From the World, in the world, to the world.

 

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Acts 1, 15-17 & 21-26; John 17, 6-19.

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

Some of you may know that I regularly take primary school assemblies for a neighbouring parish. I’ve got one this coming week, so I went online to find a visual aid to help children understand this Gospel passage.

I found this.

IMGP1188You take a clear bottle, putting water in the bottom (made visible with food colouring) 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. This shows that, though even when they were all mixed up, the oil and water were never really one.IMGP1187

The script says that Jesus prayed for his disciples, that as they lived in the world, they would not become part of 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, as he is.

IMGP1186Like any sensible teacher, I tried it out at home first! Lessons and assemblies can be ruined by visual aids that don’t do what they are supposed to do! And this turned out to be one of them! Once they are vigorously mixed up the oil and the water don’t ever separate completely. Bits of the oil stay caught in the water, and the food colouring in the water permanently stains the oil.

It’s as if it was saying the divine is always in, through and with the world; even when the IMGP1185divine rises or ascends the divine carries the colour of the world with it.

I was quite relieved that it didn’t work, actually; as I’d thought about this illustration, I had questions in my mind about the theology behind it.

The first question is about a view of God and of Jesus which sees them as separate from the created world, a view which tends to come 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 seeing the Ascension as the reverse of the Incarnation. This view says that at Christmas, Jesus, a divine being, comes into this world. He lives a human life, is killed, raised from death, and eventually, at the Ascension, returns to his home in 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 heresy, especially Docetism which says Jesus’s body only seemed to be human, whereas actually he was a divine being, and so couldn’t 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, and implies Jesus left the human part of himself behind when he ascended.

Alan Wilson, the Bishop of Buckingham, wrote a blog which challenged that interpretation. He said that any depiction of the Ascension as the shedding of physicality makes it less than good news. The way he sees it, Jesus blazes a trail we all follow towards our destiny. The Ascension 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 is an interpretation of the meaning of the Ascension which is much more common in the Eastern Orthodox tradition than in the Western Church. Instead of seeing Jesus coming into the world to rescue fallen humanity, then returning to his natural home with God in heaven, it sees Jesus as raising humanity with himself to its natural home in Heaven with God at the Ascension, thus uniting earth and heaven, humanity and divinity. The word the Eastern Church uses for ‘salvation’ – theiosis = divinization – strongly expresses this belief.

The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians shares a similar 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 order ultimately to escape from the world?

In the past, and even today, there are Christian groups who try to keep themselves as separate as possible from normal human society. Groups like 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 all 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 where this tension had to be worked out; and the question marks continue, particularly at the moment over the issue of how far homosexual relationships are acceptable in Christians.

One group thinks (to quote a previous  Archbishop of Sydney) “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.”

Others (including the Bishop of Buckingham and our own Dean, Jeffrey John) would argue that in fully accepting both gay and straight people into the church on equal terms we are following Christ’s example of placing love and faithfulness as the defining characteristics of the Kingdom, rather than making rules and regulations which exclude people.

How can we judge which one of these approaches is of God, and which one is ‘of the world’ in its worst sense?

It is not an easy judgement to make. It involves listening to the Spirit speaking to us through the Scriptures, but also through the community of those who follow Jesus, both throughout history but also in the contemporary world. It involves judgements about what best reflects the love and glory of God, what most inspires human beings to grow into their true destiny as children of God, and what limits and diminishes the humanity of individuals or whole groups of people.

It involves trying to decide what the writer of John’s Gospel meant by ‘the world’. I don’t think the writer meant the created world – Christians are not Gnostics who believe that the created world is inherently evil. I am convinced that for this writer ‘the world’ meant everything that obstructs God’s purpose for us, the purpose which Jesus demonstrated in his life, everything that prevents us from enjoying that oneness with God and each other that Jesus showed to us.

If that is the truth that Jesus came to show us, this farewell discourse doesn’t point us to a church which is other-worldly; it doesn’t point us to a church waiting to fulfil its destiny in another dimension, after death or after the Last Judgement. It points us to a church which is fully involved with everyday life, bringing to it a life rooted in and sustained by the love of God, recognising and nurturing the seeds of the divine in others, a church which is the vanguard of God’s resistance movement against the transitory and dehumanising nature of so much that characterises human society today and always.

