Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Second Sunday of Easter: King David and Thomas - Positive and Negative - which are we?


Acts 2: 14, 22-32
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them:
‘You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. For David says concerning him,
“I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
moreover, my flesh will live in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One experience corruption.
You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.”
‘Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying,
“He was not abandoned to Hades,
nor did his flesh experience corruption.”
This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.

John 20:19-end
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
But Thomas (who was called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Have you ever noticed how there are some people for whom everything always goes right? And likewise there are others for whom it always seems to go wrong? Even as I say that there are probably some of you sitting there knowing which one you think you are.

Well there have been some interesting experiments done about luck over the last few years by Professor Richard Wiseman. Now personally I don’t believe in luck. I just think life happens to us and we have to try and do the best we can with what comes to us. Not everyone agrees though and there are plenty of people who genuinely feel as if nothing ever goes right for them, and likewise there seem to be those who feel they must be very lucky because they always seem to get what they’re hoping for. These were precisely the kinds of people Wiseman worked with.

What he found is that apparently it’s actually nothing to do with luck, either good or bad. Good or bad luck doesn’t seem to exist. He found that it was all down to the attitude that his subjects brought to their lives. Some people saw opportunities and others didn’t. Or for a more extreme example, someone who had been shot during a bank raid might think they were lucky because the bullet didn’t kill them and now they have a story to sell! It seems that it all boils down to how we see life.

People who are expecting good things to happen to them see the positive side to what happens to them. The result of that is that their outlook is reinforced and they become quite happy. Their positive natures seem to make the best out of pretty much whatever happens to them. It may look like they have very good luck but the reality is they have the same chances as everyone else. The difference is in their focus. They see good things in their lives, are perhaps grateful for them, and focus their attention on them.

And you can spot them a mile off. We have plenty of them in the parish. Their lives light up other people’s lives because they are content with what they have since it seems good to them. But by contrast there are those who seem to always have bad luck, but once again the experiment suggested that it is not that they have bad luck, just that they don’t see the opportunities; their view of life is different from those who claim to have good luck.

Apparently, so the research went, their outlook on life reinforces their attitude that nothing ever goes right for them and so gradually they slip into a life of being discontented. That in its turn can affect how other people relate to them which may have the tendency to drive people away, thus perpetuating the cycle. But the truth is that there is neither good nor bad luck, there is just life and how we perceive it.

Now you may be wondering what all this has to do with Easter and the resurrection. It is simply this; I think that we have in our two readings a couple of examples of people from each end of this spectrum.

Let’s think first about King David. St. Peter quotes him when he tells of how David wrote, ‘I saw the Lord always before me.’ I saw the Lord always before me, and yet he didn’t actually ‘see’ the Lord; he can’t have, because, as is pretty well attested elsewhere in scripture, you can’t look on God. So think about it for a moment; let me repeat what David said,
“I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
moreover, my flesh will live in hope.”

David looked for God and he saw him; he saw God everywhere and was therefore convinced that God was always with him. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not for a moment suggesting that David’s view of God could all be explained in a laboratory because David viewed himself as a lucky person. But I do think that David was someone whose spirituality and general state of mind meant that he was more able to see the presence of God in life because he was looking for it!

Consequently, because his faith helped him to grasp this, it made him deeply contented and full of hope. He had never seen God, and yet by faith wherever he looked he saw God.

Now let’s contrast that with poor old Thomas. He seems to be at the opposite end of the spectrum. Do you remember the episode when Jesus tells the disciples that they are going to go to Lazarus after he’s died? Thomas’s comment was, ‘Let us go that we might die with him.’ Does that sound like someone who looks for what is positive? Not at all. I get the distinct impression that Thomas would have been a bundle of laughs to have around. Not.

So after the resurrection, all of the other disciples have quite clearly seen Jesus. Thomas is the only one who hasn’t. Have you ever wondered why? When I was talking about women being ordained to the episcopate, to be made bishops, I pointed out that Jesus made his first risen appearance to Mary Magdalene.

