Rev Ron Ham
The recent tsunami has raised questions of meaning – what sort of world is this if it can indiscriminately erupt without warning and destroy coastlines and communities. Questions of meaning naturally arise if we claim that God created this world and that God loves the world and all its people – could God have prevented this disaster, and if God could not or would not, who is this God? This sermon will not answer the tsunami type question directly although I offer you the suggestion of John Polkinghorne, an Anglican priest and scientist, who suggests that “we live in an evolving universe. Theologically this can be understood as reflecting the fact that God did not create a ready-made world but did something cleverer than that in a world that could make itself.”
That idea brings a necessary cost of which the tsunami is an example; I find Polkinghorne’s suggestion helpful, but we are still left with questions about the mystery of God. I want to approach this mystery by considering the Acts 2 address of Peter to the crowd on the Day of Pentecost. I think we will find in Peter’s comments about Jesus a way into the heart of God. If he is right, we are in a better position to consider the questions of meaning which life thrusts upon us.
Peter puts Jesus Christ at the centre of God’s relationship with the world and all its peoples. If thisJesus Christ, of whom Peter speaks, is at the centre of God’s relationship with the world, we certainly have a gospel to preach. Let me try to show you why this is so.
Peter summed up the story of Jesus, who came from God, like this: “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know” – here is the life of Jesus recalled: “this man (Jesus), handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law” – here is the death of Jesus recalled: “But God raised him up, having freed him from death, for it was impossible for him to be held in its power” – here is the resurrection of Jesus. What a concise summary of the Jesus story!
If this is true, we are hearing that God did not remain remote from the world and its peoples and is not heartless and manipulative. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ forever reveal God in all God’s love. God is not a dictator God, not an aloof God, not a scheming or bargaining God. This Jesus of whom Peter preached that day with such enthusiasm and certainty reveals a vulnerable God who so loves the world as to take on a human form – as truly human as we are.
And God in this Jesus suffered the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” – as Shakespeare put it – loving even those who hated him, forgiving his friends who left him, trusting God whom he thought had forsaken him. What was particularly difficult in this story of Jesus was that he was crucified. People faced with his integrity, with his transparency, with his unshakeable trust in God and his flawless passion for the damaged and dismissed people around him, could not cope and they contrived to be rid of him.
His disciples who had come to believe that he was sent from God were devastated when their hope unravelled in the presence of his horrible death. Only forty days before this passionate sermon of Peter, Peter was in the depths of despair, as were the other disciples because what had been so promising in Jesus was eliminated on a tortuous Roman cross.
This trauma for the disciples came home to me with particular force only a few weeks ago. On March 10th Jan and I arrived in Madrid to visit our son Anthony who now lives there with his Spanish wife Marina. The day after we arrived, March 11th, was the first anniversary of the train bombings at Atocha Station which killed 191 people and injured 1500.
On other visits to Madrid we had come in and out of Atocha Station, and on that anniversary Friday we visited the Station again and found red candles had been lit, as they had been immediately after the bombing, in memory of those who died – and where anyone now could record a message of condolence for the relatives of the dead.
Across the road from the Station, and up the hill a little, is the immense Retiro Park, a popular public Park much used by the Madrilènes. A new dedicated area within the Park called The Bosque de los Ausentes – the Forest of the Absent – was officially opened on this first anniversary as a memorial for those who died in the bombings. There is a slender poplar tree for every victim, and they are planted along a grassed area which spirals up to a small flat summit. Beneath a few of the trees relatives have placed a photograph of their loved one.
It was a solemn scene. Near the summit’s base was a huge wreath placed there that morning at 7.37 am, the time of the bombing, by King Carlos. We joined the slowly moving line of people up the spiral path and down again in silence. I was embraced by the moment and the mood of the communal grief, and I let the tears come!
It was a significant time to be in Madrid for other reasons. I spent the first part of Holy Week there, and for me the grief of Madrid in the previous week had set the mood of all believers as they in Holy Week began recalling the death of Jesus in Jerusalem almost two thousand years ago. That overwhelmed the disciples who fled the scene and began to live with their confusion, guilt and shattered hopes. For them Jesus was, like everyone who lost someone in the Madrid bombings, the Absent One!
That is how it remains for the grieving Spaniards with whom I shared a solemn day in the Forest of the Absent. Only 191 trees remain to mark the lost lives of 191 people. The Absent are still absent!
Peter told a different story to the listening crowd in Jerusalem – “But God raised (Jesus) up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” – Not an Absent One but a Present, a now Living One! But they wrestled with the transition from Absent One to Present One – two on the Emmaus Road were not sure what to make of rumours that he was alive and they needed the breaking of bread to undo their reluctance. Thomas went a whole week unable to believe the testimony of the friends with whom he had travelled three years. And a group of them by a lake unbelievably ate fish with him in the unexpected glad morning of a new day.
How is it for you? We who are believers came to celebrate a risen Jesus Christ on Easter Day, a day which was larger than a day. But has that faded for you? Don’t we live too many of our other days as though Jesus Christ is in fact absent?
Do other people who are not believers pick up from us that we believe in and walk with a risen Christ? Paul in his Philippians’ letter describes what he thinks is the evidence of Christ in us: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone” – it is a hard word to translate from the Greek; it may also mean generosity, and patience. Where does that kind of life come from? “The Lord is near!” – The risen Christ; he is the reason for our rejoicing, and the mark of that in us should be our gentleness, and generosity, and patience. Does it show?
Hear Paul again, this time from his letter to the Romans – “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ Jesus will also give life to your mortal bodies through the Spirit who dwells in you.” Do you believe that and live it each day as Easter people?
Hear Paul in his letter to the Ephesians – “I pray that you will know the immeasurable greatness of God’s power in us who believe. It is the same mighty power by which God raised Jesus Christ from the dead.” Do you believe that and live it each day as Easter people?
Not an Absent Christ but a Present Christ! Even though we, like all people, face threatening illness, sometimes painful relationships, unsought doubts and disturbing fears, we are to learn to live these human intrusions with the Present Christ, not with a fading memory of an Absent Christ.
Do you see what I mean when I say that Peter here puts Jesus Christ at the centre of God’s relationship with the world and all its peoples? Can it be that at the heart of all existence there is this incredible love shining out in Jesus and showing up in us?
Robert Browning, in one of his poems, put it superbly in a report from a travelling first century Arab student Physician, Karshish, to his teacher, Abib. He hesitates to write what he is now thinking because he fears his rationalist teacher will bring all his scientific skills to scoff at Karshish’s suggestion. Karshish had met Lazarus in Israel who told him that Jesus had given him back his life, and he told him much more of Jesus so that Karshish was so moved that he wrote to his teacher:
“This man (Lazarus), so cured, regards the curer (Jesus) then
As – God forgive me – who but God himself,
Creator and Sustainer of the world,
That came and dwelt in flesh on it awhile!
The very God! think, Abib; do you think?
So, the All-Great, were the All-Loving too –
So, through the thunder comes a human voice (Jesus)
Saying, ‘O heart I made, a heart beats here!
Face, My hands fashioned, see it in Myself…’”
Yes, I do think, with Peter and Karshish, Jesus is the very God!