General

Easter to Pentecost 2021

7th Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 1.1-11; Psalm 47 or 93; Ephesians 1.15-23; Luke 24.44-53

In that well known description of Jesus appearing to Mary in the garden we often focus on that first communication of Jesus when he refers to her by name.  The joy of the resurrection is complete, our mind rests on that intimate moment.  Yet if we were to read on a little, we would come to something else which Jesus says to Mary, “Do not hold me for I have not yet ascended to the Father”, which is difficult to understand.  Wasn’t the resurrection complete? Wasn’t the miracle enough in itself?

Certainly not for Luke, who refers to this further development in both his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles when events move on with the ascension of Christ.  Apart from John’s oblique reference, all the other gospels make no reference to it at all.  Yet for Luke this period of Ascension is particularly important, and Ascension Day has featured largely in the life of most Christian churches.  It is to say the least confusing, and trying to research the emergence of this important day in the life of the church, doesn’t shed much light upon it.  We have descriptions of Ascension Day traditions from around the world and related art which focus largely upon the account in Luke, but little else.  Yet it was a significant day in the life of the church and as such we need to ponder it as well as keeping it.  In many of our own churches we will see one particular aspect of these traditions whether Ascension Day is more widely celebrated or not.  This will simply be in relation to our Paschal Candle which is lit as a matter of course during the Easter period but ceases to be so after Ascension Day, signifying the separation of Jesus from the world. In the absence of more thorough research the following are my own thoughts on the development and importance of this festival in the church.  It is perhaps something we as Christians should all ponder on, if we really do want our faith to grow.

The difficulty seems to begin with the way in which we as a church understand the notion of a personal God.  We feel safe if God is beside us, holding our hands.  It certainly can be a comfort when there is uncertainty or a crisis is looming.  The problem is that Jesus didn’t ever suggest that God would lift us out of such situations, but he did say that God would be with us in them.  We would not be facing the situation alone.  Indeed, the whole account of the ministry of Jesus centres around this idea of God travelling the journey with us, but not directly with us and certainly by not taking our human life over.

We can perhaps glean some basic understanding if we think of human parenting.  In some way or another parenting by a whole range of people has made us what we are.  It is all about the way we developed from the child that needed close intimate connections maturing into a person far more self-sufficient.  This self-sufficiency hasn’t come from within ourselves but has been gradually built-up within us by all those people who have nurtured us, and who continue to nurture us.  That nurturing isn’t about dictating who we are but encouraging us to reach onwards to who we can be. Real parenting may begin with holding us safe in difficult and frightening situations, but its aim is producing a character within us which can cope without it.

The ascension of Christ is similar but to a much higher level.  In Jesus, God has travelled with the disciples. He held them safe when it was necessary, but all the time he was moving them on to a point where they can manage that journey and that ministry on their own.  Following the resurrection that independent journey began, but Jesus was still there to encourage them and to reassure them.  The task would only be complete, however, when his presence was no longer required, they could do it themselves.  If that great love of mankind which Jesus was proclaiming was to reach out into the world it would depend upon their individual commitment and participation.  They undertook the task with great enthusiasm and hope, knowing that God was always with them.  They may not have him by their side but they had an even greater hope in that God was with them whatever happened along the way.  Indeed, they went back to the Temple with joy to wait for that moment when God’s reassurance would fully rest upon them.  They had grasped that no matter if they couldn’t understand it, the psalmist had already got it right, “All things shall be well.  All manner of things shall be well.”

Ascension then was a moment of great hope and great joy, it even exceeded their joy at seeing their Lord risen from the tomb.  Here was the promise of greatest hope.  God had not only found them in Jesus but now was the promise that he would be with them in all that they were.  Ascension is not about a place or a time, it is that great promise that the ascended Lord will be there whatever happens.

In more recent years there has been a tendency to try to subtly change that message.  So often we have tried to reduce God to the role of a personal guardian.  If only we can let God know what is happening He will put it right, seems to be the thinking.  God didn’t do that for Jesus, or for the disciples, so why should it be so for us?.  They took hope in the ascension of Christ, knowledge that we would never suffer alone again.  They may not always understand but in God all would be well.

During my ministry I have been confronted by quite a lot of people who can be very angry with God.  Where is God when these terrible things are happening?  Where is your God when someone is dying in the most terrible circumstances?  How can God let this happen to a young baby? …… Alongside that is the expectation that the Christian community is at fault for if they really prayed properly these things would be taken away.  The reality is that we never will understand these things at all but despite that God does and will put everything right in His way and in His time.  The trouble is, however, that people have been led to believe that they can decide and they can change things if they implore God to do it. That subtle changing of what happened in Galilee 2,000 years ago, has been found out by people.  To establish a true presence in the world we must be prepared to accept that we can not influence such things, but we can pray in hope to God who will make all things well.   The way we live our own lives is a powerful pointer to it. We may not seem to have much chance of changing many of those things ourselves, but we can have the courage to challenge those who can.

The ascension of Jesus is the centre of that hope.  It is there where God put his trust in the world, it is there that God chose to influence the world through his people. We need to ponder these things if we are really to live out our ministry in the world.

Prayers

St. Anselm 1033-1109
My God, I pray that I may so know you and love you
that I may rejoice completely in you.
And if I may do so fully in this lie,
let me go steadily on
to the day when I come to that fullness.
Let the knowledge of you increase in my heart,
and there let if grow to fullness.
Let your love grow in me here,
and there let it be fulfilled
so that here my joy may be in great hope,
and there in reality.                                                           

St. Columba  521-597
Alone with none but thee, my God,
I journey on my way.
What need I fear, when thou art near
O king of night and day?
More safe am I within thy hand
Than if a host did round me stand.                                  

John Wesley 1703-1791
Lord, let me not live to be useless


Sixth Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 10.44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5.1-6; John 15.9-17

We will all have recently completed the Census return which will form the basis for much strategic planning over the next ten years and probably many more years than that.  The trouble with the Census form is that it requires each of us to fit our lives into a series of one word or short phrase answers.  This may be easy for most people’s situations or indeed for all of us in most categories, but I am sure there may well be instances for many filling in the form where the range of options did not quite provide the answer they wished to give. Filling in forms can be limiting and do not always give the complete picture, perhaps even leaving out the most interesting parts. Brevity excludes so much on occasions, just as a short sermon can so easily do by limiting us to what others want us to know!

I feel it is the same with the with the lectionary reading of the Bible. In limiting these readings to a relatively short snippet we often lose the richness of its writings. This can be particularly true of the Epistle and supplementary readings, some of which may additionally be left out all together in churches. Today’s reading from Acts suffers spectacularly from this. We simply have a very short extract which fits in with the theme of the day, but sadly causes many people to never hear the wonderful story to which it relates, the story of Cornelius. The story is not just about Cornelius, a Roman captain, it is also a world expanding story of Peter and most importantly, OUR STORY.  To really understand this you will need to read Chapters 10 and 11 of Acts where the whole story of all-encompassing Christianity emerges.

Cornelius is a Gentile who has a deep faith in God, through which he is led by the Holy Spirit to seek more deeply by asking Peter to come and speak to him and his friends.  Peter has been touched by the Holy Spirit but as yet his understanding of his calling is not complete. He remains in much of the traditions of Judaism, emphasised in this account by the specific law concerning unclean food.  In a dream, or a vision, Peter was instructed that what he was doing was of his heart, not of God’s. The food presented to Peter in a dream enabled him to see the faith he was being asked to proclaim in a much wider context than he at first thought.  It was then that Cornelius’ messenger arrived at the house he was staying in at Joppa, and that vision of the food was fundamental to Peter seeing the need to reach out far beyond the Judaism of his up-bringing.  Chapter 11 leads us on to a situation where that action was supporting Jewish Christianity without which support the new faith could easily have been lost.  It is a beautiful story to read and significantly Cornelius was possibly the first Gentile Christian, certainly the first named one.  Cornelius is the beginning of our story, it is our heritage. 

Peter simply tells the story of what Jesus was and what he did. Importantly he talked of the love of God that had no bounds, even giving himself to the very depths of suffering and death because of the intensity of that love for humanity.  Cornelius recognises in this story something of what he tries to live by and seals that relationship by baptism. 

It is here that our thoughts turn to that recently completed census, one of whose questions asked for the faith of people.  I wonder what Cornelius would have made of that question?  Most of us would have given Christian as our answer, but to Cornelius it would not have been. This new approach was more about a relationship with God than a type of style or religion.  What Cornelius heard from Peter was the description of a God who loved us and would go to great lengths to find us.  It was the relationship he sought beyond himself, both with other human beings or with the supreme being.  In the early days then Christianity, or the Way as it was termed, really referred to how the relationship was lived out in the realities of life rather than a set of rules or regulations. A relationship, not a creed or control system which all must live by.

