Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Greatest Story Ever Told?

Luke 24 v 36-49

(Preached at our Parish Communion - during which all three congregations of the Team came together - prior to our Annual Parochial Church Meeting. 26th April 2009)

We human beings love stories, don’t we? It’s the first thing that we do to our children, when they are old enough to understand even a few words...we read them a story. I remember it well: “This is Spot. Spot has a ball. Spot has a red ball”. (In my case, just to see if my daughter was paying attention, and to keep me from going quietly mad, I used to try reading some of the pages backwards...just to see if she was listening: “Ball red a has Spot”.)

As we grow older, our stories change - they become more elaborate, more detailed, more complex. Our ancestors told stories around campfires. They created plays of the best stories, and acted them out in Greek theatres. In our time, we watch movies, we get addicted to soap operas, we devour Jane Austin novels (well, Clare and Emily do, anyway). But why? What is it about stories which attracts us? Why do we love stories so much?

Psychologists tell us something that Holy Men have known for millennia: stories have the power to transform us. As we listen to stories, we start to ask ourselves questions: “what would it be like to be in that situation?” “How would I get out of that crisis?” “Would I like to become like the person in this story?”.

Like every Holy Man, Jesus also knew the power of story. That’s why he told so many parables. I wonder - have you ever considered the fact that - as far as we know - Jesus never took the trouble to write down a single word of instruction to his followers? Jesus didn’t leave us a the “Little Red Book” of Chairman Mao. He didn’t write down a precise list of behaviours he wanted us to follow. Instead he gave us stories. Stories of a wayward son who is greeted with love and acceptance by a father whose love has been abused. Stories of a foreigner who acts as a neighbour. Stories of what happens when we let earthly possessions become more important than heavenly treasure.
But the bible doesn’t just contain Jesus’ parables. It is itself a story - in fact someone once called it ‘the Greatest Story Ever Told’. This story weaves history with myth, poetry with fact; and at each turn of the page we are invited, by the Greatest Story-teller, to put ourselves in the place of each character. “Does this story reflect my circumstances? What can I learn from how the character resolved this particular situation?”

Today’s Gospel reading is no exception. Let’s see if we can’t follow that ancient practice of putting ourselves into the story. Let’s see if we can perhaps make some connections between the reading, and our own circumstances...

The first thing I want to observe is that, throughout this story, the Disciples are at a pivotal point in their own lives, and in the history of the church. On the one hand, Jesus death is behind them...he has visibly triumphed over the grave. But on the other hand, the hard work of establishing the church is still ahead of them.

I think we can say that there are some parallels between the disciples’ situation and ours. Certainly there have been some difficult days in our fairly recent past. And certainly, there is a great deal of work still to be done before the Kingdom is fully established in North End and Hilsea. We too, then, are at a pivotal point in our history...just like the disciples.

So let’s look at some other characteristics of their situation - to see what we might be able to learn for our situation.

The first thing I noticed, when I looked more closely at this story was that when Jesus appeared to his disciples, the disciples who had abandoned him, denied him, and run away and hidden while he was being crucified...his behaviour towards them was pretty surprising. You would have thought that the first thing he would have said to them would be something like, “where were you then?”. You might have expected Jesus to insist that everyone in that room who had done him wrong should have got down on one knee and begged for forgiveness. But no. Jesus reaction to seeing those who had hurt him in the past was a very simple one. “Peace be with you”.

Peace be with you. Four simple words...but four words which convey a Universe of meaning. Four words which offer forgiveness, even without apology. Four words which acknowledge that all human beings get things wrong sometimes. Four words which show more than any other how God deals with those who have hurt him, those who have wronged him, denied him, deserted him...he offers them peace.

That’s the kind of God we serve.

The next thing I notice about this story, is that Jesus was in the midst of the disciples’ situation. Verse 36: “Suddenly, the Lord himself stood among them...”. They didn’t always recognise fact, at first they thought he was a ghost! But in time, they came to trust him, and to trust what he taught them, as he unfolded the Scriptures to them.

Jesus explained to them that what they still thought incomprehensible... the very idea that he should suffer and die... was in fact exactly what the Scriptures had said must happen. He taught them, in other words, that God’s ways are not like human ways. He taught them about the topsy turvey Kingdom of heaven - the Kingdom in which death, by a weird twist of Divine logic... leads to life. He taught them that God could be expected to turn over all their expectations of what they might expect God to be like. God was not going to punish them for their sins... He wasn’t going to exact retribution on them. No. In fact, forgiveness was what he was about. Forgiveness and Life. Not revenge-seeking and death.

The next thing I notice, is that the disciples were given a message to preach. Verse 47: “ his name the message about repentance and the forgiveness of sins must be preached to all nations...” Having revealed himself to them, having clearly forgiven them, Jesus sent them out into the world to preach his message of the topsy turvey kingdom. The disciples were charged with a story to tell - a story which we have inherited and which we are commanded to tell as well. Its a story about the Lord of the Universe who is born in a stable. Its a story about the King of the Ages, who rides on a donkey. It’s a story about a God who dies, so that his creation can have life. It’s a topsy turvey story. It’s a story about how the followers of this God, who have received his forgiveness, go on to offer that forgiveness to other people.

Finally - the last thing I notice about this story - is that the Disciples are promised the Spirit of God. Verse 49: “I myself will send upon you what my Father has promised. But you must wait in the city until the power from above comes on you.” Of course, we know that this promise was fulfilled. We know the story of the day of Pentecost. But the disciples didn’t know. All they could do was that the story would come true... Trust that the story-teller was reliable.

And that, finally, is what we must do to. We must trust in the story. As we go forward into the future, as a parish, as families, as individuals, we need to trust that the story we are living will have a happy ending. The “Greatest Story Ever Told” - the Bible - concludes with a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. It’s story with a happy ending that we are living. The promise of this story is that if we will hold on to the story-teller, if we will live as the story-teller invites us to live, if we will draw from the same source as the story-teller - then there is a promise of life everlasting, life to the full, life in all its fullness, for ever.

That’s a story worth telling. Isn’t it?


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