Retelling the Story.

June 9, 2013

Widow of Nain(1 Kings 17, 17-24; Luke 7, 11-17)

Those of you who like stage musicals will know that many of them are based on classical plays or stories: ‘Kiss Me Kate’ is based around Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’, ‘My Fair Lady’ on Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ and ‘Les Miserables’ on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name.

Sometimes the original story is updated, to a contemporary setting, as in ‘West Side Story’ where the Montagues and Capulets of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ become the Puerto Rican Jets and working class white Sharks of 1950s New York. Now matter what the setting, the impact of a good story remains.

In our two Bible readings this morning, we see something of the same process at work.  There are obvious parallels between the story of the raising of the dead son of the widow of Zarapheth by the prophet Elijah and the raising of the dead son of the widow of Nain by Jesus. The stories describe the same scenario, and even some of the details and language are identical in the two accounts. As so often, the Gospel writers use a story from one of the great figures from Israel’s past and rewrite it to convey a message about Jesus, his person and his mission.

The widow of Zarapheth was not a Jew. She was a Gentile, from the coastal region of Sidon. Elijah was told by God to seek refuge with her from the anger of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, after he had asked God to send a drought on Israel as a punishment for their wickedness. He met the widow by the town gate and asked her for water and food. Although she had barely enough for one last meal for herself and her son, the widow gave it up to feed Elijah, and in return God provided enough meal and oil to keep the three of them fed during the time the drought lasted.

Having taken the risk and trusted Israel’s God to look after her, the loss of her son was all the more bitter. His death was not just the loss of a family member, it was the loss of her economic security and  her personal safety. As a widow, she had no place in society, no one to defend her and no financial security apart from him. She saw God as a cruel judge, who was punishing her for her sins by his death.

When Elijah restores her son to her, he also restores her faith in Israel’s God as a god of love and mercy.

The writer of Luke’s Gospel appears to have had a particular interest in the prophet Elijah. A number of incidents that are unique to his gospel recall incidents from Elijah’s ministry. Another significant parallel is that Elijah was taken up into heaven and had no earthly tomb, and that his spirit then descended upon his disciple Elisha;  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus ascends to heaven after his death and resurrection and then sends down the Holy Spirit upon his disciples.

All the Gospel writers feature the ministry of John the Baptist, and see him as the prophet whose coming would herald the messianic age. Some seem to see John  as Elijah. But Luke has passages which seem to identify not John but Jesus with Elijah, especially in chapter 4, when, after Jesus is rejected by the people of Nazareth, he refers to Elijah’s stay with the widow of Zarapheth, implying that his ministry will be welcomed by the Gentiles like her and rejected by his fellow Jews.

The story of the widow of Nain and the resurrection of her son is found only in Luke’s Gospel. The story comes immediately after Jesus has healed the Roman centurion’s servant. The centurion, a rich Gentile, who is sympathetic to the Jewish faith and has built a synagogue for them, expresses faith in Jesus, and his servant is healed from a distance. Jesus emphasises the contrast between him and the lack of faith from the Jewish people by saying “I have never found faith like this, not even in Israel”.

Now Jesus turns to help a member of the ‘anawim’  the faithful Jewish poor who feature so often in Luke’s Gospel as the true believers.  He meets the funeral procession at the town gate (a direct parallel with Elijah). After the miracle, he gives the son back to his mother – another direct parallel.

But there are differences between the two stories, and these are intended to demonstrate that Jesus is not just a great prophet (as the crowd proclaims) but something much greater.

There is no request from the widow of Nain for help. Jesus  interrupts the funeral procession, drawn to help by simple human sympathy, sympathy not just for the human tragedy, but, as so often in Luke’s Gospel, for those in facing economic desperation.  He touches the coffin to stop the procession – thereby rendering himself ceremonially unclean. He shows himself to be above human laws of purity. Whereas Elijah throws himself on the dead boy three times, and cries to God to heal him, Jesus revives him with a simple  command “Young man, get up”.  His healing power comes from within himself, not from outside. To those who believe, he is so obviously much more than a great prophet; he is, as Luke calls him, the Lord.

Immediately after this, Luke tells us that messengers came from John the Baptist, asking whether Jesus was the person John said was coming. His answer was that the blind and deaf had been healed, the lame walked, and the dead has been raised to life. The miracles of the preceding verses are thus an illustration of this ministry. Then he tells his disciples that the least in the Kingdom of Heaven will be greater than John.

The miracles in which people are raised from the dead are probably the most difficult for modern Christians to deal with. I trawled the internet and couldn’t find a single modern example of a ‘resurrection’ without medical procedures which had been independently verified.  But, as the Dean of St Albans reminds us in his book ‘Meaning in the Miracles’ the question of what did or did not happen is an unanswerable, and and, therefore, fruitless question. The real and useful question is what the stories are intended to tell us.

In re-telling a story about Elijah, Luke is reminding us that God was at work through Elijah, as he was through all of Israel’s history. He is reminding us that God is a god of mercy and compassion, with a special care for the poor and defenceless. In retelling the story of the raising of a Gentile widow’s son, Luke is reminding us that greater faith is sometimes found outside the faith community than inside it.

In showing Jesus performing the same miracle by a simple  word of command, he is telling us that Jesus is a far greater miracle worker even than Elijah. In restoring her son to the widow Jesus gives her back her future – as he gives back the future to everyone who believes in him.

All the resurrection miracles in the New Testament look forward to the greatest resurrection miracle of all, that of Jesus himself. The widow’s son is raised to physical life, but he will die again. What the resurrection of Jesus promises is resurrection to eternal life – to a future not just in this world, but for all eternity.

In the Bible, physical death, like physical handicap,  can be a symbol for spiritual malaise. We are spiritually dead when we are in the power of sin, or in thrall to the material things of life. It is only through true faith that we can be raised from spiritual death to eternal life and that is the most important resurrection of all.

The stories in the New Testament of Jesus performing miracles were told to strengthen the faith of those who heard them. They showed Jesus as not just a prophet of words, but as a prophet of actions – and as he told the messengers from John the Baptist, the Kingdom of God was being ushered in by those actions.

Our job, as the present day disciples of Jesus, is to inspire and strengthen faith in those to whom we speak. We can do that by re-telling the stories of God at work in the world, just as the gospel writers did; but  particularly by telling our own stories of the difference our faith makes to our lives. We probably won’t have tales of people being raised from physical death to share, but many of us will have stories of individuals and communities whose lives have been redeemed from economic, moral and spiritual death, and who have been given back their future by people working with them in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the service of the Kingdom of God.

And those are stories which are worth re-telling again and again.

Given to Hospitality

May 5, 2013

(Acts 16, 9-15; Revelation 21,10 &21,10-22.5; John 5,1-9)

St. Lydia

Paul really didn’t want to go to Philippi.

 

He and Silas had plans to evangelise known territory in Asia Minor (present day Turkey), where they knew there were synagogues and Jewish communities where they could preach easily,  but every time they tried to turn North and East, the Holy Spirit blocked their way.

 

They crossed to Macedonia, homeland of the hated Alexander who had imposed Greek culture on their nation 300 years before, only as a result of a compelling vision of a man from Macedonia begging them to come and help him.

 

Philippi was possibly the most unattractive place on earth to begin a religious mission. It was a colonial city, established by the Emperor Augustus to control that part of the Roman Empire, and populated by discharged veterans from the legions, who were each given a square of land on which to support themselves. It didn’t seem to have much of a Jewish population: there weren’t even the ten adult Jewish males you needed before you could establish a synagogue, so the Jews and the Gentile God-fearers who worshipped with them, gathered by the side of the river to pray on the Sabbath.

 

The leader among the women who met Paul and Silas there was also a stranger in the place: Lydia came from Thyatira in the region they’d just left. She wasn’t Jewish, it seems, though she was drawn to Jewish beliefs, and worshipped with them. She was probably a widow, and was a successful businesswomen, so was probably quite wealthy. She dealt in purple cloth, which was a luxury item, though since the snails from which the purple dye was extracted were considered unclean to Jews, she was probably not considered someone strict Jews ought to associate with.

 

But it was her heart that was opened to Paul’s preaching, her household that became the first European residents to be converted to the Christian faith, and her home that provided hospitality to Paul and his companions, and the centre of the church that Paul always remembered with joy and thankfulness. The core from which the Christian faith grew on the continent of Europe was composed of women, outcasts and foreigners.

