Resurrection (detail) Stanley Spencer

Resurrection (detail) Stanley Spencer

Luke’s account of the Gospel ends as it begins, with women. At the outset Mary and Elizabeth experience not a little apprehension but their fears are quelled by an angel. Now the women visit the tomb and their anxiety is stilled by men dressed in white. Mary’s empty womb was filled with joy; the broken hearts of the women are made whole.

Transformation is a theme of Luke. From the revolutionary ideas of the Magnificat to a bereavement that began a new way of living.

Just as the Spirit once brooded over the waters of chaos at creation so the Spirit would help make sense of the chaotic voices of Pentecost. It is clear that Luke intends his readers to enter into a transformation from chaos to order and despair to hope because death has become life. What should have been the end has become a whole new beginning.

Luke is also about transition, a journey from one place to another: in the Gospel account from the backwater of Nazareth to Jerusalem and in Acts from Jerusalem to Rome.

So it is clear that Luke doesn’t intend us to stand still. The women were to leave the tombs and have a choice to return to their homes, to their lives, for some the pots and pans and for at least one the court of Herod. But their lives were to never be the same as those kitchens and that court were to be blessed by lives that had moved on by experience.

Life can never be the same once resurrection has been glimpsed. We can neither stay the same nor stay in the same place, we have to change and we have to move on.

The late Dorothee Soelle (1929-2003) was a German liberation theologian who wrestled with the shock and shame of the Shoah and the suffering that went with it. She knew that if resurrection was to come to her society then it had to be through the work of the people, the graft of coming to terms with events. Influenced by Augustine (‘without God we cannot, without us God will not’) her poem speaks of the need God has of us.

He needs you
that’s all there is to it
without you he’s left hanging
goes up in dachau’s smoke
is sugar and spice in the baker’s hands
gets revalued in the next stock market crash
he’s consumed and blown away
used up without you

Help him
that’s what faith is
he can’t bring it about
his kingdom
couldn’t then couldn’t later can’t now
not at any rate without you
andf that is his irresistible appeal.
Revolutionary Patience, Orbis 1974

Triumphant Entry by He Qi

Triumphant Entry by He Qi

The Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are written by one and the same person.

There is more than a touch of ‘journey’ about them. The Gospel account charts the journey from the backwaters of Nazareth and Bethlehem, from the hillsides of Galilee to the capital Jerusalem. Acts begins where the Gospel account left off, in the provincial capital of Jerusalem, before the message is taken across the Mediterranean world until it reaches the Empire’s capital Rome.

Even in today’s world Rome is viewed by many as the centre of attention and activity. Pope Francis on his election stood on the balcony and declared that the cardinals had gone to the ends of the earth to find a Pope, as if elsewhere is somehow of lesser importance.

Luke gives an extraordinary account of an extraordinary journey conveying an extraordinary message. The hinge is Holy Week; the message is propelled from the Mount of Olives, through the busy streets of the city, to the silence of Golgotha and climaxing in the astonishment of the garden tomb.

There are many moments in that extraordinary week when it could have all turned out so differently. There were moments when the Gospel could have fallen flat, the despair of another failed Messiah deep, the disappointment real and unending; the Gospel could have failed had it not have been of God and the Truth that stood, and still in the present age stands every test.

One such moment for Jesus was when the city came into view. The enormity of the task was laid out before Jesus. He had seen the city before. He had celebrated the festivals there with his disciples in previous years. But on this occasion the enormity of the mission struck deep within his soul.

Crowds were gathering on the hillside all around him. The tents were going up for those who could not afford the prices that had been hiked by the guest houses for the holiday season. The atmosphere was electric, excitement mounting. The city stretched out before him, the golden stone warm in the Spring sunshine, and the Temple dominating the landscape, rising high above the valley below, its walls giving it’s fortress-like appearance and the Holy of Holies standing taller still at the centre of the surrounding courts set aside for pilgrims. Built over the summit of Mount Moriah the Holy of Holies, into which only the High Priest will pass, it covers the spot where Abraham is said to have been prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac.

Jesus could not help but be moved, shaken maybe by the enormity of the task before him; tears flowed not only for the city that had failed to know what made for peace but Jesus, as on other occasions later in the week may well have contemplated his own vulnerability. Would he be spared by his Father, or this time would the sacrifice be made?

But he pressed on; in faith he pressed on, he didn’t turn back and another moment passed when the Jesus movement could have stalled but instead continued to be propelled from near obscurity to become the greatest in human history.

Bench at St John's College,Oxford

Bench at St John’s College,Oxford

Karen and I pulled up on the drive and noticed a pot plant to the right of the front door; we picked it up and admired, looked for a card to see who had sent it and was disappointed to discover that there wasn’t a card. So we couldn’t express our appreciation. We find it difficult to receive something without making an appropriate response.

