preached by the Right Reverend Dr Paul Colton,
Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross
in Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork on Easter Day 2014
What, in God’s Name, should upset us as Christians?
‘If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation.’ (2 Corinthians 5.7)
Often it’s the wrong things in life that upset us. I find myself focussing on little things I get out of proportion: annoying and inconvenient perhaps, but on the grand scale of things, not of the greatest significance. Or in the midst of something we miss the point and get upset about the wrong aspect of it.
Last Sunday when our Holy Week journey began, Jesus went into the temple and overturned the tables of the money-changers. He was really upset: angry even. In contrast, what annoyed the temple authorities was that people were being healed, and this upstart was challenging their own authority.
We’re here today with a whole new perspective on the week that has past. Christ has risen! It is our experience and understanding that he lives still; he journeys with us and inspires us. Easter is meant to change us – dying and rising to Christ, in our baptism – we are a new creation and so the questions remain and menace us:
What upsets us? What should really upset us?
The other day I saw a clip on social media which included a profane word – a usually censored expletive. It was on an advertising bill-board – a sandwich board, rather – being worn by a man on the streets of London. He was calling out the message — “Beep the poor!’ Even alluding to such a word here in the context of our Easter liturgy, at the very least makes us all profoundly uneasy. (What’s the bishop going to say next? Will he cross that line?) I’m uncomfortable myself drawing attention to it. Certainly, were I to articulate it, we would all be deeply upset, and you probably would listen to nothing more I have to say this morning.
It was a social experiment – a campaign designed to shock – organised by a small UK charity The Pilion Trust, a charity, which helps the poorest and most vulnerable. The young man is wearing his sandwich board and he calls out the message ‘Beep the poor.’ Passers-by do a double take in disbelief. Most stop and remonstrate. Some come back: irate. They challenge and argue. They engage. They care. They queue up to complain about his crass, offensive message. At one point a crowd surrounds him.
And so he changes the message on his sandwich board to make it acceptable: ‘Help the poor’. Not one person stops. He calls out the message. No one speaks to him. No one reacts. All pass by. The reality of poverty does not to cause the same offence as the strong expletive.
Where is that new creation of those who are in the risen Christ?
‘If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation.’
Good and decent people, their striving societies and well-intentioned churches can so often miss the point or get upset about the wrong things.
At the start of Holy Week, it was not the fact of the money-changers in the temple that upset Jesus; they were needed. In fact, they were an essential part of the sacrificial system, so people could worship in the way required.
What was really upsetting Jesus? It was the entirety of the religious edifice and institution, what it had become, what it stood for in many ways, and what it no longer stood up, and that it was colluding with the entire imperial system – this is what angered Jesus and drove him to that physical rage and rant.
Now, a week later, at the start of a new week we see the whole past week, the whole life of Jesus, his humiliating suffering and execution, in a new light. We experience it all and we see and experience Jesus in a new way. He is the risen Christ.
That changes us. It has the power to transform us. It should give us insight and perspective. We see all now through the prism of the teaching and life of Jesus. We ought now to know what, in God’s name, to get really upset about as Christians.
In our baptism we died with Christ. We take up our cross and follow him. (Mark 8.34). We are raised with Christ. We continue to live here and now, but we are called to live a new way of life. The way of Jesus Christ is to be our way.
‘If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation.’
As the American theologian Marcus Borg puts it: ‘The followers of Jesus are invited into the journey that leads through death to new life.’ This transformation, he says, is personal, but it is also, ‘… political. And if we do not see this, we risk betraying the passion for which Jesus was willing to give his life. … Jesus’ passion got him killed. But [that first Easter] God vindicated Jesus. This is the political meaning of Good Friday and Easter.’
What, therefore, upsets us as Christians, as follower of the way of Christ? What preoccupies us as Christians, his disciples, in our time? What engages our attention? What are we missing?
These are apt questions for Easter Day, for, as I say, every week, the journey of Holy Week and Easter – the final days, teaching, trial, suffering, execution and resurrection of Jesus Christ, are meant to transform us.
If we start with ourselves before we point at others, how upset, for example, are we by
– the shortcomings in our own Church communities?
– our failure to get live out the full meaning of the Gospel in lives modelled on the inclusive, reconciling, forgiving love of Jesus?
Often in our churches we nail our colours to the mast for things that are not at the heart of the Gospel.
How upset are we by
– shortcomings in our own society in the way we provide for the most vulnerable: the sick and needy?
– enduring sectarianism, racism and homophobia in our own churches and society?
– the fallout of the recession for commercial and family lives in this country?
– our failure to stand up for those who are stigmatised by the way we use language or the way we treat them?
And on an even bigger canvas, how upset do we get about:
– the situation in Ukraine, in Syria, in the Sudan?
– the attacks on and persecution of gay people, inspired by new legislation in places such as Uganda and Nigeria?
– the fact that so much homophobia seems to be fuelled apparently by the incitement to hatred and with the collusion of some Christians ?
– human rights abuses – desecration of humanity, the image of God – injustice, the world over.
The list is endless.
Along with the rude, but challenging sandwich board, another report caught my eye this week. Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz shaped a lifelike statue of a homeless man, and installed it on a park bench in a wealthy neighbourhood, outside St Alban’s Episcopal Church, in Davison, North Carolina. It is so lifelike that people called the police thinking it was an actual person lying on the bench under a thin blanket. It seems that it has upset people as they think it downgrades their neighbourhood. Apparently, two other church neighbourhoods – one in Toronto and one in New York – also rejected the sculpture.
When you look carefully at the homeless man, however, you see the marks of crucifixion on his bare feet. It is Jesus. ‘That’s right’ said one reporter, ‘somebody called the cops on Jesus.’ The person who phoned the police said: ‘My complaint is not about art-worthiness or the meaning behind the sculpture. It is about people driving into our beautiful, reasonably upscale neighbourhood and seeing an ugly homeless person sleeping on a park bench.’
Let’s not be too judgmental – that could as easily be us too. What upsets us, and what should upset us? What are we missing around us that Jesus would not want us to miss but instead would want us to care about and care for in his name?
What upsets Jesus as he comes into our lives, our churches, our communities, our country, again and again, and what would be want to overturn and drive out?
This is the transforming challenge – the new creation – that comes with the privilege and joy of being able to shout: Christ is risen!