EASTER

SUFFERING IS THE PROMISE LIFE ALWAYS KEEPS!

cross 3

Victor Safonkin

Nowhere in the New Testament is there a description of the resurrection itself. That mighty act of God was unseen and it is indescribable. When the women reach the tomb, the resurrection has already taken place. What they find is the sepulchre empty and the stone rolled away. Their first reaction is not joy but perplexity. They have come to pay their last respected and they do not know what to make of this. They fear that the body of Jesus has been stolen in an act of desecration.   No one was expecting Jesus to rise from the dead. Many Jews believed in a general resurrection at the end of history but no one expected a particular resurrection within history.  In our own day such a notion seems strange, a sort of wishful thinking, as if we are whistling in the dark to assuage our fears in the face of the universal evidence of fallibility and death.  And yet at the same time we seem convinced that if we could just get enough power, know enough and expand beyond our limitations that we can fix it ourselves.

Jake is struggling through Grand Central Station in New York City with two huge and obviously heavy suitcases when a stranger walks up to him and asks “Have you got the time?”

Jake puts down the suitcases and glances at his wrist. “It’s a quarter to six,” he says.

“Hey, that’s a pretty fancy watch!” exclaims the stranger.

“Yeah, it’s not bad. Check this out” – and he shows the man a time zone display not just for every time zone in the world, but for the 86 largest cities. Jake hits a few buttons and from somewhere on the watch a voice says “The time is eleven ’til six'” in a very Texas accent. A few more buttons and the same voice says something in Japanese. Jake continues “I’ve put in regional accents for each city”.  The display is unbelievably high quality and the voice is simply astounding.

The stranger is struck dumb with admiration.

“That’s not all”, says Jake. He pushes a few more buttons and a tiny but very high-resolution map of New York City appears on the display. “The flashing dot shows our location by satellite positioning,” explains Jake.

“I want to buy this watch!” says the stranger.

“Oh, no, it’s not ready for sale yet; I’m still working out the bugs”, says the inventor.

“But look at this”, and he proceeds to demonstrate that the watch is also a very creditable little FM radio receiver with a digital tuner, a sonar device that can measure distances up to 125 meters, a pager with thermal paper printout and, most impressive of all, the capacity for voice recordings of up to 300 standard-size books, “though I only have 32 of my favorites in there so far” says Jake.

“I’ve got to have this watch!”, says the stranger.

“No, you don’t understand; it’s not ready -“

“I’ll give you $1000 for it!”

“Oh, no, I’ve already spent more than -“

“I’ll give you $5000 for it!”

“But it’s just not -“

“I’ll give you $15,000 for it!” And the stranger pulls out a checkbook.

Jake stops to think. He’s only put about $8500 into materials and development, and with $15,000 he can make another one and have it ready for merchandising in only six months.

The stranger frantically finishes writing the check and waves it in front of him.

“Here it is, ready to hand to you right here and now. $15,000. Take it or leave it.”

Jake abruptly makes his decision. “OK”, he says, and peels off the watch.

The stranger takes the watch and walks away.

“Hey, wait a minute”, calls Jake after the stranger. He points to the two huge, heavy suitcases, “Don’t forget your batteries.”

For every advance there are unforeseen consequences.  In all truth humanity is unlikely to be powerful enough, know enough or become immortal on our own terms.

It is done another way in the Divine economy. John records Jesus saying, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies it yields a rich harvest.” These words of Jesus define the paschal mystery – the mystery of faith; namely, in order to come to fuller life and spirit we must constantly be letting go of our present life.

There are two kinds of death and two kinds of life.

Two kinds of death

There is terminal death and there is paschal death. Terminal death is a death that ends life and ends possibilities. Paschal death, like terminal death, is real. However, paschal death is a death that, while ending one kind of life, opens the person undergoing it to receive a deeper and richer form of life. The image of the grain falling into the ground and dying so as to produce new life is an image of paschal death.

There are also two kinds of life:

There is resuscitated life and there is resurrected life. Resuscitated life is when one is restored to one’s former life and health, as is the case with someone who has been clinically dead and is brought back to life. Resurrected life is not this. It is not a restoration of one’s old life but the reception of a radically new life.