Yes, Christians and the Church are meant to be different from those aspects of ‘the world’ which are hostile to God; but they are also tasked with bringing light and life to that world in the name of Jesus, who embodies God’s Truth and God’s Word and whose glory is destined to fill the world.

The ascended Christ, human and divine, eternally one with the God who is the ground of our being, invites us, his body, to continue his work in his beloved world, sharing the Way of Truth and Life which leads to perfected humanity, and raises us all to share in God’s glory.

But this is a daunting prospect. We would often far rather not ascend with Christ to a life of holiness, preferring to live on in the dark aspects of the world, isolated from one another and from God.

So, may the Holy Spirit, whose work we celebrate next Sunday, call us, strengthen us and inspire us to follow Christ in the way he pioneered.

Let us pray:

God our Father,

make us joyful

in the ascension of your Son Jesus Christ.

Ascended Christ, present at all times and in all places, make us brave in following your way;

Holy Spirit, guide us as we follow Christ into the new creation, for his ascension is our glory and our hope.

We ask this in his name and for his sake.

Amen.

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All you need is Love?

 Easter 5 Year B (Acts 8, 26-40; 1 John 4, 7-21; John 15, 1-8)

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Some of the older ones among you may remember the Beatles song “All you need is Love’. It was first performed on June 25th 1967 as the UK contribution to the first live global TV broadcast, made possible by a new satellite link. John Lennon, who wrote it, said he thought it had a message which everyone around the world could understand.

It was a very ’60’s’ sort of song!

In the church, the same sort of attitude that inspired the song led to the advocacy of something called ‘situation ethics’ This said that when you face a moral decision, you don’t need set rules – all you need to do is decide what course of action would be the most loving thing to do.

220px-Paul_TillichPaul Tillich, the theologian wrote “Love is the best law’ and one of my great heroes in the faith, John Robinson, the John Robinsonradical Bishop of Woolwich, also supported situation ethics at first, saying this was the only sort of ethics appropriate to ‘man come of age’ – though he later withdrew his support, saying that the use of situation ethics would lead to a descent into moral chaos.

The sort of love which this theory was talking about was ‘agape’ – absolute, unchanging, unconditional love for all people, regardless. This is precisely the sort of love we see demonstrated in the life and death of Jesus.

agape

When you read the writings of John the Evangelist in the New Testament – the Gospel and the three Epistles – you might think that “All you need is Love” was a summary of his teaching on the faith. But would that be true?

Certainly agape love is very important in his theology. It forms the main topic of his first Epistle from which we heard this morning. For John, God is love, and those who live in loving relationship with everyone in their community, live in God. For John too, love was the reason that Jesus was sent into the world, and God’s love is the reason why we can be confident we are redeemed, and have no fear on the day of judgement.

Vine

The gospel passage, which uses the metaphor of the Vine to describe the relationship Jesus and his followers, continues ( in the passage set for next Sunday) to talk about love – the sort of love that leads a person to lay down their lives for others – as what should be the distinguishing characteristic of his disciples.

And how do we learn about this sort of love? Most modern psychologists would say that we learn from our families, and they are right. In an ideal family ( an ideal that few of us achieve, because we are human and fallible!) small children are given from birth that absolute, unchanging, unconditional love, which enables them to grow into whole, confident adults, able to love everyone else with the love they were once given. But that sort of love is ‘family love’ and only a few people learn to extend it to those outside their families.

We also learn to love from our communities, especially, we would hope, our church communities. But church communities are made up of fallible humans too, and it is not surprising that they tend have exactly the same quarrels, disagreements and rifts that secular communities suffer from. But, at their best, churches can be schools of love.

The message of John’s writings, however, is that we learn about this sort of love from God – and in particular from his son, Jesus Christ, who was sent into the world to live out a life that was all love.

Because agape love comes from God, John indicates that we do need more than just ‘love’ if we are to be faithful members of Christ’s body on earth – and in that John is supported by other New Testament writers.

I am the Vine

The Gospel passage we heard came from the part of John’s Gospel known as the Farewell Discourse. Jesus is about to be betrayed and crucified – and in this last address to his disciples, he is trying to prepare them for life without his physical presence. He is trying to prepare them for a situation in which they will be his body on earth – a body dedicated to loving action and service.