We see this in Jesus himself. He was born a Jew, lived his life as a Jew and died as a Jew. That was his religion, yet he sought far more than that. The over-riding wish of Jesus was to be in union with God, to have a deep relationship with God, and for all of us to have that same relationship.  He realised that to do that we must first of all have a relationship with each other and with the creation in general.  This was the requisite to that all- encompassing relationship with God. So, for Jesus the issue was not about religion, it was simply that of building up relationships with our world and our neighbours, and most importantly with God himself.  How many people described themselves on the recent Census return as Christian? How many did so because of the rules? Or how many were really able to answer the question honestly by the relationship they had or sought with God, or one another?  Perhaps Christianity shouldn’t have been an option in the first place, perhaps we can live out those relationships in a variety of ways.

I have a friend, Mamdooh, who was brought up in Pakistan and from a devout Muslim family. That remains his religion.  Yet he yearns for more, much more. “We have the rules and the duty” he says but “You have the man”.  Clearly what Mamdooh seeks is a God to have a relationship with, and I suspect that he does far more than he thinks.  Yet we have the man, Jesus Christ, the link that makes everything possible.  I think I know how Mamdooh, because of his great family tradition would have responded to that Census question, but I wonder equally what he would have said had that question been posed a little differently.  For me, he certainly looks and works for the things that were special to Jesus, in many ways Mamdooh is the Cornelius of our time.  Has the classifying of Christianity into a religion rather than a relationship, separated many from the very place of their being? 

The First World War which had a significant impact upon changing Christianity from one of relationship to one of duty, also has its great stories of relationships and friendships. One stands out for me.  A soldier sought one of his companions who had been badly injured in a clash and lay in no-man’s land.  He sought permission to leave his trench to go and get him.  Reluctantly the Officer gave permission, adding that he thought it would be of no use since his compatriot might well be dead or so badly injured that he could not be saved, and that the man himself might die. Despite the warnings he persevered, found his desperately injured comrade and brought him back.  He struggled back with him on his shoulders both being hit by bullets.  Finally, they both fell into the trench.  The officer after examining the colleague and realising he was dead, and the soldier who himself was dying, said “I told you that it wasn’t worth it, you both will soon be dead.” But the soldier contradicted him,  “Sir, it was worth it. When I got to  he my friend he was still conscious and he simply said, “Jim, I knew that you’d come””.

That is the God that Jesus knew and so desperately wanted us to know.  Let us not allow the rules, or the need for brevity that the world has adopted, stop us from seeing it.

Prayer
O Lord, I knew you would come.
You found the disciples, you found Cornelius
You found anyone who desperately searched for you.

The world has changed us, Lord
We no longer look for answers
We want to find them waiting for us.
We want instant answers to our prayers
We want instant resolutions to our problems
We have no time to wait
Or to search.

We think our answers lie in our faith
When all the time they are in You
In the ongoing life you have placed
Between us, between you and me
And between me and my fellow creatures
In the life that we share.

O lord I knew that you would come.
That is what Jesus was all about,
That you would never leave us,
When we really let go and needed you,
You would come.

My life is sustained by your promise,
That when I really need you, You will come.

But the most joyous thought of all
Is that when that final moment comes
It will not be me saying those words,
It will be you.


Fifthe Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 8.26-40; 1 John 4.7-21; John 15.1-8

As we progress through this season of Easter the readings move from accounts of resurrection appearances of the Risen Jesus to the “I am” readings explaining the ministry and action of Jesus.  Last week’s gospel reading on the Good Shepherd was relatively easy to understand but the idea of the vine and the branches is not so easily fathomed.  At a surface level the message might seem straightforward, but anyone who has any understanding of the actual vine will realise that it is a strange analogy to use.  Apart from the grapes they produced the vine would seem to have few other qualities to recommend it.

Yet the Old Testament uses it in many ways to reflect Israel as the vine of God.  In reality the people would have realised that within itself it is a useless plant.  It has the unique quality, that apart from the grapes it can be coerced into producing, it is the only plant where even the wood is completely useless.  Indeed, in the Old Testament we see one such law illuminating its uselessness.  At certain times of the year it was expected that the citizens brought wood to the Temple to maintain the temple fires, yet vine wood was excluded as an offering.  It could not even be burned satisfactorily.  Furthermore, as a trailing plant, it needed other plants or structures for support even when it was growing.  Still it had two great redeeming features beginning with the grapes it produced.  It was the grape that transformed life.  Water in its natural state was often life threatening because it was rarely free from disease, and still is so in many parts of the world.  It was the fermentation of the grape and the resulting wine acidity which produced safe drinking, as such it was revered in early civilisations. Secondly its very long stems enabled it to traverse the most inhospitable terrain and even cover large rock surfaces, searching out even the smallest patches of fertile soil on which new life could be established. 

Knowing something of the vine we can begin to see the analogy Jesus drew of his own life.  A life fully dependant and entwined with God, and a life which sought out the sustenance of life for all.
“I have come that they may have life, and have it in its fullness” John 10,10. 
The vine is the very heart of that life growth.  But to bring that life to its fullness still requires human husbandry.  It is only by human beings controlling the spread of runners through pruning, that the vine produces its fruit which will create the situation where the grapes will develop with their life changing qualities.  Now we begin to move into an understanding of the ‘I am the vine, you are the branches‘ analogy.  Jesus is pointing out that the world will only come to fruition when we also play our part in that process.  In a sense it is indicating a benign God who creates the building blocks for the world, yet without humans it will remain simply potential.  We are an important part of God’s plan to bring it to its fullness. A fullness, Jesus is saying. that can only be complete when we, like Jesus, dwell completely in God.  We are not parachuted into creation, but are an essential part of the way creation develops.  Our role is significantly more than being beneficiaries of creation, we are co-creators with God.

A little understanding of this strange analogy brings us, then, to a much fuller understanding of our very presence.  The Acts account of Philip and the Ethiopian official is a perfect example.  The reason for Philip being on that road at that precise moment may be seen by some as miraculous, by others as coincidence, but the real miracle was his action not his presence.  Here was the vine and the branches being lived out.  Philip realising what was going on saw his own responsibility and soon turned the blind searching for knowledge into hope for the Ethiopian official. That vividness of searching, which Luke so wonderfully portrays, and the subsequent enlightenment, suggests a world made immediately better by Philip’s action.  In that one moment Philip had played his full part as co-creator with God, and a new God dimension emerged.  Philip didn’t stop there, continuing to bring that same hope to many people in Azotus.  We can only follow Philip’s life from this point from non-canonical scripts, but the Acts of Philip suggest that with his sister and Bartholomew he dedicated his life to such action in Greece, in Phrygia and in Syria.  His life was one which many would have regarded as one of miracle. Philip himself, regarded it simply as being one of the branches of the vine of God, taking responsibility because God loved us first, and joy in being a co-creator with God.

The First Letter of John reading takes us further into the human role as branches of the vine, branches which turn that love of God into a liveable reality.  It begins simply with the assertion that we must simply love one another as God has loved us. Countless Christians before us, including Philip, have used the situations they find themselves in to do just that, to give hope through love.  How well do we match up to their example?  What sort of branches have we been to the fullness of the vine who gave us life?  Our world seems to have found many ways to speak of it, but rather less in actually doing it.  What of us? Mair has been speaking this week of the sermon she heard in church last Sunday.  One phrase, in particular stayed with her.  Real love only exists when it affects our diary and our bank balance. If we are to be truly branches of that life giving vine it will influence and change everything we are in life, everything we do in life.  Nothing special is required, simply being where we are and seeing need around us.  We don’t have to be clever or important in the system, we just have to be ourselves.  But first, we have ourselves to be transformed by the love of God, we can only love fully because God loved us first. When we realise that we are changed and wen will have the strength and the courage to change the world into the one which Jesus advocated, the one that God longs for.

Poem

From The Prophet
by Kahil Gibran

You give little when you give of your possessions.
It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.
And there are those who give and know not
pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with
mindfulness of virtue;

They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes
 its fragrance into space.
Through the hands of such as these God speaks,
and from behind their eyes He smiles upon the earth.

God forgave my love in Jesu’s name
by Carol Owens

God gave me a task in Jesu’s name,
To be a branch in Jesu’s name.
In the vine of Jesus, I come to you
To share his love as he told me to.

He said: Freely, freely you have received;
Freely, freely give.
Go in my name, and because you believe,
Others will know that I live.

All hope is given in Jesu’s name,
In earth and heaven in Jesu’s name.
In the vine of Jesus I come unto you
To share his wonder as he told me to.

He said: Freely, freely you have received;
Freely, freely give.
Go in my name, and because you believe,
Others will know that I live.

In the vine of Jesus I can give hope
without which I can do nothing.
So in the vine of Jesus I come unto you
To live his love, his hope, his joy.

He said: Freely, freely you have received;
Freely, freely give.
Go in my name, and because you believe,
Others will know that I live.

