The eucatastrophe of the resurrection

Luke 24:13-35 The eucatastrophe of the resurrection

Christ Church Highbury, April 30th 2017

This reading is, I believe, a resurrection appearance in which it is easy to place ourselves within the story. The two travellers towards Emmaus are dejected, disappointed and hopeless. You can imagine the catch in their voice as they conclude their story of all that has happened in Jerusalem over the last few days: “…but they did not see Jesus.”

In Luke’s account of the resurrection, Jesus has not yet appeared to his disciples at this point. The travellers on the road may be leaning towards one of the more logical explanations for the empty tomb – that someone has stolen Jesus’ body – perhaps to make the disciples’ grief all the more painful. The body of their beloved teacher isn’t even being given the respect that it deserved.

I feel like we can probably all empathise with Cleopas and his companion. Most of us will have experienced deep grief and hopelessness at points in our lives. Situations where promises seem to have been broken. Where things have not gone to plan. When a loved one has left us. Where all hope feels lost.

The pair are responding in a very human way. As they walk, they talk and discuss with each other. I can imagine them weighing up different scenarios. Pondering what meaning they might have. Perhaps they went over things they had learned from Jesus, trying to find an answer.

It feels like a human response to me, because this is exactly what I do when I’m faced with a similar situation. I walk. I think. I ponder. I talk to friends or family. When things haven’t being going to plan in my life, or when difficult events have occurred, I pound the streets. I take my anger out on my feet. I let the tears flow. It’s immensely cathartic, and an attempt to make sense of all that is going on within and around me.

***

Of course, we, the readers, are in on the secret. We know the identity of the stranger who comes alongside them, but their eyes remain closed to Jesus’ presence.

In just a few verses, the two disciples move from the depths of despair to the pinnacle of elation. At the moment when Jesus breaks bread, he is revealed to them and they realise that prophecy has indeed been fulfilled, right in front of them. It is an amazing moment of joy!

In 1944, Tolkien coined the term ‘eucatastrophe’ in one of his letters. It’s a word he used to describe ‘the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears’. It’s the opposite of a catastrophe, changing everything irrevocably for the better. In one sense, he was describing a literary device – a moment in a novel when the unexpected happens and your perception of events changes completely.

My favourite fictional example of what Tolkien was describing takes place in the work of one of his closest friends. In The Lion the Witch & the Wardrobe – when Aslan defeats death. Many of you will be familiar with this scene, but to put this passage into context, Susan and Lucy have just spent a night watching the White Witch and her allies tying Aslan to a stone table, before killing him. As dawn breaks, something happens…

At that moment they heard from behind them a loud noise…. The Stone Table was broken into two pieces by a great crack that ran down it from end to end; and there was no Aslan.

“Who’s done it?” cried Susan. “What does it mean? Is it more magic?”

 “Yes!” said a great voice from behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.

“Oh, Aslan!” cried both the children… “But what does it all mean?” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.

 “It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”

I vividly remember the first time I heard this story – I was 6 or 7, on holiday in Llandudno. My parents were strong believers in the importance of reading to my sister and I, and on this occasion, I was suffering from an ear infection and my mum read to me while I cuddled under a blanket on the sofa. I’ve heard the book far more times than I’ve read it for myself – we had a complete set of the Chronicles of Narnia on cassette tape read by the Shakespearian actor Michael Horden, and it’s his voice I hear in my head as I read that quote. But, in common with most children of the 1980s, what I visualise in my head is the BBC adaptation of the book.

Every time – and I mean every time – I read or hear this part of the story I get goosebumps. Even as I sat in Starbucks working on this sermon, the hairs on my arms stood on end.

Of course, we’re well aware of the deliberate parallel between Aslan and Jesus. This scene is intentionally evoking the resurrection of Christ. But I don’t think I had much idea of that the first time I heard it.