So, first of all, he emphasises the importance of community. He speaks of himself as the Vine. Not just as the trunk, or the stump, you notice, but the whole Vine – roots, trunk, branches, leaves and fruit and all. His followers, he says are the branches – so they are intimately a part of him – and it is these branches which will bear fruit to feed the world. Christ will bear fruit through us, the metaphor says – but only if we remain connected to him, and through him to God, and if we connected to everyone else in his fellowship of love. John’s image of the Vine is a parallel to Paul’s image of the Body, with its emphasis on the necessity of everyone remaining connected to everyone else, and honouring and loving everyone else. It is a major challenge to the individualism that is so prevalent today.

praying_hands_bibleA second important element ensuring that we remain in Jesus is his Word. The Gospel passage speaks of the Word as cleansing us. And our reading from Acts also emphasises the importance of the scriptures in keeping us connected to God and to Christ. In traditional Judaism, the Ethiopian Eunuch could have no place in the covenant community – he was foreign and castration rendered him damaged and imperfect. But the scriptures of traditional Judaism also contained hope for him – in the prophecies of Isaiah, which in chapter 56 verses 3-5, speaks of the time when the foreigner and the eunuch would also be incorporated into God’s people. The Ethiopian needed more than love to bring him to the point where he was ready to ask for baptism. He needed the exposition of God’s Word which Philip was able to bring to him. That Word is one element in the nourishment in the faith which we receive through the Vine.

Prayer is another important element emphasised by John. In prayer we listen toPraying_Hands God’s word, and in prayer we are able to share our concerns with God. We are not meant to be Christians on our own – we need to be in communication with God and with each other if we are to bear fruit. Keeping in touch with Christ and with God our Father through prayer is another channel through which we are nourished in the faith.

Holy Spirit dove flameOur human, imperfect love is fed through the gift of the Holy Spirit. John emphasises that it is the Spirit who enables Christians to testify to the Truth; and in Acts we hear how the Spirit led Philip to speak to the Ethiopian; and in other passages in the New Testament we hear how the Spirit inspires us to speak and act with courage and with love. Through remaining in the Vine, we are fed by the Spirit and our faith and love are strengthened. The Spirit gives us constant assurance as we act and as we serve that we do so ‘abiding in God’s love’.

Finally, as well as love, we need the discipline of confession, repentance and renewal. Through the metaphor of the Vine, John reminds us that in viticulture, fruitfulness is ensured by the cutting away of branches that have ceased to bearpruned vine fruit. Though it may be painful, loss and renewal are a necessity if we are to continue to do God’s work. Loving does not always mean preserving what we love. Sometime, we need to let it go, even let it die, if we are to experience renewed life and fruitfulness. Repentance and confession should not be something which Christians fear – as John’s Epistle reminds us, perfect love casts out fear – because through the life and death of Christ we should have confidence that when we abide in God, we will be forgiven and renewed.

The agape love which John’s writing speaks of, and which Jesus practised, is not a wishy-washy, anything goes sort of love. It is ‘tough love’ which makes demands and requires sacrifice and discipline of those who undertake to practise it. It is divine love in action, too difficult for ordinary humans to achieve unless they are as closely and completely open to God as Jesus was, unless they live in God, and God lives in them.

So, can we say as Christians “All you need is love?”

No – and Yes!

Beatles-AllYouNeedIsLove

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The Good Shepherd

Easter 4. Year B.

Psalm 23. John 10, (1-)11- 18

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I don’t suppose many of us know much about sheep. We live in a suburban environment. We may see a few sheep on the hillsides in the green belt from time to time, but they’re not part of the reality of our daily lives. I suspect that, for most of us, sheep only come into our consciousness as part of our holiday mindset. We think of tranquillity, of fat sheep and cuddly lambs, grazing in green fields, surrounded by hedges, watched over by a weather-beaten shepherd and his faithful sheepdog, who drive the sheep from their pretty farm to safe pasture. We don’t ever get close enough to know the reality.

 

I only once came nearer to the reality of sheep rearing. A friend of mine became vicar of a country parish, and discovered that this gave him the right to graze sheep on the churchyard. Since the parish could not afford a large lawnmower to keep the grass in the churchyard down, he decided that each year he would buy a couple of lambs and rear them. First of all he allowed them to graze in his large vicarage garden, and then he put them into the churchyard to keep the grass short, and then he had them slaughtered to use for meat in the winter.

