“Heart unfold” March 31, 2013 by Robin Wardlaw
Easter , Year C
Readings: Acts 10:34–43; Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24; 1 Corinthians 15:19–26; Luke 24:1–12
There are radicals meeting all over the city, plotting this morning, I understand. Somehow none of the security forces have heard about them–not the police, not the Mounties, not the security people. Their leader was martyred by the authorities, but they keep meeting as if nothing had changed, and they have an agenda. They are challenging the system, talking crazy talk, proposing a weird alternative to the status quo.
I’m talking about Christians, of course–you! Christians are filling up churches today to celebrate a vision, a way of life and a simple ritual involving a table, and bread and a cup. And I don’t know how radical the message will be in all those other places of worship, here and around the world. If we were doing this right today, there might be informers inside every church, reporting what is being said and done, and maybe a police presence outside.
Instead, we’ve let chocolate and bunnies and ham get most of the attention. And for many, that’s about it. If I’ve been doing serious personal work on my faith in Lent, Easter might be a culmination for that, the conclusion of my inward journey. But being here today or most churches won’t get anyone arrested, or even video-taped. How did that happen? How did it get to be so polite?
Let’s review. Easter is the answer to what question? Easter is the question to what answer? According to Acts, Peter tells the crowd at Cornelius’ house that Jesus was all about forgiveness of sin. (Acts 10:43) “He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil,” says Peter. Maybe that’s all there was to it. Something Jesus was saying and doing brought him to the attention of the authorities. “Love one another,” may have been part of it, but that never got anyone killed, anymore than doing good and healing people. According to the gospels, the charges against him were that he was stirring up the people, encouraging them to withhold their taxes, and claiming to be a sovereign. That was enough to get him bundled off to the killing field in his day, apparently. The gospels paint a picture of a reluctant Pilate, unwilling to condemn an innocent man.
In real life, a week before the Passover, Pilate was riding into the city in a military procession, a magnificent show of imperial might, hooves clomping, boots tromping, harness jingling and armor clattering. A good show to look at, too. On the other side of town, Jesus was spoofing the governor’s cavalcade, riding on a donkey or something. The crowds got the political theatre. They hailed him as the Coming One, the Messiah. The Messiah. Jews were waiting for their liberator, and Roman officials were dreading yet another claimant to the throne of David, stirring up the people, and costing all kinds of overtime and disruptions that could interfere with the smooth flow of tribute to Rome.
Jesus proves a bit of a disappointment in that regard–no fiery speeches, no guerilla campaigns to take out officials and collaborators, seemingly no plan for liberation at all. But he’s enough of a threat to someone to get him arrested and dispatched. It didn’t take much, of course: Roman crucifixions were a dime a dozen. We are gathered here because somehow the Jesus movement didn’t fall apart. Some seed had been planted, some bonds forged that survived the execution of the leader.
Since then, there has been a lot of water under the bridge. Christianity has played every role from a persecuted little sect to an oppressive empire of its own, murdering Jews, women, first nations, non-Christians, you name it. In the process, the vision of the founder may have gotten a little bruised, a little bent, a little deformed. OK, more than a little deformed.
The original question was, how can people live a free and dignified existence, the kind that was supposed to happen when the people got out of slavery in Egypt and back to Canaan? It was a good question then, with the Jews suffering under a vicious empire. It’s still a good question, one women are still asking, all over the world. It’s one First Nations in Canada and many nations continue to ask, with increasing volume and skill. Arab people began rising up two years ago all along the Mediterranean, trying to get rid of the corruption, the inequality, the fear. And the list goes on. Why is it so hard?
If I’m not at all worried about ethics, or human rights, or other such trifles, violence and threats are a quick way to get what I want. At your expense. How can we reign in the bullies of this world? Bullies rule by fear. They are never large in number, whether they’re in a high school, a work place or riding into someone else’s capitol in a show of force. Easter is an intoxicating idea to people who are resisting that mining company coming to tear up their land and push them away or struggling to take control of their own country back from some ruling elite. Easter claims that breathtaking push back from an elite against a people’s movement, even violent push back, even execution, only looks like an ending, like failure.
And when we back away from things even more, away from regions or nations, when we take a space station view of things, the whole planet faces the question of how we do this. With our numbers, our technology, our capacity and willingness to wreck land and sea and air, the question is can human beings live a free and dignified existence and do it alongside every other species and ecosystem on the planet? Elites like to get their way. They are used to it. They behave badly when they don’t. I’ve been reading theology from Palestine and South Africa recently, and noticing a string of stories from the war against women. They inspire many feelings, including a scary urge to “take up arms against a sea of troubles,” as Shakespeare put it.
Jesus would not resort to violence. One of his followers had a sword on the night of his arrest, but Jesus would not permit fighting. We know what happened next. But his followers would not use violence either, at least not at the beginning. Many, many of the disciples and other early followers went to the same violent end Jesus did. This speaks to a very high commitment. How come? They had been close to something amazing, something life changing, something holy. They had had a glimpse of how things were meant to be. Their hearts unfolded into new, startling shapes, full of selflessness and compassion.
My wife, Rita, is a teacher. Especially with younger grades, she always made a point of discussing holidays with her class, to talk about the reasons for them. Just before the Easter long weekend one year, it was Grade 5s. She was reviewing Good Friday and Easter itself, what Christians believed, that not everyone believed them. One girl said, “But miss, I believe those things, and I’m not Christian, I’m Anglican.” Someone asked about the Easter bunny. Where did it come from? Could anyone help? Robert could. “When Jesus rose from the grave, he was holding a bunny.” Rita said, no, she didn’t think so. “Yes, Miss” said Robert. “It’s in the bible.”
Distortions creep in, don’t they? Rogue bunnies somehow pop up. They would be harmless, except they can cloud the real story, the tale of daring and radical love. If there is reason to celebrate today, and every Easter, it is because of the original vision, the heart of our faith, the profound mystery of redeeming Love. Easter love does not fight fire with fire. It does not advocate some sort of purge of the elites. To listen to the gospel stories, Jesus didn’t even criticize the authorities as they were going through the motions to dispatch him. Easter is the question to that answer. It’s been tried, over and over again. What’s the saying: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
The unfolding heart of our faith is a deep commitment to the vision, a very deep commitment. And an equally deep assurance that freedom, dignity, equality are the way to a world of peace and justice, a sustainable world. We have been given the challenge and the privilege of seeing Christ in everyone else. Not an obstacle to our success or a resource to be exploited, but a sister or brother, a sacred and unique source of creativity and wisdom. That’s why this meal, this table are so subversive. No one gets a bigger serving based on their bank account, their IQ or their charm. It’s a sharing of the loaf and the cup, an according of dignity to each participant that anticipates an Easter society, an Easter world.
And this is something to celebrate, a wonderful reason for a feast. Enjoy the ham if that’s on the menu later, and resolve to eat lower on the food chain. Enjoy the chocolate, and resolve to find more fair trade products. Enjoy the Easter flowers, and resolve to leave the planet better than you found it. Go ahead, be a friend to any bunny you see giving out eggs, but remember the unseen guest at this table, and that we commune here with all who praying for an end to fear, and end to violence, that their hearts may unfold in a new world, a world of peace.