A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Easter Is Not a Time of Comfort
April 13, 2003
May the God of everyday life surprise us at every turn.
I've got a friend; a best friend whose had her share of lovers and partners. She's a deeply passionate woman, she's engaging, and looks straight at you, deep into your eyes. But you know what? She has no idea of the colour of her lovers' eyes. I say, "How do you do that? How come you don't know?" "Oh come on Sande," she says with something of a twinkle, "I really do know. There's that Mediterranean one, I'm sure he's got brown eyes." Yeah right, I think; a guess of high probability rather than any actual knowing. When she's more serious, she tells me (and I believe her) that it's not the eyes she's gazing into but somewhere far deeper, far more significant than the surface. As she would say, there's always more going on here than you get at a first superficial glance.
In 1st century Palestine, Jesus had gathered a following with his teachings. He was something of a troublemaker, wanting an inversion of society so that the weak, the outcast and the poor were valued. In our run up to Easter we find this Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a colt. His disciples have great expectations of him. They have, one supposes, looked deep into his eyes and been engaged by something of his sincerity and passion so that they become not merely observers, but followers of his way. Like many dreamers for a new world order, their hopes are dashed when their hero is killed. But something happens in the subsequent story telling. The hero, dead and in his grave, comes to life. He is not just human anymore but has been transformed into a god.
According to the Jewish thinker, Martin Buber, Hasidic Judasim has an admirable passionate vision of the presence of the holy within the ordinary. They say it is in this world that we must find God. If God is absent, then it is into this world that we must bring God. In this model, we draw God into the world so that all evil will be stilled.
The writers of the gospels did exactly that. They took responsibility for the placement of God and drew God into their world as a corrective to what they saw as the evil in their time.
But ideas about God have a very limited shelf life. They are developed within a context, a particular space and time. And while they may have elements of transferable wisdom, what was relevant 2000 years ago is unlikely to be so today.
Here in the institutional church we ought to have noticed that most people in society are not the slightest bit interested in these stories of crucifixion and resurrection that we annually trot out. Does that mean the people who have left the church or have never bothered to join up are not interested in God? That is not my experience.
Throughout my theological training, I continually rejected the parish in favour of exploring the worker-priest model. These days I work in the health sector full time, hang around the edges of St Matthews and wonder a lot about who you are and what you are as a worker-priest in 2003. Where do you do it and what do you do? Who is your community? How does it all fit with the notion of a deconstructed, pared down, contemporary construction of God?
Another mate of mine said to me the other day, "Look Sande, what's the story I'm meant to tell people? They don't understand how come a minister hardly ever goes to church and into the bargain, doesn't even like it much." I don't know what story I'm meant to come up with yet, but what he's getting at is true. To me, church, in its most familiar forms, is almost completely irrelevant to my everyday life.
However, my calling is, beyond question, to be a priest. My struggle is in the expression of that. For I believe that God, that which connects us and makes us whole, those fragmentary glimpses of the holy, are not found in church but in the interconnectedness we are destined to explore in our daily interactions. You could say, when looking into each other's eyes, often in conversation over wine and food and at the point where you get past the superficial.
Just lately, I've been soaking up the atmosphere at a tiny little bar in a suburb not so far from here. I get a real buzz out of drinking chardonnay and chewing the fat about life with whoever ends up on the stool next to mine. And once they get over their disbelief that priests can have pink nail polish and an attitude, I find that people often want to talk about the stuff of life that goes beyond the banal. I can see it in their eyes.
My theological training was a lot about good news ideas that people who don't go to church can grasp. For instance, Neil Darragh, Catholic priest in Auckland offers us an ecotheological perspective. Instead of being concerned with the definition of God, Darragh positions God within the Earth pushing us to acknowledge our interdependence with this planet and consequently the emerging holiness of our context. Whereas, Lloyd Geering suggests that God can be defined as those ideals that call us on, things like justice, peace, truth and love.
Instinctively, many of the people I meet on neighbouring bar stools understand this modern theology though they wouldn't call it that. They know about the need to value the Earth, feel strongly about justice, have recently been concerned about peace, daily struggle with the torment of being honest with each other. And then there's love. Well, they know along with me that discovering what love means is perhaps the whole of our life's work. But you'd never see these suburban theologians in church, because there is an irrelevancy for them about what we do here.
Easter offers us, in the church, an exciting but dangerous challenge. If we are going to take seriously the responsibility for bringing God into the world, or even to be able to glimpse the contemporary holy, we must have the courage to be complicit in the Easter killing as well as the resurrection. There is a need for us, with honesty and transparency, to kill off the old God ideas that do not work for our society and our time. To let them fall into the Earth to rot, eventually providing the compost for the regeneration of fresh thinking that meets the burgeoning spiritual exploration found these days in almost every bar, café, magazine, movie, television programme and newspaper.
Then we might be able, with some integrity, to look deep into the eyes of the world and know there's more good news going on here than we might have first thought. To recognise, to name, to nurture and to encourage the spiritual quest that is just aching for expression. In this way we recognise the holy within the ordinary and assist with bringing relevant, contextual ideas of God into our contemporary world.
But here's my worker priest problem again. Where are we doing all this great stuff? I don't think it's going to happen in places like this. After all, nobody much comes to church to relax, kick back and chew the fat about life and its meaning. To do that I hang out with my mates in a bar or café. Funnily enough, I note that the gospels portray Jesus as dallying with his friends and assorted disreputable characters over wine and food. Perhaps, instead of expecting people to come worship at our altar, priests may have a hospitality role behind the bar encouraging the suburban theologians.
Are you ready for the rough ride? For Easter, done well, is not a time of comfort. Instead it ought to be a time of great challenge, a place of questioning, where we are prepared to face up to reality. A time to look deep into the eyes, to see past the surface and the superficial. To sit with the vulnerability and discomfort that that brings. A time to get to the guts of our lives and our theology, and to wonder, alive with hope and possibility: where to from here?