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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=134


 

2nd Easter, Year C (April 3, 2016)                                 St James', Peace River

There was a neat statement about Easter bobbing around the internet this week: “Resurrection is the Christian word for defiance.” It caught my attention especially in the light of this Sunday's Bible readings, because they are full of nothing if not defiance. We hear the very first post-Easter act of defiance by Jesus' followers against the authorities. They say, “We must obey God rather than [you].” How much clearer can you get!

Then we hear from the last living eyewitness of the resurrection, as tradition has it that the book of Revelation was written when John was in exile on the island of Patmos, at the end of his long life. So there you have an old man, banished because of his faith, but not shaken or bowed by his treatment. Quite the opposite, he holds up his fist to the empire and lifts up his eyes to heaven, and cries out, “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him.” If Jesus can conquer death, then there is nothing left to be frightened of – except perhaps Jesus himself, when he returns to set everything right, and then only if you're the one whose actions are being confronted.

Finally there was a sort of mirror image of that defiance, in the actions of Thomas, in the week after Jesus' tomb was found to be empty. He defies the certainty, and what he no doubt thought of as the herd mentality, of his friends. Some people, after all, will believe anything if you get enough of them together. Remember, though, that it was Thomas who first joined in Jesus' defiance of the temple leaders, when Jesus began his last journey to Jerusalem, and Thomas urged the other disciples on with the words: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Perhaps no surprise, then, that he is the one with the courage to stand apart from his comrades – willing to spend his life on following Jesus, but only if there is some evidence that it would be more than merely a futile gesture.

That knife edge between futility and triumph, which is captured in the word “defiance”, pretty much sums up the entire first three centuries of Christianity, and continues to describe it down to our day in parts of the world where following Jesus remains a risky business. It may be hard to imagine from our perspective, but people knew and know that the cost of being a Christian may be enormous, and they make that choice anyway. Even in countries and cultures where the legal penalty for conversion is death, or where the social cost is exclusion, abandonment, and loss of any standing you might have had.

Mind you, those extreme reactions to Christian faith are the result, not the cause, of Christian defiance. It is the followers of Jesus themselves who understand that, if Jesus is risen from the dead, and if you have seen that and known it and believed in it, you can't just go along to get along. You can't just fit in. A living Jesus casts into doubt every power structure that people allow to govern their lives and the lives of their fellow human beings. So one of the very first badges of Christian faith was the simple statement, “Jesus is Lord”. That's a truth that comes straight from the resurrection – if Jesus, who was dead, is alive again, then what power does he not have?

But to say “Jesus is Lord” in the first century around the Mediterranean, was to say very clearly, “So, the emperor is not.” Because the emperor's claim, the basis of Roman government, was that everything was under control, with Caesar the god-like power at the top of the pecking order, and everyone and everything else in its place. There was no room in that organization for a prophetic figure to die and then return to life, breaking the wheel of fate and claiming power outside and beyond anything the government could pretend to control. The result was defiance. People all over the empire quickly came to hear about the resurrection, and began to defy the rigid cultural codes which would have kept them “in their place”, whether as slaves, as women, as social minorities, or simply as hard-working stiffs that could pour their heart and soul into their work and yet never feel that they were really achieving anything. All of them discovered how, because of the presence of the living Lord, they were free from all those constraints, and able to achieve more than they could ask or imagine.

The emperor, and the empire, could not tolerate that kind of defiance, and so the story of persecution began. Christians had to decide whether to insist on the claims of their faith, or withdraw them. Not everyone took the braver course, but the extraordinary thing is that so many did. James was executed, Peter arrested, Paul imprisoned, John exiled. It must have driven the persecutors crazy, because nothing they did could intimidate the Jesus movement. On the contrary, every disciple who died for the faith that Jesus is alive, only proved the point even more conclusively – that there was, and is, no longer anything to fear, because Jesus has risen from the dead and nothing else matters the way it used to.

