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The Easter Prison Break

April 29, 2007

Glynn Cardy

Easter 4


“I’ve got a river of life flowing out through me…” goes the song, “opens prison doors sets the captives free…” The tune gets inside one’s head, and the theology isn’t too bad either. The truth of the resurrection is found not so much in a historic time and place but in the present reality of breaking open prison doors and setting captives free. Jesus is risen when we break the chains of oppression. Jesus stays dead when life and liberty are locked up.


Our first reading this morning was Anthony De Mello’s parable of the fire-maker. The fire-maker is the Christ figure bringing light and warmth to those without. He is not concerned about personal glory but simply wants to share what he knows with others. In the first village, once he has taught the art of fire, he disappears. He does not want to patent it, profit from it, or use it to exercise power. Such was Jesus’ approach.


However in the second village the leaders know about power. They think everyone is competing for it, and therefore the stranger is a competitor. The knowledge the fire-maker has fuels his popularity and threatens their own. So, in the time-honoured tradition of weak people in leadership they turn on the stranger and dispose of him. The leaders then create a new religion out of his memory, while making sure people forget the radical way that could bring light and warmth to all.


De Mello’s parable is a critique of religion’s propensity to protect itself from new insights, especially those outside the elite’s control. Bad religion spins the stranger into a sinner or a saviour rather than takes seriously anything revolutionary the stranger did or said. Bad religion is not good news for the powerless but business as usual for the powerful.


The second reading this morning, the Road to Emmaus, is likewise about the gifts that a stranger can bring, igniting life and hope. It is about the reality of encountering the strange God of Jesus.


The Emmaus stranger was not the resuscitated Jesus with a wig and makeup on. Cleopas and his friend weren’t miraculously deceived or blinded. No, the flesh and blood man called Jesus was dead. What wasn’t dead was God. And it was through this stranger that the travelling duo was to discover that the God of Jesus lived on.


Not all strangers of course are godly messengers. The point of the Emmaus fable is not to deify strangers but to proclaim the truth that God has broken out of the prison of our presuppositions and is present, even when we least expect it, inspiring us to act.


Like with the fire-maker the Emmaus story is about the stranger bringing truth and light. Cleopas and friend felt their hearts ‘burn within them’ – not from indigestion – but from being engaged in their minds and hearts. When the stranger blessed and broke bread, the truth of the resurrection dawned. It was not Jesus in a strange disguise that met their eyes but a stranger in whom was the living Christ. Together their belief in life, hope, and transformation was re-kindled.


The boundary of Jesus’ dead body was broken on Easter Sunday. All those appearance stories of the Risen Christ being unrecognisable to his close friends, walking through walls, vanishing and reappearing, and, like with Saul’s experience, being disembodied entirely, point to the truth that the boundaries of the flesh and blood of one man cannot contain and restrain the life-giving, transformative power of God.


The truth of the resurrection is that God is not inside our boundaries. God has escaped. The spirit of life can’t be wrapped securely in grave clothes and entombed in solid rock. Even if you jam a huge solid stone into the doorway, and place an armed guard outside, life will break out. Political despots, their thuggish sycophants, and colluding religious lapdogs cannot kill and stop transformative love. The limitations of physical bodies, including death, do not limit God.


When the stranger lifted up the bread in the Emmaus pub the storytellers might have added ‘Christ’s body was broken on the cross’. On the surface that familiar phrase merely conveys what happened at Golgotha. But at a deeper level of understanding it points to the great truth that the spirit of life, hope and power in Jesus, rather than being broken and crushed by the Romans, broke free. The Jesus spirit broke out and away from the constraints of body, time, culture, and place in order to be present at every ‘Emmaus’, at every ‘St Matthew’s’, at every gathering where those who burned with indignation and compassion, who dreamt of justice, could experience that intoxicating spirit. This is what we mean by the resurrection.


Like with the parable of the fire-maker, the first post-resurrection Christians found the liberating spirit of Jesus wonderful, enlightening, and world changing. However, in time, other Christians, especially some in positions of power, found it frightening. They wanted to restrain and control the Jesus spirit. They were anxious that people would take courage, turn the world upside down, and thus upset the way things are. They were anxious that their power would be reduced.


So what some leaders did was take the metaphorical language about sacrifice [that had been around awhile] and applied it definitively to the Easter stories. They turned Jesus’ death into a once-for-all blood sacrifice to cleanse us of our alleged sin. Instead of the forces of injustice killing Jesus all of us so-called sinners were responsible. His death was de-politicized. If it weren’t for our sin, so the story was re-told, he wouldn’t have had to die.


Jesus was now no longer the confrontational revolutionary prophet but a self-sacrificing lamb. Good Friday was not the Romans killing off a pestilent rebel but the assisted suicide of the forgiving martyr. Easter Sunday was not the days of new hope, determination, and resistance congealing among his followers but a 40-day power display in order to show the benefits of having Jesus forgive us.


Like in the story of the fire-maker, the religious elite believing that the spark of life, hope, and power had to be controlled turned Easter into an apolitical gratitude ritual. The elite wanted the fire-maker’s followers to feel grateful for what the fire-maker had done. The fire-maker had given his life. The fire-maker had given his life for their lives. The fire-maker had come back from the dead to prove it. The followers should always remember this and be grateful. And hopefully they’d forget how to make fire.


It was in the tradition of these religious leaders that the words ‘for us’ where added to the Eucharistic phrase ‘Christ’s body was broken’. Anxious that the real message and potency of the fire-maker did not catch on, the Eucharistic meal was subverted, turning it into a remembrance of Jesus’ forgiving love rather than as a challenge to take up the task of breaking open prison doors. The political status quo is quite happy to tolerate a religion of forgiving love. However a religion that is bent on literally setting captives free is both a problem and a threat.


In the parable of the fire-maker there are two villages with very different perspectives on the world. They have different understandings of fire, religion, and governance. In my experience of the Church there are two rivers. One is a river of life that flows through me, sustaining me, and challenging me to love and to liberate. That river has as one of its sources the resurrected spirit of Jesus. The other river is a river of guilt, cleansed by the blood of Jesus. People are warned that if they don’t drink from this river they will not have life.


Two villages. Two rivers. Two theologies. Two choices.

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