Baptistry Philippi

Paul took a risk in preaching the Gospel and accepting hospitality from these women. Lydia took a risk in opening her home to this group of men. Yet, the strength of her faith showed itself in the hospitality and generosity to these strangers. The Letter to Timothy says such hospitality is the hallmark of a church leader, and Paul commended this in the church communities he founded.

 

‘Hospitality’ is an interesting word. The Greek from which it is translated  – philoxena – is composed of two words meaning ‘love’ and ‘foreigners’ – it it literally love for strangers. The Latin root of our word hospitality, ‘hostes’, also means ‘stranger’.

 

That tells us ‘hospitality’ is not about having a nice time with people like ourselves. It is about offering safety, comfort, nourishment, security, healing and friendship both to those who are different and alien from us, as well as to those who are like us. This was an absolute obligation in the world of the Old Testament; to fail to offer security and sustenance to a stranger was the worst social offence. It is this, not gay sex, that Sodom and Gemorrah were condemned for

 

We Christians offer hospitality because that is what God in Jesus offers to us; we have done it as ‘hosts’ (another related word)  in hostels, hospitals and hotels throughout the Church’s history; and it is what the best Christian communities continue to do today.

 

The readings from John and Revelation also speak, in their different ways, about hospitality. What is on offer in the Gospel passage is healing. The story speaks of Jesus going to a place where the sick gather, all hoping to to be healed by some sort of magic. He picks a stranger at random, and offers him true healing. The person who is healed is not particularly deserving, he doesn’t express faith in Jesus, he doesn’t even seem to be particularly grateful for his healing. It certainly doesn’t appear to provoke faith in him.The miracle demonstrates the generous, indiscriminate character of God’s grace. This story show that it is not true that faith is a precondition for healing; God doesn’t only reward those who have faith. on the contrary, God’s hospitality is offered to all, even the undeserving.

 

Revelation speaks of a God who accepts the hospitality of humankind, coming to live among them in a renewed Jerusalem, and then, in that holy city, offering hospitality to every race and people. The picture it paints is of a renewed creation: the tree of life stands at the centre, and the river of life flows through it, reflecting the situation in the Garden of Eden. In a parallel with the Gospel story, those who find sanctuary there are offered healing through the leaves of the tree of life.  There will be absolute security for everyone within the city, with no darkness to provide cover for wrongdoing. It will be so secure that the gates will never have to be shut to keep out attackers. It is portrayed as the place of perfect hospitality, where everyone is comfortable, befriended, secure, healthy and at home.

 

There is no need for a place of religious hospitality in the city, because the presence of God and of the Lamb pervades the whole. Until that consummation comes, each of our churches is called to be a microcosm of that heavenly city in our own towns and communities. How can we be that city and offer that community?

As you wait to move into your new church building, it’s a good question to ask yourselves. How can you offer safety, comfort, nourishment, healing and friendship to both committed members and strangers? How can your church community and your worship be more welcoming to the friendless and the newcomer, in both practical and spiritual ways? Perhaps, like Philippi, this area doesn’t look like a very easy place in which to do mission; but God has a task for you here, just as he had for Paul.

Churches-Banner_03

Like Paul’s mission to Europe, the new chapter in this church’s life you are about to embark upon will be a continuation of the old. There will be things you will continue to do, like Messy Church, and hosting meetings for younger and older folk; but the new premises may also offer opportunities to open your doors to welcome other groups, with different interests and different needs, to feel at home as your guests.

 

But, as citizens of a democratic nation, we all have an obligation to offer hospitality and healing in the name of God, to those far beyond our local communities. John’s vision of the heavenly city in Revelation sees it as a place of security and refuge for all nations, and our Christian calling is to do that through our votes and making our opinions felt, as well as through our practical activities.

 

John’s vision of a hospitable world is a vision of hope, and also a challenge to the ways in which we fall short of this ideal. In so many ways, our world has developed a culture of suspicion and inhospitality. But, one of the obvious characteristics of Jesus’ first followers as they sought to live out the Gospel was hospitality, reflected in feeding the hungry , inviting strangers into their homes, and serving and praying for the sick, the widow and the orphan . What might be the present day equivalent of those? Perhaps  global debt relief and removal of unjust trade restrictions;humane and just immigration laws and fair treatment of ethnic and other minorities; freely available equitable health care and social services?  For those of us who seek to follow Christ, our vote, and our voice in public debate against those who would deny them, could be a significant influence in creating a more hospitable world.

As we draw to the end of the Easter season, we are reminded again through our readings that the new life unleashed through the resurrection demands that we share God’s love in practical ways. Last week we were shown how the first apostles included those who were once considered unclean in the covenant community. This week we are shown how they offered and accepted hospitality and healing in different and not obviously receptive situations, and so laid the foundations for what would become Christendom, the centre of the world wide missionary activity of the Church. Our calling as Pentecost approaches is to do the same, to welcome in and offer healing and comfort to all, without distinction, and to do our best to create the community and safety of the heavenly city wherever we have influence on this earth.

Doubting Thomas?

April 7, 2013

Thomas. by Carl Heinrich Bloch

Thomas.
by Carl Heinrich Bloch

 

(John 20, 19-31. Easter 2, Yr C)

How do you feel about the apostle Thomas, whose story we have just heard from the Gospel according to John? Do you identify with him? Or do you condemn him, as the Christian Church has tended to do for most of its history, as ‘Doubting Thomas’?

Jesus gave some of his disciples additional names: Simon became Peter, the Rock, and James and John were called Boanerges, the Sons of Thunder; but we don’t usually remember the meaning of these nowadays. We don’t remember any other of the disciples by a name that commemorate one incident in their lives.   Simon Peter is not remembered as “the Denier” or James and John as “those who asked for the best positions”. The name of Judas has become a synonym for betrayal; but only slightly less reprehensible than being a ‘Judas’, it seems, is to be a “Doubting Thomas”.

The reading we had was one of the three ‘resurrection appearances’ of Jesus recorded in the Gospel according to John. Each of the four gospels has a very different record of the ‘appearances’ of Jesus after his death and burial, and St Paul’s gives yet another account in his letters. This makes it clear that what we are dealing with here is not historical fact, but myth or parable – stories which are meant to convey meaning and truth. The truth of a parable does not depend on whether the story describes something that really happened. So we should leave aside the question of whether what John the Evangelist describes actually occurred. The question we need to ask  is “What is he trying to convey through this story?”

In John’s account, the first appearance is to Mary Magdalene, in the garden beside the tomb. She doesn’t recognise Jesus until he calls her name. She is forbidden to touch him because ‘he has not yet ascended to the Father’. For John, resurrection, ascension and coming in glory are not events separated in calendar time; they all happen on Easter Day.

So, the appearances in the locked room in Jerusalem are of the ascended and glorified Jesus, although a Jesus who still bears the visible scars of crucifixion. He shows the disciples the marks on his hands and side. John’s resurrection parable tells us very strongly that it is the crucified Jesus who is raised to glory and whose life and death are vindicated by God. Resurrection does not cancel out the crucifixion.

Then he commissions them to continue his mission, to go to teach the world as he taught the world. As he was the agent of the Father in his earthly ministry, the disciples, and those who will come to belief through their witness, become the agents of God in their turn, speaking the message of new birth, new life and hope by the Spirit to those who are broken and fearful, hiding behind locked doors in their particular world.

Having revealed his glorified self to them, and commissioned them to continue his ministry, Jesus then empowers them for the task, by breathing the Holy Spirit on them. Again, the sequence of events in John’s account is very different from the synoptic gospel accounts, where the gift of the Holy Spirit comes later. John’s resurrection narrative has many echoes of the second creation narrative in Genesis: new life begins in a garden; God breathes into human beings to give them life. In other places in the Old Testament, God gives life through breath or spirit, for instance in the valley of dry bones which represent Israel in Ezekiel.

Although John’s  Gospel speaks of several different ways of entering new life (through rebirth to Nicodemus in Chapter 3 and through living water, perhaps meaning baptism, at the Festival of Shelter) the gift of new life through the Holy Spirit is particularly significant. In his farewell discourses at the last supper, John’s Jesus says he will be away from the disciples and they will not see him for a little while. Then after a little while they will see him. He promises he will come again to them, and give them another advocate, to replace himself, who will lead them into all truth. The gift of the Spirit fulfils these promises.

