Reflections on Easter, pt 1: Sacrifice, Bodies and a Whole Lot of Love
The story of Easter is the crescendo of a song of liberation and love, a love that is wild, reckless, unconditional and sacrificial. The song is one of ceaseless faith and hope; of overwhelming, breathtaking joy; of heart stopping strength and endurance, and unspeakable grief and sorrow. It is the song of a love so unfathomable that it will give up absolutely every last shred of itself for what it holds most dear - and is so strong that it can conquer the darkness whilst doing so.
“For God so loved the world…” John 3:16
This is our story, this our song: for God so loved the world that divinity was sacrificed for mortal flesh and blood, arriving as a newborn child, the most vulnerable of all and choosing to grow to become a man without physical beauty, rank, or status. Jesus lives as one with the millions of silent, unseen, un-regarded lives, with no home of his own, no land of his own, no place to lay his head, and nowhere to go but to the cross. He chooses to live as a servant to whomever he meets: healing, comforting, feeding, clothing, teaching, forgiving, guiding…
…loving them all sacrificially. Loving us all sacrificially .
Until finally, in sacrificing his personhood and body to the very earthly powers over which he could have had dominion — Jesus chooses instead torture and execution at their hands, so that the sins of the world, of us all, are forgiven.
This is the gospel, God’s radical and dangerous proposition to us all, and a truth we dare to believe. That we are loved — profoundly, for all eternity: absolutely forgiven, life in all its fullness, liberated forever with God, forever in communion around a table that can seat us all. It is love given to us freely and unconditionally, and with sacrifice it makes the welfare of each the lynch pin of a Kingdom that prioritises the needs of all. It is a love given in contradiction — even in opposition — to how the ‘world’ [that is, us] offers it’s own idea of love.
Live in this way, says the world; obey this rule, conform to this standard; produce something we think is of value; look the right way, say the right things, and if you’re good enough, then maybe there’s a seat at our table. But if you live in a body or a mind that is perceived to have weakness… well, weakness, says the world, is useless. It has no value, it cannot produce anything we consider valuable, indeed it is a drain on our resources, a threat even to us all, and must be overcome. So if you live in a body or mind that has — or is perceived to have — a ‘weakness’ (in accordance with the norms, rules and laws of the society in which you live), for reasons of finance, health, disability, race, gender, orientation.. well, if you buckle down, and don’t complain too much then you might, perhaps, be considered acceptable enough to be ‘loved’. Maybe. And its a big maybe, because at the world’s table, there’s not much space, and not everyone makes the cut. That is what love looks like when it is offered where power is prioritised — it is conditional, and taken away at a moments notice.
“Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.” Matthew 6: 8–10 (NRSV)
After the drama of Maundy Thursday, and the horror and sorrow of Good Friday, the disciples stand in the deep, perplexing and frightening silence of Holy Saturday. I won’t pause too long imaging how the disciples — the men and women who had seen in Jesus some of that profound love, and sacrificed to follow him — thought and felt. But I will say this:
We need Holy Saturday — we need that silence to stop for a moment, to let what has happened be what it is, to cry the tears that need to be shed, and just breathe, just be still. We need it, because of what comes next.
I often feel that we misconstrue Jesus’ interactions with Mary at the Garden of Gethsemane, Thomas, and the disciples on the road. Jesus, once so approachable and open with all who came to him, seems suddenly almost reserved. A little… gruff, even.
‘Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ John 20:17
There is a tenderness here that we miss, I think: we focus on Mary’s reaction through patriarchal eyes, and instead of seeing a woman overcome with relief, joy and love at seeing the life of Jesus restored, faith triumphant — we are told, essentially, to see a woman being told to ‘calm down’ by a man.
But Jesus is not asking Mary to ‘calm down’. He is not rejecting her expression of love and faith: on the contrary, He explicitly asks her to take that very joy and love out to the disciples and tell them the good news — sin is defeated, death is overcome. Love wins.
Jesus is asking Mary to make a sacrifice. He is asking Mary to sacrifice her need for Him in that moment, because there’s a job to do; to have courage for even though the word of a woman holds no currency in the society in which she lives, she is still asked to carry the good news. There’s people who need healing, comforting, feeding, clothing, teaching, and forgiving.
There’s people to call to…
People to wait for…
“ Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!…” Luke 24:25
We give Thomas a hard time you know. ‘Doubting Thomas’, so uncertain of what his friends were telling him, so conflicted between what he thought he once knew, what he had experienced, seen and wants to believe, that he’s not going to believe the anything at all until the physical, bodily evidence is stood there in front of him.
Maybe anxiety was a real problem for Thomas, something he struggled with; doubts are human, but serious anxiety causes real distress. It can make it harder to get things done. It certainly makes it harder to be in relationship with people, when you are full of doubt and anxiety.
So in a real sense, when Jesus comes to Thomas, and offers him the wounds and scars his body still carries to see and touch and poke his fingers into, Jesus is offering Thomas very profound reassurance. After all, something like that will stay in the memory a long, long time. And Thomas wasn’t the only disciple to be given that assurance.
“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” John 20:29
Jesus knows that to profess to believe in something so… fantastical, will be met with contradiction. The world will demand doubt — and, in truth, an honest faith, a consenting, truthful, loving faith must always allow room for a little doubt.
Yet at the same time, Jesus asks Thomas to sacrifice too: to sacrifice his need for constant and new reassurances, and to have courage of faith; to remember that there will be those who will have the same doubts, the same anxieties, and who won’t have that powerful, tender moment of reassurance to hold on to. Because there’s a job to do: there are people who need healing, comforting, feeding, clothing, teaching, and forgiving.
There’s people to call to…
People to wait for…
“Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” Luke 24:32
It seems a little harsh, on the face of it, to call your faithful disciples foolish. Human minds, after all, were not really built to accommodate divinity, and after the high drama and emotion of the crucifixion, when the world presses in and says: “There, see, we told you. He wasn’t the messiah — see, how the oppressive tyranny still rules over us!” it can easily all get a bit too much.
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” Luke 23:39
And there is no denying it: Jesus overcomes sin and death, but the same oppression's and oppressors here in the world continue on, offering what they calls reason and love, but prioritising power and opposing the sacrificial love of God’s Kingdom. The players might change, but the game remains the same and as we can look around us right now, it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.
“…Your kingdom come.Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven..”
On earth. As in heaven.
There is (still) a job to be done: there are people who need healing, comforting, feeding, clothing, teaching, and forgiving.
There’s people to call to…
People to wait for…
The disciples on the road might have felt the doubt creep in, but Jesus gives (endlessly!) the reassurance required, reminding the disciples of the work they have been given.
In one last exhortation before Ascension, Jesus says it plainly and simply:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28: 18–20
We are called by love, to live that love in service and sacrificially, for the welfare of each and the benefit of all. Freely we have been given, freely we then give.
Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. 1 Peter 4: 10
God’s Kingdom come — on earth, as it is in heaven.
(Part 2: More Sacrifice, More Bodies, More Love — coming soon, but I have to write a sermon first).