Saturday, 19 April 2014

Easter Day - The Desire of God

Revelation 21:1-7

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’  Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.  Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.

John 20:1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.  So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’  Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb.  The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Desire for time together

The Church of England has its very own newspaper.  As you can imagine it’s a hot-bed of gossip to rival anything you’ll find in the Sun or the Daily Mail... 

...Well no actually, it’s more like the Guardian than anything.  But on its back pages there is always an interview with someone I’ve rarely heard of, which concludes with the question, ‘Who would you most like to be locked in a church with?’  An odd question really, and a bit churchy.  So I’m going to reframe the question and ask it of you.  If you had the chance to go on an all-expenses paid trip to anywhere in the world for a month long holiday, where would you go, who would you take with you and why would you take them?  Don't go on until you know the answers to those three questions.


Now I guess I’m quite lucky with regards to my family.  My parents have always wanted to spend time with us kids, and indeed they have always put a huge amount of effort into making sure that we still all get family time whenever possible, even though we’re all separated by many miles and they’re in their eighties.  And it’s always been that way.  When we were children and all living at home we would watch as some of our friends at school were given huge Christmas or birthday presents costing far more money than our parents spent on us.  But that was because mum and dad had other plans for that money.  Rather than spending it on 'stuff' that was going to wear out, they were going to spend it on togetherness time, on memories for a lifetime.

And so every year, without fail, we would have a holiday together in Cornwall, and most years that was three weeks rather than two.  Why Cornwall you might ask?  Well although I can get there in less than four hours now, when I was a child living north of London the M4 didn’t start until Slough and it stopped before Taunton.  Year after year we would set off early and it would take us twelve hours to get there with Taunton always a bottleneck.  But it was important that we went that far away because it meant that ICI, the company my dad worked for back then, wouldn’t call him back into the lab if anything went wrong because it would take too long to get him back.

Mum and dad did this because they wanted to spend time with us and for us to spend time with each other.  And that still hasn’t changed.  Although both in their 80's now they will still drive all the way across the country, literally from east of Norwich to the south west of Wales, 360 miles with an overnight stop with us, in order to spend time with family.  Why?  Because to them their family is important and spending time together is right at the top of their list of priorities.  Now the reason I’m telling you this on Easter Sunday is because I had a bit of an epiphany moment two weeks back, and that’s why I chose the reading from Revelation.  That reading comes from the future, from the end of this creation and the beginning of the new one and St. John, the author, is telling us the words he hears directly from God as God describes the future to him.  Ponder this again:
'See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’
Ponder this carefully because I think that the whole of Christianity and everything that surrounds the events of Easter that we celebrate revolve around this, so it is probably the most important thing that we can grapple with, and it's this:  The Creator God, who I believe made everything that there is, seen and unseen, and everything that there will be, wants to spend all of eternity in our presence.  This goes way beyond my parents wanting to take us away on a holiday every year.  This is how the Holy One feels about each one of us, that we are loved so much, and in a far stronger way than our limited humanity can even begin to comprehend, that the Creator of all things, seen and unseen, desires to spend all of eternity, from now until, well it never ends, with us, with you, as in you personally.

Now I find that when Alison goes away on business and leaves me on my own for a few days, I pretty soon tire of my own company, and so I find it beyond all comprehension that this is how God feels about me.  But there it is in black and white in the Revelation to St. John.  God wants to spend all eternity with you.  You’re family to him; we all are.  The love that good parents have for their children, however powerful it is, is merely a dim reflection of the love God has for us, his children.

So spending time together for all eternity has always been God’s plan.  But from the beginning of human consciousness we realised that there was an inevitable gap between humanity and God, with us being created beings and God being the uncreated Creator of unimaginable power.  He’s perfect and we’re, well we’re human.  Think of it like this; Can you imagine trying to build a spaceship that could land on the sun?  The difference between us and God is greater.  That’s why whenever God’s presence appears in the Bible it is masked by a thick cloud.  That cloud is there for the protection of the onlookers.  We could not cope with being in the presence of God in these feeble bodies.  So we have had to face up to the realisation that religions have told us down the ages, that God is someone we can pray to, but with whom we cannot be physically present.  God, however, had other plans.  And so God says to us, ‘You cannot be in my presence unless I remake you, and I have to remake you into something more real and complete, to remake you perfect in the image of my Son.’

This Holy Week has seen gatherings every day and we have thought about a lot of the theology around the cross.  There are lots of different ideas about how it ‘works’, about how Jesus dying and rising from the dead somehow makes it right between us and God.  I’m not going to rehearse any of those here though.  Instead there is actually a very simple message about the cross.  I believe that Jesus was the Son of God, both fully human but also fully divine, and he was misunderstood, reviled by the people in power, beaten, abused and publically executed in the most humiliating way possible, being accused of blasphemy.  What does that all mean?  Well my friend Mark Townsend put it like this
‘It’s God’s way of saying, “Go on, kill me if you like, I won’t stop loving you.”’
And that’s what's at the heart of the Christian faith.  Humanity gets it wrong and kills the Son of God, but out of love he comes back to his disciples, risen from the dead with a new resurrection body, and says, ‘I still love you, even you Peter who denied ever having met me.  I still want to spend all eternity with you, and this new everlasting body that you I have is the forerunner of what you can all receive.’  As Rob Bell puts it:
  ‘There is nothing you can ever do that will make God love you less.’
So yes, we can debate endlessly the different meanings behind the cross, but at the end of the day it comes down to this.  God genuinely wants, out of the love we can’t begin to imagine, to spend all of eternity with you, and the cross and resurrection is his way of making it happen.  All we have to do is say, ‘Yes, I want that too.’

