Readings: Acts 5: 27-32 & John 20:19-end
When I was in theological college I’m afraid I rather disturbed a fellow ordinand at one point. In a seminar on bereavement we were asked where we stood personally on a spectrum of what life after death was like. Are we resurrected into perfect bodies with no recollection of pain and suffering, or do we remember, even in that place of bliss, in nearness to God, do we remember our pain and retain our scars. One ordinand bellowed firmly that we are all resurrected perfect in body, mind and spirit and there is no memory of pain.
And me in what some consider to be my insufferable manner, stated that I disagreed. Hoe can that joy have any meaning without knowledge of what it is like to be without? Christ was resurrected with his scars intact, the difference being those wounds had been transformed into marks of beauty and hope. I’m afraid this other ordinand looked rather as if his world had fallen apart. I burst his balloon.
It has been held by the poet Khalil Gibran that our greatest pain lies in the joy we experience and the greatest joy is born out of the pain we endure, it is the hope of joy that is the source of pain, the source of longing.
The very emotions in us that persecute and bully others, in our media, when we judge others appearance, or social standing, or their poverty – that same haughty, prideful, angry need to put others down, that need to make ourselves above others, special – is the same emotion that crucified our Lord Jesus Christ. Our celebrity culture that pushes leaders to the height of fame and admiration, and then condemns them for not living up to our expectations – and let’s face it no one can live up to the expectations of others – is the same culture that angrily turned on Jesus when he did not lead a victorious revolution against a tyrant, but rather advocated Love of enemy. These expectations are the very thing ++Justin Welby has expressed wariness over his new role. He will make mistakes, he says.
In a strange voyeurism, we have to know celebrities suffer, we have to know our God has suffers as we have suffer.
My daughter Elva has been volunteering at the Richard III exhibition, and has been rather shocked at the number of people who just want to see his bones. They are angry when they discover the bones aren’t there, but kept in a respectable place until they can be buried. These people want the actual bones.
We want to poke our fingers in those wounds, examine them in minute detail as we examine in minute detail the private lives of both victims and perpetrators of tragedies such as the Philpotts. And I hold my hand up to this as much as anyone else. I want to understand why anyone could go to such lengths to get what they want, put their own children in danger to the point it ends in their murder. I want to know why. And when I watch or listen to endless stories of all their wrongdoings, I am poking my finger in their wounds.
But what does Jesus do? As he enters that upper room where his disciples are full of fear and conflicted feelings. Does he back away? Does he tell Thomas not to touch him? No, he invites him to search. Prod as much as he likes – these wounds are real. These wounds are wounds each of us inflict upon one another. We are invited to examine them – to look and see – what have we done?
The past weekend I discovered the transcript of a conference held recently at Coventry Cathedral called ‘Faith in Conflict’ – at which Sam Wells, Jo Bailey-Wells, the archbishop’s new chaplain, and the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby spoke about reconciliation and about conflict. Sam Wells described the turmoil one parish was going through over a set of stained-glass windows, and Sam had been asked to help guide them through this conflict. It was apparent each side was entrenched and were not going to budge. And he skilfully listened to each argument one by one – realising each side had come to their conclusion through careful, well thought out argument. Each side was full of pain, and each side knew they were right. Neither understood how the other could be so intransigent, how they could waste Church time and resources in such a way. But Sam concluded with a profound statement:
“And we say, ‘But this church is crucifying me.’ And our archdeacon tenderly says, ‘No, it may feel like that. But really this church is crucifying Jesus. All churches do. Your choice is whether you’re going to impose or pretend a false peace because you think you’ve got more important things to do, which really means more winnable battles to fight elsewhere, or if you’re going to get stuck into the hassle and hustle of truth-telling, repentance, penance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing. Which one do you think looks more like the cross?'”
Sam Wells is asking whether our arguments, our causes, are worth fighting for? Are we willing to crucify others for the sake of this cause? Are we willing to make sacrifices of our own for the sake of the peace we claim to be seeking?
The point of the conference on reconciliation and conflict was that actually conflict can and should be a good and healthy thing. It leads to necessary change – sometimes that change is painful, and it is the force of the conflict which can be destructive not the actual conflict itself. When we start to listen to others, when we start to ask what we ourselves are willing to sacrifice – this is when real change happens, when reconciliation finds its place. This reconciliation is the point of forgiveness following repentance. This reconciliation is the resurrection following the pain of crucifixion and death.
Oftentimes when people find out I am involved in interfaith dialogue, they have expectations of me being somehow ethereally peaceful or in a constant state of serenity, never a cause of conflict. And then there is great disappointment when they discover I am often at the very centre of conflict, albeit reluctantly! It is at that centre the voiceless are given a voice, the disenfranchised are given the power to stand up for themselves and the vulnerable are lent strength. This is not an easy or comfortable place to be, but it is the place in which transformation is able to take place, it is the place in which reconciliation and healing are able to happen.
++Justin gave the final talk at the Coventry conference, and within that I found this statement to be profoundly comforting: ‘If the Church is not a place both of conflict and of reconciliation it is not merely hindering its mission and evangelism, appalling as such hindrance is, but it is a failing or failed church. It has ceased to be the miracle of diversity in unity, of the grace of God breaking down walls.’
He goes on to invite us to expansive hospitality, a hospitality that is willing to listen to our opponents, listen to our enemies – and taking example from today’s gospel, to allow them to prod around in our own wounds. There is a strength in this that cannot but be held in the attractiveness of Love, that draws all to itself, endures all things, a Love that never ends.