This word ‘eucatastrophe’ that Tolkien coined can be applied to other books or films. The dénouement of the Harry Potter series. The moment of escape in The Shawshank Redemption. There is a eucatastrophic moment in Tolkien’s most famous work – LOTR – but I can’t speak of its impact because, and this may be shocking, I’ve never read the books or watched the films! [No one in my family has. We’re not stubborn, we’re just not huge fans of fantasy that has no foot in our reality.]

But it isn’t just a literary device that one of our greatest writers established. Tolkien considered the resurrection to be “the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest fairy story”. He wrote that: ‘it produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places joy and sorrow are at one, reconciled as selfishness and altruism are lost in love.’

By no means is this the same as “happily ever after”. These moments cannot be experienced without also experiencing the sorrow that precedes them. We cannot fully rejoice in the resurrection without going through the despair of the crucifixion.

***

On the road to Emmaus the two disciples journeyed from the sorrow of Christ’s crucifixion to the joy of his revelation of himself in the breaking of bread.

They knew Jesus’ teaching, and the prophecies made about the Messiah. As verse 21 reports, “we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” But their sorrow clouds their ability to have faith in all they had learnt. It’s as though their hope has been buried in the tomb alongside Christ.

Jesus – although they still don’t know who he is – chastises them, saying: “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” As he outlines the ways in which prophecy has been fulfilled, they realise later that their hearts were being warmed. Once he has revealed his identity, they say to one another: ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’

Just as we can relate to their sorrow as they set out on their journey, we can also relate to their disbelief. Jesus’ explanation consisted of teaching what they had heard before, but their grief prevented them from fully believing until the moment when bread is broken.

Our journey of faith is one that follows in the footsteps of these disciples. We can draw confidence from this resurrection appearance because it is a witness to who Jesus was, is and shall be: the Messiah.

That moment when Jesus breaks bread and they are able to see who he is? That is the moment of purest joy, pushing aside all the sorrow and confusion of the preceding days!

We need to share in that joy of the resurrection. To emulate Cleopas and his companion who returned at once to Jerusalem to share the joy with the other disciples, telling all who they met on their journey of the amazing event that had occurred.

Many of us will have moments where the joy of the resurrection has shone in our lives in a similar manner to this moment of revelation for the two disciples. A moment when our hearts have overflowed with the elation of the truth that Christ is risen.

I have a taste of this every time I’ve begun our Easter Sunday services with the words: “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!” Simply proclaiming that truth fills me with immense joy – especially having journeyed through the grief of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Or every time I get to say the Eucharistic Prayer and once again share the story of who Jesus is and why we remember him in bread and wine.

Then there’s my own testimony of how the risen Christ has been at work in my own life. Of the difference that this glorious news has made – which I often get to share with others when they ask how I came to be ordained.

So the question I want to leave you with is twofold:

  • What is the moment that fills you with joy at the truth that is the resurrection?
  • Who can you run and tell about it?

What we measure controls us

Luke 19:1-9, Christ Church Highbury 12th March 2017

(Third in the Lent series based on Archbishop Justin Welby’s ‘Dethroning Mammon’)

 

“What we measure controls us” suggests Justin Welby. And when you think about it, he’s got a point. Take a moment to think about the things in your life that you measure…your bank balance; your mortgage repayments; your weight; your academic grades; your success at work… If we’re not careful, these are things that can take over our lives in unhelpful ways.

Instead, the Archbishop argues that our dethroning of mammon’s place in our society “requires a leap of faith of being defined by what we do not measure – cannot measure – because it is infinitely valuable, utterly cosmos-transforming love of God in Jesus Christ.”

We cannot ever hope to measure the extent of Jesus’ love for us and the rest of God’s creation, but this love should mean more to us than any of the things that we invest considerable time and effort into measuring.

What difference can it make to our lives when we re-assess what we measure and how we measure it?

Measuring Zacchaeus:

Luke doesn’t tell us just how short Zacchaeus is, just that he needed to climb a tree in order to get a proper look at Jesus. We don’t know his height in feet & inches, and to be honest, in similar scenarios most of us would probably need to be up high in order to view an important person in the midst of a crowd.