Some quotes worth pondering

Freely you have received, freely give 
Matthew 10.8

Nothing is small when God accepts it.
St Teresa of Avila

A man there was, though some did count him mad,
the more he cast away, the more he had.  
John Bunyan, ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’

It is well to give when asked, but is better to give unasked through understanding.
Kahlil Gibran

Better not to look at the gift, but at the person who needs it.
Hubert van Zeller, ‘The Inner Search’

A cheerful giver does not count the cost of what is given.
Their heart is set on cheering the one to whom the gift is given.  
Julian of Norwich

Give all thou canst; high Heaven rejects the lore
Of nicely calculated less or more.     
William Wordsworth, ‘King’s College Chapel’


Third Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 13.12-19; 1 John 3.16-24; Luke 24.36-48 

Luke has two colourful accounts of the appearance of the Risen Lord.  In the first Jesus joins two people journeying away from Jerusalem to a safer place, Emmaus.  In the second he suddenly appears in the midst of his disciples in a way very reminiscent of John’s account of the same event.  In both the accounts of Luke, the dimension of food is significant.  On the Emmaus road it is in the breaking of bread that they finally recognise the stranger who has journeyed with them, whilst in today’s gospel reading we see Jesus asking the disciples if they have anything for him to eat.  Is it just to add colour and context that Luke and John add this food dimension?  Or is there something more significant going on here?

Most theologians make a fundamental mistake in their research of the Last Supper, often concluding that it was the last meal that Jesus shared with his disciples.  As we read on, it evidently was not.  Indeed, in his book, ‘Resurrection’, Rowan Williams takes a very different view in acknowledging the enormous importance of the resurrection meals.  So, what has Rowan Williams seen that most theologians have missed?  What, indeed did Luke and John see in their reflections of those first encounters with the Risen Lord?  Is it more than something that will add interest to their accounts, or something more profound?

To get a grip on this we will need to go back to that Last Supper, when the final two things that Jesus did was to share with the disciples the bread and the wine, his body and blood.  Nothing greater could he give and they accepted it willingly, even displaying absolute resolution in following him.  Yet it did not work out that way and in the space of a few hours they had all forsaken him, all failed him miserably.  The torment for all of them at some stage must have focussed itself on that last meal he had shared, on the very fact that it was there he gave his very self to them.  Now Jesus is dependent upon them for food.  It is in the acceptance of their food that they give that he is giving his absolute forgiveness. 

Food is not an ancillary part of these moments, it is central to them.  Just as the giving of food has always been a sign of friendship, love and relationship, it has become here the absolute sign of forgiveness.  The disciples find it hard to find the words they want to say to Jesus. Perhaps there are no words that can ever convey their desperate failure. Yet in the giving and receiving of food all is said, nothing more needs to be said or thought.  The giving and receiving of the food has laid all to rest. Just as we hear nothing of Melchizedek’s blessing on Abram,  only recognizing it in the bread and wine he gave to him, to the blessing and hope of the wedding breakfast through the centuries.  They are signs of the hope and blessing for a new life. 

This resurrection food goes much deeper than symbolism, however. It defines the very nature of the resurrection.  In his life generally and in his ministry with the disciples after the resurrection Jesus needed food.  The gospels of Luke and John are anxious to portray that in his risen life he still needs it.  The fundamental truth which they are anxious for their readers to understand is that this is not a ‘super-charged’, resurrected Jesus, it is the very Jesus they always knew.  He hasn’t become changed by the resurrection, at least in the way that they see him. It is they who are expecting something more and fail to see. The person, the body of Jesus hasn’t become something else, it remains exactly the same as it was before. To accept anything else would be to accept that the incarnate Jesus was inferior in some way.  As Jesus ate the food, as he blessed the bread and the wine, and as Thomas inspected His wounds it was the same Jesus.  The resurrection had opened their eyes not only to see Him as he was now, but as He had always been. The sight of the risen Lord had opened their eyes just as He surely had done for blind Bartimaeus in the previous ministry they had shared.  Accepting and eating food with the disciples was just the same as what He had done with Zacchaeus, with the tax collectors and the sinners.  Those events had signified God’s forgiveness and acceptance of those with whom he shared those meals. These events signify the same absolute forgiveness for them.

The resurrection is not then about adding another phase to life, it is about seeing clearly what already exists and in a wider dimension  It is a prompt to look beyond the simplicity and security we often wish to see life in, and see it as God had created it.  We cannot comprehend its joys by anticipating what is to come, we can only comprehend it by finding the joys, the love and fullness of God in it as it is now, even in the darkest moments.  God is with us, what more do we need?  Gerard Manley Hopkins sums it up in his poem, God’s Grandeur;

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil:
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed.

Just as the Maundy Thursday meal preceded the events and failures which were about to happen, the resurrection meals are true moments of forgiveness and reconciliation, the re-gathering of the shattered company of disciples, the re-gathering of shattered hopes.  It is fitting then that funeral wake meals have become part of our time as a place where new dimensions and new hopes are re-built out of the old.  As today’s reading from 1 John acknowledged, it is by living in that resurrected hope that we will recognise him, and it is by the Spirit of God that we will know it.  As our Acts reading reiterates, in ourselves, we are as broken as the man crippled from birth was as he was carried to the Beautiful Gate. It is by the same power that we are healed like him in the faith of Jesus Christ, who was and is and is to come. 

As the disciples ate the broiled fish with Jesus they knew they had found their God, not in miracles, but in the fullness of human life. It is not in the extra-ordinary that we will find him, but in the ordinary.

Prayer

Thomas Hardy writes about hearing a thrush singing at days end on a bleak winter scene.  It ends:

Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
 Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
 His happy good-night air
Some blessed hope, wherof he knew
 And I was unaware.  
The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy                                         

 O Lord help us to be aware,
Aware of your wonder which we meet
 In the ordinary situations of our lives.
It is so much easier in the spectacular, in the miraculous,
In the moments when our hearts sing with joy.
Yet you are there in the darker moments, the struggle moments too.
 It is there where it is easy to lose sight of you.

Help us to know what your creation already knows.
The joy in the song of a bird, in the bursting
forth of a shoot from the cold earth.
It is so much easier when we can trace the path,
So much harder where there is no path to see.
So much harder when our hope is lost, it is there
where faith feels thin.

O Lord, help us to live the wonder of the ordinary,
To see the ordinary is indeed the extraordinary.
Not to live our lives waiting for something special,
But finding the special in the moment we have.
Help me to see the life in its fullness
which you give, help me to see it in every part
In the miraculous of the ordinary.


Second Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 4.32-35; 1 John 1.1-2.2; John 20.19-31

We return to the Easter story, but this time with John’s gospel.  At once we notice differences, a difference in chronology and in geography.  Last week Mark simply recorded the three women arriving at the empty tomb and someone asking the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee, two days journey for them.  In today’s reading the appearance of the risen Lord is much sooner and happens somewhere in Jerusalem. Quite a number of theologians suggest this could well be the same room where the disciples had shared the Last Supper with Jesus.

The account is dramatic.  In fear for their lives, they are huddled together, with the room locked and sealed.  Suddenly in their midst is Jesus with his message, “Peace be with you”.  It is a greeting well known within our later Christian communities but at the time of the resurrection it would have been a regular greeting in the general Mediterranean area.  However, if we trace the idea of peace back to the Greek translation of it, eirene, we get some better idea of its meaning, to be just and fair.  When Jesus was wishing the apostles ‘peace’, that was his wish, or even his command to them, to know peace by being just and fair to each other.  Psalm 85.10-13 speaks of righteousness (justice) and peace kissing each other.  So, it is not surprising that, in today’s 1 John reading, we see justice and righteousness at the heart of the way they lived together in community, where everyone gave what they had to the communal effort.  They were indeed living out those first words to them from the Risen Lord.

Jesus goes much further and says that he is sending them out in the same way that God sent him out.  He does much more that tell them, he breathes upon them giving them the very power that sustained him, God’s spirit and power.  In a sense we have the process complete, as humanity now fulfils its part in the blossoming of God’s kingdom on earth.  For the Jews this would have rekindled much of their history.  In Genesis 2.7 it was God’s own breath that breathed life into Adam and Eve, then later on in a story dear to Israel, Ezekiel is commanded to breathe life into the valley of dead bones (Ezekiel 37 particularly verse 9).  As Jesus breathed the breath of God upon them, they received his commission to go out and do likewise.  It is this spirit of God which makes the charge to forgive and retain sins of others possible, not that as humans we can do either of these things but we can help in leading people to where this will be possible in God’s prerogative.