 

When we visited them one spring, the lambs were in his garden. I discovered that their coats were not soft and clean, but wiry and oily. They were surprisingly strong, and could knock you over, rather like an over enthusiastic labrador. They also ate everything, including the daffodils and the young shoots of the garden plants, so they were very quickly moved to the churchyard, where a square of electric fencing kept them where they were supposed to be.

 

sheep-3I’m not sure whether that experience demonstrated that sheep are stupid, which is the image that most of us have of them.

Many people would be insulted if you called them ‘sheep’. They like to think of themselves as individualists, who make up their own minds, and don’t just move with the flock, as we see sheep doing on the hillside.

 
In spite of that, ‘Jesus the Good Shepherd’ is a favourite image of Christians. Think how often you see Jesus portrayed with a lamb across his shoulders or Good-Shepherdcuddled in his arms in stained glass windows or oil paintings. Think of the hymns that are sung at weddings and funerals, and how often one or other version of the 23rd Psalm is included. We obviously find the image deeply reassuring. We don’t need to worry, it says.  Jesus the Good Shepherd will keep us safe from all the nastiness of this world.

 

But, as our readings today make clear, the reality of life for a Palestinian shepherd and his sheep was far from tranquil and safe.

 

The Palestinian shepherd had to find safe grazing for his sheep in an often barren landscape. That might mean walking miles and miles, so his sheep, far from being fat and cuddly, were lean and hardy.

He had to find a safe path for them through rough country and rocky places before they could settle in any green pastures they were lucky enough to find. The sheep needed still water to drink. They couldn’t cope with swift running water, in which they could get swept away. So the shepherd might have to form a pool in a mountain stream before they would have the water they needed to drink.

 

There were numerous predators, both animal and human, against whom the shepherd had to fight to defend his sheep: wolves and bears, thieves and robbers. His rod and his staff were his weapons and his tools, to defend the sheep and to rescue them. His life, and theirs were often in danger. When they were injured, he had to care for them, anointing their wounds with oil to help them heal.

 

There was no ‘pretty farm’ to return to each night. There might be a sheepfold in Sheepfoldthe village, but on any night they were too far away to return to it, the shepherd had to build a temporary sheepfold from rocks and branches to protect the sheep. Once they were inside, he lay down across the entrance, to prevent them from wandering, and to stop predators from entering. His own body was their security.

 

The shepherd was an honoured figure in the Old Testament, because the Jews had originally been a nomadic, pastoral people, whose wealth was in their flocks and herds. Abraham was a shepherd, and so was Moses. David, the ideal king, started life as a shepherd, so that is how it came to be a metaphor for the rulers of Israel. But by the time of Jesus, the Jews had been a settled people for hundreds of years, with a lot of their wealth coming from agriculture and trade, and shepherds were now considered as rather disreputable, especially if they were hired to care for sheep they didn’t own.

 

Religious people saw them as outsiders, particularly because their nomadic lifestyle and contact with animals meant they could not keep the rigid rules of cleanliness before eating. The pictures of Jesus the Good Shepherd show him as clean and well groomed. In reality a shepherd at that time would not have had the time or facilities for personal grooming, and would have smelt of sheep, and dung and the outdoors.

 

This is the sort of person Jesus is claiming to be in our gospel reading – an outsider, an adventurer, a fighter, a pioneer. And the question this passage poses to us is “Are we one of his sheep? Are we part of his flock?”

 

It might seem a strange question to ask, if we have the image in our minds of an English flock of sheep being driven by a sheepdog. But the Palestinian flock was not like that. The Palestinian sheep followed their shepherd – nobody drove them. They knew his voice and followed it. The shepherd went ahead and found the path. His sheep followed him because he called them by name and they trusted him. They relied on him to lead them safely through the dangers, to provide for their every need, to rescue them when they were in trouble.

 

And as the earlier part of this passage showed, if they were to have the ‘abundant life’ they needed they had to follow the shepherd out of the sheepfold, away from safety and into hardship and danger. That was the only way to find enough food and drink to enable them to grow. The Good Shepherd is not able to shield his sheep permanently from the troubles and dangers of the real world. What he can do is to face those dangers with them, at the cost of his own life, if necessary.

