Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Uncontrollable God

A sermon for Easter Day

Song of Songs 3.2-5; 8.6-7; John 20.11-18

There is an episode of the cartoon series the Simpsons in which Homer becomes a missionary in the South Pacific.  In the course of this, he builds a chapel for the natives.  When it is finished, he stands back and admires what he has build.  “I may not know much about God,” he says, “but we built a pretty nice cage for him.”  As we mark Easter Day, and hear again the story of the empty tomb, we are reminded that we do not control God.  The empty tomb stands against all attempts to cage or to control God.

We do not control God with our minds and our understanding.  The tomb was empty.  It has puzzled scholars and believers ever since.  Mary Magdalene, looking into the tomb, sees that the tomb is empty and doesn’t understand.  Some have looked to the empty tomb to provide proof that Jesus rose from the dead.  But the empty tomb is no knock down proof of the resurrection of Jesus.  Mary’s example, together with that of Peter earlier in the story, demonstrates that.  Both saw the empty tomb and drew a conclusion that Jesus’ body had been moved.

But nor does the empty tomb allow us to simply dismiss the stories as fanciful and later rationalisations of the internal conviction of the disciples that Jesus was alive. The tomb was empty, something happened.  The empty tomb roots the story of Jesus’ resurrection in something in the course of events.   The empty tomb challenges simple faith and rationalism alike.  The tomb offers neither proof not disproof.  It is simply empty.  There is no explanation.  He is not here. We cannot control God according to our religious or our rational thinking.  We cannot pin down what God has done in raising Jesus from the dead.  The tomb is empty, and no one sees what happened, no one knows how life was restored to the corpse.  The elaborate theories of faith and scepticism alike are silenced by the emptiness of the tomb. 

We do not control God with our minds, and we do not control where God is found.  St John tells us that Mary, as she peered into the tomb saw two angels sitting at the head and feet of where the body of Jesus had been.  As ever in John’s Gospel, there is a deep meaning to this.  (We might take some comfort from the fact that Mary, who was there, didn’t see it!)  The two angels are the two cherubim who sat at either side of the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies at the heart of the Temple in Jerusalem.  There it was that God dwelled, at the heart of the Temple.  And now, God is present in the emptiness of the tomb.  God is found in emptiness, in places of suffering and death, in places of persecution and poverty.  God is present in Syria, with the homeless and the hungry.  God is present in our emptiness, even though we’d rather he was present in our fullness.  The pain and the absences in our lives are places where God can be found, but never caged or controlled.

We do not control God with our thinking, nor do we control where God is found.  And we do not control who is invited to share in the good news of the resurrection.  The resurrection does not cancel out the cross, a victory following close after a defeat. Rather the resurrection confirms that the path that Jesus trod to the cross was the right path, the path God called him to follow.  In the resurrection, Jesus whole life is given back to him and to us.  In life Jesus associated with the wrong people, with tax collectors, collaborators, prostitutes, sinners, the unclean, the ill and the despised.  Notably, the one set of people that Jesus did not get on well with were the religious!  In his risen life, these wrong people are still the people to whom

Jesus offers an invitation.  The stone has been rolled away, and the invitation is open to all people.  Christianity has its origins in a radically inclusive openness to all people.  Yet the church has made itself exclusive in all kinds of different ways.  As the hymn puts it: “we make His love too narrow/ by false limits of our own;/ and we magnify His strictness/ with a zeal He will not own.”  The empty tomb, its stone rolled away, challenges us to open ourselves and our church to all those whom the Lord is calling.

We do not control God with our thinking; we do not control where God is found; we do not control who is invited to share in the good news; and we do not control how we respond.  It is comforting and safe to have rules and regulations.  But we do not control God by following religious rules – I’ve prayed so hard, God must do what I ask.  Nor does God control us by giving us rules to follow and a clear set of consequences for when we keep the rules and when we break them.  Instead, God invites us to a far more challenging thing – he invites us into a relationship.  The love poetry that is the Song of Solomon, full of erotic imagery and passionate language, is in the Bible to remind us just that.  We are invited into a relationship with God, which is far more challenging than following any rules.  We are called to fall in love with God, to fall in love with life.  We are to share in all the joys and the pains of this and see where it takes us.  Easter is not a message to obey; Easter is a message, a life, to be lived.  We do not control God, nor does God control us – rather he invites us into this risen life, into his love, to live fully and wholeheartedly.

We do not control God.  The empty tomb bears witness to this.  It breaks our intellectual categories, it presents us with God where we do not expect or want him.  Its door is open to all the wrong sort of people, even us.  And it invites us to a passionate relationship of love and life.  The stone has been rolled away; the tomb is empty.  God in Jesus bursts out of all our attempts to control and cage him.  As we celebrate in joy this Easter, let us open our hearts and lives to live the Easter Gospel of an uncontrollable God who invites us to share his life.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen.
He is risen indeed, Alleluia.

Given at Derby Cathedral 20.4.14.

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