For me, and I suspect for many, the account becomes even more dramatic.  Thomas appears on the scene and adds a vibrancy to what is happening. Thomas was not with the others originally but had been told about what happened. He will have nothing to do with it without much more proof than the apostles originally seemed to demand. One week later it happened again and as Thomas inspected those crucifixion wounds his only response was “My God and King”.  Thomas is the first person to refer to Jesus as God, and thereby leads us to a more detailed discussion into the term “Risen Lord”.  The majority of the post-resurrection responses focus around the joy of Jesus being alive, Thomas moves into a new dimension, Jesus is exalted.  Thomas, the isolated disciple had been the one to accept that they must go with Jesus to Jerusalem even if it meant dying with him (John 11.16), proves again that challenging Jesus can indeed lead to a more complete and satisfactory answer than just by accepting it (John 14.5).

It is this same wholehearted, though dogged, honesty which we find reflected in the 1 John reading.  It is through such honesty that we will become children of the light. Through the same doggedness to live that light rather than by the clever use of words to suggest that we do is the route of faith.  We will probably never be able to achieve it, yet today’s reading still leave us with fullness of hope.  John the Elder, simply explains that our failings can never deter us because we have the forgiveness of Jesus through his atoning sacrifice.  How much better, though, if we could just begin to get there as Thomas did.

So, we return to the reading from John’s gospel.  As happened with the Mark reading last week, we appear to come to the end only to find that it doesn’t end there.  There is a significant difference though between the real and added ending in Mark’s gospel and that in John.  The additional part of Mark’s gospel  was clearly not the work of Mark and can be easily deduced from the style of the two possibilities offered and from their style of writing.  Most significant, however, is the chronological discrepancy of perhaps more than 10 years.  The ending of John’s gospel is very different in this respect.  Firstly, as the last gospel to be written, there would be no need for additions as fresh ideas came to light.  Most importantly, though, the writing shows a clear continuity with the rest of the gospel.  How then did John Chapter 21 appear, after the original must have ended with the author saying that there was so many things to write about that there would never be enough time or place to write them all.  How does this fit together?

The most probable answer is that the author of this gospel was not John the Apostle, although he was certainly the originator of the ideas expressed in it, and just as certainly the gospel was based very largely around his recollection of events.  These memories, very different from those expressed  by place and time.  John’s gospel is so arranged that it encompasses a theme, the picture that John finally had of the ministry of Jesus, after many years of reflection. It is likely that the author(s) put this gospel together from these events which John had spoken of many times, probably writing them soon after his death as indicated by the timing of the gospel some 60/70 years after that time.  In this respect they are the thoughts of the Apostle, just simply recorded later. This may well lead into an answer regarding the addition of the 21st chapter of the gospel.  After John’s death events may well have unfolded that brought Galilee into focus in relation to the meeting of the disciples and the Resurrected Jesus.  It was certainly included in Mark’s gospel of some 20 years earlier.  The author of John’s gospel simply realised, at some later stage, the significance of this meeting and added the event, adding much more detail and gravitas to it than Mark’s original version.  This would certainly account for the closeness in style and approach of the original gospel.  Significant research seems to indicate that author as John the Elder, as it does with the letter of John.

The whole point of John’s gospel is that we shall only find its secrets and its joys when we bring our true self before him.  It is not intentions, or even actions, which will lead to his ultimate peace.  Then and only then will we have the true life that is in Him.

Prayer

Hello Thomas.
Put your finger here,
in the hole in my hand.
Put your hand into the wound in my side
if that’s what it takes
for you to believe.

And then I knew
I didn’t need to touch him,
I knew
that I was looking
into the face of God.
O Lord, you know
what was important for Thomas.
You know
what is important for me.
Help me to wait for that moment
As Thomas did,
And like Thomas realise that you will
Touch my life
Just where it matters.

It is only then
That I can begin to realise
That I am looking
Into the face of God.                                              


Easter trail

Resurrection

Jesus has risen!

School Lane

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” 

Mark 16. 1-7

Roberts Close
Easter trail

Crucifixion

Jesus and the two thieves

The soldiers mocked Jesus and put a crown of thorns on His head.  Jesus was then taken to a place, outside the city wall, called Calvary and crucified along with two thieves, on wooden crosses. The soldiers hung a sign above the head of Jesus which stated in Hebrew, Greek and Latin “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”.

Squires Road

One of the thieves blasphemed Jesus, but the other thief rebuked the thief saying “we deserve our punishment, but this man is innocent” and then he said to Jesus, “Lord remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, John 19)

Here at the entrance to Squires Road we have a green hill with three trees on it. In amongst the middle tree we can see a sign that says in Latin “Jesus King of the Jews” and a crown of thorns. These depict the cross that Jesus was crucified on.

In amongst the two trees, either side of the middle tree, we can see some black chains. The thieves may have been chained up in prison before their crucifixion. So, the chains in these trees depict the crosses that the thieves were crucified on.

The Crucifixion

They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha, “the place of the skull”). They offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.

Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.

With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

Mark 15.23-24, 33-39

The Churchyard
Rugby Lane
Easter trail

The Easter Tree

This is a centuries-old German tradition, known as Ostereierbaum, or Easter Egg Tree. Eggs are hung outside on trees and bushes. The custom spread beyond Europe, and now many homes throughout the world have an indoor Easter Tree, dressed with eggs of all kinds. Some are beautifully handpainted, others are real eggs which have been carefully blown then decorated.

But why eggs? Throughout the world, the egg is an ancient symbol of new life. For Christians, the egg is a symbol of Jesus rising from the dead, as he emerges from the tomb, rolling away the egg-shaped rock.

Easter gifts

Easter always takes place in Spring, when there’s a ready supply of hens’ eggs. In the past, parents would hardboil their glut of eggs and decorate them in bright colours to give to their children on Easter Sunday. The first chocolate Easter Eggs were made in Europe in the early 19th century.

Eggciting Eggstravaganza

The first Cadbury Easter Eggs were made in 1875. They were made of ‘dark’ chocolate and filled with sugar coated chocolate drops. The Cadbury Creme Egg first appeared in 1923. Approximately 500 million are made each year, though over a third are exported.

If all the Cadbury Creme Eggs made in a year were stacked on top of each other, the pile would be 10 times higher than Mount Everest!

Over 80 million boxed Easter Eggs are sold in the UK each year.

Reflections

From Lent to Easter 2021

Palm Sunday

Readings: Zechariah 9.9-10; Psalm 118;  Mark 11. 1-11

The journey from Jericho to Jerusalem is just over 25 km, but what a difference those 25 kms make. Jericho is 800m below sea level, and Jerusalem is 3000m above sea level.  It begins in the intense, repressive heat of Jericho and for those walking through the hot, dry and dangerous desert towards Jerusalem, it will emerge on the verdant slopes of the Mount of Olives.  For pilgrims walking this journey to any Festival, particularly the Passover, their arrival on the Mount of Olives after such a journey would have been one of joy to see Jerusalem and the glittering Golden Gate just across the valley. But what of Jesus knowing what this journey entailed and how it would end?  No wonder we see Jesus looking towards Jerusalem with a heavy heart, with a sadness for this city of God and for the destruction and conflict it would suffer in the coming decades. I suspect he really would want to gather them and protect them as a hen protects her chicks. 

The road runs on through the villages of Bethpage and Bethany before the final climb up to the gates of Jerusalem.  It was here that they stopped and Jesus sent two of his disciples ahead to collect the donkey, a colt that had never been ridden before. So, the scene was set for the King of Peace to enter his city as Zechariah had prophesised 500 years before, and it was the humble donkey who was at the heart of this entry into Jerusalem.

It is only in relatively recent times that the donkey has been seen as a beast of burden, as a comical creature.  In Palestine the donkey was the transport of kings, and a herald of peace.  Whenever a ruler approached another territory a donkey laden with gifts preceded him, to signify that he came in peace, or even to appease the wrath of the other.  The choice of Jesus riding into Jerusalem encapsulated this.  Firstly, as the representative of God he came in peace, and secondly, he himself was the gift of peace on the laden donkey.  

It was in this way that Jesus and his disciples joined in the throng who were making their way up to the gate into Jerusalem. To start with they were just part of the usual joy and excitement of every pilgrim visiting Jerusalem for a festival. It would be evident in the singing, dancing and praying as they made for the city gate on this festival of hope.  Gradually the crowd began to see this man on a donkey, some even recognised him or associated him with stories they had heard, and a new dimension emerged.  There was no doubt they recognised something of his significance for they threw down their cloaks and tore branches off the palms to strew in his way. It was only kings, or people of supreme importance, who warranted such accolades.  But who was it that they thought they were welcoming?  Had they noticed that he was riding a donkey, did they know Zechariah’s prophecy? Or was it a vague knowledge of that prophecy, an outline out-line they could colour in as they wished? 

