Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Monday, 21 April 2014

On reading the Bible the right way round

Sermon at the Easter Vigil, Saint Peter le Poer, 19 April 2014

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Genesis 22:1-18
Exodus 14:10-end, 15:20-21
Romans 6:3-11
Matthew 28:1-10

I expect I’m not the only person here who like detective stories: Hércule Poirot perhaps, or Inspector Montalbano.
It’s very gripping reading the stories and trying to work out who dunnit. That can be a challenge. There are of course lots of clues scattered through the story, but many of them are misleading and there are also distracting leads and red herrings.
It’s usually only in the last chapter that we find out who dunnit, when all the clues come together and are explained. And in a well written detective story, we don’t just find out who dunnit at the end. We also quite often find out, for the first time, what was done. That what seemed to be an accident was really a slice of victoria sponge laced with arsenic, or that the person we thought was the butler is really the long lost cousin and heir of the estate.
At the end of the story all kinds of things come into the light, hidden relationships, secret motives, concealed identities. All of them explain who dunnit, and why. They were there all along in the story, but we didn’t see them for what they were, we didn’t understand what they meant, because we didn’t know what the end of the story was.
If you re-read a detective story knowing what the end is, suddenly everything becomes clear. It’s almost as though you’re reading a different story. The end of the story changes everything that happened before, as well.
Well, as with detective stories, so with the Bible. The end of the story changes the whole story, and nothing will make complete sense unless we read it in the light of the end. The key to understanding the Bible is to read it the right way round, and that is to read it backwards. We have to start at the end to find out what the rest of it means.
What is the end of the Bible story? We have just heard it. It is Jesus, the victim, raised from the dead. The Resurrection changes how we see Jesus and how we read the Bible. And because the Bible is the story of humanity as well as of Jesus, the resurrection changes our story too. It is the end of the story which changes the story of everyone.
The Resurrection changes everything, because up until now humanity has lived as if the end of the story was death. Death has seemed to be the ultimate reality defining human existence. Not just putting an end to life, but tarnishing every moment of it. Life is limited, it will run out, grab what you can, while you can, and make sure no-one else takes it from you. And so humanity has been living from the beginning in rivalry and fear and violence.
This has even tarnished all our ideas about God. Our death-bound existence and our fear have been projected on to the heavens, and enacted in cults of sacrifice, ritual violence and exclusion. This is exactly what happened to Jesus – he was put to death for blasphemy, a religious offence, by people who had not yet begun to imagine that there could be no death in God.
But the Bible actually has been trying to tell us the true story all along. The God who is entirely light and life and love is there on every page, and stands out clearly if we read the Bible from the end, that is, in the light of the Resurrection.
If we read a story like that of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, from the end, in the light of the Resurrection, then we will see it truly. The victim is innocent, God does not deal in death, and Abraham’s testing is about seeing whether he will emerge from the old imagination of a god bounded by death into the new imagination of the true God who is utterly vivacious loving generous life.
Of course if we read it the wrong way round we will get into all sorts of muddles. If we think that Abraham and Isaac is the key by which we are to understand Jesus, then we will end up with odd ideas such as thinking that God requires death as a punishment for sin and so he killed Jesus instead of us. But read the Bible the right way round, from the end, read Jesus as the key to interpreting Abraham and Isaac, and you will not end up with that story.
Because the end of the story changes the whole story. The structures of violence that have been running the world since the beginning turn out to be not where God is. In fact, God has come among us in Jesus to liberate us from them.
In the resurrection account from Matthew the guards stand for that old way of living, bounded as they are by fear and death. What are they? Soldiers, armed men, standing guard over a dead man, to make sure he stays dead. What could be more absurd? But that is the story of humanity, focussed on the fear of death, using violence to keep death in its place, that is, with someone else.
But the earthquake which shakes them – it is the same word – is a seismic change in our understanding. Suddenly everything is seen the right way round. The guards become like dead men. Humanity, as long as it is focussed on death, is dead. But Jesus, the dead man, is not there, because he has been raised. And the angel says, “do not be afraid”.
Death and fear are no more. The new reality, the true story, bursts into the world. Jesus, the victim, is raised from the dead, and is where God is. God is transparently, radiantly alive, and there is no death in him. And Jesus has been taken completely into that ultimate reality. Not alone, but as the new and representative human, so that where he is we might be also.
The end of the story changes the whole of the story. It changes, for a start, the people we want to victimise and cast out. The people who have wronged us, the people who have made us afraid, the people we hate for dark reasons we can’t even fathom. We can’t do that any more, because that place of the outcast is where Jesus is!
But it changes too our own story. All the stuff that’s gone wrong in our own lives, the history of sin and failure, wrong turnings, wasted opportunities, broken relationships, regrets. Now, those aren’t the story any more. The risen Victim is the story, and his story is our new story.
Jesus has opened for us the new imagination of God in whom there is no death. He has opened the way to the Father who is utterly different from anything we had imagined, whose love draws us into his own overflowing deathless life. The end of the story changes the whole story, for each one of us, here and now, as it has for believers down the ages, and will do to the end of time. Alleluia, Amen.

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