Saturday, April 11, 2009

Holding On

The passage which we read from the Acts of the Apostles is one of the earliest Christian sermons on record. That remains true whether it's an account of what Peter actually said, or whether it's Luke's attempt at reconstructing what Peter might have said. No doubt it's a reflection of the kind of sermon which Luke had heard the first Christian leaders preaching when he was travelling with Paul around the Mediterranean. He had been one of Paul's companions on his last fateful journey to Jerusalem, and had met James the brother of Jesus, though Peter doesn't seem to have been present on that occasion.

He knew, however, that Peter was absolutely in agreement with Paul that 'God shows no partiality.' Everyone, no matter what their cultural or religious background, is acceptable to God if they fear him, or show respect for him, and do what is right. He also knew that the first Christians were different from their Jewish compatriots because they believed and preached that Jesus was Lord of all, and that through Jesus God has brought the possibility of true peace to human beings.

Of course, this gift of peace - which is brought by Jesus - is not just what the English language means by the word 'peace'. It's a translation of the Hebrew word shalom, or the Aramaic word shlama and the Arabic word Salaam. As such, it means far more than just the absence of conflict or the feeling of restfulness. In Semitic languages like Hebrew and Aramaic it also means completeness, wholeness and well-being. Sometimes the English Bible even translates it with the word 'salvation'.

And this message of wholeness brought by Jesus had begun not just with the preaching of the early Church, but with the ministry of Jesus himself, who had spread the message of wholeness and well-being not just in his own teaching but by doing good and healing all who were oppressed. And the peace which he was able to bring to people was the sign not only that he was more powerful than the forces of conflict and disease, but also that God was with him and had anointed him, or set him apart from other people, as his chosen representative on earth.

This same message was also proclaimed, as we have seen, by the first generation of Church leaders - people like Peter and James. And they were able to reinforce its power and persuasiveness by pointing out that they themselves had been witnesses of these dramatic events, culminating in Jesus' death and resurrection, when he appeared to them and ate and drank with them after he rose from the dead.

It's clear from the message which the first Christians proclaimed that the risen Jesus had celebrated holy communion with them and had commissioned, or commanded, them to go out and spread the news that he is God's permanent representative, the judge of both the living and the dead, and therefore he - and his followers - have the power to forgive the sins of all who believe in his name.

No wonder that this radically new message set Peter, Paul and James on a collision course with their Jewish contemporaries. Although they claimed to be true Israelites, this was, in effect, a new religion.

And today, of course, this groundbreaking message is essentially unchanged. The cross decorated with flowers is a symbolic representation of the gospel of completeness, wholeness and well-being, and the singing of hymns at the church door is a symbol of the message that conflict and disease can still be overcome in Jesus' name, and that people can be put right with one another and with God if they place their trust in him.

But songs and symbols are not enough. Just as in the ministry of Jesus, strong words have to be backed up by convincing actions. The Church has to be seen to be doing good and bringing healing to the oppressed. And it's a vital task because, sadly, as we proclaim the gospel today, we face a tide of indifference and ignorance about the Christian faith, or indeed about any kind of religion.

On Good Friday we tried to give out palm crosses to the passers-by as we made our way through the streets of Hemsworth during our walk of witness. Some welcomed them, as a tiny reminder of the significance of the day and a gesture of goodwill. But many people, especially men, were hostile. From their reaction you might have thought that we were pushing drugs. This lack of empathy is what makes the task of proclaiming Jesus' message more urgent, of course. It underlines the urgency and the necessity of proclaiming our faith not only in words and gestures but with actions that promote peace and well-being.

I think we have to ask ourselves, however, what is the Church most famous for proclaiming? Is it Jesus' message of completeness and healing that makes the headlines? No, it's the constant faction fighting within the Church about sexuality, the ministry of women and other less important things. If we are to be true to the Church's original message, the message which those first preachers had witnessed Jesus proclaiming in word and deed, both before and after his resurrection, we have to make sure that what people see us working for and hear us talking about is peace, wholeness, completeness and forgiveness.

In John's version of the resurrection story, Jesus meets Mary of Magdala in the garden near his empty tomb. Unable to contain her emotion she tries to cling to him. It's an understandable reaction. She has gone, in a moment, from a sense of utter loss and despair to a recovery of hope and joy. Jesus is not gone forever. Instead, he is with her and she will never be separated from him again because he has even overcome death. But no sooner do these feelings of peace and completeness start to overwhelm her than Jesus rebukes her. 'Do not hold on to me,' he tells her, 'But go and announce the good news to others.' And, with that, she pulls herself together, contains her emotions and goes, as she has been bidden, becoming as she does so the first apostle of Jesus - that is, the first of many people sent out by him to tell his brothers, and everyone whom she meets from now on, 'I have seen the Lord!'

I think there's a message for us contained in this moving story. We, too, are not to hold onto Jesus. Our primary objective is not to have a good time - as we praise his name, and sing the familiar hymns, and decorate our cross. It's not to keep our church the way we have always known and loved it, or to tend the flame of tradition. It's not to renew our own sense of wholeness and completeness, or hope and joy in the faith. It's not simply to remind ourselves that we can never be separated from Jesus, even by death. Our primary objective, if we are to be true to the gospel proclaimed by Jesus and his first followers, is to go and announce the good news to others, not in a language that we can understand, not with our own cherished songs and symbols, not in ways that make us feel safe and secure, but in their language and their idioms, in ways that make sense to them and make them feel comfortable and secure, ways that can best convey to them the age old proclamation that we have seen the Lord.

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