Good Friday - What do we need in order to accomplish what we are called to do?

Over the course of Monday and Tuesday evenings this last week, thirty of us gathered to think about and discuss some of the last things that Jesus said on the cross according to the different Gospel accounts.  One that we did not consider is what John places as the penultimate words Jesus says, ‘I am thirsty.’  I want us to consider firstly what this means and secondly what it means for us.

Many times I’ve said that when we read John we need to read him on two levels.  Firstly he is recording what took place, but beneath that we always have to ask, ‘Why did he record this detail as opposed to another detail?’  One thing you can rely on with John was that every detail was there to explain something. So at face value, why does he record that Jesus was thirsty?  Well it’s pretty obvious.  He’s been beaten to within an inch of his life, kept up all night, forced to carry the cross piece of his own cross, and has been on that cross for several hours in the heat of the day with huge nails pinning him there.  It’s no wonder that he’s thirsty.  At face value, saying that he is thirsty is no huge surprise.  Yet John records it anyway.  Why?

If we pull all of the Gospel accounts together we find that this is not the first time that Jesus has been offered something to drink that afternoon.  Both Mark and Matthew record that just before he was crucified Jesus was offered wine mixed with something else.  Mark says it was mixed with myrrh, which seems unlikely in itself because that was considered a luxury drink.  Matthew said it was mixed with gall which is pretty unpleasant and you can’t imagine anyone would have drunk that.  But when taken together commentators seem to think that both Matthew and Mark recognised that Jesus was offered wine that had in some way been altered, although they disagree over what caused the bitterness.  The most likely explanation was that this first offering of wine was drugged.

Jesus had said no to it as soon as he tasted it and realised it had been tainted.  The aim behind drugging the wine would probably have been to alter the consciousness of the crucified person.  It may have been a poison to make them die more quickly so the soldiers could go home, or perhaps a narcotic of some description.  In any case, when Jesus was first offered this drink he declined it, and we must presume it was so that he could face the coming ordeal in command of himself and without taking an easy way out.

So why then does John record that just before he died, Jesus says that he is thirsty?  And why, now, does he drink when before he didn’t?  Well this time around it wasn’t drugged wine that he was offered, it was a drink called Posca which would have been there because it was a medicinal peasant wine drunk by Roman soldiers.  We might want to ask why the soldiers would let a condemned dying man have some of their wine.  Maybe it was because of the manner of his dying.  Mark and Luke both record how a centurion on duty said things about Jesus after his death that might suggest a kind of admiration for him.  The soldiers were probably used to criminals who would have died cursing and swearing.  Instead we get a picture of Jesus cursing no one, but bearing the pain and the agony and refusing any drugged help.  The sponge that the wine was soaked up in was probably from a Roman soldier’s kit, so again we get the impression that after the way he bore his torment on the cross, the opinions of the soldiers about Jesus may well have been altered.

We also see that John specifies that the sponge was put on a hyssop branch, an interesting detail because the hyssop was associated with sprinkling blood on the door post and lintel at the first Passover, and with sacrifices.  Remember, John puts detail in for a reason.

And then finally we come to asking why Jesus asked for this drink, so close to the end.  I mean what takes place next is that he declares, ‘It is finished’, and then he dies.  So why take a drink?  Isn’t that just a little pointless?  Why not just die?  I want to suggest to you that it was imperative that Jesus was able to make a triumphant declaration.  He wanted to speak out into the universe that, ‘It is finished’, his final words before he died, but he couldn’t because he was parched.

Those coming final words were vital.  They carried a sense of triumphant accomplishment.  They were the words of an artist looking at his creation, or of a builder at the end of a long project, or the words on a receipt meaning, ‘Paid in full’.  They were the words that God said at the end of the first creation.  They were the words from the very end of Psalm 22 - ‘God has done it’...

...and they are the words at the end of the Bible, at the beginning of the new creation, when in Revelation 21 St John describes what he hears from the throne of God.  John writes:

"And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

"And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’  Then he said to me, ‘It is done!

The final words that Jesus says from the cross, ‘It is finished’, are the words that no one else could say, and he had to die in order to be able to say them.  But he was so dry, so thirsty, so parched and exhausted, that in order to be able to say those words he first needed to wet his lips.

So in the final analysis, why did Jesus say, ‘I am thirsty’?  It was because drinking something was a necessary prelude to making his triumphant declaration that he had finished his mission and had confronted death head on.  He needed to drink in order to complete his task.