Jesus did not get his old life back. He received a new life – a richer life and one within which he would not have to die again. The mystery of faith, the paschal mystery, is about paschal death and resurrected life. The resurrection is the triumph of life over death. God is the God, not of the dead, but of the living. Therefore his Christ must be found, not among the dead, but among the living. The last word lies always with God and life.   John Polkinghorne, in Searching For Truth, Meditations on Science and Faith, writes that the resurrection of Jesus is a triple vindication.

  • Vindication of Jesus himself – A priest friend of mine was once confronted by woman, upset by all the controversy in the Church. She said to my friend, “If Jesus knew how his Church had turned out he would turn over in his grave!”  All too often we live as if that were true.  Good Friday marks a failure. The death on the Cross of a well-intentioned but ineffectual man.  “He saved others let him self himself,” they had said.  But he did not save himself. He experienced the consequences terminal death. He was really dead. But now it is revealed that the reports of his death, though true, were not the end of the story.  He is vindicated. He death is a paschal death. His message of love and life through surrender is vindicated.
  • Vindication of God – Someone once caught W. C. Fields, the great comic actor, reading the Bible. Mr. Fields was not a believer so the man was puzzled at the sight. “What are you doing the man asked?” W. C. Fields replied, “Looking for loopholes.” The good news, Mr. Fields is that you don’t need loopholes. God has acted. Despite the appearances on Good Friday, God did not abandon the one man who wholly trusted himself to him, and stood by him in death and beyond death. God proved himself indeed to be the God of the living.  God is vindicated by the resurrection
  • Vindication of human hopes. It is almost to much to hope for.  It is like awakening from a nightmare and with a start realizing that we are safe after all when we thought all was lost. The old barriers, the hard crust of alienation that grew around the human heart is pierced by the power of new life. God loves us. As Polkinghorne says,  “The intuition deep in our hearts that life has a meaning and fulfillment which death will not be allowed to frustrate, the truth of the assurance that came to Julian of Norwich that in the end all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well. Death is real and a real ending, but it is not the ultimate end, for only God is ultimate. The last word on human destiny does not lie with the fact of death but with the greater fact of a faithful Creator and a merciful Redeemer.  If we matter to God now, as we certainly do, then we shall matter to God forever. At death, we shall not be cast aside like broken pots on some cosmic rubbish heap. Human beings are not naturally immortal, but the faithful God will give us a destiny beyond our deaths. As Christians we know that this is not a mere theoretical possibility, for we have the resurrection of Our Lord as the foretaste and guarantee, enacted within history, of the destiny that awaits us all beyond history.”

Alleluia, Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia, Alleluia.

The Sunday After All Saints Day

All Saints – All Souls & The Communion of the Saints
November 6, 2016

All Saints on November 1 is the day of remembrance of all the saints, those whose lives display pronounced activity of the Holy Spirit, but who did not have a particular day set aside for them, there being only so many days after all. The next day is All Souls Day. What is the difference? On All Souls, we honor all the faithful dead of the Christian faith.

all-souls-day

On Wednesday, November 2, 2016, at ten minutes after noon a congregation gathered at the Saint John’s Cemetery to celebrate Eucharist. As traffic raced by on Central Avenue and planes roared overhead in the clear fall air folk joined saying their prayers and remembering the faithful departed.

The ancient Romans buried their dead outside their cities in necropolis (Greek) for cities of the dead. It was in such a place that Saint Peter was buried by the side of the road across the street from the Circus of Nero. This site lies beneath the Basilica of Saint Peter in Vatican City. We do not call our place of the dead a necropolis rather we use the word cemetery a word also coming from the Greek that means a place of sleep. The early Christians were making a theological distinction between those believed to be dead as a “doornail” and those who fell asleep in Christ in the hope of the resurrection and those who have no such belief.

Also, the Romans had a custom called a refrigerium, a memorial meal eaten at the graveside of the person that was replaced by the Eucharist over time in Christian practice. We gathered at Saint John’s Cemetery as heirs of hundreds of generations of Christians who had gone before us, who in their generation prayed for the dead who die in the Lord and who have in their time joined those who sleep awaiting the Lord’s return.

john-polkinghorne

I return again and gain to the eloquent words of John Polkinghorne in his book, Faith of a Physicist, “The resurrection of Jesus is the vindication of the hopes of humanity. We shall all die with our lives to a greater or lesser extent incomplete, unfulfilled, unhealed. Yet there is a profound and widespread human intuition that in the end, all will be will. … The resurrection of Jesus is the sign that such human hope is not delusory. …This is so because it is part of Christian understanding that what happened to Jesus within history is a foretaste and guarantee of what will await all of us beyond history, ‘For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be make alive,’ (I Cor. 15.22).

