Sunday, April 08, 2018

Sign of the Swimmer

2nd Sunday of Easter (B)
Divine Mercy Sunday

Picture: cc USAG-Humphreys

My dear friends, do you know the difference between swimming and drowning? If you see someone in a pool of water, for example, can you tell if that person is in distress? Usually there are some obvious signs. Typically, the person can be seen struggling in the water. But the actual difference between swimming and drowning is less obvious, right? It has to do not so much with the external movements of the body, as with what happens to it internally. When a person is swimming, even though the body is surrounded by water, the lungs are still being filled with air. In contrast, we say a person is drowning when the water on the outside begins to seep inside. Invading the space that should be reserved for air. Causing the person to suffocate.

But how then to save a drowning person? Usually someone has to jump into the pool to pull the person out. And then the water has to be driven out of the lungs, and replaced with air. Only then will the drowning person survive. And hopefully be able to swim again. In any case, the difference between swimming and drowning may be described perhaps in terms of overcoming and being overcome. To swim is to overcome the water, by holding one’s breath. To drown is to be overcome by it.

This difference between swimming and drowning, between overcoming and being overcome, can be seen not just in a swimming pool, but also in the spiritual life as well. In today’s gospel reading, we’re told that the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were… A powerful image of people struggling desperately, but unsuccessfully, to keep out the dangerous waters of the world. For it’s quite clear that they are drowning. They are being overcome. First of all by fear. Fear of the Jews. Fear that whatever happened to Jesus will happen also to them. Then, in the case of Thomas, overcome also by doubt. The inability to trust without proof, to believe without sight.

So that when Jesus mysteriously appears in that enclosed room, it is to achieve a very specific purpose. To rescue people from drowning. And it’s helpful for us to notice how this done. To see that it involves four steps. We’re told that first Jesus came and stood among them. In other words, Jesus moves in the same dangerous waters in which the disciples are struggling. The Lord then drives out the fear and doubt from their hearts, by saying to them repeatedly, Peace be with you.

And it’s important for us to realise how Jesus is able to do this. He is able to enter hearts that are closed, hearts that have been overcome by fear and doubt, because he has previously plunged into the perilous pool of human existence. He was born into the insecurity of a homeless refugee. Lived the quiet life of a manual labourer. Served, ever so briefly, as Healer of the sick, Comforter of the afflicted, Shepherd to the lost and forsaken. Only to then die the cruel death of a condemned criminal. And he did all this with a heart continually filled, not with the water of fear, but with the Breath of the Spirit. Clearly, Jesus is able to rescue drowning people, because he himself has first learned to swim in the dangerous waters of human reality.

Isn’t this the reason why the Lord is able not just to drive out from the disciples’ hearts the waters of fear and doubt, but also to replace those same waters with the Breath of Love and Life? Receive the Holy Spirit. As the Father has sent me, so am I sending you… In uttering these words, Jesus doesn’t just revive the drowning. He also sends them on a mission of their own. Calling them to remain in the dangerous waters of human existence. No longer to drown, but to swim. And to work for the rescue of others, as they themselves have been rescued. To teach others how to hold their breath, to remain centred on God, even as they navigate the perilous waters of daily life.

A plunging in and a driving out. A breathing upon and a sending forth. These are the four steps by which the Crucified and Risen Lord rescues his disciples, rescues us, from the danger that threatens to overcome them. Turning drowning people into graceful swimmers. Isn’t this the same process described in the second reading? Which tells us that anyone who has been begotten by God has already overcome the world. To overcome the world, instead of being overcome by it.

What does this mean, if not to learn how to swim in the worldly waters of trial and temptation, by continually holding within us the Breath of the Spirit? Resisting the waters of fear and doubt, or selfishness and greed, or whatever else may threaten to take God’s rightful place at the centre of our hearts?

And what the second reading describes in theory, the first reading paints for us in practice. This is what it looks like, in the concrete, when Christians overcome the world. When they learn how to swim instead of drown. The first reading tells us that all those who owned land or houses would sell them, and bring the money from them, to present it to the apostles; it was then distributed to any members who might be in need. Whereas the world teaches only how to consume and to hoard, the Christians in the first reading learn how to care and to share.

Here we find the sign that clearly distinguishes the swimmer from the one who is drowning. The sign that we celebrate most especially on this 2nd Sunday of Easter. The sign of divine mercy. The same mercy that brought Jesus from heaven to earth, from cross to grave, and from grave to that room where the doors were closed for fear of the Jews. The same mercy that then leads the early Christians to share their possessions with those in need. Mercy, my dear friends, is what changes drowning people into grace-filled swimmers. And mercy is also what we need so very much today. When so many of us continue to find ourselves overcome by the world. Drowning as much in its seductive attractions, as in the heavy demands it makes on us.

My dear sisters and brothers, if mercy is indeed what makes the difference between swimming and drowning, then how good a swimmer are you today?