No doubt their thoughts and hopes sped back to a much more glorious time of some 160 years before when something similar had happened.  It was prior to this time that the Syrian leader Antiochus IV had tried to force the Jews to accept Greek practices instead of their own.  He even took over the Temple and used it as a shrine to the Greek god Zeus.  The resulting Jewish revolt was led primarily by the Maccabeus family, successively by the father and then three sons.  The successes of that revolt included Jews retaking control of the city and Temple characterised by Simon Maccabeus riding into Jerusalem as a victorious warrior king on a white charger.  The Jewish Feast of Hanukkah is in memory of that first cleansing of the temple by Judas Maccabeus.  Today as Jesus rode into the city the crowd may well have assumed that it was happening again.  But Jesus was fully aware of Zechariah’s ancient words.

Such was the fever-pitched excitement and expectation of that day that they failed to notice that this time Jesus was riding on a donkey.  A king no doubt, but certainly not the warrior king they wanted, this time to get rid of the Romans.  The donkey has another significant part to play, it signifies the real prophet.  The interest of false prophets would be upon earthly glory and prestige. The humble donkey which Jesus rode was far from that. It further signifies the early beginnings of their faith when Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 21.3), and equating Jesus with the sacrifice, not the glory.

It is here that the chronology of the synoptics gospels goes a little array.  Matthew and Luke have Jesus entering the city and straightway making for the Temple and throwing out all the commercial aspects.  Mark also has him going to the Temple, but only just to look around and see for himself, before returning to Bethany with his disciples.  It is the following day that the Temple pandemonium breaks out in Mark’s gospel.  Does this time delay matter? For some it is significant because Mark is showing that it is Jesus who is completely in control of events, it is him deciding the time schedule and indeed the final battle.  The other effect of this time delay is to begin to understand the crowd who were so fully supportive at his entry, but then began to ebb away so that within a few days they were calling for Jesus to be crucified.  There was no way that the original support for Jesus would have accepted anything less than complete victory, but perhaps they had had time to read the signs and reflect on what messages Jesus was giving.  They had hoped for their own version of the Messiah, but Jesus was having none of it. Jesus succumbed to no-one’s ideals, ruler, pilgrim or the citizen.

So, the journey of Holy Week began for them, and begins for us.  The question is still there.  What kind of Jesus do we look for?  Is it the Jesus that fulfils the wants within us, or does Jesus go far beyond our limited horizons and fulfils the wants that we ourselves are blind to see?  Perhaps the humble donkey learned more on that day than we humans, even Christians, ever have.

 The Donkey
by G. K. Chesterton         

     When fishes flew and forests walk’d
          And figs grew upon the thorn,
      Some moment when the moon was blood
          Then surely I was born.

     With monstrous head and sickening cry
          And ears like errant wings,
     The devil’s walking parody
          Of all four-footed things.

     The tatter’d outlaw of the earth
          Of ancient crooked will:
     Starve, scourge, deride me, I am dumb,
          I keep my secret still.

     Fools! For I also had my hour,
          One far fierce hour and sweet;
     There was a shout about my ears,
          And palms before my feet”.                               

Hey this is me 
adapted from a poem by Pat Marsh

“Hey this is me…….
And I want to say
I’m not the me you seem to think I am.”
O Lord help me to see what you really are,
to put aside those things that I want you to be,
to leave behind the things that I think you ought to be.
Help me to see the peace that you herald,
if I can just put aside my own mis-conceptions.
Help me to see the King entering my life
and riding on a donkey
with nothing but my peace as his hope.

Open my eyes, Lord
and help me to see the bits that I am blind to,
To accept the bits that I am ashamed of,
and the bits that terrify me.

Help me to look deeper,
deeper than I really want to.
You see me as I really am,
help me to see it also.

You love me as I really am,
with no need of the façade,
that I keep in-front of others,
or even myself!

And seeing it, help me to accept it
so that before you,
I, too, can say,
“Hey this is me, the me you have made,
This is the me whom you have redeemed.”

I am the reason for all that you bore that day.
I am the reason for the pain of Calvary.
Yet I can be the glory that you released there.
Help me, Lord, to both be it and live it.


Passion Sunday

Readings: Jeremiah 31.31-34 ;  Hebrews 5.5-10;  John 12.20-33

This Sunday is known as ‘Passion Sunday’, when the inevitability of the cross emerges.  The distinct possibility that had already existed in the minds of the disciples during Jesus’ ministry now became absolute certainty. As Jesus says, a grain of wheat remains nothing but a grain of wheat if it lives, but if it dies then it will produce much more.  The cross is at the heart of God’s redemptive action in Jesus.  So, to us who have pondered if there could be any other way for God to express his love of the world other than as it happened, the answer is clearly no!  This is the only way that God could fulfil his love for the world.

In John’s gospel there is no ‘Gethsemane time’, but this reading is at this gospel moment when the anguish and struggle of Jesus emerges as he contemplates that end. “Father, do not let this hour come upon me”. His greatest desire is that it should be removed from him.  It is for this perilous moment that John has reserved God’s affirmation of Jesus, which the Synoptic gospels use at Christ’s baptism or transfiguration.  Here now is where Jesus needs that affirmation. Here now is the moment that John sees the world’s need of that affirmation.  Here is God’s glory and fullness of love in the very heart of the worst that humankind can do and in the very heart of religious exclusivity, even in the chances of life itself.

Today’s other lectionary readings offer a very powerful contribution to the message.  Let us begin with the Jeremiah reading which is far greater than other prophesies of the Old Testament.  This is God’s promise to his people, through Jeremiah, that he will seal a new covenant, a covenant fully dependent upon God, asking nothing of his people.   It is a promise that a time is coming that he will act in a way that is completely different from anything they might expect. A way leading them back to where they will have a new and different relationship with Him. This is of course an exact expression of Jesus Christ.  It doesn’t end there and if you read on a few verses to Chapter 32 you will see the impact of this promise on Jeremiah. He immediately buys a field! This may seem a somewhat strange reaction but to understand it we need to grasp the full significance of all that was going on in Judah at the time.  Judah was surrounded by the Babylonians who were about to overrun it. The plight of Judah was hopeless. Yet Jeremiah bought the field as a sign that God would still look out for them. 

In our own experience it could be compared to buying a house in London’s East End at the height of the blitz of the second World War. Nobody in their right mind would do such a ridiculous thing.  Yet Jeremiah did, and in Jesus Christ we see that covenant being enacted directly in Jesus. Far more than generalised prophecies, this was the promise of a completely new and different relationship with God and Jeremiah fully committed himself to it.

The reading from the letter to the Hebrews introduces a character and a situation which is at the very heart of it. The person introduced here is Melchizedek, a shadowy figure who appears just twice in the Old Testament, yet a figure who puts a whole new focus on the events happening or about to happen in Jerusalem.  The first place we hear of Melchizedek is in Genesis 14 meeting the wandering Abram and his entourage, and most importantly blessing him. There has been endless scholarship in trying to find out who Melchizedek was, but the certainty is that he stretches far back into Hebrew history.  Some of their literature suggests that he precedes Noah, quoting the fact that Noah’s son Shem was nicknamed Melchizedek.  Melchizedek is there at the centre of creation from its beginning, and causes Philo, the ancient Greek writer, to see him as the Logos, part of God.  The writer of John’s gospel did also, and it is in the powerful introduction to this gospel that Jesus is introduced as such, the Logos, the word of God, the deity that was with God during the creation of the world. 

So suddenly, with the help of the reading from Hebrews, we see the true identity and challenge of Jesus emerge, a picture not of man but of part of God.  It begins to make sense. Christ is not here defined as the Messiah so desperately sought by Israel to overthrow their invaders and to restore them.  It is the Priest of the Order of Melchizedek, the logos and originator of creation.  One of our communion prayers relates to Jesus as the “Great High Priest who has ascended into the heavens”. But this could not be Jesus since all Jewish priests had to be descended from Aaron which Jesus was not, unless he was of a different priestly order.  Jesus, our great high priest is found in Psalm 110, a psalm of King David.  Unlike the Jewish priests who were there by right of ancestry, Jesus was a high priest of God made absolutely certain in that psalm where he is disclosed as the Priest of the “Most High”, a title synonymous with God himself. 

Yet, there is something  even more significant that we need to be aware of in Genesis 14 and this is the manner of the blessing of Abram by Melchizedek which he gives in the gifts of bread and wine. God, on that very first occasion was given in the gifts of Bread and Wine and this remains significant in all Jewish festivals, especially the Passover, as the blessing of God.  It is likely that Jesus was using these gifts of bread and wine to finally, and completely disclose his own true identity. There are various speculations as to why the people suddenly turned against Jesus in that final week. Could it be that in this disclosure  he was saying with great certainty that he was not their sought-after ‘political Messiah’. That first blessing of God was given in bread and wine, still the central heart of our Christian faith.