 

One of the verbs used in the earlier section of the passage talks of the sheep being “cast out” of the sheepfold. Understandably, they are reluctant to leave the safety of the sheepfold, and only go because they trust the shepherd. Following Jesus, the passage reminds us, may involve becoming an outcast, or at the very least associating with the outcasts, who Jesus tells us are also part of his flock.

 

In the time when the Gospel of John was being written, Jewish Christians were being cast out of the synagogue. Following Jesus meant they had to find abundant life away from the security of the religion that had nurtured them up to that time. The same is true for us. The safety of the sheepfold could be stunting our growth, and preventing us from experiencing the abundant life that Jesus calls us to. We may need to hear Jesus’s voice calling us out of our comfort zone, leading us into the valley where death threatens us, where we have to meet up with those who don’t belong. Who are they?

 

Who are the ‘sheep’ who are cast out from our church communities in our own time, yet who still seek their salvation in following Jesus, the Good Shepherd? How can we demonstrate that we are part of that flock too?

 

The story of the passion of Jesus, which we heard in the weeks leading up to Easter, tell us that Jesus was a shepherd who made the ultimate sacrifice, who laid down his life for his sheep. But the story of Easter assures us that, although he and his sheep go through the valley of the shadow of death, evil will not ultimately triumph; they will come safely home, to enjoy the celebration feast together in the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

The Christian story tells us that, whatever Jesus our shepherd asks us to do, he’s done before. He’s been cast out of the sheepfold, he’s been let down by his fellow shepherds, he’s faced the worst that life can throw at him; he’s been there, he’s got the T-shirt.

 

“I am the good shepherd’ is the slogan on Jesus’ T-shirt. But are we prepared to risk being one of his sheep? Will we follow him, no matter where he leads?

T shirt images

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The Resurrection

(Acts 3, 12-19; Luke 24, 36-48)

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Around Easter time, some of the newspapers remember it’s actually a Christian festival, and run a story which relates to faith or the Church.

Several years ago, on Good Friday, The Times reported on a survey 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’. This survey prompted The Times journalist to conclude 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 replied, things are not so clear. One 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 one of the Archbishops 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”. And a spokesman the other Archbishop said: “Jesus Christ is risen. That is a fact”.

Another bishop said: “It’s immaterial whether Christ was resurrected in body or spirit”, and yet another: “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 made. However, it gave results of another survey, of the general public, which showed that one third of 1000 people questioned believed 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?”

My problem is that we communicate our beliefs about the resurrection of Jesus in words; but words are inadequate to describe any transcendent experience, like Easter. Whenever you put an experience into words, you are already beginning to interpret it, but you must use 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 and Jewesses, whose world view was very different from ours, expressed in Aramaic, within a Palestinian Jewish culture. When these experiences were written down, it was in ancient Greek, within a Hellenistic Jewish culture. The Bible as we know it was then translated into Latin, and finally into English. Each of these translation processes affected the way the experience was described, because there is very rarely an exact correspondence between the words of different languages.

Let me just give an example of how translation affects our understanding of the Easter story. The Greek noun ‘resurrection’ (anastasis) appears hardly at all in the New Testament, and mostly in connection with the general resurrection at the end of time. 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 ‘being raised’ by God. But when we proclaim our faith, we never say ‘Jesus was raised’, always ‘Christ is risen’. Interpretation and translation have altered our understanding.

In the New Testament, there are a number of accounts of the raising of Jesus, and his appearances, and these are contradictory. The earliest account, in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, written about 54 AD, speaks of Jesus dying, being buried, and being raised on the third day. He appears to Cephas (Simon Peter), to the twelve (12 – not 11- even though Judas was supposed to be dead by now!) then to 500 people at once, then to his brother James, to all the apostles, and lastly to Paul himself. Paul doesn’t 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 after the crucifixion) exactly the same status as the earlier appearances to the disciples and family of Jesus. What’s 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’.