Sunday, April 01, 2018

After The Cuppa

Easter Sunday

Picture: cc Mark Nye

My dear friends, are you a coffee drinker? If you are, then you probably know the powerful effects of that first cup of coffee in the morning. You know the huge difference between how the world looks before and after you’ve had your morning pick-me-up. You know that each day can actually be divided into two parts: before coffee, and after coffee. Before coffee, at least for some of us, everything looks gloomy and grey. Every sight and sound serves only to upset and irritate. Making us wish we could crawl back into bed and declare an early end to the day. But after coffee, the sun suddenly begins to shine. Darkness gives way to light. New possibilities emerge. Opportunities for making new beginnings. Along with the energy we need to seize them, and to make good things happen.

It’s quite incredible, isn’t it, when we stop to think about it? The power of that first cup of coffee to change how we look at the world. Turning night into day. Tiredness into energy. Dead-ends into new beginnings. It’s helpful for us to recall this experience, this transformation, because something like is also what happens to the disciples on the first Easter morning.

The gospel begins with the observation that it was still dark when Mary of Magdala came to the tomb. As you know, scholars say that this is not just a darkness of the sky, but the night of unbelief. Mary’s intense grief at the Lord’s death colours the way she looks at the world. It causes her to forget his promise that he would rise again. So that when Mary sees that the stone had been moved away from the tomb, she can draw only one depressing and discouraging conclusion: They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him.

In contrast, by the end of the reading, we’re told that, after entering the tomb and seeing the positions of the burial cloths, the beloved disciple saw and he believed. He begins to understand that what he’s looking at is not the scene of a robbery. But rather the signs that Jesus is alive. Like a first cup of coffee in the morning, belief in the Resurrection transforms the way the disciples look at the world. Even within the darkness of a tomb, they receive the power to see evidence of new life. Even while still feeling keenly the pain of absence and loss, they are given the ability to believe in, and to be energised by, the Lord’s ongoing presence in their lives and in the world.

And this transforming power is not just something that happens only once and then fades away into the distant past. Rather, even though the Lord is already risen and will never die again, the transforming power of the Resurrection is an ongoing experience. It can be felt daily. We see this clearly in the first reading, which tells the story of how Peter visits and baptises Cornelius and his whole household.

As you know, Cornelius is a Roman centurion. And, according to Jewish Law, to visit a gentile, like Cornelius, in his own home would make a Jew, like Peter, ritually unclean. Why then does Peter visit Cornelius anyway? The reason is that Peter has earlier received a vision, in which he is told that what God has made clean, you have no right to call profane. This vision radically changes Peter’s view of reality. So that what once looked like a dead-end, is transformed into a precious opportunity to make a new beginning. To share the good news of God’s love to more people.

Even though, at this point in the story, some time has passed since that first incident at the empty tomb. Yet Peter continues to experience the transforming effects of the Resurrection. Its power to change the way he looks at the world. Quite clearly, the Resurrection experience is something ongoing. Like a first cup of morning coffee, it is enjoyed not just once and for all, but again and again. Every single day. As long as one is willing to drink from the cup. To allow oneself to be transformed. To see and to relate to the world in new ways.

And more than just telling us when the transforming effects of the Resurrection can take place, our readings also show us what it moves us to do. It’s quite striking how often Peter uses the word witness in the first reading. I, and those with me, can witness to everything Jesus did… and also to the fact that they killed him… yet… God raised him to life and allowed him to be seen by certain witnesses… we are those witnesses

When I hear the word witness, I usually think only of someone who speaks about an event that happened in the past. But something more is meant here. For, as we said earlier, the Resurrection is not just something in the past. It’s power continues to be felt in the present. Daily, it changes how Christians look at the world. Moving us to live and behave in ways that show the Lord’s ongoing presence and action in our lives. And Peter bears witness to the Lord’s presence not just with his words, but also through his deeds. His willingness to look at Cornelius and his family in a new way. To visit their home, and to share his faith with them. This is what the Resurrection gives Peter the power to do. This is what it means to be a witness.

And this is also what means when the second reading tells us to look for the things that are in heaven, where Christ is… To look towards heaven is not really to look away from the earth. But rather to look at the world through the experience of the Lord’s Dying and Rising. So that we can begin to see light shining in darkness. New beginnings hidden in what may at first look like dead-ends. So that we can access the power of the Lord’s ongoing presence, even in his apparent absence. Allowing us to bear eloquent witness to the reality of the Resurrection. To our joyful belief that Christ our Lord has truly risen! Indeed he is risen! This is the significance of the beautiful season of Easter that we are beginning today. A time for us to allow our hearts and minds to be opened to the power of the Resurrection. To receive the gift of seeing the world in new ways.

My dear friends, as busy as we all are, many of us still take the time to drink our daily morning cup of coffee. And there’s a good reason for this. It’s because we know from experience that we need its power to change the way we look at life. To transform grumpy sleepyheads into energetic seizers of the day. But surely we need the power of the Resurrection just as much, if not even more!

Sisters and brothers, as we begin this joyful season of Easter, what must we do to drink more deeply from the cup of the Lord’s Dying and Rising in the days ahead?