Sunday, 12 April 2015

The Second Sunday of Easter : Fear, Courage and Peace


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.

 I wonder how we would feel in the face of inescapable peril. I'm reading a science fiction book at the moment about a group of people stranded on a planet which is doomed to destruction. The solar system in which it resides has an interloper, a gas giant planet like Jupiter that was a simple wanderer, no longer bound to an orbit around any particular star. Science has caught up once again with fiction and confirmed that there are indeed free ranging planets like this, ejected by gravity from their own star systems and wandering across the vast depths of the galaxy until they fall into the gravitational well of another star, at which point such planets are drawn in. If they are travelling at sufficient speed they just barrel on through. But if there is a planet in the way they can disturb its orbit catastrophically.

In this novel the situation is, of course, worse even than that. The interloper is on a direct collision course with the planet being explored and the explorers have no way of getting off the planet due to their own landing craft being damaged. As the pages turn so the story unfolds of a race against time to try and fix their damaged spaceship in order to be able to get clear of the planet before its inevitable destruction. The author ramps up tension by the change in the night sky.  As each new night falls, so the wandering planet becomes first a bright point, then a brighter blue point, then a small just-discernible disc, then a larger disc, and all the while the planet on which they are trapped begins to suffer earthquakes and violent weather changes as the gravitation of the approaching gas giant begins to affect the crust of their own doomed world.

As I read this, so I began to wonder how we would respond to this situation. In the novel there are only six explorers and they have a damaged space craft. It's obvious that at least some of them will survive. But what if it were our world, with its billions upon billions of residents of all species?  How would you respond to the news that death was absolutely and utterly unavoidable; not just your death but the death of all things and the ultimate destruction of our world with no hope of anything being rescued? As I read the book I considered the sense of hopelessness that would prevail and I wondered how humans would respond.  Perhaps there would be dreadful lawlessness. Perhaps governments would offer people the means to take their own lives painlessly rather than face to final moments of planetary destruction. I'm sure that in the midst of it there would be many people saying, 'Do not be afraid. You must have courage.' That is our natural assumption because it is the kind of thing we say in any difficult situation, that the opposite of fear is courage.

Courage is something we try and instil into our children from an early age in order to help them overcome their natural fears as they explore a world that is new to them. But what if courage isn't the way to defeat fear? What if there's something else deeper than courage?

When we look at the Gospel reading we find something which is more powerful than courage. We discover that the opposite of fear is not courage, it's peace. Think about the predicament of the disciples for a moment. The Gospel reading begins on Sunday evening, resurrection day, only the disciples don't yet know that it's happened. Instead they are in the upper room and they have locked all of the doors for fear of the Jewish authorities.  We might wonder why they are afraid, after all Jesus is dead. Upset and in mourning perhaps, but why afraid?

It's because the general model for the way troublemakers are dealt with is by arresting and punishing or killing the ring leader, and then finding all of his followers and dealing with them in the same way. The disciples genuinely felt that they were in peril.  So they were locked away in the hope that no one would come and find them. How on earth were they going to get out of Jerusalem without being seen? The gates would have had watchmen on them, and they would have presumed that they were wanted men.

Death seemed inevitable. 

But then Jesus comes and stands amongst them in the middle of a locked room, and what does he say into their fearful states of mind? He doesn't say the Aramaic equivalent of 'Chin-up!' He doesn't say, 'Come on, pull your act together.' He doesn't say, 'Have courage.' Instead he says, 'Peace be with you.' Why? Because the opposite of fear is not courage, it's peace.

The word, 'Peace' comes up over and over again in scripture with the intent of God seeming to be to bring peace to all people. So what does peace mean to you? It seems to depend on who you ask. If you look in various dictionaries you find that it means a time with no war. But do you really have peace when there's no war? That kind of peace is not a lasting peace or even a deep one.