And that then turns the spotlight on us.  Firstly, how aware are we of what our own mission in life is?  Every one of us, I believe, has a vocation.  We all have something, or a number of somethings, that we are called to do over the course of our life.  Do you know what that is for you yet?  Jesus lived his life purposefully because he knew what the Father had called him to do.  So are we living purposeful lives?  That’s the first question.  If you don’t know what you should do next, pray about it and talk with a trusted friend to help you discern it.  I want to be able to get to the end of my life and say , ‘I did it.  I did what I was asked to do.’    Don’t we all want the same thing?

The second question is, if we know what God is calling us to do, what do we need in order to be able to do it?  Jesus needed to declare that he had done it, that he had completed his mission, but in order to do that he needed to have enough of a voice to make his final declaration.

Do you know what you need to do what God is calling you to do?  And if you do, how are you going about obtaining it?  Jesus needed a drink and he asked for one.  The drink came from a very unlikely source, the soldiers who had crucified him.  When we ask for what we want from God in prayer, we shouldn’t be surprised if God answers our prayers from an unexpected source.

So Jesus knew what his life’s mission was, and to complete it he needed one more thing, something to slake his thirst enough for him to be able to triumphantly declare that it was complete.  Do we know what God is asking us to do?  Have we questioned him about that in prayer, seeking our calling?  And once we know, have we asked God to provide what we need to accomplish what he is asking of us?

Friday, 18 April 2014

Maundy Thursday : Imagine there was no Holy Communion, no St. Paul and no Synoptic Gospels...

I want to play a game of imagination with you.  I want you to imagine that we live in a different world from this one, but not spectacularly different.  This is instead a world where, 2,000 years ago, there was a lower degree of literacy in the Middle East.  This is also a world in which St. Paul had never been converted.

And in this universe, because fewer people could read and write, and because St. Paul never wrote his letters, our New testament looks rather different.  The young man, Mark, had never learned to read and write and so he had never written his Gospel.  That meant that Matthew and Luke didn’t have his Gospel to work from.

Instead the main story of Jesus had been written by John, and Matthew and Luke had written commentaries and letters about John’s Gospel.  How would that have changed things for us in the church today and how would our Sunday services be different? 

Probably the biggest change would be in terms of our sacrament of belonging together.  At the moment we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, instituted on this night.  But John didn’t write about the bread and wine of communion.  The closest he gets to it is when Jesus says, earlier in the Gospel, ‘I am the Bread of Life.’

That suggests, then, that if we met here on a Sunday for a Choral service of the divine sacrament, the most likely scenario in this alternative universe is that at some point, after a lengthy prayer, we would all take our shoes and socks off and wash each other’s feet.

Why?  Because just as Jesus commanded the Apostles to break bread and drink wine in memory of his sacrifice in the synoptic Gospels, so here, in verse 15, Jesus says, ‘For I have set you an example, that you should also do as I have done to you.’

There’s the command, and it’s just as strong as the command to remember him through Holy Communion in the synoptic Gospels.  We could just as easily have had the washing of feet as our weekly sacrament, and it would be as much a part of our worship as the bread and wine are in the real world. 

If this alternative universe were the one in which we lived,  would be anything radically different about us as a church?  Well if I’m honest I think there may be.  You see the taking of bread and wine can become so formulaic that it is possible to divorce ourselves entirely from each other when we do it.

We queue up, kneel down if we still can, have a wafer and a little sip, and go back to our seats.  Sometimes it is a very profound moment, and I have had many of my closest encounters with God in communion.  However it is very personal; it’s about me and God.

But my feeling is that it is also meant to be about communing with God altogether.  When I was in training we would quite often have the bread and the wine started at the front of the chapel, and then passed around so that we would each serve each other.  It became more about receiving together as a community.

Let’s go back to our alternative universe where we have no bread and wine because I want to suggest to you that if we had to wash each other’s feet, then the intimacy of that could potentially make a real change to who we are.  And that’s what a sacrament is about. 
It is an outward and visible sign of an inward grace, but also it makes happen what it symbolises, and that’s why the washing of feet is actually sacramental.  To my mind, even in this real world the washing of feet is as sacramental as receiving the bread and the wine.

Let me explain.
There is a rather lovely tradition in the diocese of St. Albans that we don’t have here.  For many generations, on Easter Monday the young and not so young make a pilgrimage on foot from their churches to the Mother Church, to the Abbey and Cathedral at St. Albans.  I can remember doing it as a young teenager when we would walk the nine miles from Welwyn Garden City.

However, it was all change when I became the Curate at St. Andrew’s in Bedford.  You see that church was actually thirty six miles from St. Albans, and that’s far too far to walk in a day.  So we decided to walk it over two days.  We had our Easter Celebration at nine o clock on Easter Sunday morning, and then the church would send us, a group of about twenty five, on our way straight after the service.

On Sunday we would walk from Bedford to Luton and stay in a Guide Hut.  Then very early on Easter Monday we would emerge rather blearily and set off at about seven am for St. Albans.  If we timed it right we would arrive with about an hour to spare to eat our lunch before going in to join the hundreds and hundreds of other pilgrims for a communion service led by the three bishops.