More recently our Christian Services have taken on different styles and approaches. We have filled them with words, confessions, creeds and teaching, none of which happened with Abram.  Abram simply received, with grace, the gifts of God, and which Jeremiah later foresaw, the gifts of bread and wine.  There is the heart of receiving and celebrating God’s blessing on us.  We may try hard to do other things in our Services, even in our daily life and concern for each other. All this we do very well perhaps even better in some respects than what priests themselves do in the Holy Communion. However, we must first be prepared to receive God’s blessing on us, and it is this blessing given in bread and wine which will make whatever else we do wholesome, even if the priest doesn’t do it as well as we might like! That act is simply receiving God’s blessing without reservation. Nothing more is required.

So, our trilogy of readings for this Passion Sunday has opened up much of our history. From these readings it is seen that Holy Communion, the receiving of bread and wine is the fundamental heart of our own covenant with God, which is of course why priests pay so much attention to it.  It is not a history which is modifiable or changeable. It is a history we can grow and develop from.  For it is not our history that is at its centre, it is God’s history which we have been privileged to be invited to partake of. How then do we as Christians live up to that, or even live with, that?  Simply by accepting with awe the blessings that God pours upon us as Abram did. For Christians that has to be at the table of Holy Communion, as it was for Abram and much later in response to Jesus’ invitation. Then by committing ourselves to where he will lead us, as Jeremiah did.  Acceptance and hope are the true hallmarks of faith. Those were the only things that carried the human Jesus through the trials, pain and agony of those final days. They were sufficient for him, surely then they should be sufficient for us. Today’s readings then are our ‘Desert Island’ trilogy of faith, the story we must never leave behind.

Dwelling in the Psalms, a Healing Journey
by Pat Marsh (based on Psalm 110, 2-4)

This is the word of God,
to my Lord,
the Messiah.                          

Come,
sit at my right hand;
share my power
and authority.
I will hand you
my sceptre;
you will be
a priest for all nations,
a priest of a new order.

Your kingly rule
will be established
beyond Zion.
Your enemies will be subdued
and many
will serve you gladly.
You shall shine with holiness
and your strength
will be renewed
like the morning dew.
Your priestly reign
will last forever.
This is my solemn vow.

Prayer from the same source

Father, thank you for Jesus.
Thank you that you spoke these words
through King David
long before the coming of your Son among us.

Thank you
for David’s listening heart.

Father, deepen in us
our capacity to hear you,
strengthen in us
our courage to trust you,
and grow in us
the wisdom to discern your will.

(Thanks to Karen and Andrew Armbrister for this resource)


Fourth Sunday of Lent

Readings: Numbers 21.4-9; Ephesians 2.1-10; John 3.14-21 (referring also to 1-13)

Today’s  gospel reading places a new significance on one particular event in Jerusalem following the cleansing of the Temple.  In John the events following that Temple event had far more wide reaching effects than it did within the Temple walls.  We see the impact upon those with ultimate legal authority and the cracks appearing in their resolve. It was through John’s account of Nicodemus that we see the event unfolding.  Who was this man, Nicodemus?  From what we read in John, Nicodemus is certainly a man of some importance as a member of the Sanhedrin.  From the information we have we are unable to identify Nicodemus in any great detail, other than to conclude that he was a person of some considerable influence in Jerusalem at that time.  The mere fact that Nicodemus approached Jesus underlines that Jesus was making a considerable impact on the city and religious matters at that time.  Perhaps it even suggests that there was some discontent within the city, and even with the Sanhedrin things weren’t quite as they should be.  Nicodemus, after hearing about or even seeing, the furore in the Temple went to Jesus to see at first-hand what this man was all about and our gospel reading is based upon the dialogue between him and Jesus. 

There are differing views as to Nicodemus’ role.  Some suggest that by coming at night, he was fearful of what others would think of him, a weak man perhaps.  Others see him as a spy from the Sanhedrin, whilst still others see him as a person genuinely seeking after truth.  The first two of these ideas do not generally hold water since there were many others were very openly antagonistic towards Jesus at the time. Specifically, Nicodemus did not challenge Jesus as to who he was, but  openly declared that he accepted the great things that Jesus was doing accepting that Jesus must be from God.  The speculation around Nicodemus seems to stem from the fact that he came to Jesus at night. Yet if we were to consider the more elaborated details of the Galilean ministry in the Synoptic gospels, we find that it was the night when Jesus spent time with his disciples and explaining to them the finer details of either his teaching or other matters.  It would not be surprising that it was in a similar style in Jerusalem, and could explain why Nicodemus would choose to come to Jesus at this time to speak deeply with Jesus.  It would seem a reasonable conclusion that Nicodemus was indeed a genuine seeker after the truth in regard to the ministry of Jesus.

Unfortunately for Nicodemus it was not as easy as it seemed.  What Jesus explained to him he just could not understand.  The whole idea of being born again in life was inexplicable to his knowledge of life, what Jesus was demanding demanded a seismic shift in understanding and the harder Nicodemus tried to fathom it the further away it seemed to get.  Probably because of Nicodemus’ position in the Sanhedrin Jesus certainly used language which was highly theological but the main thrust was that God did not send his son to judge the world but to be its saviour.  Love would prove, in the end, to be far stronger than judgement.

Nicodemus, failing to grasp it, left but he certainly did not give up on either on Jesus, or on what Jesus was doing.  We see Nicodemus again in Chapter 7, where he stands up strongly for the rights of Jesus when the prevailing feeling was very much against him at the time.  Finally, we see Nicodemus in Chapter 19 at the burial of Jesus.  Whilst the friends of Jesus had forsaken him, we see Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea anointing the body of Jesus and laying him in the tomb.

The story of Nicodemus thus leaves us with a conundrum. Far from being someone who rejected Jesus, we find him still there at crucial moments, even moments when the people we would have expected to be there weren’t.  It was Nicodemus, perhaps still struggling with understanding, but who is there right to the end.  How do we put this into perspective, and what can we, as modern-day Christians and churches learn from it? 

It certainly challenges our ideas of faith, and of the Holy Spirit.  Nicodemus is there in the beginning because he is searching for answers.  He is probably there at the end still searching for answers, but instead of giving up on it as most did, he stayed there and did what he could for Jesus. 

The question is asked of whether Nicodemus was saved or not, because there was never a word from him accepting Jesus as Lord.  But Nicodemus did two things most of us fail to do, he kept on searching and he remained until the end.  If there is anything that the love Jesus speaks about as overcoming judgement, surely Nicodemus is the example of it.  Since we have been using the Gospel of John for our readings this question of searching has always been there, it is not in certainty that we find glimpses of faith but in the searching and struggles of life. The Spirit of God doesn’t always lead us easily to the answers, perhaps instead inspiring us to search through the struggles to find answers to our lives.  Jimmy Carter defined faith thus, “To me faith is not just a noun, but a verb”.  It is the searching in our own lives for the things of importance and the things of hope.  Yet how often do we as churches let that happen, always being ready to speak of what we have found rather than allowing others to seek their own answers.  Nicodemus reminds us that we do not have to understand to find those answers, all we need to do is keep searching for the moment when faith will find us, “a faith which hears the inaudible, which sees the invisible, which believes the incredible and which receives the impossible”. The very approach Paul was advocating to the Ephesians to realise that it was not their own efforts or their own understanding that we find peace, but in the supreme love of God manifested in Jesus Christ, as long as we go on looking.  As we go through the gospel of John we see glimpses of the story of Nicodemus and his searching which in the final act becomes interwoven into God’s story.

In his book, ‘Falling Upward’ (1), Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and theologian, describes life as two parts.  The first part of life is building a place for ourself and the second is about learning to live easily within it. It is this second part that leads us closer and closer to God.  Lived like this life is about falling upward into God.  This could so easily apply to Nicodemus as through his searching  the Spirit lead him closer and closer to his eternal home.  The labyrinth of Nicodemus, perhaps.  The letter to the Ephesians points out very powerfully that life is different now, thanks to God, but we still have to learn to live in it.  The facts, the ways of human life have not changed but hope has.  We still will need to travel the journey of life, but now towards a different ending.

(1) Falling Upward, a Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr [SPCK]

No Greater Love
by Brother Roger of Taize

Risen Christ you take us with our hearts just as they are.

Why do we go on thinking that we must wait for our hearts to change before we can go to you.  You will transfigure them, whatever they may be.

With our thorns, you will light a fire.  The open wound in us is the place through which your love streams through.  Within our hurts you bring a fruition, a communion with you.

Your voice comes to rend our night, and gateways of praise will open up within us.

O Lord help us to go on searching for those glimpses of your love,

                    Glimpses that will sustain the journey and bring us at last to your wonder.