It is only after the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus gives the disciples the authority to forgive sins. John teaches that is only those who are united by the Spirit with the God of love revealed through Jesus who know the truth, and can judge what is sinful and what is not. It is only those who are at one with the God through the Spirit, as Jesus was, who have the authority to act in God’s name.

Sunday evening was one time when Christian communities in the Apostolic Age gathered to share worship and eat a fellowship meal together. So the messages in the two appearances, a week apart, are clearly directed to the communities for which John is writing.

The statement by Thomas that he will not believe until he has seen the marks of the nails and put his hand into the spear wound in Jesus’s side leads into the second appearance. ‘Believe’ is a very rich word in the gospels, and has quite a different meaning from the way it is usually used in religious circles today. As Marcus Borg points out it does not mean believing a whole lot of statements about God and Jesus, such as those contained in the creeds. It comes from the old English word ‘be love’ and is more about love, trust, faithfulness and commitment, than intellectual assent to a number of propositions. It is more about ‘believing in’ than ‘belief’.

Thomas is not prepared to make his commitment to the Risen Son at second hand. But note what he asks to see – the marks of the nails and the spear – the wounds. He is clear that ‘belief’ involves identifying with the crucified Lord in his suffering. He is not one of those disciples who wants the glory without the suffering. Easter without Good Friday.

Jesus grants Thomas his wish by appearing the next Sunday evening. John makes clear that the appearances in Jerusalem are not of a physical body – it can appear and disappear at will through solid walls. Although invited to touch, Thomas doesn’t need to. Once he has seen the wounds, he pronounces the standard Christian confession of faith: ‘My Lord and my God’.

Jesus’s response is usually translated as a question, and as accusatory. “Have you believed because you have seen?” But the Greek in which the gospel was written does not reverse word order in order to indicate a question, nor did it have punctuation marks. Just as Jesus’s response to Pilate’s question ‘Are you the King of the Jews” can be translated “I am” or “Am I?” so this can also be translated not as a question, but a statement. “You have believed because you saw me.  Blessed are those who have not seen, yet come to believe.” This combination of statements gives equal affirmation to those who believe because they have visions in which they see, hear or touch Christ, as Paul says he did; and those who believe because of the witness of others, as most of us will have done. The first witnesses have no privileged place over those who follow.

Thomas, likes the other disciples, is now transformed: joyful where before he was fearful, and at peace, whereas before he was disturbed by the apparent failure of Jesus’s mission. The final sentences of our reading (which most scholars believe was the original end of John’s Gospel) explain that the account of the signs has been written to inspire belief and commitment to Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. It implies that John’s communities of Christians will be ‘people of the book’. They will no longer rely on visions, nor on the oral tradition, but on John’s account of the signs and his explanations of their meaning to know the truth.

Thomas, the account shows us, was not a doubter. He knew what had happened to Jesus on the cross and that he was dead. He didn’t want a happy ending, but evidence that God had approved and glorified Jesus for the path of service and suffering he had followed. Once he was assured of that, he was a faithful disciple, passing on through word and his own example that the way to be at one with God was through the path of service to others, and non-violent resistance to the forces of domination and oppression.

John’s account of the resurrection challenges us in turn, people who have come to faith through the witness of those who wrote the gospel accounts and the other books of the New Testament, to have faith in that same path. It tells us that the opposite to faith, which is belief as commitment, is not doubt, but fear, cynicism and despair. It tells us we are called to be communities of hope, committed to Jesus and the way of life he taught. We are called to bring that hope to places and people where it is absent – even to those who don’t share our particular way of commitment to God. We are called to move out of our comfort zones, out of the familiar and the safe, to follow our Lord and God into the new life he promises, accompanied by the Holy Spirit, who is our Comforter and Advocate.

May we hear and respond to this message of the Resurrection, as Thomas did.

Amen

The Resurrection

March 31, 2013

 IMG_0739

Easter  2013

Acts 10, 34-43; 1 Cor. 15, 19-26; Luke 24, 1-12.1

Some years ago, on Good Friday, The Times reported on a survey by The Spectator  in which the diocesan bishops of the Church of England were asked the question: ‘Do you believe in the physical resurrection of Christ?’ Rather to the surprise of the author, two thirds of them answered ‘yes’. However, about a quarter of the bishops declined to answer ( sensible men! ) and a further three bishops gave what were called ‘more subtle answers’. Nevertheless, this survey prompted the Times’  journalist to draw the conclusion that ‘At least three quarters of the Church of England’s bishops still proclaim a belief in the literal truth of the story of Easter and the physical resurrection of Jesus as described in the Bible.’

However, when you read what the bishops are said to have replied, things are not so clear. The Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones said: “I believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus for both historical and theological reasons. The fact that Jesus appeared to over 500 people at one time shows that it was not a subjective but an objective experience”.

A spokesman for the Archbishop of York said: “The Archbishop believes that the physical body of our Lord was raised from the dead on the first Easter morning and that it assumed a spiritual form which continued to sustain the Apostles and the early Church until the Ascension”.

A spokesman for the Archbishop of Canterbury said: “Jesus Christ is risen. That is a fact’.

The Bishop of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich said: “It’s immaterial whether Christ was resurrected in body or spirit” and the Bishop of Bristol said: “I stand by the tradition of the church and St. Paul in particular, that we celebrate at Easter the rising of a spiritual body”.

The article did not record what other comments these bishops and others may have made. However, it recorded the results of another survey, of the general public by another journal, which showed that one third of 1000 people questioned believes in the biblical version of the resurrection, and half believed there was another explanation. I was not one of the 1000, but if I had been, I would have been a rather uncooperative respondent. Before answering I would have asked ‘Which of the biblical accounts of the resurrection do you mean?’ and ‘What exactly do you mean by resurrection?’

The problem is that we communicate our beliefs about the resurrection of Jesus in words; but words are very inadequate and often misleading things to describe the transcendent reality that is the Easter experience. Whenever you put an experience into words, you are already beginning to interpret it. Moreover, you have to interpret it according to words which reflect your thought forms and already existing beliefs, and those of the culture from which you come.

The biblical accounts of the first Easter began with the experiences of 1st century Jews whose world view was very different from that with which we operate. When these experiences were written down, they were written in Greek, within a Hellenistic Jewish culture. The Bible as we know it was then translated into Latin, and finally into English at different periods of English history.  Each of these translation processes would inevitably have slightly affected the way the experience was expressed and understood, simply because there is very rarely an exact one for one correspondence between the words of different languages.

Let me just give you one example of how it affects our understanding of the Easter story. The Greek noun  ‘resurrection’ amastasir appears hardly at all in the New Testament, When what happened to Jesus is described, verbs are used, and mostly verbs in the passive. That is, the New Testament does not talk about Jesus’s  ‘resurrection’ or even ‘rising’ from the dead, but  about Jesus ‘being raised’ by God from death to heaven. But when we proclaim our faith, we never say ‘Jesus was raised’, always ‘Christ is risen’. Interpretation and translation have altered our understanding.

What is more, there are a number of accounts of the raising of Jesus, and appearing to people, and these have a number of differences, more than would be expected if these were just different witnesses to the same event.

The earliest account, in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, speaks of Jesus dying, being buried, and being raised on the third day according to the scriptures. He then appears to Cephas (Simon Peter), to the twelve (note 12 – not 11- even though Judas was supposed to be dead by now!) then to 500 people at once, then to James, then to all the apostles (who are they?) and lastly to Paul himself. There are several things to note about this account. Paul does not mention the women, the tomb, or any demonstration of a physical body, and he gives his own appearance of the risen Lord (at least a year or more after the crucifixion) exactly the same status as the earlier appearances to the first followers and family of Jesus. What is more, in the same epistle he argues that the body which is raised is a spiritual body, not a physical one, since ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God’.

The Gospel of Mark records that Mary Magdalene and two other named women go to the tomb in Jerusalem in order to anoint the body and are told by a young man that Jesus is not there, he has been raised and they are to tell the disciples to go to Galilee to see him. No appearances are described. Matthew has Mary Magdalene and another Mary going to the tomb (no Salome) to be told by an angel that Jesus has been raised and to tell the disciples to go to Galilee to see him. They then meet Jesus, worship him and the message is repeated. The eleven disciples go to Galilee and Jesus comes to them on a mountain and commissions them to  go and baptize in his name.

