Last Sunday’s episode of The Simpsons (the animated television program on Fox) had Homer visiting the Holy Land. Once there, he fell into what is called “Jerusalem Syndrome,” and in his case, began to believe that he was the Messiah. I first heard the Jerusalem Syndrome some years ago, just before I visited Israel. A colleague of mine sent me an article about the strange condition with a note on it saying, “I hope this doesn’t happen to you.” The syndrome is one in which a otherwise normally acting and thinking individual leaves his or her home, travels to Jerusalem, and once there, has a kind of break or shift, in which one actually believes that one is someone else—almost always a famous Biblical character. One believes that one is Mary Magadalene, and so roams the streets of modern day Jerusalem, in character. Or one believes that one is Saint Paul, or the Virgin Mary, or… which ever Biblical character your brain suddenly adopts. I’m happy to report that in 1997, I did not fall into Jerusalem Syndrome (though I did hear a voice in the Church of the Nativity … but that’s another story for another sermon).
As odd as Jerusalem Syndrome sounds, there’s one aspect that seems especially true to human nature. Notice that whenever someone undergoes this brief psychotic shift, whether the person is Muslim, Christian, or Jewish, the person always identifies with some famous person from biblical or religious history. It reminds me a little of Shirley MacLaine’s experience with past lives. Ms. McLaine, in past lives, has been “a Japanese geisha, a Moorish girl summoned to cure a fellow countryman of impotence, a suicide in Atlantis, a Toulouse-Lautrec model, an orphan raised by elephants and the seducer of Charlemagne who was subsequently reborn as Swedish prime minister Olof Palme.”
As she explained in a interview a few years ago,“We’re all playing parts,” she insists. “You’re acting as a journalist, doing your best, and I’m trying to impress you. That’s what we do throughout our lives, and you’re empowered when you come to terms with it. What’s imagination, what’s real? I don’t know. If you’re playing a role, you can rewrite it any way you want.” [Full interview with Andrew Duncan, can be found at Radio Times, Created 8/8/2000 Updated 25/8/2003 Page Address: http://members.fortunecity.com/templarser/duncan2.html ]
Though she may be right that it does feel like we’re simply “playing parts” from time to time—some better actors than others— it seems to me that the very essence of Christian faith, the freedom we celebrate especially on this day, is the freedom NOT to play a part, but rather, the freedom to be ourselves. It is the peculiar, individual, sometimes not-too-interesting, sometimes more-fascinating-than-any-role-ever-written SELF that Christ touches, baptizes, sanctifies, and raises to new life. He raises us up on the final day, from death to life, but he also raises us up continually in this life, to life lived more abundantly.
Humanity is made holy on the cross. Rather than transform himself into some Greek or Roman god who might summon all the natural forces of the universe and wow the people with special effects, Jesus dies on the cross. But along with the body of Jesus, the power of sin dies on the cross. The power of evil over us, dies on the cross. The power of death, dies on the cross. As St. Paul puts it, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” And that enemy meets its end on the cross of Christ.
In life, Jesus touched people as themselves, calling each one to the “better self.” The tax collector was accepted and told to deal honestly with people. The Roman soldier had his place and was told to be honorable. The woman at the well continued her work, but with new integrity and purpose after encountering Jesus. The Syrophoenecian woman would still be seen by some as a foreigner, but she found new identity and strength in being touched by Jesus. Each of the disciples—the famous ones whose names we know, and the ones whose names we don’t know— each disciples is accepted for who she or he is, and through a relationship with Jesus Christ (through rebirth in God) each one is touched, changed, and raised up.
Today’s first scripture reading is from the Acts of the Apostles. In it, Peter has learned from a vision God gave him. That vision (which you can read about earlier in Acts 10) opens Peter and the followers of Jesus to a fuller vision of God’s Kingdom, accepting accepting non-Jews into the way of Jesus, and putting into place a pattern of acceptance and openness Church (when it is being faithful to Christ) continues in our own context. As Eugene Peterson’s translation of the scriptures puts it in contemporary language, “It’s God’s own truth, nothing could be plainer: God plays no favorites! It makes no difference who you are or where you’re from—if you want God and are ready to do as he says, the door is open. The Message he sent to the children of Israel—that through Jesus Christ everything is being put together again—well, he’s doing it everywhere, among everyone.” [The Message, Acts 34-38]
As one Anglican Benedictine has put explains, the great freedom of religious life is the freedom not always to have to stand out and be different. The vow of stability helps one remember that one need not spend so much energy always trying to differentiate oneself, to strive to be better than, or more than, but to remember that God has created each person as “enough.”
Even when he was resurrected from the dead, Jesus is seen in common, human ways. In today’s Gospel he is first encountered not in glowing white, not as a superhero, not as something or someone from another space and time, but rather, he is mistaken for the gardener. In another appearance, he fits in with the fisherman. Along the road to Emmaus he appears as a companion, and as a friend. Near the very end of the Gospel of John, some of the disciples are fishing, and Jesus is appears on the beach. There, he seems almost like a short-order cook, asking everyone how they’d like their fish cooked. (That’s a Jesus I really love, and I bet you anything he knows his way around all the “diners, drive-ins and dives” of the world better than Food Network’s own Guy Fieri!)
This earthiness is echoed in our other readings for this Easter morning.
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ reminds us that the “glory of God is a human fully alive” (Irenaeus of Lyons). Christ rises again in each of us, as our bodies move with the love of God in our world. A tenth century mystic, who began as a politician, eventually moved from being a senator to being a monk, and has been known as Symeon the New Theologian (to distinguish him from an earlier Symeon). Symeon’s poetry underscores the personal aspect of encountering God, the personal ways in which God activates and animates us. He writes
We awaken in Christ’s body
as Christ awakens our bodies,
and my poor hand is Christ, He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.
I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(for God is indivisibly
whole, seamless in His Godhood).
I move my foot, and at once
He appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous? — Then
open your heart to Him
and let yourself receive the one
who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
we wake up inside Christ’s body
where all our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him,
and He makes us, utterly, real,
and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed
and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light
he awakens as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.
With apologies to Homer Simpson, we really have no need for the Jerusalem Syndrome to take us over and turn us into other people. We’re fine just who we are. It’s we-as-we-are that Christ comes to meet, to make holy, and raise to new life.
Alleluia, Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia.