By the end of this sermon I hope to convince you that God is not good at maths. With God 1+1 will always =3! Let’s think about three mathematical equations: 1+1=1, =2, =3. Even with primary school maths two of the three seem wrong, but I think we will discover all are true to life.
Text: John 20: 14-18 Mary turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. He said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him “Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni” (which means teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold onto me, because I have not yet ascended to the father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I’m ascending to my father and your father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”.
In this encounter, Mary was surprised, to say the least. I am astonished that the gospel writer John chose this account to be foundational for the Christian church. Who is the primary witness? A woman who has low status in Jewish society (hardly qualified to be a witness in a court of law). In some traditions of the church Mary Magdalene was a woman of uncertain morals. There are lots of surprising details about her confusion of Jesus with a gardener. If you were a gospel writer, surely you would want to provide more convincing evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ!
But something very surprising happened 2000 years ago. I think we can agree that none of us were there. Maybe we can also agree that it speaks to our human experience. But, how does it fit the three mathematical formulas I have suggested? We will see.
I have a friend who worked for a Christian CEO of a large organization. She was 2nd-in-charge and had a torrid three years until she eventually resigned with no job prospects. In the exit interview the CEO asked, “Do you feel less than when you began?” The answer was obvious. 1+1=1. Or to use examples in the media: How did Brittany Higgins feel after her employment in parliament house? Or Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate being forced to resign over bonuses to executives. How have you felt when certain relationships turned sour? Or a job becomes more than disappointing and verges on being abusive? 1+1=1. This is the mathematics of experiences that diminish us: sucked-dry, despondent, less confident, untrusting and suspicious, feeling ripped off. We have all had such experiences.
I remember a job I had in my late teenage years. It was in sales and income was mostly based on commission. A colleague raided my contact list and effectively sold it to a colleague who worked for a rival company. I lost hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars, and his unethical behaviour made my job impossible.
How do we respond? I would suggest that we first recognize that the situation is wrong for us. It is not a good fit. Then set limits. Or boundaries. And carefully evaluate. Of course, there may be very good reasons we might remain in a bad situation: a prior commitment, $, or putting the interests of others first. But in considering our best response the guiding principle is that of self-care. Well, at least it should be a major consideration.
There are life experiences that subtract. That diminish us. An unexpected trauma, a profound loss, a health crisis. We regroup. We go on. We find what comfort in family and friends that is available. Meditation and prayer can help.
It is not easy to navigate through such troubled waters. Wise spiritual counsel might help, but through the process take everything possible into consideration. Naturally keep sight of your values; also your self-care.
This is the equation of the ‘fair deal’, in what ex-President Trump (mercifully ex) called the Art of the Deal (2015). You can buy his book as a paper back at Amazon for $15.57. In that way you will enter a financial relationship with Donald and can help to make him even more wealthy. But seriously we are often involved in transactional relationships. You study and get a degree or a qualification. You do a fair day’s work and you get paid. You perform well and get promoted. Fair’s fair.
Four years ago I bought a unit at Kingston Foreshore. I think I got a good deal. I had a transactional relationship with the seller and the estate agent. 1+1=2 (except we are not talking about $2).
What principles should guide us? Naturally Caveat emptor or “let the buyer beware”. Some ‘deals’ are too good to be true, so caution is appropriate. I laughed at a cartoon of a Nigerian with billions of $ unable to give it away because no one would believe him! Most of our daily relationships have some kind of fair exchange: buying a paper, having a coffee in a café, going to work, seeing a friend for lunch, arranging holiday accommodation, etc. We have an ingrained sense of what is fair and react with anger at what is perceived as unjust. Sometimes, if we feel cheated, we go to lawyers and enter into a case of law.
There is nothing wrong with transactional relationships. What is fair is deeply ingrained. How old does a child need to be before they complain that a sibling got a bigger piece of cake? But I have a question: is this the only criterion in a relationship, a marriage or life in general? Beyond transactions how do we live generously? How do we recognize grace when it appears? Can there possibly be something more?
The clearest example of this is biological. Two people marry and children are born. Thanks to Jenny, I have four children and now 7 grandchildren. How amazing is that?
This is also the equation of grace. Something unexpected, surprising, undeserved is added. This is beyond the transactional and if you think about it, many of the parables of Jesus illustrate 1+1=3. Think about the parable of the day workers who all get the same pay, the agreed amount, but some only work for a couple of hours. Their complaint is the unfairness of the transaction; Jesus points to the logic of the Kingdom of God ? to undeserved generosity and grace.
Here the principle is of one of openness, of optimism, a sense of the expansiveness of life, being open to something more. This is the equation of the spiritual realm – and it is profound ‘good news’! Or Mary who went to tend to the body of Jesus and encountered the risen Lord! The ‘good news’ of Easter which gathers us together on this day.
Now I will apply our equations to a couple of important areas of life. First,
It is important to recognize what kind of experience we are having. For example, a romantic relationship can become lasting, committed and lead to marriage. In time this can become a negative experience – one experienced as diminishing as only a bad relationship can become. There are no easy answers to such relationships and I offer none today. But recognize what is happening and think about your options including getting professional assistance. Or a relationship can become transactional, based on a mutual understanding of fair exchange. Sometimes sex becomes a ‘bargaining chip’ in a relationship. This is not unusual and can work for couples, but perhaps it is a long way from initial expectations. But relationships also have the wonderful potential to be fulfilling. There are some good marriages with lasting companionship, deep intimacy, and a wonderful sense of sharing the decades together. 1+1=3.
It is also a fact that most people experience their committed lasting relationships as mixed. All three equations are operating, but at times our responses will vary from limit setting, to “fairs fair” to gratitude and mutual celebration.
Easter. On this day, of all days, I suggest that the three equations describe different kinds of spiritual experience. 1+1=1 comes from any form of spiritual bondage – for example, to abusive spiritual leadership. The Royal Commission reminded us that this is a risk in church circles. I would add another example in legalism or trying to obey the letter of the law. A lot of Christians approach their faith with, “Just tell me the rules.” St Paul wrote about this because he saw the temptation in the Judaism of his day. Legalism is nice and clear, and we can feel ‘righteous’ but it will always diminish us. Indeed, this is the acid test in following a spiritual practice. Do we grow? Feel closer to God?
1+1=2 is not surprising. It even makes initial sense when applied to faith. Countless Christians live with a contractual understanding: I will go to church, help in some way, give $, be aware of social issues, protect the environment, be a good citizen. God’s part is to protect me, care for my family, help me to prosper. What is the problem with this? There are assumptions that God enters into a contract and that random events don’t happen. While this is somewhat rational, certainly fair, it is a flawed understanding of spiritual reality. Ultimately this makes our faith vulnerable in a way God never intended. It can fail us at precisely the time we really need to experience the presence of God: in disappointment, failing health or tragedy.
1+1=3 is what the spiritual life is all about. Always. And a sense of grace may begin with an experience of death but it will lead to a resurrection. Above all this is what Easter reminds us that Good Friday will be followed by Easter. Death will lead to resurrection and eternal life. In these three memorable days the ugly and the beautiful come together. Both side by side, mixed and sometimes, yes, the ugly seems to win. At this point faith enters. I believe that ultimately beauty will win. I think we can rely on God to do exactly that. 1+1=3!
The Rev’d Dr Bruce Stevens (PhD Boston U) is a clinical and forensic psychologist. He held the Wicking Chair of Ageing and Practical Theology at CSU (2015-2019). He is a supply minister at Gungahlin Uniting Church.