Luke, as we heard, has an unspecified number of women going to the tomb, to be told by two angels that Jesus has been raised. They are reminded of Jesus’ predictions of his resurrection, and go back to tell the disciples. Mary Magdalene and some others are now named. They tell the disciples, who don’t believe them. Peter goes to see the tomb, and sees the grave clothes lying but no body.  The first appearance of Jesus is to Cleopas (a hitherto unknown disciple) and his companion on the way to Emmaus. It comes in the context of the exposition of Scripture and the breaking of bread. Jesus then appears to the disciples and others in Jerusalem and tells them to touch him and see he has flesh and bones, and he then eats a piece of cooked fish. He then tells them to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit (no trip to Galilee!) and then takes them to Bethany, from where he is carried up to heaven. This ascension story is repeated in the beginning of Acts, except there it is on Mt. Olivet near Jerusalem, and happens after 40 days. The coming of the Spirit happens several days later, on the feast of Pentecost.

In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene alone goes to the tomb and finds the stone rolled away. She is not going to anoint the body, since Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea have already done that before the burial. She calls Peter and the Beloved Disciple who run to the tomb. Peter enters the tomb and sees the grave clothes, as does the Beloved Disciple, who believes (in what is not specified). There are no angels.  It is specifically said that the disciples did not yet understand the scripture that he must rise up. (John unusually uses the active verb ).

Jesus then appears to Mary, and tells her he is ascending to God (not that he has risen!) That evening, Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem through a locked door, and shows them his feet and side. He then breathes on them and gives the Holy Spirit (no separate Pentecost gift). He appears again a week later the same way, through locked doors, and convinces Thomas to believe. The final chapter of John (which many scholars believe to be a later addition) records an appearance of Jesus by the Sea of Galilee to Simon, Thomas, Nathanael, James and John and two other disciples. This involves a fishing trip similar to one described before the calling of the disciples in Luke’s gospel. The disciples do not at first recognise Jesus. They share a meal of fish and bread. This is described as the third appearance, but seems very like a first encounter with the risen Lord. Peter is then forgiven for his denial, and commissioned to lead the church and the manner of his death is predicted.

So, when people say they ‘believe in the physical resurrection of Christ as described in the Bible’  which of these accounts are they referring to? Quite apart from the discrepancies in the appearances, there are inconsistencies in the descriptions of the burial and the tomb that make it inconceivable to me that what is being described is an objective historical occurrence.

I believe, as do  many Christian theologians whose judgement I trust, that these Scriptures are attempting to communicate,  in symbol and myth, reworking the religious traditions of Judaism in the form known as midrash, the experience of the first disciples of Jesus, men and women, that we know as ‘the resurrection’. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg describe these accounts as ‘parable’, and point out that the truth of a parable does not depend on it having a basis in fact or history. What matters about a parable is its meaning.

This experience was real. We know that by its effects: by the change in the people who were the first members of the Christian Church from frightened men and women who ran home and hid, to those who were prepared to face persecution and death for their faith in Jesus as their Lord; by the change in them from orthodox Jews who held that the ‘Lord our God is one’ to followers of a new ‘Way’ who preached that Jesus of Nazareth had been taken up into God; by the change in them from those who shunned contact with non-Jews to those who preached the Jewish Messiah to all the known world; from those who saw death on a cross as a sign of separation from God, to those who saw it as the gateway to eternal life in God’s presence.

So the proper question to ask of the Easter narratives in the Bible is not ‘Did it really happen?’ expecting answers in terms of things that could be photographed and  videoed if they happened now. Rather the question we need to ask of the Scriptures is: What did the experience mean to those first disciples, especially Mary Magdalene Peter, and Paul, that led to the dramatic change in them?   This is a question that goes beyond the arguments about what literally happened into the realm of the eternal and the transcendent – the world of the Spirit.

Crossan and Borg suggest several things that the Easter stories tell us. The first is that Jesus is not to be found among the dead, but among the living. He is to be experienced through the Holy Spirit and in people living out his teaching in every age. The second is that, in raising Jesus to Heaven, God expresses his approval of Jesus and his way of life. He vindicates him against the power systems of the Roman Empire that killed him, and all such power systems, and those who collude with them. The resurrection asserts that these systems will not ultimately triumph over God’s Kingdom. Third, the Easter stories tell us that Jesus is Lord and Son of God, not the Roman Emperor. We follow his way, not the way of power and violence, when we live in God’s Kingdom; and that way will bring us life that is eternal.

If I am asked: Do you believe in the Resurrection?, I would answer: Yes. I believe that Jesus was raised after his death to glory with God. If I was asked if the disciples saw the risen Lord? I would again answer: Yes. I believe that at some time after the crucifixion (not necessarily on the third day, or after 3 days and nights, since that is ‘religious time’ ) the disciples saw Jesus in his exalted and glorified body, and that this was an experience shared by many people, some of whom are named in different parts in the New Testament and some of whom are anonymous. If I am asked if I believe that Jesus is alive? I would answer: Yes, in the same way that I believe all of us who have faith in his revelation of God are transformed, renewed and alive in a way physical death has no power to extinguish.

Christ has been raised. We may be raised with him. Alleluia!

IMG_0746

Giving Up…….

March 3, 2013

Lent 3 Yr C. (Isaiah 55, 1-9; Psalm 63, 1-8; 1 Cor. 10, 1-13; Luke 13, 1-9)

fig tree

How’s Lent going for you? Have you managed to avoid all the things you resolved to give up? Have you done that extra praying or Bible reading, or attended the Lent groups you promised to take up? Now we’re nearly at the mid point of Lent, it may be good time to review.

There’s an ongoing discussion about what Lent is for. Most of us know that it began in the early church as a period of preparation for Easter, when new members were admitted to the Church in baptism, and those who had been excommunicated for serious sin were allowed back into  communion. It was then extended to be a period of discipline for everyone, to prepare them for the greatest feast of the Christian year, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter.

Alongside the idea of disciplined preparation, there was also the idea that Christians should attempt to walk alongside Christ, and try to identify with his sacrifice, in imitation of the 40 days in the wilderness.

The ‘giving up’ part of the discipline was based on the concept that what got in the way of identifying with Christ were ‘sins of the flesh’ particularly sex, eating and drinking. It reflected a very gloomy idea of God, as one who disapproved of everything that made life enjoyable, and whose reaction to human wrongdoing was to come down strongly with devastating punishment. The message was that you could only please that sort of divinity, or try to avoid the punishment that was coming to you, if you made yourself thoroughly uncomfortable and miserable.

We can see hints of that idea of God in the reading from 1 Corinthians. Paul sees the disasters that fell on the Israelites in the wilderness as punishments sent by God for their idolatry and sexual immorality, complaining and pleasure seeking, and highlights them as a warning to the followers of Jesus who might be tempted to do the same.

The same idea of God is found in the first part of the Gospel reading from Luke.  The idea was frequently expressed that illness or disaster was a sign of punishment for wrongdoing, or just of God’s disfavour. Other people’s misfortune, says this bit of Luke, is a warning to mend our ways. It’s almost as if we believe God trying to frighten us into being good, and if we make ourselves thoroughly miserable, along with saying sorry, he won’t be so hard on us.

But parts of the readings give us another, rather different picture of God. The passage from 3rd Isaiah, pictures a God who is eager to give people the richest food, wine and the best of meals at absolutely no cost to themselves. It pictures a God who is eager to reward his people, in keeping with the covenant made with them, and is ready to forgive them their wrongdoing the moment they turn back to follow him. It makes the point that God ‘s ways are very different from human ways; he doesn’t automatically strike out at those who disobey, as a human ruler would. God is love, not power. God builds up, rather than destroys. Psalm 63 also reflects the picture of a God who fills those who follow him with good things, and offers protection to them, rather than punishment.

And the second part of the Luke passage again challenges the idea of a divinity whose first instinct is to punish and destroy those who don’t live up to the divine standard. The fig tree and the vineyard are both Biblical images for the people of God. The master is all for giving up on those who fail, and destroying them. The gardener, however, the person who truly cares for what is growing, however, is willing to give them another chance.

Lent gives us ‘another chance’ each year to repent in the proper meaning of the word, to turn our minds and our lives round, and to live more authentically the lives that Jesus showed us how to live, under the sovereignty of God.

There’s been a lot of rethinking recently about how we can best use the season to do that.