The proper preface for the dead at the Eucharist sums up the hope of all who believe, “Through Jesus Christ our Lord; who rose victorious from the dead and comforts us with the blessed hope of everlasting life. For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.”

Peace,
John W. Sewell+

How The Resurrection Makes Sense

JOHN POLKINGHORNE

How to understand the Christian hope of the resurrection of the body against the background of modern science? A physicist and Fellow of the Royal Society, who is an Anglican priest, explains how he brings his scientific researches to bear on his Easter faith. John Polkinghorne was formerly president of Queens’ College Cambridge.

John PolkinghorneWHAT is a human person? A smart tap on the head with a hammer will show that we depend in an essential way on our bodies. So are we simply bodies, merely material beings? What about the soul?  In the history of much Christian thinking, and in much popular piety, people have thought of themselves as if they were apprentice angels. In that case, the “real me” would be a spiritual component, trapped in a body but awaiting release at death. Today, that is an increasingly difficult belief to hold. Studies of brain damage and the effects of drugs show how dependent our personalities are on the state of our bodies. Charles Darwin has taught us that our ancestry is the same as that of the other animals. Earth was once lifeless and life seems to have emerged from complex chemical interactions. Many scientists think that we are nothing but collections of molecules and they write popular books to assert this belief.

Yet that also is a pretty odd thing to believe. Could just a bunch of chemicals write Shakespeare or compose Handel’s Messiah, or discover the laws of chemistry, for that matter? There is something more to us than the merely material. Yet, whatever that extra something is, it is surely intimately connected with our bodies. We are a kind of package deal, mind and body closely related and not wholly detachable from each other. It is a puzzle.

Strangely enough, a clue about how to wrestle with the problem may be offered to us by modern science itself. For a new kind of scientific paradigm is in the making. It is called “complexity theory”; so far it has only reached the natural history stage of studying particular examples.

The Blue Apocalypse - Aaron Arkkelin

The Blue Apocalypse – Aaron Arkkelin

Physicists naturally started by considering the simplest systems available. After all, they will be the easiest to understand. Recently, the use of high-speed computers has extended our scientific range. As complex systems began to be explored, an unexpected realization dawned. Very often these turn out to have a quite simple overall behaviour, ordered in some striking pattern.

Heating water in a saucepan can provide an example. If the heat is applied gently, the water circulates from the bottom in a remarkable way. Instead of just flowing about any old how, it forms a pattern of six-sided cells, rather like a honeycomb. This is an astonishing phenomenon. Trillions of molecules have to collaborate and move together in order to generate the pattern. The effect is a simple example of a new aspect of nature that scientists are just beginning to learn about.

Traditionally, physicists thought in terms of the bits and pieces that make up a complex system. The exchanges of energy between these bits and pieces look extremely complicated. It turns out, however, that if you think about the system as a whole, there can be these remarkably orderly patterns of overall behaviour.

In other words, there are two levels of description. One involves energy and bits and pieces. The other involves the whole system and its pattern. At this second level, using computer-speak, we could say that what we need to think about is the information that specifies the pattern.

 Saint Thomas Aquinas

Saint Thomas Aquinas

We have become used to the concept of cyberspace – the realm of information accessible through our computers. That world is one of human contrivance, a world of virtual reality. We are less used to the idea, in fact because it is so unconsciously familiar, that we live in a world of intrinsic information-generating capacity, the world of actual reality and so the world of God’s creation.

We human beings are immersed in this realm of being in which energy and informational pattern complement each other. It is a world altogether richer than its pale shadow in cyberspace, for people are much more than computers made of meat. Our powers of thinking, including our access to meaning and to mathematical truths that cannot be established within the confines of the purely logical formulation we may be considering, show that we transcend the limitations of the merely computational.

One might ask what all this has to do with the human soul and coherent hope. What-ever the soul may be, it is surely the “real person”, linking what we are today with what we were in the past. That real me is certainly not the matter of my body, for that is changing all the time, through eating and drinking, wear and tear. We have very few atoms in our bodies that were there five years ago. What provides the continuity is surely the almost infinitely complex pattern in which that matter is organised. That pattern is the real person, and when we talk about the soul, that is what we are referring to. The infant science of complexity theory encourages us to take this kind of thought very seriously.