Mark, writing between 55 and 80, records that Mary Magdalene and two other named women go to the tomb in Jerusalem, find the stone moved away, and are told by a young man that Jesus is not there, 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. They see the stone being moved away and are told by an angel that Jesus has been raised and the disciples are to go to Galilee. 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 has a number of women going to the tomb, to be told by two angels that Jesus has been raised. They tell the disciples. Mary Magdalene and others are now named. The disciples don’t believe them. Peter goes to see the tomb, and the grave clothes lying there, but no body. The first appearance of Jesus is to Cleopas (a hitherto unknown disciple) and his companion on the way to Emmaus. He explains the Scriptures to them, but they don’t recognise him. They know him only in when he breaks bread. An appearance to Peter is talked of but not described. As we heard in today’s reading, Jesus then appears on the same day to the disciples and others in Jerusalem and tells them to touch him and see he has flesh and bones, then eats a piece of cooked fish. He 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 story of the Ascension is repeated in the beginning of Acts, except there it is on Mt. Olivet near Jerusalem, and happens 40 days after Easter. The coming of the Spirit happens 10 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 calls Peter and the Beloved Disciple who run to the tomb. Peter enters and sees the grave clothes, as does the Beloved Disciple. It is specifically said that the disciples did not yet understand the scripture that he must rise up (John 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 Ascension or Pentecost). He appears again a week later through locked doors, and convinces Thomas to believe. The final chapter of John (which many scholars believe to be a late addition) records an appearance of Jesus by the Sea of Galilee to Simon, Thomas, Nathanael, James and John and two other disciples on a fishing trip. 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, 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? Given discrepancies in the appearances, and in the descriptions of the burial, the tomb, the ascension & the giving of the Holy Spirit it is inconceivable that what is being described is an objective historical occurrence.

I believe, as do many Christian theologians whose judgement I trust, that the New Testament attempts to communicate, in symbol and myth, the experience of the first disciples of Jesus, men and women, that we know as ‘the resurrection’.This experience was real. We know that by its effects: the change in the people who were the first members of the Christian Church from frightened men and women who ran away 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 from people 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 symbol of reconciliation.

For me, 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 recorded by a video camera. Rather the questions to ask of the Scriptures are: “What was the experience of those first disciples, especially Peter, Mary Magdalene and Paul, that led to the dramatic change in them? What was the experience of those first disciples that enabled them to communicate their beliefs with such conviction to people from the Greek and Roman cultures of their time, and for that same conviction to be passed on to other people from totally different cultures down two thousand years and across the globe until our own time?” These are questions that go beyond the arguments about what literally happened into the realm of the eternal and the transcendent – the world of the Spirit.

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 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, 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 the New Testament and some of whom are anonymous.

What I do not believe in is that somehow the corpse of Jesus was resuscitated after lying in a grave for about 36 hours. I do not believe that his physical body left a sealed tomb, passed through closed doors, ate fish and bread and was finally removed from this planet to an existence in some other part of this universe or outside it. I cannot believe that because it is meaningless in terms of my beliefs about human life and death, the physical universe and the nature of God and God’s interaction with human beings.

At one time, language of angels, tomb, the stone rolled away, stories of the body revived on the third day, conversations with disciples, the touching of wounds, eating bread and fish, expounding the scriptures, passing through doors, being in two places at the same time were powerful vehicles of the truth of the resurrection for ordinary people. I don’t believe that, if we insist on taking them literally, they are any more.

For those of us brought up within the Church, these symbols may still carry a powerful message of the truth about God which Jesus showed us. But if we are to bring that truth to many in our generation and the generations to come, I believe we will need to engage once again in the task of translation, not just of the language but also of the symbols, so that new generations will be able to say: We believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ’ and be empowered by their belief to live his resurrection life.

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Surprise!

Kinder Surprise Egg

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

 

I wonder what is your favourite sort of Easter egg? Do you like large eggs or small? Dark chocolate or milk? Do you just like chocolate, or do you also like the cream filling you get in some eggs? Or the different sorts of sweets that sometimes fill it? Do you insist on Fairtrade chocolate eggs – or the Real Easter Egg, with the Bible story accompanying it?

I always used to appreciate it when people gave my children or me one of these eggs: a Kinder surprise egg. 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 woman expect the tomb to contain a dead body; but ‘Surprise!’ it contains a living person, the young man in white who 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 meant to be 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, 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’ 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. This, it appears, was the experience of Mark’s community.