There are some gifts we are thrilled to receive; even if we are embarrassed by the extravagance – deep down we are thrilled.

I cannot imagine how Jesus coped with Mary bathing his feet in expensive aromatic oil and then drying them with her hair. After all this must surely be one of the most sensuous acts in our scriptures.

Today if someone came to the communion table and instead of receiving bread and wine took out expensive hand cream and rubbed it into the minister’s hands we would wonder what was going on.

And what happens when the hand shake goes on longer than is comfortable?
Or the expression of appreciation is more than just a passing compliment?
Surely each of these scenarios are little in comparison to that intimate, sensual act in Bethany?

We are not always good at receiving a gift, particularly when it is a surprise or costly, when it touches us at a very deep level, when it is something we never previously imagined we needed and the giver displays a greater knowledge of us than we probably had of ourselves.

For us the greatest gift has to be time. Everything else depends upon it. Without time what else is there? We cannot experience anything in this life outside of time.

We owe God our appreciation for this great gift so we respond in hyper-activity. We sense guilt if we don’t. Every hour, every minute, every second has to be filled. Even our ‘day off’ has to be crammed with something. So special is time that it cannot be wasted.

Over recent years I have grown to appreciate that it is sometimes healthy to waste time.

I recall an Astro physicist saying that ‘The miracle isn’t that we exist, the miracle is that we are conscious of our existence’. Too much ministry is merely existence and little more, that isn’t a miracle, survival isn’t our vocation. If there are too few opportunities to become conscious of our existence, of our reason for being, of our vocation, the need to what appears to be wasting time in rest and recreation through reflection then when are we to be renewed?

Mary’s gift was extravagant. It was surprisingly so. The money really could have been given to the poor; Judas was right according to many in the Church; there are plenty of us and plenty of others who would prefer to send money to charity than make the sanctuary of the building spectacular – what I call the wow factor. I honestly believe that it is essential for people to walk into the sanctuary set aside for worship and be struck with the wow factor. If we can’t create that response through our buildings how can we ever conjure up awe of a God we cannot see? Instead we clutter the worship space with all sorts of tired-looking banners, a First Steps Roll that hasn’t had a name added for years, a chair that looks so out of place, a colour scheme long past its best and so on.

The poor are indeed always with us, interest in the church may not be.

Etty

Sin is rarely a reason for shame today – instead it tends to be a cause for excitement.

One head hunting agency wouldn’t engage someone if it was discovered that they hadn’t embarked on an affair because they believed it failed to show management initiative.

David and a host of other characters in scripture would have done well in our time; except of course they displayed the shame that is so often missing today.
Wrongly or otherwise Psalm 32 is often attributed to David – he of Bathsheba and Uriah fame or infamy.

But at least it highlights the reassurance that in our shame there is hope. However, there is little hope for the shameless. Their cold hearts grow colder still in their lack of empathy for the hurts they inflict. Their self-centredness is a cause for insensitivity.

According to another Psalmist (51.18) what God desires is not burnt offerings, the slaving away of Methodist ministers from dawn to dusk, racing round the faithful in an attempt to keep the wolf-like critics from the Manse door.

No our God prefers a contrite spirit and even a broken heart, not broken due to a failure at meeting the false expectations of those ignorant of the true meaning of our call, nor a contrite spirit because we failed to prepare the sermon until 8 am on Sunday morning.

No the broken heart of knowing how little we have cared for ourselves. The Russian Orthodox speak of ‘poustinia’ which means ‘emptiness’, or wilderness. We need to ensure that there is a poustinia in our hearts. Carlo Carretto left his role as head of Catholic Action in Italy to work alongside the Tuareg in North Africa said that we didn’t have to go out into the desert to experience wilderness we could create a wilderness in our homes, a place where we can retreat to focus upon God. And then there is hope; hope because then there is greater confidence in the fact we are doing what God desires and not what the people want.

Etty Hillesum was writing in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. Her own life was on occasions promiscuous. But the experience of wilderness changed her.

“Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.” ― Etty Hillesum

Caravaggio,Supper_at_Emmaus_National_Gallery,_London

I recall seeing for the first time Caravaggio’s supper at Emmaus. It stood out in the room where it is housed in the National Gallery. I remember being struck by the movement caused by the sudden realisation that this was the one whom the disciple had heard was dead; but more than that I was captivated by the ordinariness of the characters, they weren’t particularly handsome, far from it in fact, and their clothes were shabby, note the tare in the sleeve. Even Jesus had quite a forgettable demeanour, nothing exceptional at all; unlike of course the manner in which Caravaggio’s Romanesque contemporaries depicted this and similar scenes.