What was so important about that was the timing of it. Peter and John had been there moments before, yet Jesus waited until they had gone before he appeared to Mary. In other words there was something quite deliberate and planned about that appearance; it was no accident that Jesus waited for the men to go - he wanted first to appear to Mary, a woman.

Jesus was fully in control of his appearances, and so it seems unlikely to me that he would have appeared to ten disciples accidentally at a moment when Thomas had nipped out to buy some teabags. There would have been a clear reason for it and I suspect that it may have had something to do with Thomas’s attitude and the Lord’s gracious desire to try and open his spiritual eyes to be able to see the presence of God like King David could.

Not only did Thomas not accept the words of his travelling companions for the last three years, but he declared he wouldn’t believe until he saw it for himself. Everyone else had seen Jesus but Thomas would not accept it himself. David said he could see the Lord always before him but Thomas couldn’t make that leap.

So I think Jesus was trying to get Thomas to look at the evidence differently; to see life through different, more open spiritual eyes. By his grace he allowed Thomas literally to see him. Thomas got his own way but only so that Jesus could teach them all, and also us, that there is an even greater blessing to be had from believing even though we haven’t seen Jesus.

So why do we believe? I expect it’s because in some way we have seen something that’s convinced us. Maybe it’s been in the lives of others around us. Maybe it’s been something else, but we’re here because we’ve seen something. But I wonder how much it has made us believe?

You see it’s still all about how we look at the world around us. I know of plenty of scientists with no religious belief who look at the universe around them, and whilst they may feel a sense of awe at its size and complexity, they are not moved to any kind of sense of worship.

But I find, as I’m sure that many of you do, that when I look up at the night sky and begin to contemplate the vast distances I’m looking across, then I’m moved to worship. It’s all down to how we see the world. I actually wrote this sitting by the french windows with my computer on my lap on Easter Sunday evening.

Ali noted that I had a blanket wrapped around my legs because it was getting chilly and asked if I wanted to the doors closed but I didn’t simply because the birdsong was helping me write. They lifted my spirits because their sounds made me feel closer to God.

This, I think, may have been what Jesus was trying to get at. Life is going to throw us a lot of difficulties. That is true for everyone. Sadly there are even other people, particularly those who want to pull others into their misery, who will try and pull us down. But by God’s grace we can still rise above even that. David committed adultery, lost a new born baby son and suffered tragedy through betrayal, even by his older son Absalom. Yet he was able to write, “I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken.”

Yet Thomas couldn’t see the truth of the resurrection even though all his friends testified to it. He couldn’t see properly. So Jesus came to him to open his eyes. He revealed himself fully to Thomas but used that episode to teach us about how we ‘see’.

And this episode was life changing for Thomas. You see once he could really see the truth it changed his life. The grace of Jesus active in his life altered his perspective and the route he was then to take. Now we don’t have scriptural testimony about Thomas after Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, but there are a number of written traditions that agree that Thomas was called to an evangelistic ministry in India.

Many people were converted through him, and because of that he became a threat to the rulers and was consequently martyred sometime around 72AD.

I think Thomas is important because his life revealed a miraculous change from someone who could only see the worst in life to someone who could see God active in his life around him and could therefore learn to live a life that made a real difference.

So what about us. Are we like King David? Are we apt to see God everywhere? Or are we like Thomas used to be? If we are the kind of person who struggles to see God we can take heart. By God’s grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit we can be changed, just as Thomas was changed, so that we can begin to see how God is at work all around us.

Now I don’t know about you but I find that very appealing. As someone who has traditionally fallen towards being a glass half-empty kind of person it comes as a great relief to know that I don’t have to remain like that, and that, by God’s grace, I can begin to see him in all sorts of unexpected places. I need only ask. I, for one, would much rather look at the world through King David’s eyes. Amen.


Sunday, 24 April 2011

Easter Sunday: The cup of humanity


Acts 10:34-43
Gentiles Hear the Good News
Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’

Matthew 28:1-10
The Resurrection of Jesus
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

What kind of things are you afraid of?