If a nation is not fighting a war does that mean that all its subjects are at peace? No. So there must be a deeper meaning for peace. Another deeper meaning I found was 'Harmony in personal relations.' That certainly goes more deeply into us than an absence of war between nations. Now we're thinking of an absence of war between family, friends and colleagues.  That's a much more profound sense of peace. But is it a real peace? How many times have you heard parents talking about 'Keeping the peace' between their children? A peace like that can be transitory. It doesn't take much for a squabble or misunderstanding to flare up. Just because there is a state of peace in relationships doesn't mean it couldn't suddenly break down. The upshot of that is that an external peace like this, though pleasant, doesn't lead to an internal peace. Within us there may still be a tension, a sort of 'How long is this going to last?' state of mind.  

That's why, to me, the third definition of peace makes the most sense. Peace is an internal state of tranquillity or quiet, free from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions.

That is the kind of peace that Jesus is offering them; that's the kind of peace that quells our fears. The question we might like to ask is, what are the grounds for this kind of peace? I think to answer that we have to know what it is that is at the root of all of our fears?

What are the things we are scared of? Is it being bullied, of not having the right thing to say when challenged? Is it the fear of other people finding out what we're really like, or the fear of not achieving something we really want to do? Or is it the ultimate fear, that of death, of final annihilation?

In an atheistic and agnostic world the prevailing wisdom is to have courage and defeat your fears, but the opposite of fear is not courage, it's peace. That's the kind of peace that Christ offers when he arrives in the locked room, the kind of peace that takes away all of our fears.

Personally, I think that at the root of all of our fears is the fear of not having any control over events. The disciples had locked themselves away, effectively locking the world out. The only control remaining to them was a barred door. What control do we fear losing? We work hard for exams so that we can control our employment future.  We work hard at contraception so that we can control the size of our families. We save for the future so that we can control our retirement plans. And the more control we think we have, the greater our fear at the prospect of losing control, and the more bad-tempered we become with people who we think are going to take our control away. But I am not going to tell you to have courage because the opposite of fear is not courage, it's peace. It's peace we should be looking for.  The bottom line is that any control that any of us have is limited, and the pursuit of control has a habit of making us very unpleasant people. How many control freaks do you know who have lots of real deep friendships? But if instead we engage in relationship with Christ and accept that he has plans for us, a direction we can go, a meaning and a purpose for us, then we stop trying to control our own destinies and begin, instead, to look for what he would like us to do. When we do that it brings a great peace with it. The disciples could be at peace because the Lord was with them, and his resurrection had demonstrated that he could control even death. When we try and listen for his ways, his plans, then peace can come with seeing the next stage of our path.

So the next time you find yourself fearful about something, ask yourself why. Is it because you feel you're losing control of a situation? This is where discernment is needed. It may be that you sense someone trying to change things from selfish reasons, and if so you may need to ask for help to hold steady on the course of action.  Or it may be because the Lord is moving you on to a different route, or giving control of that situation to somebody else. Finding peace again is a matter of discerning God's will and being prepared to act. If you need courage it will be given to you, but what you need more is the peace of knowing, as far as it is possible to know, that you are acting according to God's will.

And remember, the opposite of fear is not courage, it's peace.

[Notes:  I wish I could remember where I originally heard this phrase as it has stuck with me and it would be good to credit it for you.  At least I can tell you that the book I refer to is DeepSix by Jack McDevitt]

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Easter cycle of Sermons
Hi all. So sorry it's been so long since I last posted on here. Life has been somewhat intense. Still, finally, here I am, back again with the Easter cycle of sermons, from Maundy Thursday through 'til Easter Sunday. Enjoy.

Maundy Thursday

[Please note that in some of what follows in this first piece I am making a distinction between those who follow Christ and those who deliberately follow an evil path. Whilst I am not a universalist, this is not the place where I am discussing pluralism and other religious faiths and this is not intended as a critique of the beliefs of my friends who hold beliefs different from my own]

Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbour in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it.

