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Shed the Trappings of Death

April 8, 2007

Glynn Cardy

Easter Sunday     John 20:1-18


Last month was the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. Every year for 18 years William Wilberforce brought a motion to the House of Commons seeking the end of slavery. And every year, save one, he lost. He rallied against a trade seen as fundamental to the British economy. Wilberforce defied the silent consent of bishops, the Church, the common interpretation of the Bible, and of course the polls, in order to be faithful to the simple truth that all were created equal and deserved to be treated the same.


The story of Wilberforce’s life, coming soon in the movie Amazing Grace, is one of choosing between Gods. Choosing between the God of his upbringing – a God of convention, comfort, and civility – and between the God who gripped and drove him – a God of justice and change. Wilberforce followed a God who led him into unpopularity and vilification.


‘Convention, comfort, and civility’ is a description of the grave.


The grave is a solid tomb, with solid boundaries, and a solid door. It’s thinking is found in churches, clubs, pubs, and parliaments. The grave protects the insider. The clothes the grave provides are secure, warm, and comforting. The décor might be plain, but it’s predictable. The outside world is repulsed. Inside certainty is assured. The grave is safe.


Resurrection is not primarily a past event that happened once upon a time in a Jerusalem cemetery. Resurrection is a present event, a way of talking about the challenge to leave the deadly mummified structures and thinking of the past and to live in the spirit of Jesus. It is about breaking free. It is about justice and change. And it is not safe.


We live in a time in the history of the Church when a great deal of entombed thinking, and its accompanying solidified structures, are being broken open by people who want to be free.


A photograph taken of the Auckland Synod in the 1950s, compared with a photograph of that body today, is remarkable for two things – the number of ties, and the total absence of women. Those were the days when old white men were in charge. Autocracy was the norm, paternalism was expected, and accountability was negligible. In many parts of Anglicanism, let alone other denominations or religions, this pattern continues. It is a pattern of oppression.


Since the 1970s in Aotearoa New Zealand we have been trying to exhibit a form of leadership where women and men, laity and clergy, form partnerships; where power is both transparent and accountable; and where those without power have avenues of redress. This is a journey. It doesn’t happen overnight. Mistakes are made. Systems can easily turn sour. But we have travelled a significant distance from the oppressive structures and thinking of the past.


I once told my children that it wasn’t so long ago that teachers caned pupils. They looked at me incredulously. ‘Oh Dad you’re making up stories again!’ My children have no experience of the violence that was endemic in New Zealand High Schools. Similarly when we come into contact with the hierarchies of the English or Central African Anglican churches we are incredulous. We can’t believe that ecclesiastical feudalism is still alive.


The walls of the tomb are solid rock. They have been there for generations and have the word ‘immovable’ scrawled upon them.


Of course the political and social structures affect, for better or for worse, the theology. Where the male is God, God is male. Where the hierarchy is God, God is hierarchical. Where the all-powerful are God, God is all-powerful. ‘Convention, comfort and civility’ disguise autocracy, sexism, and oppression.


On the other hand however where God is more below than above, more feminine than masculine, more dirty than clean, more uncontained and surprising than restrained and boring… there is hope, change, and justice to be found. The tomb-breaking God chooses the foolish, the weak, the rebels, and outsiders. Truth is not the sole preserve of powerful men, nor the wisdom of what’s always been.


Are our prayers, worship, preaching, and theology entombing us in yesteryear or inviting us to break free? Is worship emancipating? Or are we slowly being seduced by the formulas of old, pickled and placed with the other preserves on the shelf, there to collect dust and wait? Are we cementing convention or stimulating change?


The seduction of living in the tomb is that the conventional God is there too. You can sit in your comfortable grave clothes and talk to the God who is the same yesterday, today and forever. You can sing “Our God reigns”, soak up the acoustics, and feel all holy. You can memorise verses that affirm that God as the way, the truth and the life. It’s all very nice in the tomb.


Out of the tomb however it is not nice. The God of liberation is not a pleasant puppet you can sing to and feel all holy with. God, like truth, is bigger than our experiences and projections. Even our convictions are tempered by the disturbing thought that maybe God isn’t on our side. Out of the tomb we discover that people are complex, life is complex, and God, like love, manifests itself in a variety of forms and relationships. Change is not in our control.


Trapped in the grave, the churches have invented all sorts of theological nonsense. In the desire to keep God small, predictable and safe, a plethora of so-called miracles have been manufactured to suit the pre-modernism of the entombed mind. There’s a windup literal devil – he’s the bad guy. There’s a literal seven-day creation – nothing is impossible when you create your own truth. There’s a literal virgin birth – fairyland doesn’t have to follow any biological rules. Here supernatural miracles happen in the wink of the eye, without even using a wand. Even the dead literally come back to life depending on what’s on the barbeque.


When churches only talk to themselves, those who agree with them, and their marionette God, it’s not long before tomb reality becomes the only reality.


The God of the Risen Jesus however is very different. This is a God of whom we need to be afraid. This God breaks open our tombs. This God disturbs our thinking. This God allows niggly questions to visit us in the small hours of the night. This God drives prayer from our lips and peace from our soul. Like the God of Wilberforce it blows us into the furnace of unrest, change, and freedom. This God compels us to shred the trappings of death and break free of the grave.


This is the God we celebrate today.

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