How do we conquer those fears?

When I arrived in Tanworth I had a phobia about spiders. Having never lived in the country before I had no idea just how many of God’s little eight legged creatures I would see, nor how many would take up residence in our vicarage.

Now they say that the best way to overcome your fears is to be exposed to them and see that they actually amount to nothing, and that in reality there is nothing to be afraid of. And so slowly, slowly, I have begun to lose my fear of spiders. I still don’t like them, but it’s nothing like it was five years ago. And losing our fear is actually a big part of the message of Easter.

Peter said these words, ‘All the prophets testify about Jesus that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’ Now we know that Jesus rose from the dead. This wasn’t just a story, it was a fact that was testified to by many eyewitnesses. Over the course of forty days, more than 500 people are numbered as having seen him. How many eyewitnesses does it take to get a jury verdict? This. Really. Happened.

Of the eleven remaining disciples, John was the only one to die of old age. All of the others laid down their lives as martyrs for what they believed in. So I might be a little bit afraid of spiders, and many people are scared of dying, but the one thing that these disciples did not fear was death, because they knew it had been conquered. Death is no longer final!

In fact the early Christians had a bit of a reputation amongst the Romans as followers of a religion that believed so fervently that their leader had been raised from the dead that they welcomed death and were unafraid of it. Now you don’t welcome death unless you’re no longer scared of it, and the reason these early Christians weren’t afraid of death was because Jesus had appeared to them after he rose from the dead.

So it’s a fact, testified to by hundreds of eyewitnesses whose lives were changed by it, that Jesus rose from the dead. And what’s more we know that in some way Jesus’s death meant that we could also be forgiven for the things we do wrong and so we can look forward to eternal life too.

Jesus’s resurrection was only the first; believers are all promised the same future. But the question that is often on our lips at this time of year is, how did Jesus’s death accomplish this? What was so special about his death that it meant we no longer need to be afraid of death?

Think of it like this. Think about how good and how perfect God is. This is the one who created everything that we can see and everything that we can’t see. From the fundamental particles being uncovered by the large hadron collider to the galactic sprawl that is our Milky Way, to those things beyond even the Hubble Telescope’s horizon. All of it was created by him.

For 13.7 billion years his hands have ceaselessly held stars together, thrown planets into place, kept hearts beating, joined the bodies of lovers and underpinned the tireless dance of quantum reality. Into this maelstrom of love came humanity, created and evolved to be in the image of God.

At least we were meant to be. But to be like God entails having the freedom to choose and that means that we can choose to love God or do our own thing, and we choose, over and over again, to do our own thing.

And that causes a problem. Instead of being lit with the glory of God, as was God’s intention, we’ve become fragile broken things, with little in common with what we could have become. But more importantly our brokenness means that we cannot stand to be in the presence of God. All those things that we do wrong have made us weak. We’ve become paper-thin.

And therein lies the problem. Being so fragile means we can’t cope with being in the presence of God anymore than you could stand on the surface of the sun. Let me tell you briefly of an experience I had as a teenager in church. Please don’t think having an experience like this makes me special. I think it was for me to share with people at the right time.

So there I was, kneeling down, preparing to go and receive communion when it became as if God himself was stood where the altar was. All that perfection and awesome power, it seemed, was standing only about ten feet in front of me.

And what that meant to me was a sense of real fear. I felt that if I dared to look up, then I would be destroyed because it was simply impossible for me to remain in the presence of such awesome perfection because I had fallen way short of the mark. I think that for just a few brief moments, nearly thirty years ago, God was showing me why his Son had come to us.

You see if God wants us to be in his presence, and we can’t be because of those things we’ve done wrong, then God himself is the only one who can deal with it. There’s nothing we can do to change the situation. And that’s why Jesus came, to take away the things we do. Now there are many ways of trying to understand the cross, but one possibility is to think of it as an exchange.

