Sunday 1st May 2016, Easter 6, evening
by Revd Chris Palmer
I love the way the women come to the tomb in the limited world they inhabit, the world of the dead Jesus, to anoint his body. In fact, as we’ve just heard, Matthew doesn’t tell us why they came, but other Gospels do. Their hopes have been constrained by Jesus getting crucified. While shortly before they had a vision for the Kingdom of God, their horizons have now shortened; they don’t know what their dreams are any more. But they cling to the last vestige of the one who made their hearts sing: they cling to his body. Their willpower, their wilfulness drives them to do the only thing they can to serve their dead teacher, they honour his corpse.
But when they arrive, even this paltry service is not needed – because the corpse is risen, the dead is living, the victim has conquered. And their attempts at wilful service are replaced with willing response to the angels’ and then Jesus’ commission, ‘Go and tell…’
I’ve always loved the way the story says that our presumptuous service of God, our arrogant belief that we can do God some good, vanishes before the magnificence of the risen Lord. The wonderful lines of George Herbert gets it well:
I got me flowers to strew thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
but thou wast up by break of day,
and brought’st thy sweets along with thee.
And this story chimed for me this week with something I read in Richard Rohr’s book, The Naked Now. And I admit, I rather told the story to bring this out. Rohr compares wilfulness with willingness in the spiritual life. Most human living is wilful: 'this is my agenda; get out of the way whilst I enact it.' (my words not his). And the story Rohr is talking about is Mary and Martha. Martha, wilful: ‘I’m going to serve you my way; and that gives me the right to be resentful at my sister, and demand that Jesus corrects her.’ Mary, by contrast, willing, ready to receive from Jesus, knowing that any presumption that she can serve is not needed.
But the point works with this resurrection story so well too. Because here, the women’s wilfulness… (And by the way there’s a lot of wilfulness around in the resurrection stories: Thomas, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails, and put my hands in his side I will not believe’, or Peter, just grumpily, ‘I’m going fishing’, because waiting doesn’t fit his personality.) Here the women’s wilfulness is exchanged for willingness when they encounter the empty tomb, the angels, the risen Lord.
And what I want you to notice is that that move from wilfulness to willingness expands their horizons. Their sight goes no further than the tomb and the corpse, their world has become restricted to this tiny section of Jerusalem and getting through this day. Jesus calls them out of their fear, ‘do not be afraid’ and commissions them with a message of life, ‘Go and tell’ and expands their vision a little bit at first, ‘tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see.’ But at the end of the chapter – and we heard this too – their limited world is blown wide open. ‘All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me; Go therefore and make disciples of all nations… And remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ Rather than limited power it is ‘all authority’; rather than limited place, it is ‘all nations’; rather than limited time, it is ‘always’.
The same is true for us also. As long as our living or our spiritual journey is driven by wilfulness – and we can add willpower into that mix, that strangely self-triumphant quality that often falls flat on its face… As long as we are driven by wilfulness, our limits are those of our own capacity, our own strength. When we are willing to let go and let God act, then we are drawn into the possibilities of God’s life: all authority, all nations, always.
And I use the language ‘drawn’ or ‘driven’ echoing another spiritual writer, Margaret Silf. She says that false spirituality will always feel driven. I would say, it has a manic quality about it, impatient, tense, nervous, anxious for results, needing others to see the world our way, and feeling self-justifying and self-condemning at the same time. By contrast true spirituality, is about being drawn. That is, it’s about experiencing God as the one who woos us, attracts us, invites us. And it’s hallmarks are curiosity, peace, celebration, lightness of spirit, patience, kindness, serenity, open to being taught, ready to listen, rejoicing that we are forgiven sinners.
And the journey from being driven to being drawn is made by the women the tomb, by Thomas in the upper room, by Peter on the seashore. And Jesus invites us to make the same move too.
And how we cope with fear is closely related to this driven or drawn way of living. Did you notice that the reading talks about fear a lot? For fear of the angel, the guards shook; the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid’; they left the tomb with fear and great joy; Jesus said, ‘Do not be afraid.’ It’s often been said that ‘Do not fear’ is the commonest commandment in the Bible.
Fear drives so much of living. Again there’s that word, driven. Fear drives us to work hard, to keep the law, to meet others’ expectations. And of course, there is a right respect for fear: it stops us endangering ourselves and others. But the fear the drives so much of society is about our image, others’ expectations, the fear of shame, or failure.
Richard Rohr has a particularly heart-breaking statistic from America to illustrate this point. 80% of American soldiers who have an autistic or severely handicapped child divorce. These strong men, who have been taught a wilful strength in the face of aggression, are weak and frightened when they face ‘weakness’ (he puts the word in inverted commas). The neediness of their children is not something they can ‘solve’ or ‘fix’ – and willpower or wilfulness will never make it so. Willingness begins with surrender to what is, with radical acceptance that the world is as it is, even if we think it ought to be otherwise. Only by inhabiting that place of inability, of weakness can we find life.
The move from a driven spirituality to a drawn spirituality is to go from being driven by fear to being drawn by love. And where does fear belong in this world? Because the idea that fear just evaporates is of course fanciful. But, instead of fears being things that push us along, when we’re drawn by love, we look our fears square in the face, and walk towards them anyway - because we are drawn by love.
I think the command, ‘Do not be afraid’ is unfortunate. It implies that if we feel anxious or apprehensive we are disobeying Jesus. But I think the point rather is, ‘Be fearless’, ‘Do not be controlled by fear’. When fear controls, it limits horizons, stifles generosity, restricts hope, and quenches joy. When love invites us through our fears, it sharpens our senses, lifts our eyes, renews our energy, and awakens our feelings.
And so we have the choice: fearful of fearless, driven of drawn, wilful or willing, servicing a corpse or loving a saviour. And Jesus appears among us, inviting us by his love today.