On Tuesday morning, we woke up to shocking news. Notre Dame Cathedral was on fire. For a while it looked as though the whole thing was about to collapse into complete ruins, or that the amazing medieval rose windows and great organ would be destroyed. Thousands watched, cried, and sang as the central spire came crashing down and red fire bloomed into the night sky. Heroism, and great organisation prevented the worst from happening, but the cold, blackened embers of the roof, and the huge amount of damage, serve as a reminder of how fragile things are.
Like a lot of people, I have fond memories of Notre Dame. For instance, Anne and I met our Camino walking buddies there when we rendezvoused in Paris before heading off to the trail head in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
It just seemed so permanent, so reliable. Like the mountains and the stars. And now, suddenly, devastated by fire and water, and lying in ruins.
This is how the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry must have seemed to his closest friends. One day they were walking in triumphal procession into Jerusalem, watching as Jesus purifies the worship in the temple, waiting and hoping. Surely God is about to fulfil his promises to Israel, to renew the covenant, to bring the Kingdom here and now!
And then, the sudden, utterly shocking, discombobulating, horrifying collapse of all their hopes. Out of the untroubled sky Notre Dame is suddenly engulfed in flames. One minute, Jesus is celebrating Passover with his friends, then, the next, he is betrayed, put on trial and then crucified. The great cry of desolation from the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Then dead; really dead. Laid in a stranger’s tomb.
The terrible medical news. The death of a loved one. The catastrophic loss of the job, impending bankruptcy, the loss of the family home. The situations that make you want to rage at the sky, or turn the terrible self-contempt inwards.
And then, the grey silence that falls over you after something too shocking to comprehend has happened, before you can really even express grief.
That day after the crucifixion: no-one knew it was Holy Saturday the first time.
But, of course, life isn’t all about acute suffering.
Holy Saturday speaks also of the sheer banality of our lives that can wear us down so thoroughly. It’s as though we live after the end of something. We sense a loss of meaning in the world. A world where we divide into tribes, each clinging on to our totem, jabbing our fingers and shouting into one another’s faces. Trying to convince ourselves, as much as our opponent, that what we hold so dear really matters.
The thing is though, the louder we shout, the more we suspect that it’s all a sham. Day follows day and nothing new happens. We measure out our lives in coffee-spoons, and nothing of importance, nothing real seems to happen. We just entertain ourselves: binge-watching Netflix, shopping, wellness. Maybe if I move to Bali things will seem more real, more vivid? We try desperately to be sufficiently entertained, to have lifestyles of such high quality wellness, so that we can ignore the pressing existential question: is this all there is?
What, we ask, is the meaning of life?
The thing is, this isn’t really the problem. We construct the question wrongly. When we ask “what is the meaning of life”, we are implicitly looking for an answer in the form of a statement. This is the basis for the dark, but very funny, joke at the heart of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy where a race of hyper-intelligent beings creates a super-computer to resolve the question of the meaning of life once and for all. The answer it comes up with, after seven and a half million of years of computation, is 42. They then need to make an even more powerful computer to figure out what the question is.
The point Adams is making is to do with the absurdity of the universe – its complete arbitrariness. There is, he seems to be saying, no “meaning” as such.
There is a way in which, I think, he is correct. The universe isn’t a question, not a particularly complex riddle. It isn’t the sort of thing that one could resolve in a statement. There is no form of words that could “answer” it. When confronted with the profound matters of life – the tragic triad of guilt, suffering, and death – there is no possible collection of words which, just as words, could make it somehow OK.
Whatever the “answer” is, whatever the “meaning” is, it has to be something more than just a form of words which you can carry around in your head. It would have to be something more than that. Something that cannot be fully or adequately expressed in words. Rather like the great dancer who, when asked what her dance meant, replied that if she could have said it, she wouldn’t have had to dance it.
Whatever God has to say about the universe, whatever could satisfy us as being a truly adequate answer would have to be more like a dance than a paragraph. In the same what that two dimensional drawings of three dimensional things are limited, the multiple dimensions of what God has to say are not easily to be summed up in our two-dimensional speech.
John’s Gospel says that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. To put it another way, Jesus is what God has to say. Instead of two-dimensional words, God came in three-dimensional form.
The crucifixion is what humanity had to say in response. The victory of meaninglessness.
Which brings us to today.
The very earliest accounts we have of what Christians believed plainly say that they believed that Jesus Christ was risen. That the tomb was empty. Not that Jesus’ spirit lived on as some kind of good example, not as a mythology which arose later, or an attempt to rationalize imperial power. Right from the beginning, Christians said: Jesus is risen from the dead.
This isn’t the place to try to convince you of this fact, not to argue about the relative probabilities of different scenarios. Because the only way to believe it is not to have it as an opinion you carry around in your head. Rather, it is something to be lived into.
The resurrection of Jesus – the same one who was crucified – is not something we think, as much as something we practice.
Or, to put it another way, the resurrection demands something of me. It is not just something that happened two thousand years ago. It’s not like the Battle of Actium – quite interesting in its way, but not something that needs any particular response from me.
In the resurrection, God reaches right into the heart of our fear – that death has the last word, that the best of people die and the heavens continue their wheeling completely unmoved. God says: you matter. You matter enough for me to come into the world to share your common human life – so that it becomes, in the greatest inversion possible – our common life.
And when all was lost, when humanity had done what humanity does when God gets too close – God acts. God decisively intervenes.
God triumphs over death, over all that makes for meaninglessness.
Unlike the various events of history that made our eyes glaze over in high school, this is an ongoing thing. Jesus is here with us as host as we celebrate the Eucharist. And, beyond that, Jesus continues with us as we collaborate with God in the ongoing work of God’s mission.
Far from inhabiting a meaningless universe which is
sublimely unaware of our petty problems, the power that stands behind the universe
desires – longs for – our friendship. God invites us into a resurrection sort
of life. To practice resurrection: to become the sort of people live with the
sort of trust in God that Jesus has. To immerse ourselves in worship, Christian
community, and the life of discipleship: to walk the Way, in which we find our
lives becoming ongoing adventure. Our fundamental need is for our overwhelming,
over-brimming desires to be poured out in service to that which is most worthy.
For everything in our lives to take their right place in a life in which the
daily, ongoing practice of resurrection has taken the place of meaninglessness.
Sermon preached at Glen Iris Road UCA for Easter 2019. The text was John 20:1-18
 Australian time, obviously.