Third Sunday of Lent

Readings: Exodus 20.1-17; 1 Corinthians 1.18-25; John 2.13-22

Jesus and the temple

Those of you who consider such matters will realise that the lectionary readings are in a three-year cycle and use the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) as the primary source for the gospel readings with John being used more at specific seasons, such as Easter, Lent and Advent or at times to supplement the synoptic gospel or indeed to bring forward ideas not mentioned in the basic gospel of that year.  The reason for this is fairly easy to identify in that the synoptics follow a chronological pattern, admittedly with variations and differing emphasis to the events of this pattern, whilst John’s reflective style has variations unique to his gospel. Indeed, there are only six miracles recorded in John’s gospel, two of which are recorded in the synoptics, and John refers to them as signs not miracles. Miracles can be regarded as things which are easily recognised and identified by all whereas signs are based upon similar, but not so evident, events from which their true meaning emerges to those who reflect upon them.  Being generally a different set of ideas recorded in the various gospels has led to the charge of inconsistency from those wishing to challenge the Christian faith, whilst in effect they are probably all true but the specific writers have highlighted the specific ones which bring out the meaning they wish to communicate.  The first sign in John, and not recorded in the synoptics, is the wedding at Cana of Galilee, and indicates what John’s whole thesis is about.  It is changing water into wine, and refers to the way in Jesus, God is changing the water of humanity back into the wine of His kingdom.

These differences of approach don’t come without their difficulties and today’s gospel reading is no exception.  This cleansing of the temple is recorded in all four gospels and as such must have significance and meaning for all of them.  But that is where the similarity ends, indeed extending to the whole idea of Jesus in Jerusalem at all. The synoptics only record Jesus as visiting Jerusalem, and thus the temple, once (Luke introduces a further visit when Jesus is twelve years old).  John, on the other hand, has Jesus in Jerusalem at least seven times, three of which are at Passover meals on various occasions.  In addition, the focus for the synoptics is the ministry of Jesus in Galilee, whilst the focus for John is Jerusalem, with only a very limited number of his events relating to Galilee.  A source of confusion certainly, and a possible charge of inconsistency.  Yet they are probably both correct, just focussing their story on parts which were more familiar to each writer, and illustrated what they wanted to pass on.  Indeed, there are some who think that there were two groups of followers of Jesus, one based in Galilee whom we know much most about, and one based in or around Jerusalem of whom we know much less.  Regardless of it being a passing acquaintance to us, the closeness of Jesus to Lazarus, Martha and Mary, and the familiarity Jesus appears to have with Jerusalem and its surrounds, provide reasonably strong evidence of this idea. The idea of Jesus being familiar with Jerusalem is further enhanced by the event where he weeps over Jerusalem and vows to gather her children together (Matthew 23.37)

The account of the cleansing of the Temple is similarly quite difficult to place in time.  John has this taking place early on in Jesus’ ministry, whilst the synoptics have it at the end, as part of the finale of his challenge to the religious leaders.  Who is right?  In this instance probably the synoptics.  If this confrontation had taken place, as John suggests, at the beginning of his ministry Jesus would have been a marked man as far as the temple was concerned, and probably Jerusalem per se.  If that had been his opening challenge it would seem to be highly unlikely that the temple authorities would have tolerated him there on future occasions.

The most interesting matter for these four accounts, however, is their remarkable similarity in detail.  It is not just in the detail of what Jesus did, but what lay behind his anger.  It is Mark’s account which really brings it to light, in remarkable brevity. In chapter 11, verse 17 he records these words of Jesus, “My Temple will be called a house of prayer for the people of all nations”.  Those six words that I have put in italics were probably the source of Jesus’ anger.  To understand we need to know something of the Temple ground plan.  It was a series of courts around, and leading to the Holy of Holies.  Without going into too much detail there were several such outer courts including the Court of the Women, and the Court of the Gentiles.  This latter court indicates that the Temple had a place for all people who were seeking after truth, it was not limited to those who had superior knowledge or experience. There was a place for all in the Temple, with increasing knowledge being needed only as they got closer and closer to its heart.  The anger towards the traders and money changers was two-fold.  Firstly, it took place in the court of the Gentiles, and thus they had been excluded for this practice to take place.  Secondly, even poor Jewish people were being excluded because they could not pay the exorbitant price for the acceptable sacrifices, or indeed to change their money into currency which was acceptable to the authorities.  Here then is the heart of this passage, exclusion of people who wanted, for whatever reason, to be there.  Exclusivity fermented Jesus’ anger.

Over the centuries it has remained an area where the Christian Church has also had its difficulties. Perhaps because of the nature of its development as a universal faith,exclusivity has often not been far from its structure. Our most recent history shows attempts to rectify this, from the introduction of nave altars and font placements to all-age services, but it is still an issue facing our churches.  The single most important issue still facing them us is how to make them more inclusive. Indeed, it could be that unless the issue is solved in the near future many of our smaller churches will disappear.

Being inclusive one of the issues at stake in Jerusalem, it remains very much at the heart of present day survival. That is where the supporting readings come into the reckoning for today.  On one hand we have the clearly defined path to God as indicated by the Ten Commandments with the idea that if we stick rigidly to that approach we will be alright.  On the other hand, we have Paul advocating that people need come to God through their own situations and experiences of life.  Which is correct?  Well both probably, we must approach Him as the people that we are, not the people we try to make ourselves into.

I would end by saying that I have certainly not covered all the ideas that this gospel reading opens up.  The concluding remark of John’s gospel sums it up, “If everything were written down the whole world could not hold everything that is written”.  I hope my emphasis on the Temple and what it can still teach us will not exclude your own wider thoughts. Yet for me the development of a church for all is the heart of the future of the church.  Its ability to touch our whole community, regardless if they share our story or not, will be the significant factor. By so doing God’s story will become their story.

Prayer
City of God, how broad and far
outstretch thy walls sublime!
Thy free and loyal people are.
of every age and clime. 

In vain the surge, angry shock,
in vain the drifting sands;
unharmed upon the eternal Rock
the eternal city stands.


Second Sunday of Lent

Readings: Genesis 17, 1-7 and 15-16; Romans 4, 13-25; Mark 8, 31-38 

One of the cartoon character, Charlie Brown sayings is, “Winning may not be everything but losing is nothing!” Something many of us have thought from time to time, and it sums up Peter’s response in our gospel reading today.  There is often a struggle to get to an understanding of the Sunday Lectionary readings, as some people found with last week’s reading.  This week’s gospel reading is no different and to get a grip on it we probably need to refer to a few paragraphs before if we are to understand today’s reading.

From verse 27 Jesus has been discussing with the disciples who the people think he is.  They respond with ideas from John the Baptist to Elijah and the prophets, but Jesus wants to know more.  But you, he asks, “Who do you say that I am?”  What is your understanding of what I am doing, what is your understanding of what I will be doing, is really the question he is asking.  It is Peter who steps forward with an answer, “You are the Lord’s Anointed one, the Messiah”.  In a blink, no doubt, he probably regretted that response.  Jesus was not content to leave it there, and he proceeded to tell them of the way things were going to pan out which certainly didn’t help Peter at all.  In fact it was far from what Peter, or any of the disciples, could understand about Jesus or the Messiah in general, it totally confounded them. 

To begin to understand we must first get some idea of what the Messiah meant to the Jewish people.  This cannot simply be done from the Bible alone, for the Jewish ideas began long before any written record could be made, a faith steeped in a powerful oral tradition.  Even when their civilisation had reached a stage where records could be written they weren’t, because it was deemed unlawful to record them.  It was much later before such written records could be kept and the Mishnah, written in the 3rd century B.C., is the full comprehensive record, “The Oral Torah” as it is sometimes referred to.  There are a few references to the ideas in the Book of Isaiah and that of Jeremiah, with others in the Apocrypha, but it is only the Mishnah where that true picture of the Jewish Messiah emerges.

It emerges as Israel begins to move into a time when its memories of being a free state had almost disappeared. Over numerous centuries they have been over-run by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and finally the Romans.  Their memory and their story were fast disappearing which led to a change of heart regarding the writing down of such memories.  It was here the Jewish ideal of the Messiah emerged as a vengeful concept returning Israel to what they pictured as their rightful place, far from anything like the concept of the Messiah that we hold now.  When Peter referred to Jesus as the Messiah he would have been influenced by much of  that thought as someone to return Israel to its rightful place  whatever the cost. It was an aggressive, nationalistic, vengeful, violent even, concept which perpetrated the Jewish thinking of the time.  In the other three gospels, we see this idea returning in the person of Barabbas, a person who displayed all these characteristics, and whose release the crowd clamoured for.

The continued times of subservience had limited any idea of the real Messiah beyond this thinking, it was natural that someone was needed who would break their continued subjection. Far indeed from where Jesus himself was,  I guess even Peter’s response of the Messiah made Jesus angry, so angry that he spelt out in very graphic detail of what his Messiahship would mean.  Here was the first real human/divine conflict for Jesus, and one that the disciples just could not understand, ideas which were both incredible and incomprehensible.

