Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Blessed Easter: Jesus Christ is Risen indeed

I spent the first part of Lent reading Bonhoeffer's Ethics, and during the vigil from Holy Thursday through Holy Saturday, his " Meditations on the Cross" replaced Ethics as my reading material. So now that Easter is here once again, what has the Lord revealed to me following my observance and celebration of this, the most critical, period in the history of mankind.

First of all, as you will notice, my joy, though very much present is not a triumphalist emotion that has taken over my very soul. Yes we sang the Easter anthems and celebrated the fact that on this day, we like the disciples, on that very first Easter Sunday can exult that " The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed". Yes I am very mindful ( and thankful ) of the observations of my mentor and former Bishop of Kingston, the late Herman Spence that " you cannot really celebrate the joy of Easter unless you have been through the the pain and angst of Lent and Good Friday". But my joy is tempered by two things. One is that my readings and reflections have led me to appreciate very deeply that, as Christians our understanding of what Christ calls us to do, is often very superficial , and at worst we are guilty of holding on to very erroneous doctrines. The other is that the consequences of this lack of understanding is very profound in its implication for humankind. And so though my soul is rejoicing, I am also quite burdened.
Why? Many reasons, and I will deal with them point by point without necessarily placing them in the order of priority.

Let me start with the most recent. " You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot". You are the light of the world........... Matthew 5:13-16

From this very well known passage Bonhoeffer draws ( reminds us) the following conclusions.

"The addressees here are those whom the Beatitudes called into the grace of discipleship of the Crucified ( Christ) Those who were called blessed in the Beatitudes, while being considered worthy of the kingdom of heaven, obviously nevertheless appeared to be utterly unworthy of life on this earth, or to be superfluous. Here now they are designated by the symbol of a substance which is indispensable for life on earth. They are the salt of the earth. They are the earth's most noble possession, its most precious asset. Without them, the earth cannot continue to live. the earth is kept alive by salt. For the sake of precisely these poor ignoble, weak, whom the world rejects, the earth itself lives. It destroys its own life by expelling the disciples, and ---a miracle! --- precisely for the sake of these outcasts the earth is permitted to live on......Only insofar as that salt remains salt , and maintains its purifying seasoning powers can it maintain and preserve the earth..............They are that salt whether they want to be or not, in the power of the call they have encountered.
The other possibility, however, is that the salt loses its taste, and ceases to be salt. Its activity ceases. And then indeed it is good for nothing except to be thrown away. That is the other side. That is the threatening judgement hovering over the community of disciples......The call of Jesus means being the salt of the earth or being destroyed".

Now you can appreciate the enormity of what concerns me, about my own actions, the church and the world. This Christian life, this call to follow a risen Lord is a very, very, very, serious matter. There is nothing else more important in the entire existence and agenda of any Christian. And so too for unbelievers, whether they know it or not. Because, the existence and future of all mankind depends very heavily on our understanding, " knowing the faith", and then being obedient. May God have mercy on those who have led His children into falsehood and a superficial understanding of Easter. Yes, Jesus declared that " It is finished", on the Cross. In the sense that His Atonement for the sins of all mankind was completed. His mission was accomplished. But we, His disciples, who have been given the, " Message and Ministry of reconciliation", are required by word and deed to spread this good news to the uttermost ends of the earth. And if we fail to remain salt we will be " thrown away". Judgement will be pronounced. In the same way that Mordecai's warned a seemingly reluctant and afraid , Queen Esther:
" Do not think that because you are in the king's house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father's family will perish."

In the face of the enormity and reality of human sin, we who have been Baptised, died in Christ, and raised to a new life in Him, called to be His disciples, have as our main responsibility, the sharing of the good news. We cannot afford to " keep our light under a bushel", for God's plan for mankind cannot be thwarted by our inaction, and the spread of the good news will arise from someone else, but we will be judged.
No wonder my pastor declared, again today, that we need to remember that as disciples of Christ, we move from Good Friday to Easter and back to Good Friday again. No wonder our young Curate ( assistant Priest) declared that yes, we should sing " God is good, God is can I let Him down. As He is so good to me. But let us rejoice, not so much for the material gifts of a good God, but more importantly, for the great spiritual gifts provided for all mankind on the Cross; Eternal Life and being the " salt " of the earth. Compared with the car and the house, the deliverance from sickness, the new job, the husband and the children.
Which therefore means that this issue of being a Missionary - whether played out in evangelism in its various forms, or in doing good works - is not an option, but a command from Jesus, to all individuals and churches who celebrate Easter. The privilege of being a disciple carries awesome responsibilities, for which God will always provide the power, the Holy Spirit, the ministering angel, for all who are obedient. Regardless of the odds, as the battle is not ours but the Lords.

Another related issue:

" Therefore since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access by faith to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces patience, and patience produces experience, and experience produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Romans 5:1-5.