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 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, in the end, what is most important is not trying to sort out the puzzle of what happened after the death of Jesus 2000 years ago – because we can never know if we have put that together correctly – but what resurrection means for us, today, as we live it in out our own lives.

This is why we can say, as we say every year:Untitled

‘Surprise!’

‘Christ is risen!’

‘He is risen indeed!’

‘Alleluia!’

‘Amen!’God, Kingdom,Holy Spirit

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Good Friday

(Passion Gospel)

 

Today we reach the conclusion of the Holy Week story; perhaps the inevitable conclusion.

We have heard how Jesus rode into Jerusalem, riding on a beast of burden, fulfilling the prophesy of Zechariah of a ruler who comes in the name of the Lord, to bring peace and justice; a contrast with the military procession of the Roman governor  entering Jerusalem at the same time.

We have heard of his week teaching in the Temple, challenging the religious authorities by his words and actions.

We have remembered the institution of Holy Communion as Jesus ate a meal with his friends, and called them to share his vocation of love and service.

We have heard of his betrayal by someone he regarded as a friend and companion. We have watched as all his friends deserted him in the face of a threat to their own lives and liberty.

We have witnessed the travesty of a trial before the religious authorities, who were willing to encourage perjury to rid themselves of this threat to their secure position. We have listened to the exchange with the political authority, to whom he was also a threat, a possible leader of unrest at a sensitive time.

And today we come to the final act: rejected by the mob, condemned to death in spite of his obvious innocence, mocked, beaten and tortured by the military, humiliated and executed in a most terrible death. And perhaps most dreadful of all, losing his confidence in the presence of the God of love.

And as we watch, and listen, and witness the death of Jesus, we remember also all those other innocent people who have suffered and died at the hands of the vengeful mob, or the political or religious authorities.

And we remember our frailties, the frailties we share with our fellow men and women: the times when we have let down our friends, when we have turned against those who trusted us, or deserted those who needed our support because of fears for our own position, or our own safety; the times when we have misused the power we have, the times when we have bullied those who are in no position to resist, the times we have colluded with actions we know to be wrong, the times when we have discriminated against those who are different from us, the times when we have failed to speak up for the truth.

And as we contemplate the cross, which is the result and the symbol of all those failures, we pray that we may be given the grace to turn again, and to make a new beginning, raised up by God to a new life, following in the way

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At-one-ment

MustardSeedSermon for Passion Sunday Yr B ( Jeremiah 31, 31-34, John 12, 20-33)

Today is Passion Sunday, when we turn our minds yet again to the Passion of Jesus, which we believe brought redemption and eternal life to us, and to everyone who is willing to believe and trust in him and follow his way of sacrificial love. Our readings today explain how that redemption is achieved.

It is not achieved because of some sort of heavenly bargain between God and Jesus, in which God says “O.K. son, you suffer horribly and give up your life, and I’ll forgive everyone else all their sins and let them into heaven”. That, rather crudely, is the interpretation of Jesus’ Passion which is given the technical name of the ‘Penal Substitution Theory of the Atonement’. This says that God is a God of justice and demands that someone has to pay in blood for all the sins and rebellion of humanity, and Jesus did that for us.

The Dean of St Albans, Jeffrey John, got into a lot of hot water a few years ago by explaining, in a talk on Radio 4, just why this explanation of the atonement was so repulsive. He said (and I agree with him) “It made God sound like a psychopath. If any human being behaved like this, we’d say he was a monster. It just doesn’t make sense to talk of a nice Jesus down here placating the wrath of a nasty, angry father God in heaven. Jesus is what God is: he is the one who shows us God’s nature. And the most basic truth about God’s nature is that he is love, not wrath and punishment”.

Our readings point us to a different understanding of the Atonement – one which enables us to read the word a different way – as ‘At – One – Ment’.

The Old Testament reading shows us the prophet Jeremiah speaking God’s message of a new beginning after the destruction of Judah and Israel by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Instead of a relationship based on laws and compulsion and penalties, the renewed covenant will be characterised by intimacy, forgiveness and faithfulness. The initiative in this relationship comes from God; he will forgive and forget everything that his people have done wrong. The intimacy will come because no longer will they keep the covenant because society forces them to: the law of God will be written on their hearts. It is important not to misunderstand this. It is not saying they will keep the law because they love God; for the ancient Hebrews, the heart was not a metaphor for the emotions, it was a metaphor for the will. So, to say God’s law would be written on their hearts was to say their wills would be one with God’s. God’s law would be known by them , not because anyone had taught them, but because they were wholly and completely open to God.

