Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Reflections from The Hill – Heartburn and Aliens (Luke 24.36-48)

I don’t forget my Old Man’s Medicine often but, in the fullness of time, each of us has memory lapses that have nothing to do with age. I know it when it happens – that is, the absence of medicine, not memory – because my heart feels as if it’s jumping out of my chest and my mouth goes really dry.

It’s nice, then, to read something about hearts in this week’s Gospel. There’s pounding hearts, anxious hearts set in the world of burning hearts. It’s quite a collection, really, and it’s not a Reading for the faint-hearted, either.

The words of the story are simple enough; they invite us to encounter the living Christ in a place that many of us struggle to live out of: the heart.

This almost always means us making a transition from our head downward, because belief is not a matter of the mind but of the heart, a fact that Richard Dawkins and his mates seem not to appreciate.

Cleopas and his friend have made the journey back to Jerusalem after The Encounter on the road to Emmaus. They’re safe now, in the presence of ‘the eleven and their companions…’, or so they think.

Empirical evidence is all around them: the encounter with Jesus, the breaking of bread, even the road itself and, of course, their friends. Carefully intertwined with this information is the heart of the matter, a yearning, a hunger for more.

They’ve already failed once to recognise Jesus and they’re anxious for there not to be a repeat performance. The debris of doubt can so quickly impede the fervour of faith.

On any Sunday morning, we will find the modern disciples coming through church doors, struggling with many of these same things: yearning for more, looking for relevance, hungering for hope, fearful that they might miss Him again.

Often pre-occupied, too busy or too unprepared to actually encounter anything, let alone God, these travellers on Life’s journey can only cope with facts; the world of mystery and meaning is far, far away.

They love to debate the idea of God but fail to get the message that a pounding and a burning heart is the first thing on the agenda if people want an encounter. It’s behind a lot of the reason why Pentecostal churches attract so many: God is accessible.

Again and again in Scripture, we read of pounding hearts become burning hearts and burning hearts become loving hearts. The heart of God continues to beat and it’s plain to see the reason. Why, then, do we continue to be so heady?

To put it another way, how fleshy is Jesus in our congregations? How persuasive are we? How passionate are we in our preaching? How much do our hearts burn within us when the scriptures are opened to us? How often do we recognise the stranger as the living Christ in our midst?

In some (many?) of our churches there are no strangers, just collections of like-minded people, friends, and that’s sad. It’s sad when our Bishop knows, pretty much, the name of everyone whom comes to church.

It’s on the walk to Emmaus that Jesus is first recognised as a stranger. He’s not a friend, not yet at least. The Greek word for stranger (looks like paroikos = one outside, or beside, the household) has a variety of meanings, ranging from stranger to exile and alien. It’s the root from which ‘parish’ and ‘parochial’ come.

Alien is an ugly word. It means not only that the person is an unknown, a stranger, but that s/he is different and, therefore, do not really belong.

On the way to Emmaus those sad, dejected disciples mistook Jesus for an alien. How did they make such a mistake? Was it because he appeared to be ignorant of current events and so betrayed himself as an outsider?

The appearance of an alien, however, is not just a contradiction which the believer has to deal with and to overcome in order to encounter Jesus; it’s actually an appropriate name.

Being an alien is part of who He is, someone whose own people have been pilgrims and wanderers on the earth, almost from Day 1 and, to this day, are still Dispersed.

Second, though the world came into being through Him, Jesus was not of this world; He came from above; he was an alien in his own country and “His own people did not accept him” (Jn 1.11).

Jesus, then, is an alien because he is not bound to one culture or region. He’s Jesus wherever He is. That’s why you don’t have to travel to the holy land to see Him: he is made known in the breaking of the bread and the burning hearts.

The early Church was not only ‘ek-kleiso’, as we discovered once before; they were ‘par-oikia’, parochial, a community of aliens, who gather to commemorate the death of another alien who died outside the gate.

