On Thursday the world witnessed another act of profound barbarism and inhumane brutality. At least 148 students were gunned down in the campus of Garissa University in Kenya. Al Shabab, a terrorist organisation with links to Al Qaeda claimed responsibility. Their version of Islam imagines a strict, top-down imposition of their version of an Islamic code. I am sure most Moslems across the world would disassociate themselves from the savage brutality of this group.
However, their reason and their religion, they believe, lays obligations on them that go way beyond the dictates of conscience. They can excuse brutality because they are so meticulous about imposing their ideology. We’ve seen this sort of thing before in things likes Nazism – it is certainly not a trait confined to Islam, it is an all too human trait.
On Good Friday, we reflected on the brutal and barbaric slaying of Jesus. A whole city went mad, baying for blood and shouting, “crucify him”. The view of Caiaphas and the Chief Priests, which became a view shared by the crowd, was that reason and religion laid upon them certain obligations. In order to keep the peace and maintain the order and discipline of the Temple it was deemed acceptable to set aside conscience and engage in judicial murder in order to preserve the religious order that they perceived was under threat from the activities of Jesus of Nazareth.
Maintaining the status quo – a sincere and resolute desire to retain a religious system – does not immunise you from cruelty, brutality or the abuse of power. Indeed, I have witnessed more than one situation in which, even in our own Church of Scotland, the wellbeing of an individual has been sacrificed for the sake of the “peace of the church”. I have known people profoundly damaged by the strict imposition of a supposed religious purity. It would make you weep in some situations where a person approaches the church expecting warmth, hospitality and understanding – qualities of love and compassion like we see time and again in the person of Jesus during his ministry – and they are met only with harsh judgement and hostility.
A woman, thought to be a nun in a strict holy order wrote a poem some years ago about what it might have felt like to be the mother of Jesus. Apparently she had to keep her identity secret in case the sentiment expressed in the poem led her to be persecuted by the church’s hierarchy. Let me read the poem to you now:
Did the woman say, When she held him for the first time in the dark dank of a stable, After the pain and the bleeding and the crying, “This is my body, this is my blood?” Did the woman say, When she held him for the last time in the dark rain on a hilltop, After the pain and the bleeding and the dying, “This is my body, this is my blood? Well that she said it to him then, For dry old men, Brocaded robes belying barrenness, Ordain that she not say it for him now.
This is a poem by someone who feels deeply the weight of the exclusion of women from the priesthood that persisted in the church for centuries and still persists to this day in some branches of the church. Many people here at Greyfriars, especially those with a connection to Kirk o’ Field Parish will feel justifiably proud of the legacy of Archibald Charteris, who, in the 19th century as a Biblical scholar, recognised that there was a role for women in the early church that went far beyond making the tea. “From Dusters you came and to dusters you shall return”, was a quip I heard quoted by a patriarchal minister mocking, back in the 1960s, the idea that women might be ordained to the office of ministry. Charteris met resistance when he founded the order of Deaconesses in the Church of Scotland in the 1890s and it was almost a hundred years before the church saw fit to “ordain” people (mainly women) to this office.
So many gay men, lesbian women and trans-gender people still feel the same sense of exclusion from a church that is so divided over issues of human sexuality and obsessed with certain so called “sins”.
So, we come to Easter Day – to the resurrection – and the reality that the Jesus who was one man in one place and one time, is the risen Christ who is everywhere and for all time. He is the one who transcends, subverts, spans, dodges and overwhelms the high towers, the silos and the meticulously ordered and policed boundaries of our religious institutions. It may be that people imagine they can impose their idea of religious purity through brutality and murder – or by ideological struggle – but the risen Christ meets us where we are, comes to us in the strangers’ guise – often as someone completely outside our familiar institutional framework. He comes to us in our humanity and gives us our true name, which is not a humanly imposed category given to us by institutions, but the name we were given by our maker before we were even knit together in the womb. He comes to us completely liberated from religious ideology – he comes as the “Desire of Nations” – the Universal Heart, and he does not need propping up by the “brocaded arms of barren old men”.