Imagine a simple plastic wine glass. Let’s say this is our humanity. And into it we can pour all of the things we do wrong that make it impossible to stand in God’s presence. The kind of things it might contain could be:
Our desire for power over others:
Our desire for the trappings of wealth:
Our desire to have it our way, regardless of the needs of others:
Our use of others for our own ends:
Our ability to simply not notice what others need
The wars we wage:
The famines we cause:
The people we hate:

These are the kinds of things that we do which drive a wedge between us and God. And it is as if Jesus said, ‘This is your cup. This is the cup of humanity. If you drink of this cup then you cannot be in God’s presence. So let me drink it for you.’

And so he did. On the cross Jesus drank the cup of humanity and he allowed his own blood to be spilled.

His death was our death. He died like we do, but that’s not the end of it. I said that Jesus’s death was an exchange. You see he drank our cup, the cup of humanity. But in its place he gave us his cup, the cup of salvation, and it’s from that cup that we drink every time we come to communion. As Jesus put it, ‘The cup of the new covenant between God and humanity; the cup in my blood’.

When we drink from this cup and eat of the communion bread it is as if the body and blood of the Son of God become ours. Jesus can stand in the presence of God because he is perfect, and as his followers we have exchanged our imperfection for his perfection. He drank the cup of humanity and gave us the cup of God.

That’s why it’s so special that today we have four of our young people joining us to receive this communion. They know that it doesn’t mean that they’re special or better than their friends. But like the rest of us, they are coming to the knowledge that we need to be included in that exchange. We desire to be in the presence of God, involved in a daily relationship that will go on becoming deeper and more intimate.

Jesus drank our cup and allowed himself to be killed, the end that we all deserve, so that we can drink his cup and live with him in the presence of the Father for all eternity. And this table is open to all. So if you would like to think more about this, or come to be confirmed, then do please speak to me or your own minister. Amen.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Palm Sunday: It's all about conflict


Phil. 2:5-11
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Matt. 21:1-11
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately. This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
‘Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’

One of the greatest shocks for those of us who went to Israel was the sense of division. The city is in four quarters, Christian, Armenian, Muslim and Jewish, but if that wasn’t bad enough even the Christians are divided amongst themselves. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, said to contain both the sites of the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus, should surely be one of the holiest places in existence.

Yet the reality is very different. A number of denominations hold different responsibilities and different shrines within the huge building. What can only be described as a struggle for power has erupted into public brawls on several occasions. It is perhaps significant, as well as shameful, that the keys to the church are held by Muslim families to avoid arguments.

Jerusalem is a symbol of everything possible that can go wrong with worship when it becomes a struggle for power rather than weakness, leading to an endless cycle of conflict, and this comes into focus for us when we look at the events surrounding what we call Palm Sunday because to my mind Palm Sunday is not about peace it’s about conflict.

The question on the lips of the people of Jerusalem was, “Who is this?” but perhaps the deeper question is, “How is his true identity going to affect your life?” Unless we can answer that question ourselves there is little hope that we can follow in his footsteps. So to answer that question we need to look at the clues that Jesus gives us and that Matthew highlights, because that’s where the conflicts start.

Firstly there is the donkey and its colt. If Jesus had been a triumphant leader, a king in the human sense of the word, then he would have entered Jerusalem on a stallion. But to do that would have been tantamount to a declaration of war against Rome in middle eastern symbolism. At the opposite extreme was the belief that if a king came riding on a donkey, well that was a sign that he came in peace.

Jesus doubly underlined that he was coming in peace because not only was he coming on a donkey, but also on a donkey’s foal. Yet that symbolism of peace seems to be in conflict with the behaviour of the Jews greeting him. The palm branches echo the triumphant entry of Simon Maccabeus into Jerusalem during the Maccabean revolt against the Syrian Seleucid empire almost two hundred years earlier.

And the cries of the crowd follow the same theme. Son of David is a title for a king and the word Hosanna literally means ‘Save us now’. Jesus was declaring that he was coming in peace but the crowd were not reading his sign and were instead calling for a king to set them free from the Romans, much as the Maccabees had set them free from the Seleucids.