Zacchaeus’ height is just one of several aspects of this reading that could be measured. We hear that he’s wealthy, that he’s a sinner, that he gives away half of his possessions, and that he will pay back four times what he may have cheated people. We also know that there is disapproval amongst the onlookers, who mutter their objections to Jesus’ interactions with the tax-collector.

None of these things affect the way in which Jesus interacts with him. There is no mention of Jesus spotting him, taking a measurement of just how sinful Zacchaeus was, and then choosing to spend time with him. Nor are we told that Jesus measures his wealth and duplicity, in order to tell him how much to give back – it’s suggested that this is done out of Zacchaeus’ own free will.

What Jesus gives Zacchaeus is also un-measurable. He receives salvation – and there is no scale of redemption, you are either saved or you’re not! He is also included in the ancient promise of Abraham. As a Jew, Zacchaeus should have already been an inheritor of this, but his sin would have excluded him in the eye of the religious leaders of the time. But Jesus’ words demonstrate that again, there are no degrees of being a Son of Abraham – it is all or nothing!

But Zacchaeus and the crowd have been measuring the things that control them, even if they haven’t realised it. Zacchaeus clearly feels a level of guilt for what he has done in his life thus far – his collusion with the Roman authorities, collecting tax from his own people who are living under an oppressive regime, and cheating in order to gain personal wealth.

The crowd are measuring Zacchaeus and Jesus by the standards their society and culture have given them. The tax collector hasn’t met the standards that their religious laws expected – working with gentiles and stealing. Jesus is associating with a known law breaker, and seemingly isn’t chastising him for his actions. Both have fallen short according to their tools of measurement.

Measurement:

The Archbishop is, in this chapter of his book, making the point that what we can measure, particularly in terms of wealth, we can control. The problem is, that we seem to disproportionally value those things that we can measure.

The crowd could measure others according to their religious and social standards.

Zacchaeus could measure the amount of money he made from his job and lies.

We can measure our bank accounts, our debts, and the objects we own.

As with last week’s theme, ‘what we see we value’, it comes back to sight. Jesus wants those around him – and us – to see the world as he does. Zacchaeus has two reasons for climbing the tree: he wants to see, but at the same time, not to be seen. He doesn’t want Jesus to see him for who he is, but in fact Jesus sees beyond that and sees who he truly is: redeemed and a Son of Abraham.

Measurement is tricky. We’re not very good at measuring what actually matters. Take the church for example, one of the main forms of measurement that the Church of England has is church attendance. Every October, each church denomination in the UK submits their data for the month and these numbers form the official statistics regarding the state of the church. Inevitably, in recent years these stats have inspired headlines proclaiming the death of the church. Average weekly attendance is in decline. Electoral rolls are getting smaller. The money churches receive in offerings and donations decreases in line with these numbers. What we’re measuring is not telling a cheerful story.

And on the one hand, that’s ok. These statistics prompt – or should prompt – churches to do something about it! It’s why the Fresh Expressions initiative emerged over 15 years ago – an attempt to find new ways of being church that might encourage those who have never been part of a church to join in. It’s also behind the Renewal & Reform process that the Church of England is currently exploring – a programme of change, development and creativity to make it fit for purpose in the 21st Century.

But at the same time, these statistics don’t tell the full story…

As some of you will be aware, I work part-time at Christ Church and the rest of my time is spent working on various research projects. Prior to starting theological college, I worked in the research department of the Methodist Church, working on their statistics and hunting for stories to go alongside the numbers. Now, one of my regular pieces of work is helping organisations – including churches – measure their impact. Specifically, in terms of making new followers of Christ, discipling them, and their impact upon their local community. It’s about finding out what’s happening beyond the numbers – and not letting the numbers control what happens in or to these communities.

One of the places that’s doing a lot of work on this is Leicester Diocese. A few years ago, they looked at their stats and decided to come up with a strategy that would help them grow as a church. So they sold off some property that they no longer needed and put the money into a ‘Growth Fund’ which projects and churches can apply to for grants. The team that I’m part of then does a workshop with successful grant recipients, helping them establish how they will measure the impact their project has over its funding period and beyond.

