Thomas Aquinas, the renowned Medieval theologian, talked about each person having two possible resurrections. Firstly, given the almost universal belief in the Middle Ages in the after-life, there was the post-death resurrection of a soul uniting with God. In my language I would talk about that as ‘going into the oneness of all’. Secondly, Aquinas talked about another resurrection, in this life time, of ‘waking up’. He was talking about becoming awake to, aware of, both the suffering and the joy in the world; and to join, participate, in alleviating suffering through works of justice and mercy, and to celebrate and propagate works of joy, beauty, and love.
Aquinas was using the word resurrection to talk about being fully alive and engaged now, rather than being what he called ‘asleep’: drifting, detached in a despairing passivity waiting for some authoritarian God or leader to do the work and rescue us. This ‘awakening’ resurrection is about falling in love with life – fully alive, fully awake, fully engaged.
Faith communities have long created stories to talk about these resurrections and pose questions. Questions like ‘What happens after death?’ ‘Will I meet God after death?’ ‘Will God judge and punish/reward me on the basis of what I did or didn’t do or believe?’ And: ‘How will I meet/recognise God in this life now?’ ‘What does God ask of me now?’
The De Mello story we heard this morning uses a well-known afterlife motif of God deciding people’s fate when they are dead to talk about what is important in this life, and what is important about God. For those raised in a faith tradition with lots of emphasis on rules, punishment, and God as judge, this is a helpful parable in ‘unpicking’ that theology before ‘knitting’ a whole new understanding of God. It takes the image of the anthropomorphic male God-being using the Ten Commandments as criteria to determine worthiness/acceptability. Then it begins, from the perspective and priority of compassion, to unpick that image. The conclusion is, as I preached some 30 years ago, ‘if there is a heaven we’re all going to be there’ – even the grumpy old man. That sermon 3 decades back resulted in the theological thought-police coming to have a ‘wee word’ with me.
The gospel reading today is also like a parable. To be clear, this is a fictitious creation of the late 1st and early 2nd century Johannine community about their needs and issues, not about what was happening in the ‘30s in Palestine. Thomas is a caricature of a particular type of disciple, who found the literalness of Jesus’ resurrection difficult. It’s a story that is meant to discourage doubt. Whereas I, and many other Christians, applaud doubt, and encourage it as an important tool in the journey of faith. Maybe we need to turn this parable upside down and ask why this community was trying to shut the Thomas types up. Was a literal ‘man-gets-up-from-the-grave’ theology starting to gain traction and the Thomas types were critical of it?
I think the more interesting verse is when the ‘apparition’ (for want of a better word) that passed through the locked doors of their fear says, ‘“Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” For the power to forgive sins was seen as a divine power; yet here it was being shared with Jesus’ followers. They were to live God’s Spirit.
And forgiving sins, like in the De Mello story, usually had conditions attached. The about-to-be-forgiven-one needed to show remorse, or prove his/her worthiness in some way. But there are no conditions mentioned here. Maybe (remembering another gospel story) the seventy times seven rule applied? That rule didn’t say forgive just 490 times, it meant unlimited times. It meant keep on forgiving, showing unconditional, unlimited grace. And (to bring in another gospel story) I would say this unconditional, unlimited grace is the ‘rock’ on which the church would be built (not, as that story was interpreted, the church being built on Peter, on a man, on Rome).
I’ve titled this sermon today, ‘Easter after all the eggs are eaten’. And these verses about divine grace, forgiving power, flowing through the followers of Jesus, are a clue, a pointer, into the ongoing life of Easter after the celebratory day of the eggs and other festivities are finished.