SUCH a manner of thinking need hardly come as a surprise to Christians. After all, the ancient Hebrews certainly did not think of human beings as apprentice angels. They took the package deal view that we are bodies full of life. St Thomas Aquinas thought the same. He helped the Church to free itself from the straitjacket of Platonic thinking imposed upon it through the great influence of St Augustine, with its reliance on a dualistic picture of soul and body as distinct entities. Instead, Aquinas made use of the then newly recovered insights of Aristotle. In Aristotelian thinking, the soul is the “form” (that is, the pattern) of the body.

Saint Augustine of Hippo

Saint Augustine of Hippo

In these terms, we can understand in a coherent way the great Christian hope of a destiny beyond death. That hope is to be expressed in the classic terms of death and resurrection, and not in spiritualist terms of “survival”. Death is real and a real ending, but it is not the ultimate end, for only God is ultimate. The last word on human destiny does not lie with the fact of death but with the greater fact of a faithful Creator and a merciful Redeemer.

Of course, as far as embodiment in the matter of this world is concerned, the individual pattern that is the human soul will be dissolved at death. It makes sense, however, to believe that God will hold that pattern in the divine memory and then reimbody it in the environment of the new creation at the resurrection of the dead.

Our real hope that death is not the end has to depend on our belief in the trustworthiness of God. Appeal to that belief was exactly the way in which Jesus countered the disbelief of the Sadducees (Mk 12: 18-27). He reminded them that God was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The patriarchs mattered to God once and so they must matter to God for ever. Israel’s God is “God, not of the dead but of the living”. If we matter to God now, as we certainly do, then we shall matter to God for ever. At death, we shall not be cast aside like broken pots on some cosmic rubbish heap. Human beings are not naturally immortal, but the faithful God will give us a destiny beyond our deaths.

Jesus teaching at the Temple - James Tissot

Jesus teaching at the Temple – James Tissot

We can take with all due seriousness all that science can tell us about ourselves and this world and still believe that God will remember the patterns that we are and will recreate them when we are resurrected into the life of the world to come. As Christians we know that this is not a mere theoretical possibility, for we have the resurrection of Our Lord as the foretaste and guarantee, enacted within history, of the destiny that awaits us all beyond history.

THE DAY OF PENTECOST

 

Pentecost el greco

Pentecost – El Greco

Today we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit fifty days after the Resurrection. The reading from the Acts of the Apostles describes the day of Pentecost and the indwelling of God’s Spirit in a new way, more continuous and more manifest than had been experienced before. The ancient Aramaic translation of the Pentecost story puts it this way, “And as the days of Pentecost were fulfilled, they gathered together as one. And there was from the stillness of heaven a sound like the stirring of Spirit, and the whole house was filled with it, where they were staying.” The spirit then fell upon them as tongues of fire. After Pentecost the word, God, as they had defined it, was no longer adequate to describe what the Christians were experiencing. As John Polkinghorne puts it, [The Faith of a Physicist, pg. 146] “The early Church felt that it experienced divine power present within it with a peculiar intensity and personality.”

They looked into the Hebrew scriptures for ways to explain what had happened.  The language of spirit (ruah) was used in the Old Testament in relation to creation (Genesis 1: 2f.) The Spirit brooded over the waters of chaos in creation. In both Greek and Hebrew, the word for spirit means also ‘breath’ or ‘wind.’ This is the sense of today’s Gospel reading. On Easter afternoon, the disciples were huddled behind closed doors for fear of the authorities.  Jesus came and stood among them and showed his wounds. And as the disciples rejoiced he said twice “Peace be with you!” Then he said, “As the Father has sent Me, so I also send you.” Then, when He had said this, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This verse can be translated, “Receive the holy breath.” He then says, “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven him, but if you do not forgive someone, his sins are retained.”