So the early days of Christianity were a pendulum swing between state policies to leave them alone, or to drive them out. Eventually the empire stopped expecting Christians to be absorbed into imperial culture, and instead the reverse happened – Rome, and most of Europe and its colonies since then, were absorbed into Christian culture. Persistent defiance achieved more than anyone could have thought, or believed possible, when the apostles confronted the high priest's council. On the other hand, some people have wondered if the church lost its way at exactly that moment, since what was left to defy?

But Christians have continued to challenge the controlling powers of social structure and government since then, as you can see from the career of someone like William Wilberforce, who persistently defied the slave trade from his seat in Parliament, or from the preaching and leadership of Martin Luther King Jr, the anniversary of whose death falls tomorrow. They did what they did, and they could do what they did, not simply because of moral conviction, but because of the certainty that Jesus alive is Lord of this world, and nothing else, not even reputation or safety, weighs in the balance.

Those examples, and the examples of the apostles and martyrs, tell us a few important things about what Christian defiance looks like. For one thing, it is not the straight-up oppositional defiance of the toddler, who says “no” simply because he or she can. As Christians, we live in this world and bear witness to all the good that is in it, as well as to those moments when the use of power goes wrong and takes away from people's lives. To say that we do not compromise does not mean that we cannot also appreciate. And then, in the exercise of Christian defiance, we also learn not to be destructive and hateful, since that would be to buy into the very abuse of power and strength that we defy.

Perhaps most important, though, is that we have an alternative to what we resist. This is not always the case for resistance movements in human terms. People do sometimes defy and rebel against the powers that be simply because life has become so oppressive, but with no real vision of what might come in its place. Christian defiance, because it is grounded in Jesus' resurrection, is not like that. Peter and his associates had a clear idea of what they were affirming – the coming of God's anointed one, bringing healing and repentance and forgiveness, and the possibility of a new way of life in which people cared for one another with a sense of commitment rather than obligation. Paul, even more so, had a picture of what life in Christ looked like, both for individuals and in their relationships with one another. John's writings describe it on a gut level, insisting that if we are part of the living vine of the risen Jesus, then we love one another as he has loved us. That alone is enough to build the new creation.

But the rubber hits the road when we move this discussion out of the realm of the conceptual, the historical, and the philosophical, and make it personal. Jesus is alive, Jesus is Lord: those are not just abstract statements; if they are true, they involve you and me. And what they involve us in, is the kind of defiance we've been talking about. So, what is the power which pretends to control your life and your world, which you need to defy in the light of Jesus' resurrection? That could be something very personal and directly affecting you – the power of disease to make your life less than it could be, the fear of death, the apparent worldly limitations of disability or poverty. But it can equally be something about the world as you see it, which you just can't stand by and accept when you know that Jesus has shown the way to dismantle all the so-called powers. I can tell you, after the news this week about government policy on refugees, I want to do a little defying of a system, even one that tries to do good, when it forgets that people's lives can't be put on hold just because we feel we've done enough this year!

But I expect we all have something like that, which we rub up against and which is challenged by our conviction that God has done something conclusive, has opened the way to a better new and different world, by raising Jesus from the dead. And just as Lent had its discipline of withdrawing from some of the ways the world makes us less than we should be, Easter season also has its discipline of defiance: advancing, not withdrawing, with our conviction that Jesus is alive leading the way. So let's get to work, countering all the ways we see the world resisting the good news of new life. We begin that process here, with prayer, and with a fresh encounter with Jesus, who promises to be here when we gather together.

But remember that he also accompanies us as we walk out of here, his body sustaining our body and his blood flowing in our veins, making us instruments of his grace and his power. He will not walk around in and with us, simply to make his peace with the troubles and wrongs that we meet and see in our day to day lives. The one who defied death is more than ready to give us the courage, the insight, and the persistence to defy whatever obstacles we meet, and to enact in their place a new world, a new creation, where people can know and experience what it is really like to live with him.