I can remember arriving back in Bedford on the Monday early evening one year, and my feet were in a terrible state.  The previous year we had actually driven the first ten miles in order to cut the journey down, but that year we walked the whole way, from the door of the church in Bedford to the door of the Mother Church in St. Albans.  That evening I arrived back, tired, and smelly and limping.

Our good friend Suzanne had come to stay with Ali the night I was away and the two of them greeted me with open arms.  I’ve known Suzanne for almost thirty years and in that time she has become a wonderful friend to both Ali and I, and so, whilst Ali cooked for us, Suzanne peeled me out of my walking boots and socks and set about trying to massage some life back into my feet.  She worked tirelessly for a long time, gently rubbing some feeling back in to my feet and the my calf muscles.

She was working on the outside, but I felt so honoured and loved by the depths of her friendship that it did wonders for me on the inside too.  I no longer felt exhausted, just wonderfully warm and tired.  Suzanne did something on the outside that made a real effect on the inside, and that, I believe, is the point about the story.

Now some of you might be thinking, ‘Isn’t it a bit odd that our vicar has a relationship with another woman that is so close that she massages his feet?’  Let me remind you that Jesus wasn’t the first person to wash feet in John’s Gospel.  He, too, had received the tender help to his tired feet of a woman after a long journey, and I would venture that that incident may have been his inspiration.

Remember again how we define a sacrament.  It is the outward and visible sign of an inward grace from God, AND a sacrament effects what it symbolises.  In other words if you do an action on the outside, then it will have an effect on the inside.  Suzanne’s actions of massaging my feet didn’t just bring me relief, it also strengthened the friendship between us.

Now let me make the point I’ve been building up to.  We cannot divorce the servant caring heart of footwashing from the Eucharist.  The same mind should be applied to both.  The care and love I received from Suzanne is exactly the kind of care and love that should be present in us for each other when we come to receive communion together.

In fact if we don’t feel like that for each other, if we would not be willing to massage the life back into the feet of each other, then we are not fit to receive communion together, and that, I think, was the point John was trying to make.

John’s Gospel is a later piece of writing than Mark’s Gospel, so John would have known all about Mark’s account, which may be why he didn’t include it.  I think John was trying to communicate to his readers that when we come to celebrate the last supper together that we should be coming as if we were about to wash each other’s feet.

Or to put it another way, if we do not serve each other, in love and genuine compassion, then our taking of the bread and wine is utterly empty and pointless.

So we’re not going to do any literal footwashing in this service, but I do want you to think about how you treat each other.  Do we take care of each other’s needs?  I know that there are some astonishing acts of kindness taking place amongst us, but such acts shouldn’t be the preserve of the saintly few; they are duty and care of us all. 

That, then, is why foot washing is so important.  When we serve each other with that kind of act of practical loving and friendship, then we grow as the Body of Christ in this place, and we give true meaning to the sacrament of the Eucharist.  If we don’t serve in reality, then the Eucharist will be for us an empty meal.  Amen.

5th Sunday of Lent John 11:1-45 - Death in inevitable, but it's no longer terminal

At last week’s Lent course we affirmed that there are two certainties in life; death and taxes.  I’ll let the accountants deal with taxes, so let’s think about death, what it means, and what meaning it gives to life.  After all, whilst some people might think they can get away with cheating on their taxes, none of us can cheat death, and knowing that might help us consider how we live and treat others.

Now today’s reading is an intriguing one, and perhaps because we know it so well we wonder if there is anything more to learn from it.  Well in researching this I found out a few interesting questions that hang over one verse in particular, and what it says about Jesus.  Now I warn you, we’re going to have to get into a little detail here, but bear with me because it’s important.

Jesus has reached the house and Mary has come out to meet him.  She cries out to him that if he had been there, then her brother would not have died, which I suspect is the sanitised version of what she probably said, caught up in the pain and inherent intensity of the anger surrounding his death.  But it’s verse 33 that raises the questions for us.  Let me read it to you in the New Revised Standard Version.

‘When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.’
Now listen to it in the New International Version
‘When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.’

Which is it, ‘greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved’, or ‘deeply moved in spirit and troubled’?  And why the difference?  The problem is that this is a very difficult verse to translate.  When we read these two translations, the impression they give us is that Jesus is moved by the grief of his friends, and facing his own grief at the loss of his friend.

However, we might want to consider whether that makes much sense.  This is Jesus, who knows he is going to die and knows he is going to be resurrected.  He knows what paradise is about as he’s going to promise it to one of the thieves who will be crucified alongside him.  Why should the death of a friend trouble him in spirit and leave disturbed and deeply moved?

Well it shouldn’t, and that’s the whole point.  This is one of those verses where the English language really struggles to translate the Greek in a succinct and clear way.  Getting it right is important because of what it says about what was really going on here. 

So let’s split the two phrases up.  Firstly it says that he was greatly disturbed in spirit.  The problem is that the one word which those four words try to render actually had strong connotations of anger.  We assume, from the English, that Jesus was being compassionate but that’s not really present in the Greek.  What it actually suggests is that a kind of anger was at the root of his distress.  However, even that isn’t quite clear cut enough, obviously since if it was, the translators would render the words as simply, ‘Jesus was angry’. 