In a few moments we will celebrate the Eucharist, the Holy Communion. It is a meal to which all are invited and none are excluded. It is a gift ripe with the massive potential of what happens when we are truly open with hospitable hearts. For the Christ who is risen and on the loose in the world comes to us in bread and wine, enters each one of us, nourishing us and inspiring us and taking us out into the world.
And we take Christ with us from this place out into the community where we have the potential to be the Christ to others. Thus, as a remarkable man called Kester Brewin says, “Christ risen becomes uncontrollable, decentralized and spread ….The gifts of his body and blood have disappeared into mystery, become inseparable from our own flesh and are spread out in a manner that no power can reverse”.
The risen Christ comes to us most powerfully in the Eucharist, where we understand him as no longer confined by space and time but haunting the world, inhabiting our hearts, nourishing our spirits, feeding our conscience.
We can call that place where the risen Christ is present lots of different things. One of the best terms is that he is our conscience, that inner voice. As the prophet Jeremiah writes of God’s action in creating a new covenant with the people, “I have placed my law on their inward parts and written it on their hearts”. That is why there are such terrible consequences when people set aside their conscience and seek to uphold some kind of religious purity at the expense of it.
Another term is the idea of the spirit of Pentecost, where Jesus breathes his spirit on the people and they have the gift of his presence with them, “even to the end of time”.
When people get caught up in maintaining what they perceive to be religious ideology or the maintenance of some kind of religious purity, they can become brutal inhuman and barbaric. We have to ask those members of Al Shabab, “Is it your plan to kill everyone who doesn’t adhere to your ideology?” But when people are so obsessed with retaining ideological purity that they resort to brutality, cruelty and violence they are murdering their own conscience. In so doing, they are murdering God all over again. For isn’t that precisely what happened on that Good Friday in Jerusalem? God was assassinated for the sake of the maintenance of religion!
There was an Islamic writer called Kamel Hussein from Egypt who wrote this as he reflected from an Islamic perspective on the execution of Jesus. “Human conscience is a torch of the light of God and without it every virtue collapses, every good turns to evil and all intelligence is crazed”. He wrote that many years ago, but that is precisely what we saw in Kenya the other day and what we bear witness to on Good Friday in Jerusalem – the collapse of virtue – good intentions – meticulous religious observance turning to evil and brutality.
The resurrection of Jesus give us and the world an extraordinary holy freedom. The freedom to say that Christ is set free from ideology and is the Universal Heart – the Desire of Nations – no longer confined by space and time and institution or ideology. He enables us, if we have the courage and imagination, to avoid the power abuses and dictatorships that we often install in the place of this risen Christ, and sets Christ free to be the one who is “everywhere and nowhere”, transcending our boundaries, ideologies and little empires. He is truly the “Desire of Nations” and it may take some time for us to grown beyond our petty claims of right and righteousness to see that the risen Christ of whom we speak is not confined or imprisoned by any human institution.
In his remarkable trilogy, “His Dark Materials”, the writer Philip Pullman wrestles with just this dilemma. Lyra, the heroine of the novels, battles with lots of “experimental theologians” (rather like the men in “brocaded robes belying barrenness”) who display feeble minds and are obsessed with a crazy, almost brutal devotion to institutions that reflect them more than the thing they point to. Lyra, having battled with such forces now wants to work for what Pullman very aptly describes as the “Republic of Heaven”, for royalty is a human attribute. It intrigues me how popular these books have been in recent years and with the generation of my own children. Isn’t it because he speaks to a generation that is both tired of and has broken free from the desperate clutches of religious institutions that have lorded it for so long over people’s lives with their barren religious ideology and abuse of power?
I cannot help but think that there are parallels here with the free spirited Gallilean up against the powers that be in Jerusalem on Good Friday and the Easter Christ who is everywhere and nowhere, unconfined, let loose and in our hearts, unconfined by religious boundaries.
Not long before his arrest, there is a remarkable exchange between Jesus and the religious elite of his day. They get into a debate about the Temple and Jesus says that he’ll be able to rebuild it in three days. The Pharisees pour scorn on such an idea, as the Temple in Jerusalem took generations of workers to build. But, of course, Jesus is speaking of the temple of his body, rebuilt in three days through this thing we call the resurrection. And we all have access to him here and now, through bread and wine. Alleluia, Christ is Risen.