So right throughout this story there is conflict between the imagery and desire, and indeed passion of the Son of God, and the wishes of the people. But for us what is so challenging is that although Jesus was well aware that he was being misunderstood it seems highly unlikely that the people themselves would have realised how far wide of the mark they were, and that gets me wondering about us and the conflict between where we think we are spiritually and where we actually are.

What are we to make of this challenge, of this conflict? Thirty nine days ago some of you came to receive ashes on your foreheads. Rachel and I administered these with the words, ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return’. But where did those ashes come from? They were the burned remains of Palm Sunday crosses. Once they had been waved in the air. ‘Save us now, Son of David’. Then they had been burned. Ashes in our hands, on our lips and on our heads.

Those ashes remind us that all those words of praise that flow from our lips have to mean something in how we live our lives. If they don’t, we’re just like the people waving the palm branches on the Sunday and crying out praises to the Son of God at the beginning of the week, and yet who are shouting ‘Crucify him!’ by Friday.

So what significance is there for us in this burning of the palm crosses? I believe it to be highly symbolic of our value system. We ascribe value to something, we bless it, yet we still end up burning it; that is the life cycle of our palm crosses. The question that begs of us is, to what do you ascribe value, and is that real value or is it just transient? And more importantly, can you tell the difference?

The crowds ascribed high value to their Messiah for all of six days. A transient Messiah. He didn’t do what they wanted so he had to go. But not all of them felt that way, and following Pentecost many of them returned and became believers when they realised what they had done.

And that is the nub of the matter. I would imagine that following Jesus’s death there would have been a great deal of internal conflict going on in those who had been there on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Have I done the right thing? What if he was what he said he was? What if I got it wrong?

Amidst all of the types conflict, this is the kind of conflict that we actually need. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul and Timothy challenge us about what Christians should be like, that we should be of the same mind as Christ who emptied himself, humbled himself and became obedient to the Father. Palm Sunday should put us into an internal state of conflict: Are we doing that or are we like the worshippers on the road, only assigning transient value to something for as long as it suits us or appears to do what we want?

What’s it going to be, the way of Christ which is the way of humility and putting off ourselves, or getting the transient things we think we want even though they will turn to ashes in our hands?

You see in the final analysis Palm Sunday is all about conflict, but for believers it shouldn’t be the conflict between God and humanity about what kind of Messiah Jesus is. By now we really ought to have figured out that he doesn’t bring power and glory in this life, and if that’s what we want we should go elsewhere and let the rest of us get on with learning how to serve.

No, instead the conflict should be within us, every single day of our lives, about what kind of followers we’re going to be, and whether we’re going to try again today, and tomorrow and the day after that, to lay ourselves down, put our desires to one side and try again to have the mind of Christ. May that conflict rage within you every single day of your life until you are either perfect or in the everlasting hands of God. Amen

Saturday, 9 April 2011

5th Sunday of Lent: Desire and all that holy stuff

Romans 8:6-11

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Verses from John 11
1Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7 Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ 14Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ 23Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ 25Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ 27She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35Jesus began to weep.
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ 40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”
I consider myself to have been truly blessed by God with the gift of my wife. We’ll have been married for twenty two years this year and it amazes me how she continues to look more beautiful to me with each passing year. But beauty has an effect on men doesn’t it, and so it is with me.

When I look at her, and when I am with her, and maybe even more when I am away from her, I desire her, and therein begins the paradox, because at face value St. Paul seems to be indicating that the physical desire I have for my wife is a little bit suspect.

“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” This has been a major problem for the church pretty much throughout our history. We are terribly prudish and seem somehow to have become disapproving of so much of the physicality of humanity.

And in fact writings like this have been used as grounds for strict ascetic practices throughout Christian history. Even now there are still plenty of body-denying practices throughout Christendom and at least two denominations that do not permit men both to marry and serve as priests. What’s more there continues to be strong teaching in some parts that sex with contraception is sinful because sex is meant to be about having children more than having pleasure.