This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgements: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

John 13:1-17, 31-35

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.’ For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

To understand these reading in the context of Maundy Thursday we have to hold in tension two parts of the nature of God. The first is the one that Christians are most comfortable with: God is love. Our whole belief system is based around Christ having been sent because God is love. Everything that we remember tonight and tomorrow is founded upon that statement, that God is love. However, if God is love, then surely God could never condemn anyone to hell, whether we mean eternal damnation or final annihilation. Surely, if God is love then everyone will be saved won't they? But actions have consequences. Each time we hear of another rape, another beheading, another murder do you think, “It's OK, they don't really know what they're doing. God will let them off, because God will forgive them”?

I believe that God has revealed Godself as one who forgives where there is repentance, but where there isn't I find my self praying that there will be an actual judgement which has eternal consequences because the one who sets out to hurt others and is not looking for grace and forgiveness should not be able to escape justice. Yet wrath and love make uneasy bedfellows and I am uneasy in saying this. Two people I know attend a church where they have become steadily more disheartened with their vicar because of the way they keep hearing a Gospel of universalism, that God loves everyone and it will all be OK in the end because everyone will get to heaven. I don't share that opinion. Sadly I do not think it's all going to be OK for everyone in the end. I believe in a God of love, but you cannot have love without justice, and the words for 'justice' and 'righteousness' are the same words in the Bible in both testaments, in both Hebrew and Greek. So if we believe in a righteous God of love, then we have no choice but to believe in judgement.

And to be honest it seems to me that a final judgement is what makes ultimate sense of the world; that God will render annihilation on those who have deliberately inflicted evil on others and on the world; on those who, knowing the truth, deliberately mislead people about God's nature.

I believe in a God of love, but if it's real active love rather than fluffy pseudo-religious love, then I must also believe in a God of Judgement.

The above two readings, the instructions given to turn aside God's angel of wrath at the Exodus of the Hebrews from enslavement in Egypt, and the command to love each other with the same self-giving love that Christ exhibited, are the two sides of the one coin – what it is to be the people of God. Yet there is an even deeper message within this as well. If we are going to grasp some of the significance of what took place at the Last Supper then we need to at least try to understand it in the Jewish context. The means we need some background to the Old Testament reading.

The plagues in Egypt are an oft-told story with which we think we are familiar. The story goes that, because of a famine, the people of Israel had gone to Egypt when they were just the families of the twelve sons of Jacob whose name had been changed to 'Israel (which means 'wrestles with God') by God. Due to the actions of their previously rejected younger brother Joseph, who had made his home in Egypt and risen in the ranks of government officials, they had been welcomed into the land initially and had grown to become a small nation in their own right. But gradually, as they increased in numbers, so they became perceived as a threat by the Egyptians, and when a new Pharaoh came to power, the fledgling nation of Israel was enslaved within Egypt. After no short time of crying out to God for help, God sent Moses to ask of Pharaoh that the people be set free. So far so good. But what we often miss is the spiritual significance of the exchanges which took place between the God of Israel and the local deities as perceived by the Egyptians, yet these form a part of the Passover story.

We can understand that plagues were seen as punishment from God on Pharaoh; it's what we were taught at Sunday school and for many that's all we need to know. But actually it goes a little further than that. This was not just about judgement and wrath against humans. Something we often miss in Exodus 12 is where it says in verse 12 that the judgement is also on all the gods of Egypt. What was happening on earth was theologically significant because it was more than just God's wrath; it also signified the utter defeat by the Israelite God on the local deities of Egypt.

A few chapters later in Exodus 18, Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, says, “Blessed be YHWH, who has delivered you from Pharaoh. Now I know that YHWH is greater than all gods, because he delivered the people people from the Egyptians when they dealt arrogantly with them.”

So this judgement, this wrath through the bringing of plagues, is not just on the people. This was spiritually significant because it was an overthrow of the spiritual powers of the nation. This, I believe, is an important backdrop to what took place that first Passover night when the angel of death passed over the Egyptians and killed all of their first-born. It wasn't just the death of the first-born in judgement, it was the overthrowing of the spiritual powers of the Egyptian nation of that time.