What is God? In the first story, ‘God’ is transformed from an authoritative judge into someone who wants community, whose way is compassion. In the second story, ‘God’ is an energy, a mysterious force, both like and unlike the historical Jesus, that passes through the barriers of our fears to come into our midst offering unconditional unlimited grace; and in the process of that passing and offering, there is an invitation to do likewise. In other words we become, we merge into, God. We join the God movement/energy. So god, rather than a being, is a movement of love in which we participate, that holds together hope, kindness, unconditional grace, and endless compassion. And Easter then (‘when the eggs are all eaten’) is a verb, describing how we join with that movement of God in bringing hope into places of despair, light into places of darkness, and love into places of fear.
Those familiar with Carl Jung will know about archetypes. Good Friday and Easter Sunday are archetypes. Rather than limit them to one time in history, it is better to think of them as archetypes of suffering and death (Good Friday) and life and hope (Easter Sunday). These archetypes and the lessons they teach are very pertinent to this pandemic time.
The Good Friday archetype teaches us things like:
We are all mortal. “Thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.”
“All beings suffer” (as the cross and Buddhists remind us) — even the just and the innocent.
It is not in the nature of an empire to promote the non-violent, egalitarian, justice messages of the historical Jesus. Empires profit the powerful. And empires try to destroy those who undermine both profits and the powerful.
Life itself can seem unjust, for the young ought not to die young.
Life itself cannot be taken for granted.
It often seems to us that the just should not have to suffer. But we all do suffer, young and old, known and unknown.
Death and the possibility of death can make us afraid.
Grieving is a part of life. Grieving is a necessary part of growing one’s soul—of dying before we die—and living in the real world and being real.
Love and suffering are often united.
The art of living well is learning and being willing to let go.
And the Easter Sunday archetype teaches us many things too like:
Death does not have the last word.
Life triumphs over suffering. Or as Rabbi Zalman Schactner said, “There is more good than evil in the world but not by much”.
Therefore be on the lookout for good. Be a hunter-gatherer for good. Be a planter of good. Make good. Relish, celebrate, and contribute to the good. Stand in solidarity with good.
Light is more powerful than darkness. When you light even a little candle you give encouragement to others to light candles. This is what the teddy bears in windows are all about.
Life is precious as well as precarious. So, value each moment. When feeling low, smile. When feeling low, move your body, and your spirit will follow. Be kind to and with your body, and your spirit will begin to open again to joy.
In a society that values above all else acquiring things, and the means to acquire things, there are many things beyond such a society’s understanding. These ‘beyond things’ include beauty (without profit), poetry and music (without profit), birdsong (without car noise), and kindnesses (given anonymously).
It is beauty, poetry, music, birdsong, kindnesses, and such things that feed the soul, and produce light by which we and others around us can see.
“a few crumbs of fun,
a tiny flake of beauty,
one teaspoon of enthusiasm,
a skerrick of community,
a bear at the window,
a snippet of eye contact,
a wave of hospitality,
a tuppence of patience,
a mite of honour,
a wisp of good humour,
a sample of compassion –
leftovers, oddments, little things,
remnants of the glorious resurrection,
fragments of God,
Easter when the eggs are all eaten.”
Easter – the Friday and the Sunday – hold before us the triumph of life over death, good over evil, hope over fear, love over hate, health over sickness, compassion and rightful action over condemnation and wrongdoing… even when we cannot see it or feel it. Easter is reflected everywhere in nature and in the indomitable strength and renewal of the human spirit. It is the symbolic event outside of us and within us that transcends all spiritual, mental and material obstacles. Easter teaches us that with enough faith, commitment and courage there is no struggle we cannot meet and conquer. Easter teaches us that even the most convincing appearances are often deceiving. It teaches us that there is more to life than meets the eye. That even when we think something is completely over (beaten, killed, entombed with a big stone blocking the entrance) it’s really just beginning in a new form.
This Easter movement, this energy of mutuality into which we are woven, can empower us. Miracles have a way of arising when we agree to them, make room for them, and participate in them. So, in the words of Aquinas, let’s awaken to both the suffering and the joy in the world; and to join in alleviating suffering through works of justice and mercy, and to join in celebrating and propagating works of joy, beauty, and love.