Jesus breathes on them giving the Holy Spirit to the disciples. They had been behind closed doors for fear of the Jews. He tells them that they may forgive sins and retain them. I have been wondering? Is Jesus telling the church to be the moral police as has so often been the interpretation of this passage? Or is he saying in another way what he said in so many other places, namely, that we are to forgive everyone?  If we retain sins is it because we can choose whether or not to forgive OR because we are unwilling or unable to forgive?  Did our Lord not tell Peter to forgive infinitely?  If we do not forgive is it because we are able to inhale the holy breath?

I am learning that deep breathing and fear are not compatible. Years ago and far far away I studied  Yoga.  The word comes from the Sanskrit and means union, from the words “to join”. Yoga is a technique for promoting “mindfulness.” — to become still and in that stillness to awaken and become conscious.  To breathe and stretch promotes consciousness of one’s body one is present in one’s body.  The yoga tradition says that each human being has a certain number of breaths to breathe in their lifetime. To breathe rapidly and shallowly is to waste our very life. Although I doubt there are a set number of breaths per life, shallow rapid breathing does not promote health.  Is the same true in the life of faith?

It is difficult to panic when breathing from the diaphragm.  When we panic we breath faster and more often, which in turn promotes more fear and less thinking. When we are afraid we have more trouble forgiving than when we are centered. The gospel tells us that perfect or mature love casts out fear.  When we are centered we can choose to love rather than become our fear. After Jesus breathed on the apostles they were no longer afraid. They went into the streets proclaiming the good news of God in Christ to the very people from whom they had earlier hidden.

Like deep breathing, the presence of the Holy Spirit is incompatible with paralyzing fear. So it stands to reason to me that where we are afraid is the very place the Spirit is likely to be manifested.  Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco says, “The Spirit is present in three open spaces in our lives: in the unpredictable, in the place of risk and in those areas over which we have no control.”

We do not know what is going to happen. Not long ago I read an essay by Umberto Ecco  where he speaks of flying…

A century or so ago the airship was invented. What a wonderful thing people thought, to be able to travel through the air just like a bird. And then it was discovered that the airship was a dead-end invention. The invention that survived was the areoplane. When the first airships appeared, people thought there would subsequently be a linear progression, advancement to more refined, swifter models. But this did not happen. Instead, at a certain point there was a lateral development.

Heinderberg Crash - Sven Sauer

Heinderberg Crash – Sven Sauer

After the Hindenburg went up in flames in 1937, [killing 35 people], things began to move in a different direction. At one time it seemed logical that you had to be lighter than air in order to fly in the sky – but then it turned out that you had to be heavier than air to fly more efficiently. The moral of the story is that in both philosophy and the sciences [and I would add life] you must be very careful not fall in love with your own airship.

We must resist the temptation of thinking that we should know more than we can know. Life is unpredictable.  But the Spirit is always present to guide us into all truth. If we breathe deeply of the breath of life that Jesus gave the disciples we can with courage live in the open place we call unpredictable.

To be alive is to risk.  Yet we are so afraid of risking.  We run the numbers, buy insurance, take polls as if by some incantation or marshaling of force we shall at last be secure.  But it is an illusion. As Helen Keller, a woman who knew a good bit about challenge once wrote,

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

Let us go on the adventure of our lives. The Spirit is always present in the open place we call risk.

The promise of our Lord is the gift of the Holy Spirit, the heavenly dove, the bird of open spaces, of the unpredictable, the risky and uncontrollable. Our part is to become quiet and be still, facing our fear that the love of God will be manifest in us.  Yoga or whatever it takes.  Wendell Berry speaks of the process in a poem from SABBATHS.

  • I go among the trees and sit still,
  • All my stirring becomes quiet
  • around me like circles on water.
  • My tasks lie in their places
  • where I left them, asleep like cattle.
  • Then what is afraid of me comes
  • and lives a while in my sight.
  • What it fears in me leaves me,
  • and the fear of me leaves it.
  • It sings, and I hear its song.
  • Then what I am afraid of comes.
  • I live for a while in its sight.
  • What I fear in it leaves it,
  • and the fear of it leaves me.
  • It sings, and I hear its song.
  • After days of labor,
  • mute in my consternations,
  • I hear my song at last,
  • and I sing it. As we sing
  • the day turns, the trees move.

Wendell Berry.

fear prevents the breathing that produces song.

Someone once asked a famous Mississippi doctor what she was going to do in the face of a crisis and she said, “I’m going to breathe in and I’m going to breathe out.”  In matters of faith and the spirit it is the least and the most any of us can do.