Delivered at Ames UCC on
Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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at 10:30 a.m.
This year, to celebrate the ever-rising Christ, we have buried his cross.
In the earliest days of the Christian movement, death was a real possibility for followers of the Way because they refused to participate in the religion of the state. So, in order to find each other, and reduce the risk of being caught they communicated through code: symbols for bread, fish, and butterflies.
The bread and the fish stood for Jesus’s miracles of feeding and for the feeding of each other that was such an important element in the early days.
The butterfly was, of course, for the resurrection. It’s a perfect symbol for the story it tells: Butterflies undergo a profound transformation in their chrysalis phase. When it is done, they are no longer bound by the same rules that governed their bodies before.
The cross didn’t come into common use until much later, until the persecuting state adopted the religion but needed a theology to justify the pain they continued to inflict. See how your God suffered? You should, too.
There are examples, though, even in those thousand years when a crucifix was the only symbol in use, of the faithful experiencing the feeding and the freedom found on either side of its splinters and pain.
JULIAN OF NORWICH1
During Wednesdays this Lent we studied the work of a woman called Julian of Norwich. We don’t know her actual name because when she had last rites and was sealed into a small cell attached to St. Julian’s church in Norwich, England, in the 14th century, she gave up her worldly identity.
This may sound shocking to us but consider the conditions of her living: Three rounds of plague had decimated her family and the population of her city, in violently disgusting ways. The threat of the Hundred Years War moving from France and into Norwich was real. There was no plumbing, no sanitation system, very close quarters, and 30 years of summer floods.
Daily life was dominated by the bells of the church, and an intimidating cathedral, yet as a woman, Julian could not study theology or take more than a passive part in worship. This was not an easy life, and for most people it was a short, cold, filthy, and brutal one.
As an anchorite, then, Julian’s confinement freed her to pray without ceasing, to serve as a public intermediary between God, Norwich, and those who sought her counsel through a window between her cell and the larger world.
That was her official duty. Unofficially, though, she wrote a book. Julian is the first woman to successfully do so in English. Other women were killed for trying to do the same, and both women and men were executed in this period for owning English-language Bibles.
Despite these strict controls on the practices of the mind and the work of theology, somehow Julian learned to write and learned a substantial amount of church doctrine. Perhaps a chantry priest risked his own neck to nurture her.
Three copies of Julian’s book survive describing a near-death encounter with Christ on the cross and her interpretation of the sixteen “showings” or revelations that he gave her. Julian spent twenty years pondering and praying about them before writing, so what we have is the distillation of profound devotion.
ALL SHALL BE WELL
In the thirteenth revelation, Julian finds herself asking God why sin should have been part of creation at all. The response she receives is that
(s)in in inevitable, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
God then shows her all that is “shameful despising” in the world, including Jesus on the cross. Having seen every pain of the world, both past and present in one moment, in the next moment Julian is at complete ease. She explains that, in her words,
our good Lord does not wish that the soul be made fearful by this ugly sight.
The pain we cause ourselves and each other through sin—which I call brokenness—is not God’s goal or God’s delight. Neither is Christ on the cross: our good Lord does not wish that the soul be made fearful by this ugly sight.
So, part of our work at Easter is to make sure the cross speaks the full story of our faith, not just the one-time horror it upheld but the eternal the well-ness Julian describes, too. Rather than go back to the originals, this year I picked a more contemporary symbol: peace cranes.
Many of us worked to fold them throughout Lent, but I’d like to give a special thank you Bradley, who did at least half himself and then had the vision and skill to hang them.
The story of the peace cranes is probably familiar to you: A 12-year-old Japanese girl named Sadako was dying of atomic bomb-induced leukemia. Her father told her a legend that anyone who folded a thousand cranes would live forever. She made 1,644 before dying. As Sadako’s story spread, folded cranes became symbols of peace and of hope for the world in this atomic era, just as bread, fish, and butterflies did in the era of persecution.
Which is contradictory: The cranes did not save Sadako’s life. How can they give us hope for peace?
Because they do. Because the will of an innocent and young casualty of war does. Just like the man before and the mystery after the cross.
When Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb, she finds her beloved gone. Jesus is standing right there, but he is unrecognizable to her. Jesus asks Mary why she is weeping. She begs him to reveal where her precious friend has gone. Do not hold on to me, Jesus replies, and suddenly her eyes can see.
Do not hold on to me, he says. Do not pin me to this tomb as once I was pinned to the cross. Our good God does not wish that your souls be forever fearful because of those ugly sights.
Bury all the crosses. Bury all of the wars. Bury all of the hatred. Bury all of the killing machines and killing creeds. Do not let yourselves be bound by their rules. Get out the fish and the bread again and set the table wider still. Then you will see that I am well and you shall be well and all manner of people and creatures and air and soil and water shall, at last, be well.
1I am indebted to Veronica May Rolf’s Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life and Revelations of Julian of Norwich (New York: Orbis Books, 2014) for this portion.