It’s used in three other places in the New Testament.  In two of them it gives meaning to the stern command of Jesus to those who he had healed not to tell anyone.

The other place it’s used is to describe the feelings of those present at the woman who anointed Jesus at the house of Simon, a sort of righteous indignation.  So taking those translations and the circumstances, ‘disturbed in spirit’ doesn’t really say enough, and to say that Jesus was ‘angry’ goes too far.  It’s somewhere in the middle and the suggestion is perhaps that when Jesus saw Mary and the Jews with her weeping, he felt indignation.

That also ties in better with the second phrase in the sentence, that he was ‘deeply moved’.  It translates literally as ‘he troubled himself’; there is an active form about it.  I suspect that this means that Jesus was indignant that Mary and Martha had been caught up in the ways in which the Jews around them were deeply wailing in ritualistic grief, and were losing sight of the life that Jesus was coming to bring through his ministry.

In fact the whole question is unlocked for us when we discover that when the weeping of Mary and the Jews is described, the language makes it clear it was of the more ritualistic form but when Jesus weeps the word used shows that it is a spontaneous outburst of grief.  And that contrast, I believe, is key to this.  Jesus’s weeping is natural because he feels the loss of his great friend, Lazarus.

But the contrast with the other mourners is that they were professionals who would have come to weep alongside the two sisters in order to help them in their grief.  And that, I believe, is what Jesus was indignant about.  Throughout the Gospels we understand how Jesus was all about life.  In only the previous chapter Jesus said, ‘I have come so that they may have life, and have it in all its fulness’.

Yet what we find here is death.  Many of the Jews, especially those of the Sadducees, didn’t even believe in life beyond death.  We assume that all Jews believed as Jesus did, but that wasn’t the case.  Their focus was on a life heading towards death, with no hope of resurrection, and that kind of attitude, swamping as it did the two sisters with its negative approach, made him extremely indignant as it seemed to soak up the hope they had in him.

So what is the alternative?  What’s this passage able to teach us about life and death as we get older?  It is that we need to change our focus.  Whilst for many of us we are conscious that there are more years behind than there are ahead, what is on the agenda?  Is it a lack of hope?  No, categorically not!

The message of this passage is life, life, life.  We are not heading for death, but, as one of my teachers once called it, we are heading for promotion, from life into real life!  On Easter Sunday we will talk about resurrection in more detail, but the message of this passage is this:  The Jews surrounding Mary could only see flesh, and so they could only see death.

But in Jesus we see the one who brings life, and life in all its fulness.  In this life we can and should work with all of our energies to bring about life for others.  If we are always striving for our own way then we can be killing the possibilities of life for others when we should be setting them free to be who God created them to be. 

And our story doesn’t end here. It goes on and on, through a veil into something beyond all imagination, of life as it should be, as it will one day be.  What a gift.  No wonder Jesus was angry that they’d missed it. 

Death may be inevitable, but isn’t terminal, and whilst we are on this plane, we should live as people who know there is more to give and more to come.

Mothers in the Bible - Not what you'd expect!

Colossians 3:12-17
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.  And be thankful. Let the word of Christ  dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Luke 2:33-35
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.  Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

What does motherhood look like in the Christian faith? 
Well I have to be honest with you and say that rather an awful lot of our teachings are actually focussed far more on men.  Most of our holy writings seem to have been written in patriarchal societies where men were at the centre, and I think this really can be a problem for us.

Many of my friends in other religions think not of God but of Goddess, as one who expresses herself as maiden, mother and crone.  On the surface those beliefs are far more engaging for today’s women because at face value they offer a picture of divinity that is far more in tune with where women are at.

So in modern Britain I believe that many mothers feel that Christianity doesn’t offer them a voice or a recognition, particularly given the ways issues surrounding women in leadership have been handled.  And in fact I believe that it even comes over in the readings that were chosen for today.  Now I hasten to add, we don’t usually choose the readings we have on a Sunday; they are actually from something called the revised common lectionary.

That therefore means that somewhere there was a committee that decided that on Mothering Sunday we should have these readings.  Now to me that implies a belief that this committee felt that what is expressed in the new testament reading is an expression of behaviour that should be in tune with motherhood.  So what do we find? 

St Paul offers us compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  To those virtues are added love, harmony, gratitude, forgiveness etc.

And there is nothing wrong with this list; these are all laudable qualities.  My issue with it is that by using this reading today where our focus is consciously on motherhood, there is an implied assertion that this is how women should be.  But so many of those qualities seem to be tied to that word meekness, and I think this is where the church, not the Christian faith, but the church has got it wrong.

This, then, is what I want to speak about today.  You may have felt it implied that all of the beliefs of Christianity, and its parent religion, Judaism, were about the dominance of men because God is masculine, and that women’s role models are all subservient, somehow being lesser than men.  And that is simply not true.  The role of mothers in the Bible is never taken for granted.

Now we do have to be honest with ourselves and recognise that the Bible, which was largely if not completely written by men, therefore focusses strongly on men.  But strong women are there too, and I want to just give you a few small portraits of what motherhood is really like in God’s eyes.  So join me for a brief whistle-stop tour.  I hasten to add that I am speaking more about motherhood than womanhood here because motherhood is the subject of the day.

