say, 'Peace to this house.'” (Luke 10.5) So I think we can safely say “peace be with you’ is a greeting and not the first word.

The first word, then, is “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And this, of course, takes us back to Luke 10:

8 “When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. 9 Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’

These disciples were trained to go our into the world to share the message that the Kingdom of God is near, and then trained not to waste time on the towns that are unreceptive to this message. Rather, they are to leave having shared the message once more, the Kingdom of God has come near, and then shake. And just to add a little emphasis, Jesus gets personal, based—no doubt—on field reports from the missionary trial run described in Luke 10:

13 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! 15 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.”

Ouch. Obviously we’re encouraged to imagine our own town on the list (“woe to you Mount Dennis, woe to you Weston”) and make sure we stay off the unwelcoming path, because that path does not end well.

So that’s the first word, what about the last? If the last word in this encounter is the most important, then what do we make of “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” Ignoring the Little Pentecost of “receive the Holy Spirit (that would be jumping ahead) we are left with this seemingly straight-forward description of the mechanics of forgiveness.

And this is really just a restatement of a lesson Jesus gave in Matthew 18. He describes the biblical standard for discipline in the church (first one-on-one, then with a witness, and so on) and then he adds this summary: "Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

First, I have to say that λύο is my absolute favourite verb in Greek, and second notice that the topic is really the same one as above. You will encounter all sorts of resistance on the road, and you will tempted to say “woe to you” at every turn, but recall that “if you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” To bind or to loose is a huge responsibility, and the church must tread carefully when we give into the temptation to condemn. In other words, forgiveness is usually the best policy, since the Kingdom of God is near anyway.

So in the end, both the first word and the last word involve being sent: taking the message of the Kingdom of God into the world and wrestling with the outcome. Sharing the Good News that God is near and even within you and hoping against hope that the message will be received. It is an awesome responsibility, so how are we doing?

For those of us who have the opportunity to occasionally work with other churches, there are resources available to help them find their way in the troubled and uncertain future that seems set before us. And one of the resources we commend to churches that are not as clever or advanced as Central United Church is something called the Natural Church Development Survey.

Developed by a Swiss theologian, the survey takes a look at all the aspects of congregational life and does some computer-based magic to generate a result. And if you are suddenly thinking ‘hey, that sounds like fun, we should do that too’ you can set that thought aside. We have found that every United Church that takes the survey comes out in exactly the same place: brilliant at doing and not so good at being. Happy to do the work, but reluctant to talk about it. Keen to engage the world out there, but hesitant to ponder the life in here (the heart).

It seems that when we hear the words “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” we think dinner for eighty and Habitat for Humanity and units with rent-geared-to-income and harm reduction and the benevolent fund. We immediately want to do something rather than be something. An it’s not your fault. We internalized the message from our Creed about the Jesus “who works in us and others by the Spirit” and we roll up our sleeves. We’re ready to work and so we say “how can I help?”

So to remain with our Creed, we are first in line to “to seek justice and resist evil,” but somewhat reluctant “to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope.” We are increasingly adept at living “with respect in Creation,” but uncertain how we daily “celebrate God's presence.” It’s all in there—the doing and the being—but we’re just better at the doing.

So I encourage you to dwell in the peaceful presence of the Risen Christ, and just be. I’m tempted to say “just do it,” but I won’t. Instead, just be it. Amen.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Easter Sunday

1 Corinthians 15
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

I missed the Beatles.

I’ve never seen the Stones in concert. I can’t remember the moon landing, since I was still in nappies at the time. Okay, I was four, so maybe I was out of nappies. For me there was no Woodstock, no Summer of Love, and no Trudeaumania (although it could happen again).

For all of these things I was either too young or wasn’t paying attention. And no one said “enjoy the victory parade now little toddler, because when you’re 50, there’s still no Stanley Cup for the Leafs.” (sorry Dave) That seems like something worth noting.

Still, for all that I have missed, and all that I didn’t see, I’m in a better position than St. Paul—he missed everything.