But that is what sets Caravaggio apart. While Rubens and the other Renaissance artists were presenting Jesus in perfect form, immaculate, stunningly beautiful in every way, Caravaggio, for those short seventeen years he was active as an artist, looked to those about him on the streets of Rome, Naples, Sicily and Malta. The faces and the bodies he replicated on canvas were those of the peasant and pauper, the artisan and the ordinary.

His message was quite simple, and one we can probably relate to better than some of Caravaggio’s contemporaries, that Christ and the Gospel of Christ are for the ordinary as well as the extraordinary.

At the time of the Early ChurchThere was a growing awareness that God was present in the ordinary. This had been part of the message of Jesus as interpreted in particular by Paul. He was grounded in a tradition that shied away from depicting the divine in human form. To this day you will not find human images in the stained glass windows of synagogues. But just as the spirit had become evident in firstly great leaders and kings, then priests and prophets, so now in the post Pentecost movement that was to become the Church, the spirit had become freely available for all.

Nevertheless for many their depictions of the divine had to be beautiful, it could be no other, ordinariness, let alone ugliness could not possibly represent the one who had been immaculately conceived.

But Caravaggio changed all that, right down to Stanley Spencer’s obese Jesus in the wilderness three centuries later. (Christ in the Wilderness)

This has shattering consequences even for us today. As those rooted in Wesleyan theology and tradition know that all are welcome at the table where a converting sacrament may be experienced.

It’s not just the apparently ugly of physical appearance who are welcome; it is also the unsavoury character, it is the abuser as well as abused, the sinner as well as the sinned against, otherwise the table would be a very lonely place for the president at the Eucharist.

But that sacrament of the ordinary may be experienced at tables other than those set aside for the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.
That sacrament may be realised in all its fullness over a shared butty in a works canteen or with the offering of a Big Mac to the guy sheltering in the subway.

Edward_Hopper-Nighthawks-1942

This is crazy.
The onlooker wouldn’t notice that the shepherd only had 99 and not 100 sheep.
The onlooker wouldn’t care if the woman has 9 and not 10 denarii.
The onlooker would think a Father mad if he spent his time looking out for the lad who had abandoned him for dead while his other son, who was a credit to him, went seemingly unappreciated.
But the shepherd isn’t an onlooker, nor is the woman or father.
They are the active participants; they are directly involved; they are the ones who have loved and lost.

Tennyson was right when he wrote the poem ‘In Memoriam’ to his late friend Arthur Henry Hallam, ‘tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’ but the loss seems that much greater the deeper the love.

Our world of virtual reality distances many further and further from the consequences of their actions.
We become onlookers, bystanders, voyeurs even. (cf Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks)

The community that was once abandoned for TV soaps, Coronation Street, Eastenders and the like, is now often only experienced through the internet.
We can say what we want and even display what we want with little awareness or knowledge, or care even, for the full impact of our outpourings.

Which one of us has not been the victim of a hostile e mail? And replied in kind?

So, for the voyeur, the 99 sheep left in the pen become the most important, the nine denarii are enough to keep the muesli on the breakfast table and the son whose salary goes into the bank each month are more important than the one who is no longer around but living the life of Riley.

In such an environment and because of the precarious nature of today’s Church, in steep decline in these islands, ministers become chaplains to the faithful, those folk, good though they are, whom we encounter Sunday by Sunday, are the ones upon whom we focus, the ones who take up our time and energies, rather than engage with the kids under the bus shelter, the guy with his flask who sits on the cemetery wall, the busker on the street, or the many people who have left the Church because we have not been adventurous enough in theology and spirituality, or so bogged down in maintenance.

The temptation is too strong for us to resist, the expectations upon us too great and we are made vulnerable by the re-invitation process, so vulnerable that we either only concern ourselves for the paid up members or rush into short-termism failing to lay down long term strategies. We are so concerned for the immediate that we fail to lay the groundwork for our successor.

And the bystander effect, or Genovese syndrome as social psychologists have termed it, is such that the greater the number of bystanders the less likelihood of someone intervening and doing something about the situation which they have become merely voyeurs of.

But for the one who loves, the one is close to the action and cannot stomach remaining a bystander, particularly if they are losing that which they love, perhaps through misjudgement, carelessness or even in the case of the Father through no fault of their own, that something or someone becomes the total focus of their attention.

The Times recently carried the heart-warming story of a homeless American man who had been rewarded on a global scale for his honesty.
Billy Ray Harris was asking passers-by for change on the streets of Kansas City when a woman accidentally dropped her diamond engagement ring into his coffee cup.
Mr Harris returned the ring to its distraught owner, Sarah Darling, when she came back looking for it the next day.
Miss Darling and her fiancé thanked him by setting up an online fund-raising page.
Donors from all over the world have contributed almost £100,000 – enough for Mr Harris to buy a three-bedroom house.

‘I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God,
I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.’ – Tennyson