So first of all, who’s heard of Jochebed?  That’s not a name you hear terribly often but she was actually the mother of Moses. 
When Moses was born into Egyptian slavery it was at a time when all Hebrew boys were being slaughtered by a paranoid Pharoah.  To save Moses she prayerfully put him into a basket made of reeds which she had waterproofed with tar, and placed him amongst the reeds on the river Nile near where Pharoah’s daughter was bathing. 

One of the woman’s servants saw the basket and took it to her.  Meanwhile Moses’s older sister, Miriam, was watching from nearby.  When she saw what was happening she went up to Pharoah’s daughter to ask if she needed a Hebrew woman as a nurse to feed the child.  When Pharoah’s daughter agreed, Miriam ran to get her mother, who was Moses’s real mother, Jochebed, and took her to Pharoah’s daughter.

Her faith in God, the courage of her daughter Miriam, and her desire for her son’s life in the midst of desperation led to an outcome no one would ever have predicted, with Moses going on to be a key figure in the life of the Israelite people.  But without Jochebed’s courage and faith, there would have been no Moses.  You could think of her as a woman who, in the face of dire circumstances, had the faith to give her son up for adoption in the only way open to her.

How about Eve?  Now Eve gets a bad press because she is supposed to be the one who allowed herself to be tempted and then tempted Adam.  But that’s not the whole story.  Those of you who have never had good relationships with your own mothers can find in Eve a role model, because according to Hebrew mythology she was the first woman, so she had no mother to go to for advice.

She also had to cope with the horror of having one of her sons murder the other, and the consequent pain of being the first woman in the Bible to have to bury one of her children.  Eve is a model for women who have few familial supports and yet still manages to have children, cope with tragedy, and bring them up.  She went on to have another son, Seth, who is in the lineage of Jesus according to Luke.  So Eve was a mother without a mother who rose above her circumstances to bring up her children and produce a son whose lineage led to Jesus.

Bathsheba is another mum who’s probably not at the top of your list of good examples of motherhood.  She was the object of King David’s lust and committed adultery with him, although given that he was the king in a patriarchal society it’s unlikely she had much choice in the matter.  After David connived to have her husband killed and she lost her first child, she went on to become David’s wife.

Together they conceived a son called Solomon, a boy who was rich in wisdom, and although he was not next in line to the throne, Bathsheba was instrumental in ensuring that he became King after David’s death, and he was known as Israel’s wisest king who ruled in peace.  Bathsheba is an example for how a second marriage may not get off to the best of starts, having begun in adultery, yet can bear fruit of love and wisdom.  Bathsheba reminds us that motherhood can be very messy, yet still be blessed by the God who forgives.

And of course, if we’re considering mothers in the Bible, we cannot and should not avoid Mary the mother of Jesus.  But once again the church has often adopted a different picture of her from the one the Bible tells. 
Firstly she was pregnant before she was married.  Nowadays well-to-do people tut-tut at young girls who fall pregnant whilst still teenagers, but Mary was probably only thirteen or fourteen.

More or less as soon as she discovered she was pregnant, realising her life was in danger because she could have been stoned for being an unmarried mother, she left her home town and travelled up into the hill country to stay with her cousin, Elizabeth.

After Jesus was born we get today’s encounter where not only is she told some scary things about her newborn son, but also that great heartbreak is going to come her way because of him.  Yet still Mary struggles on through all of this.  She is an example of how motherhood can triumph in the face of adversity.  We know that she went on to have other children too since they are mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, and Jesus’s younger brother, James, eventually led the church in Jerusalem.

One of my favourite stories of Mary is at the wedding in Cana where she, Jesus, and his disciples are guests.  The wine has run out and Mary tells Jesus.  Jesus’s response is to say, ‘What is that to you and to me?’  So Mary effectively bypasses him, knowing that he the wherewithal to make this right, and tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them.

Mary effectively backs Jesus into a corner, leaving him no choice but to do a miracle.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, effectively strongarms the Son of God! 

The Bible is littered with stories like these, if only we spent time looking for them.  We have a very safe, middle class imagination of what Christian motherhood should look like, but God tells us another story, of strong women who had to cope with difficult children, tragedy, marriages that got off on the wrong footing, and pregnancy outside marriage.

And each mother somehow copes against the odds.  Why?  Because of resolute strength, that in the face of hardship they would keep going.  And where does that strength come from?  It comes from being created in the image of God.  We usually think of God has Fatherly, but the Bible is also littered with Motherly attributes.

If we want to know what God is like, then we should remember that we are created in God’s image, and in the best parts of our natures, there we see a mirror of God’s likeness.  So they may seem like unlikely role models, but these women, in their strength and resolve, tell us something about God, and it’s this: God is on the side of God’s children.

Like a mother who will go to the ends of her means, and then beyond, so God who is both Mother and Father, will fight by your side to bring about the best possible outcome for you in any given circumstance.  God is the one who gave birth to you, so may the resolution of Jochebed, Eve, Bathsheba, and Mary be your inspiration and blessing in your motherhood, as models of God our Mother.