The point of the exercise is to help them measure what matters to them. That won’t necessarily be the same as another project – the church employing a children’s worker will have different criteria to a pioneer appointed to a brand new housing estate – but the measurements all fall within the diocese’s broad vision of: making new followers of Christ, increasing discipleship & building relationships with the wider community.

The measurements will end up being a combination of numbers and stories, but the hope is that together they will provide as full a picture of impact as possible. And, that it will give the projects, churches and diocese the tools to see where things are working and where things may need to change. Rather than having a set of measures imposed upon them, these teams work together to ensure that they’re not being controlled by unreasonable expectations.

In Leicester, we’re created measurements that help demonstrate the impact that the Jesus’ love and the Kingdom of God on earth is having – sounds dramatic, but that’s the motivation behind their actions, just as it is in our own community here in Highbury. One project I worked with recently is going to count the number of smiles its team receives as they get to know a new housing area, as a way of measuring their engagement and relationship building! It’s a little different to simply counting people in seats on a Sunday morning…

Our parish accounts are another form of measurement, but is another great example of not letting what we measure control us. If a parish was controlled by this measure, they would spend all their time saving money – not spending it. Perhaps they might have the philosophy of saving money for a rainy day – perhaps just in case the roof falls in and it quite literally is a rainy day in church! Instead, as you’ll see later, we have a pretty healthy attitude to how we spend the money that we’re fortunate to have. We keep an eye on our spending, not just to check we’re not spending too much, but to check that we’re spending our funds in line with our missional priorities. It doesn’t control us, but helps guide us to fulfilling the vision that we believe God has for this church and the community of Highbury.

Conclusion:

On the one hand, Justin Welby is encouraging us to move beyond the measurables of 21st century life, into the unmeasurable goodness of God’s Kingdom. To let the love we receive from Christ be enough to free us from the control of our earthly belongings.

But I think there is also a value to reassessing what it is we measure. Once free of society’s expected measurements – the bank balance or salary – we are able to measure what God is doing through us.

Zacchaeus, once free of his sin and his ill-gotten gains, is able to follow Christ fully. We don’t hear what he does next, but one could assume that he becomes a follower of The Way and proclaims the Good News beyond Christ’s death and resurrection. Instead of measuring his height, his wealth or his sin, we could now try to measure the impact that this short passage of Scripture, this single encounter between Jesus and a tax collector, has had in the intervening two millennia. How many thousands or millions of people have come to Christ through the story of the saved sinner? How many people’s faith has increased as they’ve heard this tale and realised just how far Jesus’ love stretches? But such is the vast-ness of God’s love in Jesus Christ that we can’t possibly hope to put a number on that impact! We just see the results of it all around us and throughout the church’s history.

And how will Jesus use you?

The Thessalonians & Social Media

Last Friday (the stunningly beautiful day in Westminster), I was at Church House Westminster for a gathering of church types who have some level of experience/expertise in the field of social media. I’m not entirely sure how I managed to find myself within such a group, given that, unlike my neighbour to one side, I’ve not written a PhD on church websites; or have a Twitter following of nearly 34,000 like the person on my left. However, having now been to two of these meetings, I can say that I’m glad to be there and hope that I manage to contribute something of worth.

[At my first meeting, I distinguished myself for seconding a proposed Easter hashtag on the basis that it was a Take That song. I then leapt to the defence of Take That fans everywhere, insisting that it wasn’t just middle aged women who had a thing for Gary Barlow…]

One of my contributions last week was in response to a question on how we, particularly as Christians, can remain authentic in our online presences. Should we have multiple presences? [A question posed by Vicky Beeching last week, in response to which Rosemary Lain-Priestly has blogged brilliantly.] Is it enough to simply tweet platitudes? [Short answer: no.] Does being ‘authentic’ mean sharing every last detail? [In my opinion: definitely not!] How do those of us in positions of responsibility maintain suitable boundaries? Should everything we post online effectively be evangelistic?

