“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”
(Julian of Norwich)
I can’t remember when I first heard those words of Lady Julian of Norwich. I think they were first read to me by my mother. What I remember more clearly is the number of times I’ve repeated them to myself when times are dark.
It may be that I have a penchant for the darkness and that I just need to work at becoming more of a glass-half-full kind of guy. Even so, I know for myself that whenever I’m lying awake at night, trying to get to sleep, the memories that come sneaking into my consciousness are almost never of the wonderful times I’ve spent with my children. They’re always memories of darker events.
How many times have I lied awake reliving the time my eldest daughter was almost drowned when she was only little, or remembering the deaths of my mother and father, or remembering the time I was mobbed by settlers outside Ashkelon Prison in Israel, or reliving my time spiraling around helplessly in a dinghy amongst the coral reefs off Manus Island in the pitch darkness.
Perhaps it’s just me. Perhaps most of you, if you have trouble getting to sleep at all, lie awake remembering your first kiss, or the moment your first child was born, or the day when you won your first boxing match? Is it just me?
I don’t think it is just me. I think we all have a bit of a penchant to focus on the negative, and I wonder if that isn’t in part the reason that the church too, very early on, took as its symbol the cross rather than the rolling stone.
I’ve only ever met one person in my life who was trying to buck that trend. I met him in the Salvation Army Men’s Home in Surry Hills, back in the day where I was working as a volunteer with what was then the Sydney City Mission, and I was helping bus homeless men around to help them find somewhere where they could eat and shower and sleep. I still remember this big, burly Salvo guy showing me his tattoo of a rolling stone.
He said “I don’t know why Christians want images of the cross on their bodies. The cross is about suffering and death. I’m focusing on resurrection and life.”
That made a lot of sense to me at the time, and yet I can’t pretend that I’ve ever really taken it to heart, and neither have I ever seen a church that has. Even if we don’t go as far as our Catholic sisters and brothers, with images of bleeding hearts featured in all our artworks, we continue to decorate our buildings with crosses rather than rolling stones.
Are we all just a bit too morbid? Certainly, there are preachers out there who suggest that, and tell us that it’s time we made the ‘Good News’ good again.
These are generally the preachers you see on late-night TV, broadcasting from their own dedicated cable network somewhere in the USA, talking about the power of positive thinking, interspersing their presentation with lots of Bible verses, and invariably ending with a request to dig deep.
I don’t mean to bad-mouth these people. Nor am opposed to positive thinking, but the truth is that the New Testament itself is just not that positive, is it?
Am I wrong?
Most of you will know that I still have most of my theological library left in the old rectory building next door to the church, simply because there’s no room for all of my old books in the building that is the current rectory.
One of the books that I left in there, and which any of you are welcome to take home if you can find it, is a book I purchased many years ago from one of these American evangelists. I simply couldn’t resist it at the time.
It’s called “The Positive Bible”, and it was sold with the promise that you’d get “all the good stuff and nothing else”. It’s not the whole Bible, of course, and indeed, the sales page promised that you could read the whole thing in about an hour! That tells us something, as the Bible I’m familiar with cannot be read in about an hour, or even in a couple of hours. Obviously, a lot was left out!
In as much as I accept that there is a power in positive thinking, the Scriptures that have been handed down to us are not all sweetness and light, and I’m not simply thinking about all the wars and violence we find in our Old Testament. The stories of the death and resurrection of Jesus are probably the most imbalanced of the lot!
Look at the Gospel of Mark – generally believed to be the first of the Gospels written. It reads like a crucifixion narrative with an extended introduction. Mark doesn’t even really have a resurrection narrative. It ends with an empty tomb and with the disciples running about scared, not sure what to do next.
Mark is the most extreme example of the four Gospels, but in each case the story of Jesus’ death is a lengthy narrative, whereas the resurrection accounts are sketchy and leave a great number of questions unanswered.
The irony of this is that it surely should have been the other way around, as the death of Jesus was something that happened really quickly. There they were one night – Jesus and His disciples all having dinner together – and within twenty-four hours Jesus had been betrayed, tried, flogged and killed!
The resurrection saga, on the other hand, was a much more drawn-out affair. No one actually saw the resurrection happen, and it took a good while for the penny to drop with some people that Jesus really was back on the scene.
You’d think that this would make for a lengthy whodunnit-style detective novel where the disciples gradually put all the pieces back together and work out exactly what had happened to Jesus. No! Most of the pieces are left on the table. It’s the crucifixion that gets all the attention. Why is that?
I think to answer that we again need to think about how memory works – how we remember things and why we remember things, as the New Testament really is just the collective memory of the first followers of Jesus.