Second Sunday of Lent: Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3

I think I was about eleven when I said to my Dad, ‘I suppose that after all these years as a scientist, there’s probably nothing much new in your field for you to discover.’  There was a pause, and then he said to me, ‘If a day goes past without me learning something new, then I consider that to be a wasted day.’

It’s funny how these things stick in your mind, but that statement has stayed with me ever since.  As you can probably imagine, the journey over the last few years into understanding some of the more mystical spiritual paths has been an intriguing one.  At the forefront of this has been a journey into a new way of seeing the world around me.

Coming from a scientific background my tendency has been to think in rationalist and literalist ways, and I have had to come to terms with people who speak in far more symbolic terms.  And of course the most intriguing part of this for me is to arrive in this place, only to discover that Jesus was there all along waiting for me.

And we have a wonderful example of this in the Gospel reading today.  Jesus speaks to Nicodemus in symbolic terms, ‘You must be born again’, and Nicodemus seems to become ever more frustrated as he responds in literalist terms, asking, ‘How can a person be born again? How can they get back into their mother’s wombs?’

I think that the author, John, intends that we see this difference in understanding by the way he refers to Nicodemus as coming to Jesus by night, suggesting that his rationalist interpretation of reality is getting in the way of him seeing the light.  So let’s have a look at the encounter and see how Jesus uses symbolic language to convey some deep truths.

If we were to turn back a few verses, to end of the previous chapter, we would find where this story really begins.  It was the Passover festival and Jesus had been in Jerusalem.  His ministry had been accompanied by many signs and people where beginning to believe in him on the basis of what they had seen.  However, Jesus would not entrust himself to them.

Then we meet Nicodemus the rationalist who says, ‘We have seen the things that you are doing and so we know you must be a teacher who has come from God.’  In other words, ‘I’ve been watching what you’re doing and weighing the evidence in my mind.  If you do all these things which are beyond what a normal person can do, then you must be a teacher from God’.

Can you see what he’s done?  He’s been quite scientific about it.  He’s weighed the evidence and come to a conclusion.  Sure of his facts he has told Jesus who he thinks he is.  The trouble is, because he is a literalist he’s not seeing all the evidence, and so his conclusions are wrong.  He has stayed in world terms and decided Jesus must be a human teacher whom God has sent.  And so Jesus gently begins to show him why he’s got it wrong.

The first thing Jesus does is to use one of three phrases with double meanings, opening Nicodemus to the world of symbol.  He tells him that he must be born again, a phrase guaranteed to strike fear into most Anglicans because of the associations it gives us to those who insist on calling themselves, ‘Born again Christians’, as if there were some other, lesser kind of believer.

But this phrase, born again, can equally well be translated as ‘Born from above’.  It actually makes more sense if we use that as our primary reading because clearly if we, who are born from below are also born from above, then we must obviously need to be born again. 

Jesus then explains that, although Nicodemus is clearly a religious leader, his religion is very rationalist, very worldly.  Flesh gives birth to flesh, but Spirit gives birth to Spirit, and so his thinking is precisely that, thinking.  He is unable to get past his head knowledge of what Jesus must be about.  He can only see with physical eyes and Jesus is explaining to him that he needs to see with spiritual eyes.

Jesus then explains about the wind blowing where it wills, and we cannot tell where it is coming from and where it is going, and so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit, except here is another of those double meanings: The word for wind and the word for spirit are identical, and so Jesus could be referring to the Spirit blows where it wills, and he could also be talking about those who are born of the wind.

It’s a lovely use of symbol upon symbol which tells us something about the people of God and the Holy Spirit because it has a vulnerability to it.  It tells us that believers are people who are perhaps like leaves on the wind, or as the twelfth century mystic, Hildegaard of Bingen, put it, as feathers on the breath of God.

Nicodemus had probably forgotten more about religion than most of us will ever even know, yet that knowledge didn’t help him because he was looking at it all wrong, and to underline it, we have the third double meaning, that the Son of Man should be ‘Lifted up’, a word which also means, ‘Lifted up on a cross’, in other words that paradoxically that which the world’s eyes sees as humiliation will be, through the eyes of the Spirit, the ultimate victory.

And this is where I, if I am not careful, will come unstuck.  My tendency in sermons is to try and explain things, but if I’m not careful I will follow Nicodemus.  Instead I think it’s important that we recognise the double meanings and see the symbolism, that we should be born from above in order to be born again, that we are to be children of the wind and Spirit, and that Jesus’s humiliation was his greatest victory.

And then we need to recognise that we are going to be puzzled by these things.  How is it that we can be born from above?  How are we to be children of the Spirit?  How can humiliation become victory?  I cannot explain those things, I can only say that it is as we experience the living presence of the Holy Spirit that these mysteries somehow begin to make sense, and our beliefs begin the long journey from head to heart.

It is only in prayer and meditation that we touch the Divine and experience the truth for ourselves.  A rationalistic and literalistic account of spirituality is never going to take us deep into the depths of the reality of God.  Jesus knew this and so he used story and symbol so much of the time because these elements require prayerful reflection rather than a textbook of knowledge.