Giving up things, like chocolate, cake, alcohol, TV or cigarettes has tended to go out of fashion, in Christian circles at any rate. There’s come to be a feeling that it has more to do with a desire for the body beautiful than spiritual discipline. I read a remark recently that giving things up for Lent is sometimes just having another go at keeping the New Year’s resolutions you’re failing to keep by the time February comes round.

There is also the tendency for humans to turn even good exercises into competitions, which means they end up being about ourselves, and our own pride, rather than bringing us closer to God.

Mark Sandlin, a minister in the Episcopal church in America, wrote recently how he got caught up in this ‘devotional one-upmanship’ one Lent. Sacrificing just one pleasure seemed too little a sacrifice – so each year he added something else, till one year he gave up all beverages except water, all meat, all TV and all sweets except his birthday cake, as well as adding extra exercise, daily devotions and charitable giving. And he admits that part of the reason was that when people asked (as he knew they would) what he was doing for Lent, he’d come out looking really holy and righteous.

So, one year, he gave up Lent for Lent. He took a careful look at the things that most people give up for Lent, and concluded that they weren’t actually the things that really get in the way of our right relationship with God. Such obstacles are very unlikely to be alcohol, or chocolate, or television, unless we are really addicted to them. It is much more likely to be our desire to come first, to keep up with the Joneses, and our inability to treat those who are different from us a fellow children of God. It’s a lot harder to give up that sort of socially reinforced behaviour than to give up biscuits, so if you resolve to try during Lent, you are bound to fail, over and over again. So, when Mark did try, and inevitably failed, he just kept on trying, through Easter and the rest of the church year, and he was still trying when the next Lent came round. So, he didn’t need a special season of Lenten discipline any more – he was living in it all the time.

Giving things up has been replaced by a trend for taking things up – using Lent to improve your knowledge of the faith by reading, or joining a Lent discussion group; or by setting aside time to pray or just be silent. Some think it would be a good thing to encourage people to attend extra mid-week worship, or to make a specific commitment to give more to charity during the Lenten season. But many of us lead very busy lives anyway. Trying and failing to do extra reading, or attend more worship or discussion groups, can just leave us feeling guilty, rather than helping us to grow spiritually.

A new initiative this Lent has been the ‘I’m not busy’ challenge, which asks people to spend a limited amount of time each day – between 10 and 30 minutes – just doing nothing. The challenge has been issued because the instigator, Stephen Cherry, sees busyness as a disease of the developed world, one which is ruling our lives and eating away at our souls. He feels it is bad because it distorts our perceptions, makes us feel self-important, makes us rude and impatient, burns us out, and prevents us from considering what is really important in our lives.

Church people are not immune -indeed some of them constantly complain of how busy they are. Busyness is seen as a virtue in our society – but in fact is a corrosive vice. Doing nothing for 10 – 30 minutes each day is just the start: it should lead on to a re-evaluation of what is really important, and implementing some ‘time wisdom’ to make better use of God’s gift of time. Again, this is a Lenten discipline that is designed to continue even after Lent has finished.

Even this Lent discipline, though, can be turned into something that is about us, and what is good for us (for busyness is very bad for our mental and physical health) rather than being undertaken because it brings us closer to God. An obsession with our work, even our work for the church, can  get in the way of listening and understanding what God wants of us.  But as John Van de Laar writes: “Worship can easily be a good way to hide from ourselves and from God. It’s easy to sing and dance in order to silence the still small voice”. Being an active church member can also get in the way of our openness to God.

Brandon Ambrosino, another US Christian, wrote recently about an even more radical form of ‘giving up for Lent.’ He gave up God!

This is not as strange as it sounds. He explained that, when he was at college, his philosophy lecturer explained to him the difference between God as an ‘eikon’ and God as an ‘eidos’. The first is the Greek word for image or icon and refers to God as something wholly other, as our OT reading says – one whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways. The second ‘eidos’ is the Greek word for ‘idol’ and refers to the God many religious people believe in – a God who we think we can fully explain, using human categories, a God who we’ve created in our own image, who thinks as we think, and whose ways are our ways.

It is the ‘eidos’ God that Ambrosino resolved to give up during Lent: the God of rigid ideologies, who silences questions with threats of Hell, who separates the world into manageable divisions of the approved and disapproved, whose ethical decisions were fixed by age-old writings which cannot be discussed, who gave human beings brains, and then punishes them for using them.

He gives this up in order  “to reflect not on the God who rules by power, but a god who leads by love; who identifies with the weak; whose foolishness upsets omniscience; a God who reveals Himself in many ways, who reveals Himself in a first century peasant named Jesus; a God who empties Himself of God, and offers Himself to his enemies in submission and servitude; who is concerned with the plight of widows and orphans, the least among us, and the disadvantaged; who sends Jesus to go after the marginalized and the misunderstood, and to bring back home again those who have been ostracized and forgotten.

I am giving up God for Lent to make room for God. I am prying open my fingers, and letting all of my theological idols crash to the ground. And I am lifting up my empty hands to Heaven in anticipation of God’s arrival, and quietly echoing the unsettling words of Meister Eckhart: “I pray God to rid me of God.”

This is another ‘giving up’ that will continue after Lent is over, in order that we may be open to receive the God who is always arriving unexpectedly, always being born in obscurity, always being raised from the dead. It is  a challenge to be a pilgrim follower, always searching for God revealed in new situations, always checking that we haven’t settled for an idol instead of struggling with the amazing, mysterious reality of the divine icon. It’s a giving up that would be a real challenge for many of us. Is it something that feels right to you – or not?

So, take a moment this week to consider: what are you ‘giving up for Lent’ and why?

Cornucopia

Pattern for Discipleship

July 22, 2012

 

St. Mary Magdalene. 22nd July

2 Cor. 5, 14-17; John 20, 1-2 & 11-18.

Mary Magdalene, who the Church remembers and celebrates today, has always been a favourite saint of mine. I’ve known the date of her feast day since I was a small child: when my parents were married, my father was RC and my mother wasn’t, so they weren’t allowed any of the trimmings for their wedding in a Catholic church – but because it was the feast day of Mary Magdalene, they got flowers, since the church was decorated in honour of her.

Then, as a grown up woman, I came to have a special affection for her, because, among all the female saints, she is one of the few who seems human enough to be person whom women today could try to emulate.

Even if Mary Magdalene is not the same person as the ‘woman who lived a sinful life’ of Luke 7.37 (and modern scholars say she’s not), she is clearly a very different sort of person  from the virgins, mystics, queens and wives and mothers who have usually been seen as suitable female candidates for canonisation. Her story offers hope and encouragement  to those who may have experienced the darker side of life, and yet who have been transformed and saved by encountering the love of God in Jesus. She is truly our sister in Christ.

Mary Magdalene is a particular inspiration to women ministers such as me, since in her we have the strongest evidence that Jesus accepted and used the ministry of women. If the qualifications for being called an apostle are that you were a companion of Jesus in his earthly life, an eyewitness of the resurrection, and were sent by Jesus to proclaim the good news to a specific group of people, then Mary Magdalene has a strong claim to the title of the first apostle. The Eastern Orthodox Church gives her that title: ‘Apostle to the Apostles’. How then can anyone say that women can’t be part of the apostolic succession?

By virtue of our baptism, we are actually all called to be apostles – to proclaim the gospel – and Mary Magdalene has important things to teach us about how we do that.

She shows us who Jesus calls to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven – not the clever, the rich, the respectable, the influential; he called the poor, the broken, the outcasts. He turned the world’s standards of who was suitable upside-down.

Mary Magdalene wasn’t a prostitute, as she has so often been portrayed in art and literature; but the New Testament tells us that Jesus cured her of seven devils. Since, in biblical language, seven is the number of totality, these stories tell us she was regarded as completely possessed, completely in the power of evil, so far gone as to be beyond the reach of ordinary help, and so, completely separate from normal society.

Jesus wasn’t deterred by this. He touched her, he talked to her, he let her accompany him on his journeys, he gave her work to do for him, as he did with so many others who were sick, sinful and outcast. His total loving acceptance of all these damaged, rejected people, while they were still sick, sinful and outcast, transformed them into saints and messengers for him.

We are called to do the same. But do we?

It is so easy for us to fall back into the attitudes of the Scribes and Pharisees described in the Gospels; to try to make sure that only the pure and the perfect are admitted to our fellowship, and given authority in our churches. If we found in our congregation a woman who has achieved a high position in business or education, and another who shouts out during the service and eats all the biscuits in coffee time – which would we welcome, and which would we try to persuade to worship elsewhere? But which is the Magdalene?