We can perhaps understand something of the dismay facing the disciples which gave rise to such an anger in Peter that he even chose to rebuke Jesus.  But what of Jesus’ response to Peter’s anger?  We certainly aren’t expecting it, so how can it be explained.

 Firstly, it is worth noting that Mark’s writing can be very critical of the disciples,” they were close enough to see everything and yet understood nothing” often being the source of his criticism.  Mark was never reticent when the disciples were found wanting, and here was a particularly bold example.  Why, after all the time you have followed him do you not see what Jesus is all about, he seems to be asking.  Have you seen all those things he has done, and you still want to control what he is and does to suit your own needs?  Certainly, the anger was partly used by Mark to make his point. Mark choses to ignore the obvious and very vulnerable feelings of the disciples at this time. so soon after the beheading of John the Baptist.

The anger of Jesus, towards Peter in particular, goes much further.  This is a difficult time for Jesus also.  Whether as a result of the death of the Baptist or not, Jesus has just made the decision to turn his eyes towards his challenge to the religious hierarchy and the ultimate cost there will be.  As we discussed last week the vulnerable side of Jesus came to the fore and here the exchange led to anger. This anger probably went much deeper as he saw in their response an attempt to control God, just indeed as the Jewish hierarchy were doing, and against which his final battle would be. Yet despite this anger something good came out of it, for as we see Jesus speaking to the crowd following him, by emphasising their part in this new covenant which God was making with them.  In all covenants it is easy to assume the effort coming solely from God and mostly it does, but here we see the part we have to play by genuinely following where he leads.  The Old Testament reading this week is about the covenant Abraham had with God, again looking one sided until we see how that covenant depended on Abraham’s new loyalty and faith, his trust and obedience.  The covenants with Noah and Moses were similar. Today’s New Testament reading follows this up with Paul explaining that human commitment to the covenant in his letter to the Romans.

Out of this difficult moment comes a powerful universal message, our part in the covenant. The promise God gives us in Jesus Christ is enhanced or reduced by the measure our loyalty and our faith towards Him.  Fullness can only come when we let go of ourselves, when we refrain from using God for what we want of him or where we want him to go.  It is simply about “letting go and letting God”, or as the hymn says, “Trust and obey, there is no other way…”. That is the faith which leads to the deep peace that we seek.

The Gift of a Cross
by Pat Marsh (published by Inspire)

Lord, I simply desire
that my life should reflect your love,
my feet
walk in your footprints
and my lips
speak your praise.
I only desire
that my strength
should come from the cross
and above all else
that my will
should be in alignment
with your will   
always.                        


First Sunday of Lent

21 February 2021

Readings: Genesis 9.8-17; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15

We return to the baptism of Jesus by John.  Two things happen which are significant.  Firstly, we see the affirmation of God and signifies the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, followed by (according to Mark) Jesus being led out to the wilderness.  During our last week’s zoom Sunday Worship we thought about the word love, and in particular what love is, and for most of us it was easier to recognise than define.  For my part it seems there are two quite distinct aspects, one which encourages and one which challenges, and these are held together in a spirit of affirmation.  We see these two diverse aspects held closely together in our gospel reading today.

A first reaction may well be to see these two aspects as quite distinct and of quite different origin, the one coming from God and the other from Satan.  However, if we look closely it isn’t the origin that is important but is more about seeing God in both.  The difficulty encountered is in the understanding of the concept of Satan or Devil.

In our present time we have come to understand Satan as the enemy or adversary of God, and this colours our understanding of what is going on in this initial part of Mark’s gospel.  In the time that it was written, and throughout Jewish history, Satan was not seen in that wider, universal sense but more as an individual adversary within each one.  As an example we see Solomon finding peace because he has overcome his own adversary (1 Kings 5.4) and the reading of the Old Testament where we see this understanding emerging time and again.  Indeed, it is the heart of the Book of Job, which is an account of Job coming to an understanding of his own adversary and eventually emerging from it. Even his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar are part of his inner turmoil.  This view was certainly prevalent at the time of Jesus and the writing of the gospels, since Jesus in his healings is seen as attacking the inner adversaries of each individual in a unique and individualistic way.  Being able to see this as a struggle withing the individual, rather than a cosmic battle between good and evil, enables us to begin to consider God’s presence and love within it. Significantly the action of Judas Iscariot can be more easily understood in this way.  A Jewish Zealot very much opposed to the taking of Elijah’s cup as abhorrent, this emerged as the ultimate breaking point in his relationship with Jesus. In a small way these “inner demons” are reflected in our own actions with our own children as they grow up, or with someone for whom we have love.  We might desperately wish to protect them from all the struggles and difficulties which will impinge upon them, but in the end all that we can really do is to support them through it.

This original understanding of devil or Satan makes it somewhat easier to get a handle on the events following the baptism of Jesus. Following this magnificent moment when God refers to Jesus as his son, we immediately then see Jesus in the wilderness.  But it was the manner of Jesus getting there which seems to be more incongruous with our present idea of a universal devil. The varying Bible translations describe this in various ways, from the more recent translations of being led into the desert, to the older and more accurate translation from the original Greek of being driven or thrust into it.  It is hard to see the instigator being God who has just proclaimed or affirmed Jesus, but neither is Jesus likely to be led or seduced by the devil at this life-changing moment.  Much more likely is the concept of the inner struggles and uncertainties within each one of us, and probably within Jesus himself as he is overwhelmed by the task that faces him.

Jesus needed seclusion to sort it out in his own mind, the wilderness was the only place he could find that seclusion after such a dramatic moment. We only have to move on two chapters in Mark’s gospel  to realise that those close to Jesus realised this inner turmoil going on. In Mark 3.31-35 we read of his mother and his brothers coming to try to take him away from this way of life. Sadly, we see this episode being obscured by Jesus’ question of who are his mother and his brothers, which we will no doubt come to in due time.  Sufficient at this time is to try to understand what Jesus is actually going through, now we see the glory but at the time he must have been very conscious of the personal cost of it all.  Would he be able to bear it, would certainly have been his human consideration as he contemplated it.

Unlike the other gospels which embellish the situation by the actual temptations that Jesus faced, Mark is content to simply describe the harshness of the place and the threats that it, and the ultimate decision, place upon him. Mark confines himself to the human Jesus.  The wild animals, the threats awaiting him on every side, are very evident and Mark uses them to define the hostility of the situation in which Jesus finds himself. (see footnote)

What we see emerging is  the increasing realisation of Jesus that he will not face this on his own.  Mark is no doubt mindful of the story of when Elisha and his servant are under siege from their enemies, and Elisha enables the young servant to see that they are not alone but surrounded by the ‘the angel army’ of God, (2 Kings 6).  Jesus emerges from the wilderness and the struggle stronger and ready to face the task ahead of him.  It is an account which is mirrored in our own lives.  Many of us face desperate setbacks and daunting ways forward where it is so much easier to want to hand it over to God to sort it all out for us, or to hide behind the great hope that God will put it all right in the end.  He will, but perhaps it would have been better to play our own part in it, realising that we are never on our own but recognising God is always in the struggle with us – not least in the present world worries and situations, let alone in our individual ones.

Mark gives us a picture of the human Jesus and he doesn’t clutter it with theology or other agenda.  He simply tells us the story of Jesus and from it we can gain so many messages and inspirations for our own lives.  Jesus knew it too, and tried so hard to ensure that the miraculous didn’t get in the way.  The trouble is, then and now, the desire for the easy and the miraculous is so great that we fail to see that miracle exists in every step of creation’s journey, in every aspect of our life.

 Footnote
Throughout the Old Testament it is recognised that our relationship with God has broken down and a sign of its restoration is that creation can live in harmony.  That search for creational harmony emerges in several places starting with Noah and finding places in the words of the Prophets, especially in the words of “the lion will lie down with the lamb”.  Others may well interpret this account of the ‘temptation’ in the light of this suggesting this has already begun in the wilderness where Jesus was able to do just that.

Divine dynamic
from Whispers of Love by Pat Marsh 

Gracious Lord,
when you called me to follow
I little thought
that it would be this painful,
lonely, hard.
Would I have restrained my “yes”
had I but known
where it would lead?
Could I have withheld
acceptance to your call?
I know
That I could not.
No ordinary invitation that,
when you came knocking,
in my dreams,
but rather some divine dynamic
calling into being
the beginnings of my destiny,
Could I have withheld my “yes”?
I know that I could not.             

Prayer

O Lord, in Jesus you took on our humanity,
He was the fullness of your love for us.
The greatest love that there could be,
yet we set it aside so easily
seduced by the glimpses of his divinity.
Help us to see the humanity of Jesus,
the reality of our lives in his.
Help us to see the struggles that he had,
and the joys, in following you.
A pattern for humanity, a pattern for me.
Help me to know his feelings,
and realise that they are my own.
As I try to hide from his struggles,
help me to realise that it is there
He has set a pattern for my journey home.