And that total oneness with God, that total obedience and submission to God’s will, no matter what the personal cost, that complete dedication of everything to the glory of God is what we see in the life and death of Jesus. The Gentiles who came said, “Sir, we want to see Jesus,” and when he was lifted up on the cross, all people, both Jews and Gentiles were able to see Jesus as the one whose life and teaching and pain and passion proclaimed and glorified the God whose name is Compassion and Love.

Sometimes John’s Gospel can be quite difficult to understand and interpret, and this passage is no exception. I find it helps to remember that John was not writing a historical account of Jesus’ life, or an accurate record of his words. Rather he was writing a theological, mystical and philosophical reflection on what the life and death of Jesus had come to mean to him, after many years of meditation. So, he compares Jesus’ death and resurrection to the wheat seed falling into the ground. In one sense the seed is destroyed in the ground; but in another its death produces abundant new life. This comparison says that Jesus’ human body is destroyed by death; but death also frees him from the restrictions of the body, which limit him to one place, one time and one culture, so that he is available as the way to oneness with God for all people in all places and all time. As Brian Wren’s Easter hymn proclaims it: “Christ is alive! No longer bound to distant years in Palestine, but saving, healing, here and now, and touching every place and time.”

There is also the passage about those who love this life will lose it, but those who hate their life in this world will keep it for ever. Are we meant to hate life, when it has been given to us by God? No, that is not what this means. The contrast is being made between those whose whole life is devoted to worldly pleasures, who will lose everything in the end; and those who pay less attention to such things, who sit light to the pleasures of this world, who can separate themselves from worldly pursuits and give more attention to the things of the spirit. It is they who are being promised eternal life.

And there is the puzzling assertion that “Now is the judgement of this world and the ruler of this world is being driven out.” How does judgement fit with a God of love? How can we believe that Satan has been driven out when there is so much evil and tragedy in the world? The judgement this speaks of is not on individuals, as it is so often portrayed, but on the evil forces that bring darkness to people. Jesus’ death inaugurates the victory over Satan, but that victory still has to be claimed by Christians as they follow Jesus’ way in their lives and struggle in his name against the forces of darkness.

As we Christians do that, we will find that obedience to God, oneness with God, and glorifying God may bring us our own experience of passion. We will live through that passion, though, with the knowledge that God in Christ has been through such an experience before us, and lives through it again beside us; and with the faith and trust that God’s gracious activity in Jesus has already secured redemption for us.

It’s not a comfortable or easy path. Just as putting a new physical heart into human beings requires painful surgery, so putting a new spiritual heart into us may require a painful process of letting go of our old life and ways of thinking and the slow growth of new ones. Just as the seed cannot produce fruit unless it dies and changes, so we cannot get to resurrection, to the new life that is within us, without walking the way of the cross.

Atonement is at the same time very complicated and very simple. The more I read the Scriptures, and think about the life and death of Jesus, and the more I am helped to understand what they teach by the writing of wise and spiritually gifted teachers like our Dean, the more often I am humbled by the realisation of how little we humans understand about the Divine Love who is at the depth of our being. And the more I am driven to accept that, as Paul said in his 1st letter to Corinth, the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of this world.

God doesn’t do what we expect a divine and omnipotent God to do. God doesn’t come down to earth with power to force people to do what is right. Rather, God becomes vulnerable and demonstrates through the lives of individuals how we can become one with the divine through suffering, through passion.

We see it in the story of Christ’s Passion, and we see it reflected again and again in the lives of other people who achieve redemption, perhaps through one act of sacrifice, even sometimes after a lifetime of self indulgence or agnosticism.

Today, in our readings, we are being led to understand the ‘New Covenant’ with God that was inaugurated through the life and death of Jesus the Christ. As we live through the seasons of Passiontide and Holy Week, may we not only understand it, but live it, and find a new way of life, a new relationship with God, the world and ourselves at Easter.

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