Being a stranger is part of a Christian’s DNA; we’re not simply resident aliens here but, we’re an assembly of people who have no true citizenship on this blue planet. Our citizenship is ‘in heaven’. That makes us ‘illegal aliens’.

So perhaps "alien" is not such an ugly word after all. Maybe if I walked with some other illegal aliens for a while, listened to what they say and invited them to stay with me, my eyes too might be opened and I too might believe that the Lord has risen indeed.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Reflections from The Hill – Coming Out (John 20.19-31)

On every side, almost, we’re being assailed by stories of people coming out. This phenomenon could be regarded as the new vogue, the new table conversation piece but, in the church, since it’s also called resurrection, I don’t suppose it’ll make the social pages.

John sets up the whole thing for us. In fact, by the time we get to this week’s version, there already have been two other comings-out: Lazarus was the first, then the one about The Man himself, and we’re still getting over the chocolate of the latter, I suspect.

Today’s event is more like a coming-in than a coming-out but, in the long run, I guess the direction doesn’t matter all that much. The point is fairly obvious: something spectacular has occurred and the scars are still visible. Moreover, we want to check them out.

It’s the same for everyone: there’s something about scars that define who we are as a person, what risks we’ve taken, what things matter to us, what gifts we’ve given, what sacrifices we’ve made.

John gives us a reminder, too, that Jesus’ own identity is now defined by the sacrifice he made for us. The scars of that Friday afternoon are the ones he bore on his hands and side, probably for the rest of his life. They were certainly on Thomas’ fact check-out list.

However, rather than running the risk of either demonising or sanctifying Thomas and his actions (plenty of people have done both before this, and with greater alacrity), I want to settle on another, deeper, scar that Jesus wore and continues to wear.

That scar centres around the scene about which we are reading, the setting of today’s Gospel. “The doors were shut …” it says. Shut, the opposite of ‘open’.

Here they were, God’s chosen ones, locked behind closed doors, suffering post-traumatic stress, scared stiff because of the Jews (methinks John’s anti-Semitism slip is showing here.)

John is presenting us with a place we are not expecting; a closed room and a community closed by fear; here John shows us what such a family, perhaps one with closed minds, looks like. It’s scary and, at the same time, awful to see what fear does to people.

Then I started digging around, and discovered that the word for ‘closed’ in Greek – it looks like ‘kleiso’ – has some links with the Greek word for ‘church’ (‘ek-klesia’). The difference is that ‘church’ is ex – or un – closed (i.e. ‘open’). Hmmm.

The “Open Society” of Greek democracy was one of the greatest gifts this culture gave to the world. Not closed but unsealed, outted, free. It was a concept that celebrated freedom from systems of dominance and oppression.

It’s amazing, then, that the Church Fathers (and Mothers) chose ‘ekklesia’ – called out, not closed - to describe the community of Jesus’ followers. In this upper room encounter, it was clear that The Man was not to be cocooned by fear. Neither were the disciples to be.

Have you ever thought that that must be why Jesus breathed his life-giving spirit breath onto (or into) them? It was as if he was saying to them “You are not to remain closed (’kleiso’), you are ‘ecclesia’. Come out!”

I wonder if the somewhat ghettoed and fearful church of 21st century can still feel the coming-out breath on its cheeks? I have no doubt that the risen Jesus is still breathing on us. Closed doors don’t stop him.

Breathing isn’t the challenge of ecclesia, although sometimes I wonder. It isn’t the doors, either, as we have seen. I suspect it’s what’s between our ears and in our affections that’s the challenge.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Reflections from The Hill - Easter

As I said last week, there may not be a Reflection the week. There won’t be. Instead, I send you a memorable quote from the Rev’d Peter Marshall (“A Man Called Peter”) in honour of Easter.

The stone was rolled away from the door,
not to permit Christ to come out,
but to enable the disciples to go in."
- Peter Marshall

My prayer for you is that the joy of the Resurrection will be yours this year in fresh and exciting ways.