Let me give you another example of what this means: http://www.episcopalcafe.com/daily/faith/why_are_youth_in_church.php

The the story of Mary Magdalene shows us how we should respond to the love of God in Christ. Jesus gave Mary freedom – from possession by evil and enslavement to Satan. Her response was immediately to give up that freedom, and to become his devoted slave. We are told in Luke 8.3 that Mary and other women who had been healed by Jesus, used their own resources to support him. She was clearly quite a wealthy woman, perhaps a widow or someone who ran her own business. Being exorcised from her demons would have allowed Mary to return to her normal life, to make money, to build a home and have a family, all the sorts of things a woman in her society was supposed to do. Instead she became a sort of ‘camp follower’ of Jesus and his disciples, so putting herself straight back into the category of the excluded again.

The total commitment that Mary Magdalene showed is what God in Christ demands of us. Again and again, in his teaching and in his parables, Jesus says that the only proper response to the call of the Kingdom of heaven is total commitment and unconditional obedience; “Go, sell all that you have, and follow me!”.

In baptism, we become the adopted children of God; but we also promise to be Christ’s faithful servants until the ends of our lives – and servants have to do as they are told, and go where they are sent. That is something we find hard to do. We want to do what we want with our lives and our property, rather than what God may want us to do with them.

Mary Magdalene give us a pattern of self-sacrifice and obedience to imitate. She continued in loving service to Jesus, even when she believed him to be dead and buried. What could such devotion and obedience mean in our lives? What have we got to offer, that God wants to use to build the Kingdom?

The final lesson we can learn about discipleship from Mary Magdalene is perhaps the hardest of all for us to accept. Mary gave her life to Jesus totally. Even after his death, that devotion continued. We can only imagine the extravagance of her joy when she heard his voice saying her name, and found he was no longer confined to the tomb. All she wanted to do was to hold on to him.

But then came the apparent rejection: “Don’t touch me. Don’t cling on to me . Go and tell………”

Mary was told to leave everything that was familiar to her about Jesus behind, and to go away in faith to take the message of the new life that was available in him. How hard she must have found that to do.

Her story shows us that, before we can take the Good News to others, we may have to stop clinging to things that prevent us from getting the message across. Many things may do this: traditional church structures, familiar music, buildings, the way we’ve always done things. The words Jesus spoke to Mary in the story in John’s Gospel, warn us of the danger of holding on too tight to things that are not central to the Gospel. Jesus says to us that we must be ready to let go of such things, however much they seem to be a part of how we know him. Only when we let go of these peripheral things will we find him, alive and already at work in the world around us.

Welcome as disciples those who don’t quite fit the usual pattern; respond with everything you’ve got; and don’t cling to things that limit God’s mission: the pattern for discipleship that Mary Magdalene offers us today.

Eternal God, Mary Magdalene was sent to proclaim the resurrection: in your mercy give us the courage to proclaim your forgiveness and peace.

Hymn for Mary Magdalene

Sonnet 

Mad or Bad?

June 10, 2012


(Genesis 3, 8-15; 2 Corinthians 4,13 – 5,1; Mark 3, 20-35)

The trial of Anders Breivik, going on in Norway at the moment is not being held to decide whether he carried out the murders in Oslo and Utoya Island last year. He has already pleaded guilty. It is really to decide whether he is sane or not, whether he is bad or mad. In the eyes of contemporary European law, if he is found to be mad, he is not responsible for his actions, but will be incarcerated for public safety; if he is found to be sane, he will be held responsible, and will be punished; but since Norway does not have the death penalty, the outcome will be much the same.

The same question “Is he mad or bad?” is being asked about Jesus in our Gospel reading today.  Jesus’s family come to take him home, after hearing that his teaching and miracles have attracted huge crowds. They say he is ‘out of his mind’, and seek to take him  under their protection. They are, in effect, maintaining that he is not responsible for his actions.

This is frequently said about religious people, especially those whose words and actions don’t fit the conventional mode. It was said initially about Joan of Arc, whose feast day the church celebrated ten days ago, because she had visions which led her to dress up in male clothing, and to lead an army against foreign invaders of her country. It was only when her efforts brought success that this charge was dropped by her countrymen.

There are some people who say that any religious person who claims to hear voices or see visions must be out of their mind. They are usually people who believe that the material world is the only reality there is, denying any reality to a spiritual realm beyond what we can see and touch. They have a point, when often the voices that people hear instruct them to do dreadful things.

So, how are we to judge?

In our Gospel reading, the scribes don’t want to have Jesus judged as mad. They want to hold him responsible for his actions. They believe in a spiritual realm, composed of powerful beings, both good and evil. Their judgement is that Jesus is obeying the wrong spiritual beings, the evil ones rather than the good, Beelzebub or Satan and his demons, rather than God and God’s angels. They want him declared bad.

This happened to Joan of Arc too. When she was successful, she was hailed by the French Royal forces as sent by God; but when she was captured by the Burgundian forces, the allies of the invading English, they tried and convicted her of heresy, that is, serving the forces which opposed God.

After her death, and after the war between France and England was over, the trial verdict was reversed and she was declared a martyr (although she was not made a saint until the early twentieth century).

The resurrection and ascension of Jesus convinced many of his contemporaries that he was neither ‘mad’ nor ‘bad’, but doing the work of God on earth. Changes in social, religious and political circumstances did the same in the case of Joan of Arc. But how do we judge whether what we feel impelled to do by our religious beliefs comes from God or not? And how do we judge whether, when others behave in strange ways in pursuit of their religious beliefs, they are insane or evil?

Jean Pierre de Caussade (who wrote ‘The Sacrament of the Present Moment’) gave a simple rule of thumb for such judgements, which I have used before:

“The masters of the spiritual life lay down this principle to distinguish the true inspirations of God from those that emanate from the devil; that the former are always sweet and peaceful, inducing to confidence and humility, while the latter are intense, restless and violent, leading to discouragement  and mistrust, or else to presumption and self-will”.

The accusations of his family and the scribes lead Jesus to make his statement about the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit. There has been endless debate about what exactly this means. The commentary on the readings I read suggested the unpardonable sin is to state with absolute conviction that the work of God is the work of the Devil, and vice versa. Such people leave no room for doubts and rely totally on their own judgement. (This incidentally links with the origin of the term ‘heresy’, which came from a root meaning  a division resulting from individual self-will).

We can see the mythical representation of that action in our Old Testament story from the beginning of the Book of Genesis. You don’t have to take the story literally to perceive the truth in it. The details are unimportant; the tree and the fruit are just symbolic of any actions of human beings (in other cultures the ‘fruit’ is translated as a pomegranate or a coconut, rather than an apple). It doesn’t matter whether the woman or the man made the first move towards disobedience, no matter how the story has been used since to deny women equality.  Both Adam and Eve choose to follow their own desires, rather than listen to the voice of God.

One result is that the community they were created to inaugurate is broken. Rather than remembering their common origin as created by God, bone from the same bone, flesh from the same flesh originating from and returning to the dust of the earth, the man blames the woman and the woman blames the snake. The unity of male and female and of human and animal kingdom is destroyed, with the disastrous consequences we still see.

The blame game we see portrayed in the Genesis myth is still being employed to create divisions in society, and to allow people to avoid taking responsibility for their own actions. Anders Breivik has done this repeatedly. He wants to be declared sane, but he does not want to be declared evil, so he blames his actions on his victims: his hatred of Muslims on perceived slights to him in by Muslims in childhood, his opposition to immigration on the political party his whose members he attacked. Those are his judgements alone, and he is claiming that his judgement is the only thing to which he owes allegiance.

Jesus always took responsibility for his own actions, at the same time as claiming that he did what he was sent to do by God. He came to assure everyone, both those inside and those who were outside his community, that they could receive the forgiveness of God for the sins they had committed and took responsibility for. He extended the meaning of ‘family’ to include those outside his own biological family; he expanded the meaning of ‘community’ to embrace even all those whom his own religious community excluded. His sole allegiance was to the Kingdom of God.

As we move from an emphasis on the life of Jesus during the seasons of Lent and Easter, into the season of Pentecost, we are faced with the challenge of how we follow Jesus, and how we are called to work to live out our allegiance to the Kingdom of God, and to building community in our own situations. Is our ultimate loyalty to Christ, and to his radical way of creating community; or is it to our own racial or religious community, or to our own biological family – or ultimately, only to ourself?