I suspect that for many of us we still harbour guilt from the ways our minds wander, regardless of our age. I have certainly known much older men who have told me that very little changes in their capabilities for desire from when they were young men. And I have spent plenty of time talking to younger people about the guilt they struggle with because of the desire they feel.

But the truth is that I think we are misinterpreting St. Paul here. I think that the distinction we so often make between flesh and spirit is nothing like what he intended, and I’ll come to what I think he did intend in a moment. The truth is, and I genuinely believe this, that the desire I have my wife is at its best a reflection of the desire Christ has for the church, and the same is true of any Christian marriage. The fleshly side of our relationship is actually deeply spiritual.

So when St. Paul says, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace”, how are we to interpret it? I think that the answer to that depends on understanding the concepts of gift and commitment. A moment ago I said that I consider Alison to be a gift from God, but that doesn’t then mean that I have no need to do anything further about that.

Our relationship only grows if we nurture it, and that’s why we’re married rather than simply living together. By being married we have given desire a spiritual home because we are expressing the wish that our relationship should reflect the commitment shown by Christ to his church, which is one of self-giving and self-sacrifice.

Living together just sort of drifts in to commitment, or not, but marriage makes a firm decision that, whatever happens we will be there for each other. Sure we don’t always get that one right! But we are trying to follow that model, and we are accepting day after day that each other is a gift from God to be cared for and loved. We did nothing to earn each other but must do everything to nurture each other. That is what I mean by understanding gift and commitment.

I believe that where those two concepts are held together, then whatever we have will belong in the realm of the spiritual. What then does it mean for something to be of the flesh? Well quite simply it is the reverse of that. Instead of gift and commitment there is grasping and self-interest.

Ask yourself what you want out of life now, and then ask to what lengths you will go to get it. Be honest with yourself because that is the only way to determine whether your desires are spiritual or of the flesh. An extreme example of the way of the flesh being called the way of the spirit might be Mary Tudor who, when Queen of England, was determined to turn England back from reformation. To do so she was willing to execute 283 public religious figures, mostly by burning.

To desire a spiritual outcome might have been thought laudable, but to achieve it by execution shows her desire to have been of the flesh. It was what she wanted, but it was dressed up in spiritual clothes. I wonder how often we do the same thing. If I am honest with you, I constantly have to ask myself of my reasons for any changes that I try and bring to ministry. Is it of the spirit or of the flesh?

I said a moment back that I would talk about how we are to deal with our fleshly side, the desires that make us feel guilty, and I honestly think that we also find the answer to that in the Romans reading. Listen again to the last verse of the reading:
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

This isn’t talking about life after death. St. Paul specifically says that if the Holy Spirit dwells within us then that same Spirit will give life to our mortal bodies. This is about the here and now not ‘pie in the sky when we die’. Our physicality is holy. Those bodies that you haul around aren’t chattels for a soul waiting to escape when you die: You are a living soul, made holy by God.

The Holy Spirit sanctifies your mortal bodies and everything that we feel, and all those desires that cause us difficulties can be made holy when we give them over to God, and they can deeply and positively affect our spiritual journeys. If we can bring discernment about what needs to be changed to God, then God can bring the Holy Spirit to the party who can transform us.

And if you still have doubts about what I’m saying, that God hallows and values our mortal fleshly bodies, then remember this, not only did Jesus come as a human being, but when he raised Lazarus from the dead, he raised him as a mortal. He restored him to this life. Lazarus didn’t receive a get-out-of-jail-free card that meant he immediately passed into immortality. Like us he still had to grow old and die.

You, just as you are, with all your desires and infirmities, have been made holy to God. You are sanctified and indeed you are a temple because the Holy Spirit of God dwells in you. So when this Lenten season of fasting is over, have a party! Enjoy yourself. Dance, drink, laugh, run, walk and enjoy being human. You are created in the image of God, and if that isn’t worth celebrating, I don’t know what is! Amen