Bonhoeffer's take on this is as follows:

" We have peace with God. Peace is found beneath the cross. Here one surrenders to God's will, here our own will comes to an end, here one finds repose and quiet in God, here one finds peace of conscience in the forgiveness of all our sins. Here, beneath the cross, one finds" access to this grace in which we stand", daily access to peace with God. Here is the only path in the world to peace with God. In Jesus Christ alone is God's wrath stilled and we ourselves are overcome and drawn into God's will. This is why the cross of Jesus Christ is for His congregation the eternal ground of joy and hope for God's coming glory....Here in the cross God's justice and victory on earth have commenced. Here He will someday be revealed to all the world. The peace we reveal here will become an eternal and glorious peace in the kingdom of God.
And yet though we would prefer to stop here,,,,Scripture here will not let us go. "And not only that .... we now read. So not everything has been said so far...that's why we now read...' And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings'. Whether we really have found God's peace will be shown how we deal with the sufferings that will come on us. There are many Christians who do indeed kneel before the cross of Jesus Christ, and yet reject and struggle against every tribulation in their lives......They have basically merely sought peace with the world, believing that possibly that by means of the cross of Jesus Christ they might best come to terms with themselves and with all their questions, and thus find inner peace of the soul. They have used the cross, but not loved it. They have sought peace for their own sake. But when tribulation comes, that peace quickly flees them......
Thus those who merely hate tribulations, renunciation, distress, defamation, imprisonment in their own lives, no matter how grandiosely they may speak about the cross, these people in reality hate the cross of Jesus and have not found peace with God. But those who love the cross of Jesus Christ, those who have genuinely found peace in it, now begin tot love even the tribulations in their lives, and ultimately will be able to cay with scripture, ' we also boast in our suffering."

One of the great temptations that Satan provides is an idea that Christians ought not to suffer or go through hard times. That it is only on account of a lack of faith why some do not receive their " deliverance". It is a 'culture' which has become very pervasive in my country, and one that is undermining the effective witness of the church. As such false doctrine does not have any power to " set the captives free". And which freedom from immorality, greed, pride, ignorance, arrogance, lust and countless others, is a constant feature associated with the spread of the authentic good news. No, the Spirit of God working in and through His Saints from the time of Calvary, reveals to us the critical importance of accepting, and more so even "boasting in the suffering" associated with our discipleship.

Bonhoeffer offers still yet other perspectives on suffering:

" The cross in never simply a matter of suffering, but a matter of suffering and rejection, and strictly speaking, rejection for the sake of Jesus Christ, not for the sake of some other arbitrary behaviour or confession....each of us is to bear the measure of suffering and rejection specifically appointed for us. And the measure is is different for each of us. God deems some worthy of great suffering, and to them he grants the blessing of martyrdom. Others he does not allow to be tempted beyond their strength. But still it is the one cross.......
But there is yet another suffering and yet another another disgrace that no Christian escapes. Only Christ's own suffering is the suffering of reconciliation. Yet because Christ did suffer for the sake of the world's sins, because the entire burden of sin fell upon him, and because Christ bequeaths to the disciples the fruit of of his suffering --because of all of this, temptation and sin also fall upon the disciples. It covers them with pure shame, and expels them from the gates of the city like the scapegoat. Thus does the Christian come to bear the sin and guilt for others. Individual Christians would collapse under the wight of this, were they not themselves borne by him who bore all sins. In this they can, in the power of Christ's own suffering, overcome all the sins that fall upon them by forgiving them. Thus do Christians become bearer of burdens. " Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ". ( Gal. 6:2)

Gossiping about people, especially our own, talking idly or judgementally about their " sins", therefore has no place in the life of a disciple of Christ. Rather we are to bear one another's burdens with forgiveness and with prayers for mercy. If we are ever true to this liberating feature of the call to discipleship, made possibly by our Easter celebrations, our congregations would change overnight, and become more loving, caring and a better collective witness to the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Finally a perspective on the big difference between Christians and Pagans.
Bonhoeffer begins with a poem:

1. People go to God in their need,
for help, happiness and bread they plead
for deliverance from sickness, guilt and death.
Thus do they all, Christians and pagans.

2. People go to God in God's need,
find God poor, reviled, with neither shelter nor bread,
see God entangled in sin, weakness, and death.
Christians stand by God in God's suffering.

3. God comes to all human beings in need,
sates them body and soul with His bread,
dies the death of the cross for Christians and pagans,
and forgives them both.

" Christians stand by God in God's suffering", and that distinguishes Christians from pagans. " Could you not keep awake with me one hour?" Jesus asks in Gethsemane. This is the reversal of everything a religious person expects from God. Human beings are called to suffer with God's own suffering caused by a godless world. That is, they must genuinely live in the godless world, and are not permitted to conceal or transfigure its godlessness in some religious fashion........It is not some religious act that makes one a Christian, but taking part in God's own suffering amid worldly life."

My understanding here, is that disciples of Christ do not have the privilege of " being tired of the sinful life on earth and wanting to die and go to heaven". We do not have the luxury of being tired of " fighting valiantly against evil". No, even in the face of the deeply stressful continuation of the high rate of murder and other acts of violence in our country, Christ's disciples are called to suffer with God's suffering in a godless world. The same principle applies to the nadir to which our moral life in Jamaica has descended, as manifested in the music, public behaviour, our language, and our " dress code". We are called to be " salt" right in the middle of the madness, and not grow weary. So too in the case of the corruption in the security forces, in politics and in the business sector, as it is only the Christian church working out its faith effectually which can make a difference.

Words from an old hymn helped to placed this whole Easter celebrations, and Lenten reflections, in true perspective for me.

New every morning is the love
Our wakening and uprising prove........

New mercies each returning day,
Hover around us while we pray;
New perils past, new sins forgiveness
New thoughts of God, new hopes of heaven....

In the sense that if we truly commend our spirit into the Lord's hands, each night, as Jesus did on the cross before He died, by the way we follow Christ each day, then every morning we will awake and experience " new thoughts of God and new hopes of heaven". Then and only then will we be able to follow the instructions from St. Paul, truly celebrate Easter, and be effective witnesses to Christ's love amidst the godlessness of this earth and be protected from false doctrines

" Since then you have been raised with Christ, Set your minds on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above and not on earthly things. For you died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God."
Colossians 3:1-3

Christ is risen indeed. Halleluiah. And so are we to a new life in Christ Jesus. So let us then leave behind the old life which is focused on earthly things. As God is so good, how can we, therefore let Him down. Amen