It is not an easy challenge to accept, and no doubt we will find it difficult to make those decisions, and be faced with doubts, when perhaps, the path we choose seems to be going wrong. We will constantly have to return to the questions: “Is what we (or others) are doing mad, or bad, or following the will of God?”

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul provides encouragement as we attempt to live our our allegiance to God. He acknowledges that it can often seem a waste of time; that it can cause us pain; that it can look to others as if we are giving our loyalty to something that is a fantasy, because it cannot be seen, or proved scientifically.

But, he reassures us, what we are placing our faith in, and basing our judgements on, is ultimate reality, and is eternal, and will endure far longer than any of the judgements of this world as to what is mad, or bad, or the will of God.

 

Acts 1, 15-17 & 21-26; John 17, 16-19.

“They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world” (John 17, 16).

What does this mean?

I found a an illustration you might use to demonstrate this verse to children, in Sunday School or a school assembly.It suggested taking a clear bottle, putting water in the bottom, then food colouring, (to make the water visible) then a layer of cooking oil on the top. When the bottle is shaken, the oil and water become mixed up and the oil is invisible. But if you leave the bottle to stand for a while, the oil separates out, and floats to the top. The text says this shows that, though even when they were all mixed up, the oil and water were never really one.

This is then linked to our Gospel reading for today: the text says that Jesus prayed for his disciples, that as they lived in the world, they would not become part of the world. He wanted them to add the gifts he had given them to the world – just as the water added some colour to the oil – but he did not want them to become stained by the world.

It continues that this prayer is for us too. As Jesus was sent by his Father into the world, so Jesus has sent us into the world. We must live in this world, but Jesus has called us to be separate. Just as the coloured water remains separate from the oil, Jesus wants us to be separate from the world.

I see problems with this passage from John’s Gospel which you might like to think about and discuss. The first is a view of God and of Jesus which sees them as separate from the created world. This view comes particularly to the fore when we use  the metaphorical, or picture language about the process of incarnation and ascension, as we have been doing this last week.

I’ve read several comments this week about the Ascension being the reverse of the Incarnation. This view says that at Christmas, Jesus, a different sort of being, comes into this world. He lives a human life, is killed, then is raised from death, and eventually, at the Ascension, returns to heaven, to reign with God.  So, the Ascension is seen as a sort of ‘return to HQ’ by someone who was an alien in the created world. This sort of explanation however, risks tipping over into the Docetic heresy, which says Jesus’s body only seemed to be human, whereas actually he was a divine being, and couldn’t actually be hurt, and didn’t actually die. Even if it doesn’t go that far, it makes Jesus and God separate from the human world.

This week Alan Wilson, the Bishop of Buckingham, challenged that interpretation. He said that any depiction of the Ascension as the shedding of physicality makes it less than good news.In the way he sees it, Jesus blazes a trail all follow towards their destiny. It illuminates our present humanity.

He says that classical Christian theology calls Jesus eternally Incarnate, and the Ascension is not the reversal of the Incarnation but a radical extension of it beyond time and place. And in case you think that is a modern interpretation, he quotes a hymn of 1862 by Bishop Christopher Wordsworth:

He has raised our human nature 

in the clouds to God’s right hand;

There we sit in heavenly places,

there with him in glory stand:

Jesus reigns, adored by angels;

man with God is on the throne;

Mighty Lord, in thine ascension

we by faith behold our own.

This view sees God being present in and through the world, as God was most perfectly in Jesus. Humanity is raised to divine levels through following the Way of Jesus. The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians expresses the same idea when he writes: “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places…And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things, and of the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

So we in the church are Christ’s body, which is both incarnate and ascended. How then are we supposed to work in the world? Do we belong to the world and in the world, or are we supposed to keep ourselves separate?

In the past, and even today, there are Christian groups who try to keep themselves as separate as possible from normal human society. There are the desert hermits, who escaped from civic society in the ancient world and practised extreme asceticism (Simon Stylites who lived on top of a pillar for 36 years is one of my favourites among these!). There are Christian groups who refuse to vote, or serve in armed forces, and who, like the Amish, resist modern inventions.

Other groups reject only certain activities as being ‘of the world’ and so unsuitable for Christians. The Puritans rejected music, dancing, and celebrating festivals like Christmas. Other Christians have forbidden alcohol and gambling, and even playing cards for the same reason.

The mainstream Anglican tradition, to which we belong, has however seen its mission as being in the world, ministering to people where they are, adapting to the local and current culture, in order to reach people more successfully.

But are there limits to that?

Morality and ethics is one area in which there has been constant disagreement within the church about how far it should conform to ‘the world’s’ understanding of what is right and wrong. The campaigns over slavery, women’s emancipation, divorce and contraception are just some examples of the working out of this tension;  and the question marks continue, particularly over the issue of how far homosexuality is acceptable in Christians.

Last month the Archbishop of Sydney preached a sermon at St Mark’s Battersea, a church in South London that is part of a group of churches in the Diocese of Southwark planning to withhold their parish share money from the diocese and pay it into a ‘company, administered by people who believe themselves orthodox Christians. The Archbishop said (using very Johannine language)  “The world has invaded the church. So the contest we have, as Bible-based, Bible-believing Christians, is on two fronts. It is against the world, but it is also against those in the church who have come to terms with the world, who have made their peace with the world, who have compromised with the world, who have given up biblical standards in order to be thought well of in the world.”

But last month again a group of bishops and senior churchmen, including the Bishop of Buckingham and our own Dean, signed a letter to The Times, saying that the church has nothing to fear from gay marriage and should respond pastorally to gay couples.

The church is divided between those who sign the Coalition for Real Marriage’s petition and those who sign the Coalition for Equal Marriage’s one. How can we judge which one is of God, and which one is ‘of the world’ in its worst sense?

Liturgy is another area in which there is disagreement about how far the church should conform to the ways of the world. Yesterday, 19th May, marked the 350th anniversary of the Act of Uniformity, which enforced the use of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer as the only prayer book allowed throughout the Church of England. It was not a new book, but the culmination of 120 years of discussion and change to translate the liturgy of the Anglican church into ‘a language understanded of the people’, as its originator, Thomas Cranmer put it.

But then, naturally, the Prayer Book itself became entrenched, and the liturgical history of the 20th century was punctuated by moves to bring what had become worship in archaic language and out of date theology into line with modern understanding. The ASB and Common Worship were the results.

But for some people they don’t go far enough in adapting the church to contemporary culture. The report ‘Mission Shaped Church’, published in 2004, advocated a move away from the parish based system and traditional church buildings, into what were called ‘Fresh Expressions of Church’, congregations set up in cafés and leisure centres and skate parks, or only for people with common interests, such as embroidery or sport. This approach has driven much of the mission initiative in the Church of England over the past eight years, and has led to the introduction of a new sort of Pioneer Minister, to encourage and lead these ‘fresh expressions’.

But for some people, ‘fresh expressions congregations’ are a step too far in conforming the church to the world.

For the Parish’ is a book which sets out to critique fresh expressions and defend the traditional parish and liturgy.

It says that the Christian Gospel needs to be embodied in a certain form, and that the inadequacies of contemporary culture are unsuitable for mission which is true to the gospel. It argues for the parish church as providing ‘sacred space’, the church calendar as providing a different understanding of time from that which the secular world follows, and liturgy as  one of a series of practices and disciplines of the Christian life in which we learn to love God and our neighbour and learn the ways of heaven. It argues for the occasional offices of marriage and funerals as opportunities for pastoral mission and the daily offices of matins and evensong as a way of consecrating time. It doesn’t argue for a church which is other-worldly; just  a church which is part of God’s resistance movement against the transitory and dehumanising nature of so much that characterises ‘the world’ today.

Christians and the Church are meant to be different from ‘the world’ (as used in John to mean human life separated from and hostile to God.) But they are also tasked with bringing light and life to that world in the name of Jesus, whose glory fills the world. Engagement with the world demands discernment about where in human society God is already at work, and where God is not.

That discernment is the task of the God the Holy Spirit, whose coming we will celebrate next Sunday.