Holy Bible FacebookLiking the Bible helps… (Credit.)

It was as part of a conversation on this last question that I got involved, sharing a tiny bit of a sermon I’d preached over a year ago on the Thessalonians and social media. A couple of people asked me if I’d ever blogged it – and I realised I hadn’t. [I preached it 24 hours before flying to Texas, I guess that probably put it out of my mind. That, and I don’t think I’ve ever blogged a sermon!] Part of the sermon was based on some thoughts I’d shared here on digital discipleship, but that was it. So here, for those who asked, are some of my thoughts (only the ones about social media – the rest was on contextual mission!) on 1 Thessalonians 1. Some of it is a direct copy & paste job from the sermon, so it’s tone isn’t quite blog-like, but you should get the idea…

The first letter to the Thessalonians is effectively a progress report from Paul on how the church had developed since his last visit – and it’s a good one. This small group of Christians was already having a massive impact, as verse 8 tells us:

“The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia – your faith in God has become known everywhere.”

Paul didn’t need to ask how the Thessalonians were doing, because he was hearing stories about them from all over the place. In verse 7, the word ‘model’ is used, but it could be better translated from the Greek as ‘imprint’, kind of like stamping your seal into melted wax, or embossing something. The Thessalonians weren’t just acting in a certain way, they were impacting upon the people around them – they were imprinting the gospel upon their lives. Which basically, is where the connection with social media comes in.

The Thessalonians had a massive impact upon Christian communities that were forming fairly close to where they were, geographically. It wasn’t too hard for news of their conversion and their faithfulness to spread to Macedonia and Archaia, but bear in mind that the ideas they were sharing – of Christ and the gospel – were still almost brand new and totally alien to the culture in which they lived. Sharing was a risk, but they did it. For the Thessalonians the mission field was nearby provinces, I’d like to suggest that today, for many of us, it’s the online world of social media. The Thessalonians were counter-cultural in the way in which they turned from pagan idols to God, it’s not difficult to see how raising God above society’s idols of today would be counter-cultural in our own society.

In the UK, there are 7 million regular church goers, yet there are 30 million regular users of Facebook. The possibilities of reaching friends, friends of friends and total strangers via share on Facebook, retweets on Twitter and attention grabbing blogposts are almost endless. When you share something on Facebook or Twitter it’s not just your circle of friends who can see it, it can go viral – as we’ve seen when people’s use of social media has gone wrong. Yes, we need to be careful, but this is also a powerful tool that can be used to do a lot of good.

I’ve been thinking about how we can do both our imitating and our modelling in the world of social networking for a little while now. I love social media – I write a blog, I tweet, I love Facebook a little less, but I can deny that it’s incredibly useful to life. But it’s very easy to make your online life a lot more sanitised than your real, offline life. That photo you’ve detagged? The tweet you posted in error and deleted? The erudite blogposts you spend days composing? Again, when I say ‘you’, I obviously mean ‘me’ – I’ve definitely done all of those things.

What followed were the digital discipleship tips I’d already blogged about – the last of which was ‘be inspirational’. It’s that last point which I think particularly relates to Paul’s commendation to the Thessalonians for the way in which they had imitated Christ and the apostles, and how they were now modelling this for others. The Thessalonians shared their news joyfully, inspiring others – how could you do the same?

I really want to challenge you all on this. If you’re not into social media, that’s ok – consider this a challenge to reach outside of your comfort zone. But if you are, then think about how you use it and your interactions with people there. If we are living lives that are incarnational – imitating Christ and the apostles and aiming to imprint the gospel upon others – what does this look like digitally and in the real world?

If we as Christians are being authentic in our social media presences, then the gospel ought to be ringing out of us in all that we do – whether that’s quoting something spiritually inspiring, behaving in a way that bemuses society, or live-tweeting the Great British Bake Off. The point is, present yourself as you really are – don’t have one account for your Christian followers and one where you share your secular interests. You are one, single person, with a wealth of passions – be honest and authentic in all of them!