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29th May 2022

Moving On

Passage: Luke 24;36-53


Miss Havisham- can anyone tell me where we find Miss Havisham? (Charles Dickens. Great Expectations). Miss Havisham is, like many of Dickens’ characters, a grim caricature. She is an extreme example of someone who is determined not to move on. Years before, as Miss Havisham was dressing for her wedding, with everything on except the last bridal shoe, her fiancé jilted her. And from that moment on, life ended so far as she was concerned. All the clocks in her house were stopped. She never removed her wedding clothes and went around with just the one shoe on. The wedding feast was never cleared away but left on the table. It is bizarre story but, although Miss Havisham is a caricature, we can recognise something of ourselves in her. None of us cope easily with change, especially change we have not chosen. Bereavement, betrayal, a downsizing-in family, home, finances, or strength; change of job, changes in neighbourhood, culture, or church- part of us screams that we cannot move from where we are. We do not want this change.
Yet even Miss Havisham could not make time stand still: her wedding clothes fell into shreds on her body; the wedding feast rotted on the table; the ballroom filled with dust and cobwebs. And she herself, as time went by, nurturing her pain and resentment, steadily deteriorated in body and mind. Moving On is not an option in life; it is an inevitable process. So, as we read of Jesus’ disciples facing a huge change in their lives, it is worth asking, what might we learn from their story about moving on?

Ready or Not. First, moving on happens whether we feel ready or not. Jesus’ disciples don’t appear to be making any effort to move forward from their grief and shock at his crucifixion. They are still hiding away, and their emotions and confidence levels are stuck right back in the trauma of Good Friday, six weeks earlier. Who can blame them? You don’t get over a major tragedy that quickly. But life inevitably will change for them, ready or not. Refusing to face what has happened; refusing to make any plans to accommodate change is unhealthy. We call it, nowadays, being in denial.
Those disciples could easily have taken Miss Havisham’s route. They could have hidden away in that room for the rest of their lives, endlessly talking over their grief, guilt, and disappointment; sinking into physical frailty and mental illness; their isolation from the world growing as they held back from going out.

It was Jesus who came to their rescue. As I read this passage again, I thought how incredibly good he was with those people trapped in terror. He did not nag them to get up and get out. First he did something “normal:” sat down and ate a meal with them. Then, second, when they had all had something to eat and were feeling better, he talked with them. He talked through their confusion and disappointment in faith. How they felt that God had let them down. Jesus opened their scriptures to them: helping them to see that his suffering, death, and resurrection were all predicted; all part of a necessary plan to save the human race; the heart of a message to humanity that would see people turn their lives around and become reconciled to God. God had not abandoned him, and God would not abandon them. They were part of something far greater than they could ever realise.
Third, he promised them that they would be given the power they needed. They would not be left drowning in fear and pain. Fourth, he led them out; out of that room, right through the city that was terrifying them, on to a place familiar to them from happier times-Bethany. There he left them, having given them his blessing. And they walked back through that city, not to hide in the upper room but to pray in the Temple. They had moved on- ready or not.

Retrospective. Have you ever been in one of those incredibly smooth lifts, where you press a button for the fourteenth floor but feel no sense of movement at all? You think the lift is not working until a voice says Floor Fourteen. How did that happen?
Sometimes life moves us on, but it is only as we look back (in retrospect) that we realise how far we have travelled. You see, most of us, I guess, picture moving on as moving continually in straight steps forward. And I have lost count of the number of people who have said to me what I have said to myself many times, “I thought I was over it. I was moving forward but now I have fallen back.”
It is frustrating when you have focussed on moving forward, to feel that you have fallen back but we need to remember that life never moves in a straight line.
Even St Paul, who underwent one of the most dramatic conversion experiences ever recorded (the blinding light on the road to Damascus and the voice of Jesus speaking to him), would write later of his continuing spiritual struggles and setbacks. Life did not move forward for him in a straight line and to expect this would have been a denial of who and what he was. He was not a robot with a forward or backward switch to control him. He was a human being, unique, complex, unpredictable, and incredibly precious in the sight of God. And Paul’s mission was to introduce other people with complex and unpredictable lives to the God who loved them.

A setback does not necessarily mean you are stuck but that you are taking a slightly more circuitous route. Jesus’ disciples continued to meet for prayer together in the Temple; they elected a man called Matthias to replace Judas (who had killed himself after betraying Jesus to death). They started taking tentative steps forward.
I think it was not until the day of Pentecost, that they realised just how far they had come. The power of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus had promised them came upon them. It all sounded very dramatic but it was actually the culmination of the whole twisting, turning journey those disciples had been making through all their years with Jesus. Peter said as much: now, looking back, we understand who Jesus is, why we have been following him and where we go from here. All those times in the past when they had believed themselves stuck or falling back, they were actually moving forward.

Resurrection. Perhaps the greatest challenge in moving forward is the baggage we carry with us. Because hurt inflicted upon us in the past -whether by others or by ourselves- is not easily discarded. We think we have got over something and then find that we have not. Anger, fear, grief, and guilt still sit heavily on our shoulders, and we feel that they are dragging us back.
I have never got into the endless arguments as to whether Jesus’ resurrection was actually “physical” and I do not intend to start now. But the one thing which comes across, over and over again, is that the person of Jesus seen by the disciples after his death was a person displaying clear scars of where the nails and the soldiers’ spear had pierced him. And that, to me, is a powerful message. Resurrection is not about wiping the slate clean, starting all over again. It is about bearing the scars of the past and seeing them transformed.
In resurrection, the scars on the body of Jesus lost their significance as signs of horrific cruelty, pain, humiliation, and destruction and became instead signs of healing, forgiveness, and hope.

And this, for us, brings an incredible hope into the challenge of Moving Forward. We do not have to deny the pain and the darkness in our past, pretend they never happened. But we can hope that the pain and the darkness will become, by God’s grace, a power of healing and light. We do not have to despair when anger or guilt rise up to strike us again and again. We can hope, that through Christ’s cross and resurrection they will be transformed into a force of forgiveness and compassion. We don’t have to give up on life when our strength appears to be failing. We can hope that the power of God -as St Paul said- will become ever stronger in our weakness.
In the light of the resurrection, Moving Forward is a journey endlessly transformed by the grace of God.

Just when we think nothing new could be found in us, all things known, all things gone as far as they can go, you rise again within us, God of new beginnings. Alleluia. Amen.