Witnesses

April 24, 2012

Luke 24, 36b-48 Service of  Baptism in Eucharist

During the baptism of S. his parents and godparents will promise that they will encourage him, as he grows up, to learn to know God, to follow Jesus Christ in the life of faith and to serve their neighbour following the example of Jesus. In other words, they will encourage him to witness to his faith.

Our Gospel today describes how the risen Christ told his disciples that they must be witnesses to the whole world of what they saw in his life, his death and his resurrection.  S’s parents and godparents are promising today that he will grow up to be a disciple of Christ; but the task that Jesus gave to his disciples after the resurrection seems a bit of a heavy load to give to such a small child.

It would have seemed an impossible job to the original disciples too – a small group of rather frightened, not very well educated, not at all wealthy men and women in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire. But they did it! And today, 2000 years later, there are about  2.1 billion followers of Christ throughout the world.

Sometimes they spoke to large crowds, and lots of people accepted the Christian faith at one time. But, most of the time, it happened one or two people at a time, with someone who was already a Christian telling two more, and each of them witnessing to two more, and each of them converting two more- and the mathematically mined among you will know how quickly very small numbers become very big numbers when that happens.

That’s not a difficult thing for anyone of any age to do.

A more difficult question, especially as we get older, is HOW we are to witness to our faith.

Some people think it’s all about talking to people about Christ and the Bible and Church – that is important, but it’s not the most important thing – and the best witnesses are not always those who talk a lot, but those who silently observe and say just the right thing.

Some people think it’s important to wear something to show you are a Christian. That can be a very important way of quietly witnessing who you follow, whose commands you obey.

But it is actually more important to LIVE the cross than to wear a cross. The baptism commission that will be read to S’s parents and godparents sets out what that means in everyday life: a life of love and service to our family, our neighbours and especially to those who are different from us and even those who hate us and wish us ill. A life in which we struggle against anything that brings pain or division into our communities, against anything that brings conflict into our neighbourhoods, and against anything that perpetuates injustice and inequality in our world. A life which in which we constantly examine what we do, and repent of anything that falls short of the standards which God expects of us. It is a call to embody in our own lives the message and mission of Christ.

The cross  in oil and water which will be made on S’s forehead will soon be invisible. But we pray that he will so live the cross that he will grow  into a shining witness for Christ through his whole life.

Amen

Surprise!

April 8, 2012

(Acts 10, 34-43; Mark 16,1-8.)

Last month all the ministers of the Watford churches received a bag of goodies from the young people of  ‘Love Watford’ with an offer to pray for them and with them during Holy Week. Among the other delights in the bag was a Kinder Easter egg.

I always used to appreciate it when people gave my children or me one of these eggs. With it, you get the pleasure of a chocolate fix, but it doesn’t stop there.  The experience goes on, because inside the egg there is a ‘surprise’, which you have to extricate from its tomb like capsule. Then you have to think about it, and, more often than not, you have to construct the toy or puzzle for yourself from all the bits inside. Only then can you really recognise what your ‘surprise’ is.

It seems to me that the story of the Resurrection which we find in chapter 16 of Mark’s Gospel (the first 8 verses written by Mark, not all the other bits that people dissatisfied with Mark’s version added later) is very like a Kinder Surprise egg. You get the joy and sweetness of the proclamation that Christ has been raised; but then comes the surprise and the puzzle.

The account contains a number of surprises. The women who witnessed the crucifixion and the burial of Jesus go to the tomb. They are worrying about who will be available to move the heavy stone that seals the tomb entrance for them. But ‘Surprise!’,  the stone has already been rolled back, They go with spices to anoint the body; but ‘Surprise!’ there is no body. The women expect the tomb to contain a dead body; but ‘Surprise!’ it contains a living person, the young man in white. He gives them a message for the disciples; and ‘Surprise!’ they are told Jesus has been raised, and will be seen back in Galilee, where they first got to know him.

Mark’s narrative also contains a number of puzzles. There is the puzzle of the women going to the tomb 36 hours after the burial, to anoint the body with spices, when it has already been wrapped in linen, and would have begun to smell. There is the puzzle of why they did not think to take someone stronger with them to deal with the stone.

Then there is the young man in white they find in the tomb. Who is he?  A young man in white appeared in Mark’s account of the arrest of Jesus. Is this meant to be the same young man? Some commentators think this is the writer of the Gospel himself, who ran away like the other followers during the arrest, but was the first to understand and experience the resurrection. The other gospel writers turn him into an angel, or even two! Or is he symbolic? – of those who are baptised and clothed in white, but run away, deserting their baptismal faith at the first sign of trouble; but later come to experience the forgiveness of the resurrected Christ, and return to belief and discipleship.

There is no detailed explanation of how Jesus has been raised;  Mark just says the tomb is empty. The women are told to inform the disciples, and instruct them to go to Galilee where they will meet him. Why Galilee? The other Gospels have resurrection appearances in Jerusalem for the most part. The early church, as we see from Acts, was based in Jerusalem. So what is the significance of Galilee?

More puzzles: there are no appearances of Jesus to give clues as to what sort of resurrection, physical or spiritual is taking place; and the story tells us the women ran away in terror, and told no-one. So how did the news of the resurrection spread, and how did the disciples find out about it?

Mark’s resurrection story is not one for people who like everything explained, everything cut and dried, all the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed. It  is a resurrection story for those who want to ponder and puzzle about faith, and to work things out for themselves, and with their faith community, and keep coming back to find deeper meaning in the story.

Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan suggest that it is helpful to treat the resurrection account as a parable. This approach does not require us to pass judgement on whether any of the elements of the story are historical or not. It simply looks at what meaning the story is trying to convey.

So Mark tells us that Jesus was laid in a tomb – but the tomb could not hold him – the stone was removed and he was not there. The tomb is a place for the dead – and Jesus is not to be found there. Jesus has been raised. Mark reminds us that the body was of a person crucified by order of the authorities. Jesus was rejected by the Jewish religious authorities and executed by the Roman political power; they said ‘no’ to Jesus’s way of living. God, however has raised Jesus; God says ‘yes’ to Jesus and vindicates him.

In Mark the disciples are told they will see Jesus again and in order to do this, they have to go back to Galilee – back to the place where it all started, back to the beginning, back to the proclamation of the way and the Kingdom. That is where they will see Jesus again, this is where their faith will be renewed, this is where they will know the forgiveness of Jesus and be able to start again, knowing that Jesus is alive and always will be, without limitation of time or space.

We simply don’t know what happened  in those first few weeks and months after Jesus was executed. We don’t know how long it was before all the remaining disciples and followers of Jesus came to the realisation that the crucifixion was not the end, but the beginning of a new life in which Jesus was seen and known through the Spirit. The New Testament uses picture language to describe the  Resurrection, the Ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. It uses sacred time scales: ‘after three days’,  ‘after 40 days’ to speak of the coming of the Holy Spirit, through which the followers of Jesus knew his presence and strength to be with them again.

We do not know how soon the sharing of bread and wine (as we shall do in a few moments) became the defining moment of communion with the Risen Lord. We do not know who searched the Hebrew Scriptures to find passages and prophecies to illuminate and express their experience of the life and death and resurrection of their crucified master, and to affirm their belief that he was God’s Messiah and God’s favoured Son.

We do know that the questions were answered in several different ways, and that the pieces of the puzzle that were discovered in the tomb were put together by different groups to give slightly different answers; and we know that some of those answers were collected together in what we now know as the New Testament, to inform and guide our thinking about the significance of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our time.

We do know that the followers of Jesus were transformed by their experiences of meeting the Risen Lord, from frightened men and women, into a congregation fired by the power of the Spirit, which enabled them to proclaim their faith in life and in death, and which gave birth to the Christian church which spread throughout the entire world, and is still growing.

We know that, however we understand what happened in Jerusalem and Galilee two thousand years ago, it continues to provide inspiration and meaning to us and our fellow Christians, and to reveal the surprise and puzzle of the love and forgiveness of God to us, again and again.

That inspiration enables us to face the pain and suffering and abuse of power that still scar the lives of so many people in the world today, and to affirm that if we face them without resorting to violence or hatred, as Jesus did; if we continue to follow in the way that Jesus showed us; and to affirm the values of the Kingdom that Jesus lived and died for, we too will be raised by God from the old selfish life that ends in death to the life that never ends.

So we can say, as we say every year:

‘Surprise!’

‘Christ is risen!’

‘He is risen indeed!’

‘Alleluia!’

‘Amen!’