I read an interesting book recently by David McRaney, entitled “You are not so Smart”, in which the author went to some length to highlight what a volatile piece of machinery the human memory is.
We tend to think of memories as being like videos that are filed away in our minds – videos that we can pulled out at any time and played again to help us relive a past experience in all its detail. The truth is, McRaney says, that you can’t recall a memory without reshaping it.
I don’t know if you remember at little while back that we used to have different sorts of DVD’s that we could use to back up the hard drive on our computer. There was the read/write DVD where you could write information to the DVD as well as read information from it, and there was the read-only DVD, where you couldn’t write to the disk but only read from it.
The point I remember being made in this book was there no is such thing as ‘read-only memory’ when it comes to the human mind. You can’t read it without writing to it. You can’t recall memories without reshaping them.
This is why nobody is likely to say anything bad about you at our funeral. It won’t simply be that people are being nice (though hopefully they will be nice). It will also though be because the reality of your death will inevitably change the memories people have of you. Your friends will forget most of your bad points when you’re gone (if only they could forget them sooner).
Conversely, this is why in marriage breakdowns, estranged couple never have anything good to say about each other. All the good memories from the past are discolored by the pain of the breakup, and you can’t work out now how you ever fell in love with a person with so few redeeming features!
When it comes to the New Testament, the key to understanding the accounts we read of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, I’d suggest, is, similarly, to recognise that the disciples could only think about the crucifixion of Jesus in the light of His resurrection.
If there had been no resurrection, I’m not sure whether many (or any) stories from the life of Jesus would have ever been recorded. Why bother?
Had it not been for the resurrection, I imagine most people would have written Jesus off as a failed revolutionary and have quickly forgotten everything He’d had to say. I imagine they’d look back at all those healing miracles and think ‘I’m not sure now whether those people were as sick as we thought they were’
If it hadn’t been for the resurrection, perhaps some of the parables and wisdom teachings of Jesus might have been remembered, but if Jesus’ life had simply ended in a humiliating torture and death, how wise could He have been? It’s the resurrection that changes all of that.
Because of the resurrection, we see that everything Jesus said was important. Because of the resurrection, we realise that even Jesus’ humiliating death must have had a deeper meaning. It could only have happened because He let it happen, and so you go back over what Jesus said about His death, and you go back over the ancient Scriptures, and you start to reframe the whole experience in order to make sense of it all in the light of the resurrection.
The resurrection of Jesus is the lens through which the New Testament is written, and though which it needs to be read. It’s because of the resurrection that the followers of Jesus can spell out all the gruesome details of the torture and death of Jesus, because they know this is not the end of the story, and this too is why we can boldly take up what was once the symbol or Roman imperial power – the cross – and take it as the symbol of our freedom!
It’s not because the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross suddenly became less gruesome, but in the light of the resurrection, even that has been transformed into a symbol of life!
We tend to think that the past is fixed in historical concrete and that only the present is under our control, but the truth is that the resurrection of Jesus changes the past, the present and the future, and thank God it does, for it’s not only dark memories that come to me at night that bother me nowadays. It’s even more so the things I see when I open my eyes and get up! The ongoing violence in Syria continues to break my heart
On Manus another of our asylum-seeker friends has taken his own life
We see the signs of growing bigotry and intolerance on our own shores
And my friend, Julian Assange, has been arrested and is threatened with life behind bars, explicitly because he exposed war-crimes in Iraq.
Hey, I’ve got enough struggles of my own to deal with! How am I supposed to find the resources and energy to fight these battles too?
A friend of mine wrote to me only yesterday – a friend who is currently on stress-leave – and asked me how I cope with the pressure. I gave him a rather long and convoluted answer, but I think now that I probably should have just given him two words – embrace Easter!
Embrace Easter, and do so not only by listening to the message that the Gospel-writers share, but also do what the Gospel-writers did when they reframed all of life through the lens of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ is risen, and that changes everything. If there were only two certainties in life prior to the resurrection of Jesus – death and taxes – now there is only one certainty, and perhaps there are no certainties.
Maybe now, in the light of the resurrection of Jesus, anything is possible! “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” That’s resurrection thinking – thinking about the future in the light of the resurrection of Jesus.
There’s a similar saying that I also often quote too – generally attributed to John Lennon, though it actually goes back to Brazilian novelist, Paulo Coelho: “Everything will be okay in the end, and if it’s not okay, it’s not the end”. Again, that’s resurrection thinking.
Sisters and brothers, I suspect that most of you are far more balanced people than I am, but if you, like me, struggle with pains from the past and with fears about the future, today is the day to embrace Easter, and be liberated to live in the present! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Love has triumphed. His Kingdom comes.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 21st of April, 2019.