Might I suggest that for some of us we need to look on Lent as a season of giving up a reliance on the literal, and instead begin to engage with, and be enriched by, the symbolic.

The First Sunday of Lent Matt 4:1-11

As we begin Lent it comes as no surprise to find that the first Gospel reading of the season is the temptation of Jesus by the devil in the wilderness.  As we consider this, we might also recall these words from Hebrews 4:15, ‘For we don’t have a High Priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin’.

I suspect that the writer of the letter to the Hebrews knew about the temptations Jesus went through and wanted us to acknowledge that we can take solace that when we are tempted, Jesus knows what it feels like because he has been tempted too.  The problem with that theory is that I find myself wondering just what exactly it is about Jesus’s temptations that bears any resemblance to what I am tempted to?

In this passage we see Jesus tempted to make bread out of stones; throw himself off a tall building so that the angels would catch him, and then worship the devil so that he can become the king of the world.  Is that your experience of temptation, because it isn’t mine.  What help is that for the woman whose husband has become distant when she is being chatted up by a friendly and warm man?

How does that help the self-employed person who discovers they could do a little work on the side for cash to avoid tax, or the student who realises that they can download work off the internet and pass it off as their own?  Is there actually anything about the temptations that Jesus went through that have any bearing whatsoever on our own lives?

I think the answer is yes, this story is most definitely applicable to us, but not perhaps in the way we might think.  It’s rather deeper than simply that Jesus understands because he’s been through it too.  I think it’s there to tell us something very important about Jesus and about the New Covenant that God makes with humanity. 

Now a covenant is a promise between two parties that has terms and conditions attached.  In the Old Covenant God promised his people that he would be their God and protect them; that was God’s side of the covenant.  In exchange God’s people would keep their terms which were essentially to keep the commandments.  Much of the rest of the Old Testament is about how they failed to do that.

Specifically we have the example of Israel wandering in the wilderness for forty years during which they succumb to temptation and break the commandments, and doubt God.  In short they were unable to keep the ten commandments, and so they were unable to keep their side of the covenant.

And so God sends Jesus, but there is something truly unique about Jesus.  I had a conversation with some friends a couple of nights back about why I believe in the virgin birth.  The reason is basically this, that it is necessary that Jesus was conceived by God and a woman so that his nature would be both divine and human.  This is vital for the new covenant and to understanding what this journey into the wilderness really means.

So when Jesus comes to us he comes as a representative of God the Father to offer again a holy covenant, that God promises to be our God and to offer us resurrection life.  That is the divine side of the New Covenant.  The human side is pretty much as it has always been, that we keep God’s commandments, which are summarised by Jesus into Love God and love your neighbour.

This is all well and good except on the face of it, nothing has changed.  We know that in our heart of hearts we’re still not able to keep these commandments.  We want to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength.  But we keep being distracted by pretty shiny things.

And we want to love our neighbour as ourselves, but sometimes they can be so annoying that despite our best intentions, we don’t and we can’t.  So we’re still not able to keep God’s commandments.  What, then, has been changed by Jesus? 

Well it is simply this, that Jesus comes from God as God’s representative because he is divine, but he also comes from Mary as our human representative because he is one of us as well.   This is why the virgin birth is important.  And where we fail to keep the commandments, Jesus succeeds, and this is exactly what we see when he faces the temptations in the wilderness.

Jesus is in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights.  The intention of Matthew is that we equate that period with the forty years that Israel spent in the wilderness.  The key difference is that where they failed to keep God’s commandments, Jesus succeeds.  Jesus defeats the temptations.

And that’s what makes it so important for us.  As humans we fail to do as God commands, but Jesus succeeds.  We often talk about how Christians are ‘in Christ’, and this is what it means; that even though we fail to keep the commandments, in Christ we succeed because he represents us and he has managed to do what we cannot do.  He triumphs in keeping the commandments where we fail.

So when we come back to the specific temptations, what we find is that on each occasion Jesus is simply being tempted to compromise, to not put God first, and that’s something we can all identify with.  Jesus is hungry so the devil tempts him to do a self-serving miracle, but Jesus quotes scripture at him that it is God’s word that fills him.  No compromises.

Then the devil tempts him to do eye catching miracles that draw attention to himself, but again Jesus won’t compromise, and over and over again in the scriptures we see how Jesus tells the recipients of miraculous healings not to tell anyone.

Thirdly he is tempted to worship the devil, not instead of God but as well as.  In other words, to compromise, and again Jesus says no; no compromises.  God first.  Always.

We, on the other hand, we do compromise.  We do get things wrong.  We do put ourselves first.  Despite our best intentions we break the commandments over and over again.  And God forgives us because when he looks at us who are in Christ, what he sees is Christ succeeding where we have failed.

I think, therefore, that as we start our journey through Lent, we should be beginning from the perspective of gratitude.  We live under God’s grace and forgiveness because Jesus speaks for us.  He beat temptation on our behalf, so when we fail, and we do, we can be forgiven because Jesus did not fail.