Friday, 14 April 2017

Empty tomb, empty churchy words?

Easter Sunday. Matthew 28:1-10, Colossians 3:1-4

"So, if you have been raised with Christ..." (Colossians 3:1a)

What in the world does "raised with Christ mean?" Seriously, how do you explain it?

I've been a student of theology for most of my life, and it will take me awhile to think this through so I can articulate it clearly and simply. It's one thing to talk about this on Easter Sunday to pews full of Christians, but how would I explain myself to my neighbours?

"Risen with Christ" is insider language, churchy words that are easily as empty as the Easter morning tomb unless we know what we mean when we say them. There are a lot of churchy words being tossed around this weekend, and we assume those of us in the church understand them. Maybe we do, but even with my M.Div. and years of church work, I still struggle with the language of blood, justification, sanctification, substitution....etc...used at Easter. They are not the words I use everyday and it's hard to know how they are relevant outside of the church doors. Some of the language is outdated, but my problem is a bit more basic than that. I don't tend to like language that is broadly general and avoids specifics and explanations. I need my expression of faith to be relevant. I need understandable and relate-able ways to express why I believe what I do, who I believe Jesus was and is, and why it matters.

I don't think it should be so difficult to explain ourselves, sometimes we make faith needlessly confusing. It's easier to co-opt "churchy" words than it is to find an authentic and simple way to explain ourselves. Those churchy words seldom make any sense to someone who didn't grow up in a church-and I wonder if they really make sense to church folks either.

Ever had a teacher get after you for not using your own words to explain a concept? I feel a bit like I am doing that, but I am lecturing myself as much as I am my fellow "churchies."

A few years ago, I spent a week as a chaplain at Blue Bronna, a horse-back riding camp that exists to introduce people to God in a natural setting. It was a mother-daughter camp and I've never spoken to a more diverse group. The age range was from 8-69, some were long time Christians, some had never opened a Bible. Some were happy and healthy, others were in the midst of traumatic family crisis. I had carefully prepared what I thought were simple devotionals. It didn't work, it couldn't because we shared no common story and attention spans ranged as widely as the ages and emotional states. I had to switch gears. At the last campfire, the staff took the children to do some age-appropriate Bible stories so I had the adults to myself. I very simply shared my story of faith. No churchy words, no complex theology, just why do I believe there is a God. It boiled down to simple things. I can't look at creation without believing in a Creator. I believe that love is the greatest power in the world and for me, another name for love is God. Because we are creations of love, I believe there is hope for fixing the broken things. The best story I have ever heard to express the way that creation, love and hope work is that of Jesus. When I hear the story of Jesus, I am invited to be an active, conscious part of sharing that hope and love and joining with the Creator now and forever.

That was it. Then we talked and shared experiences when/if we felt God was near, when life made us ask deep questions, where we search for answers.

That experience of having to make my explanations really simple was helpful for me. I don't want convoluted big words that feel empty. I want to hear why something matters right now and why I should care about it.

So, back to my first question. what does "raised with Christ" mean? Obviously we are speaking about an event that occurred thousand of years ago, so what does it mean now?

I go to the story of Jesus. When I read any story, I find myself identifying with the characters somehow-trying to understand what they do and why they do it. Jesus inspires me. I love the way he asks questions, loves people, upholds the traditions that are good for the people, and challenges those that are not. He refuses to back away from doing what is right, even when he knows it will not be popular. He gives us a way to live that builds up communities, feeds the hungry, heals the sick, touches the untouchables, and teaches the hungry-minded. This is the way to conquer sin and trouble in the long run. This is the way of sacrifice-Jesus' love for others gets him killed, but the story doesn't end in the tomb. God raises Jesus, love never dies.

To be raised with Christ, we have to die with him first. That means following in his footsteps, with an attitude of loving others, willing to heal and be healed, to learn and teach, to be fed and to feed. To devote our lives to love, to trying to do what God wants-to act in love toward God and each other. It is a life of giving and of self-sacrifice (not the dour, grumpy kind of sacrifice, but a willing generosity toward others). When we "die" to the world of selfishness we are truly alive, "raised" with Jesus, to be a part of what God is doing in life, in death, in forever.

That's my attempt to say it simply. When I share my faith with my non-churchy friends, I don't want churchy words. In fact, the best and simplest way to explain "risen with Christ" to them doesn't start with words. It starts when I show them love-the Jesus living in me. When they see me living with joy, hope, and purpose and we share with each other, that is when I understand what it is to be risen with Christ.

Note: For the record, I like big words. I like churchy words when I am studying and reading-if they are used well and backed up with practical examples. Deep thinking and hard questions are important. I like the academic stuff, when I'm with academics. I need that deep level of discourse for my own learning...but it's also so much more important to keep it real and relevant to regular people when I speak than it is to preach it to the 'choir.'

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Mixed up and trepidatious

Trepidation.

It is the perfect word for Palm Sunday.The account of the "Triumphal Entry", the celebration of Jesus, does not soften what is to come. We know the rest of the story. It starts with hope and moves through treachery and despair before hope is rekindled. On Palm Sunday, for those of us who know the story, our hope is mixed. We know that in a few days we will be in the uncomfortable part of the story, the part that makes us wonder about humanity and about our complicity with evil.

For preaching Palm Sunday, the lectionary suggests either the donkey and palm branches of Matt; 21: 1-11, or the Matt. 26:14-27 story of the last supper which features the plot to betray Jesus. I don't want to focus exclusively on either the story of joyful hope, or the darkness of treachery. Both are present and important to the story and wholeness of faith as we approach the core story of Christianity, the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Another reading for Palm Sunday is Philippians 2:5-11 which contains the familiar words; "let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus..." In a 'working preacher" post, Melinda Quivik does a great job of combining the joy and sorrow of Palm Sunday. She says;

"The brilliance and wisdom of Phi. 2:5-11 becomes especially poignant when the worship honors both the pageantry of the palm waving and the darkness of the passion celebrated together on one day, for the admonition to live in the mind of Christ Jesus entails both adulation and sorrow."

What a mixed up and "trepidatious" (yes, I made up the word) time in our church season. We want to celebrate the coming of a gentle king who upsets the powers that oppress, but unlike the crowds who welcomed Jesus on the donkey, we know that the way he upsets the system will get him killed. We know he is misunderstood and that he is being cheered as he goes to his torture and death. We also know that we are invited to "have the mind of Christ", to be involved in upsetting today's oppressive systems by following his example of love and self-sacrifice. It is daunting, disturbing, and yet because we know the ending, it is also amazing and a cause for deep hope.

Rob Fringer, a lecturer at Nazarene Theological college in Brisbane, Australia, says that Paul invites the Philippians to consider a God who yields power rather than wields power. This must have been received with mixed feelings by that early church. They were being persecuted, so the idea that their saviour was also weak according to the world's standards might have made them feel understood and encouraged in new ways of being strong. Or perhaps it made them feel hopeless. Possibly they were encouraged to continue in the hope of resurrection beyond earthly struggle. Likely all of these feelings were present.

As we move through scripture and worship toward the events of Easter, it is good to be a part of both the joy and trepidation of the central story of our faith. Our joy comes from God, a God of peace who is the answer to and the salvation from the mess humanity makes in our striving for power. Our despair is real, the Bible story shows us how humanity failed and our newspapers show us how the failure continues. Then, as now, the ultimate hope is in a God who continues to love, re-create, and resurrect-always inviting us to be a part of the story that ends in life.