St. Paul missed the angels and wise men, shepherds in their fields abiding, and he missed everything swaddling.
St. Paul missed John’s Baptism, the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
St. Paul missed the Wedding at Cana—didn’t even get an invite—and the very first sign of the new age.
St. Paul missed the halt, the lame, lepers and paralytics, the demon-possessed and everyone Jesus healed.
St. Paul missed the storm at sea, the miraculous catch of 153 fish, and the day those loaves and fishes multiplied.
St. Paul missed tax collectors, sinners, scribes, people of small stature and everyone else Jesus ate with.
St. Paul missed the sermon on the mount, the sermon on the plain—and my favourite—the sermon from the boat.
St. Paul missed the day Jesus wept for his friend and cried “Lazarus, come out.”
St. Paul missed every parable that pointed directly to the Kingdom of God and the people we are meant to be.
St. Paul missed the Last Supper, Gethsemane, the trial and the most famous hand-washing of all.
St. Paul missed the day the sky turned black, and the curtain was torn in two, and Jesus forgave us all.
And St. Paul missed Mary in the garden alone, the empty tomb, and the first day she said “he is risen indeed.”

But you’d never know. Somehow—and this is the other Easter miracle—the Holy Spirit transmitted to Paul everything he would ever need to know about the life and times of Jesus the Christ. And how do I know? It’s written in 1 Corinthians 15:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve, [then many more] and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one untimely born.

Untimely born. Poor Paul, only hearing about the party after the fact, and what a great time it was, and how everyone was pleased to be invited. Except this party was three years long, and Paul missed the whole thing. So how the guy who missed the ‘best party ever’ goes on to invent the Christian religion must be a heck of a story—and so it is.

St. Paul has the real ‘Road to Damascus” experience. A flash of light, thrown from his horse, confronted by the Risen Christ, and everything changes. Paul (called Saul) goes from the persecutor-in-chief to future architect of the faith in a single moment. And later, when he recounts the story, he makes it clear that more was happening in this moment than meets the eye:

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. (Gal 1)

You get the sense through all of this that Paul is more surprized than anyone: more surprized than his companions on the road, more surprized than the people he persecuted, more surprized than the people in various churches who met the man then heard his story.

You might say the whole thing is absurd, and another of the ‘great reversals’ that God is famous for: persecutor joins the persecuted, cop becomes criminal, the least of all becomes the greatest of all, if we’re talking early theologians.

And it will take another early theologian, this time the great Tertullian, to summarize Paul and the event we mark today: credo quia absurdum. (“I believe it because it is absurd”) Like receiving the entire story in a single download on the Road to Damascus, finding the tomb empty is so absurd, it becomes believable.

And this, of course, leads to the embarrassment theory: If there is an element to the story that would embarrass the subject of the story, or embarrass the audience, then it’s much more likely to be true. We might call this ‘partly absurd,’ meaning a sensible author might omit embarrassing details rather than give them pride of place.

Paul could have simply pretended that he was lurking in the background, present throughout the ministry of Jesus, just taking it all in. The apostles could have disseminated the story that the body was stolen from the tomb—the final indignity Jesus’ enemies could perpetrate. Instead, they share Mary’s story, and the story of the appearances to follow, even though it drifts squarely into the absurd.

But it’s been a week of absurdities, hasn’t it?

Shouting ‘God save us’ and waving palms at a man on a donkey.
Confronting the powerful one last time (Bankers! And in the Temple!).
Organizing that a member of his inner circle do the right thing and betray him.
Dining a final time, and giving up the greatest secret of the Kingdom: (‘This is my body, this is my blood.’)
Seeing God on the cross.
Hearing God lose faith in God, for just a moment, saying ‘why have you forsaken me?‘*
The so-called ‘Harrowing of Hell,’ spending Saturday freeing the faithful from Sheol.**
And finally ascending to the Father, but not without first drying Mary’s tears.

It’s all rather absurd, but following Tertullian, ‘we believe it because it is absurd.’ And, of course, the absurdities will continue: We will will form a community not based on loyalty or fidelity but on forgiveness. We will honour God not with sacrifices but with our love. And we will focus not on the needs of kin and clan, but on our neighbour, widely defined. In every case we ignore what the world might do and do the unexpected, the unrewarded, the plainly absurd.

And it all begins with an empty tomb, Mary’s first confession of faith (“I have seen the Lord”), and the transmission of imperfect vessels beginning with St. Paul and continuing down to you and me. May God strengthen us to believe the unbelievable, and share it boldly. Amen.

*G.K. Chesterton