Now let's take that understanding through and look at the Gospel reading in which the author, St. John, makes it very clear by the use of his dating of the death of Christ, that we are absolutely and definitely meant to equate this with the Passover. What I mean by that is that John places the death of Christ on a subtly different date to where the other Gospel writers do. Don't worry too much about the history of this, because John will put things at a different date in his Gospel if it makes a point, and that is exactly what he does here. The significance is that, in John's Gospel, Jesus is crucified at the same time in the afternoon as the Passover lambs are being slaughtered in the Temple. There is no questioning that all of the Gospel writers think of Jesus as God's Passover Lamb, hence him being given the title, 'The Lamb of God', but John is trying to underline the point by his placing in time of the death of Christ alongside the slaughter of the Passover lambs.

So if Christ is meant to be our Passover Lamb, which he seems to be clear about by giving us his body and blood in the Eucharist meal, then what might this be saying here? Yes on one hand there is a fairly straightforward interpretation that those who take of this Lord's supper will be 'passed-over' when it comes to the final judgement. There will be a judgement at which God exercises his wrath on those who have lived lives of evil. But for those who follow Christ there need be no fear of death because of the assurance that it is not final. The angel of death passes over the Lord's camp.

But there is something more, something deeply spiritual to be engaged with here. This is not just about the final judgement; this is about here, now, today, just as everything in this cycle of addresses will be.

This is about the sacrifice of the Lord, regardless of how we wish to try and interpret it, defeating the spiritual powers at work in our lives. Now you have to ask yourself, “Do I believe in such powers?” Many of us have had experiences of God, knowing a sense of reassurance, of love, of guidance, of presence or whatever. But El Elyon, God-most-high, is not the only player in the world in which we reside. There are other spiritual influences abroad in our lives. It's not just my reading of scripture that leads me to this conclusion; the stories of others and my own experiences have made it crystal clear to me that there are other spiritual powers at work in the world. Some of them, like some of us, seem benign. They are simply there. But I have been in places where it has felt very clear that my presence there as a Christian was undesirable. I'll save the stories for another time, but they have been enough to strongly suggest that there are malign spiritual presences in the world too and I would like to bet that they try to influence our lives. It's funny how people often ask me whether I pray for protection before I go to a gathering of another religion. The answer is that sometimes I do if I don't know the people I'm going to join with, but I wonder whether the people who ask me about this pray for protection from temptation before they go shopping, an activity which has led many away from anything remotely spiritual.

Please don't think I'm turning into someone who sees demons behind everything evil; far from it. We are quite capable of doing the wrong thing without any input from anyone or anything else. But nevertheless I believe that there are malign evil spiritual influences, and if we look at the world with open eyes it would be hard not to believe this to be the case.

So in that context we see another side to what Jesus accomplishes as God's Passover Lamb. It is not just that we are saved from death. It is not just that we choose Christ now because it means that at the end of our lives we get to enter heaven. No, the first Passover was a sign of God's defeating of the spiritual powers of Egypt, and the death and resurrection of Christ is a sign of God's defeating of the spiritual powers of this world. That means that the Lord's Supper is a celebration of that defeat in the present. That which spiritually influences us need not do so. The death and resurrection of Christ saves us now, here, in this life, from the spiritual influences of those who seek to hurt us spiritually because, as the Lord's Passover Lamb, Jesus defeats the spiritual powers of this world in the same way as the plagues in Egypt revealed God's defeat of the spiritual powers of that land.

So as we eat this communion may we remember that Christ's giving of himself was so that evil could be defeated in our lives now, here, in this life, so that we could instead live through the power of the Holy Spirit who lives within us. The Lord's Passover marks the defeat of evil; may we learn to grasp the spiritual freedom which we are being offered this side of the grave as well as the other side.

Good Friday: Part One

Year after year, theological book after theological book, commentary after commentary, I read and read, determined to try and comprehend, as far as is possible, every aspect of the different beliefs and theologies surrounding the death of Christ. It has never been a hardship to do so as I enjoy trying to understand and to make sense of the world around me. I guess that's the scientist in me, still doing his bit. And so each year at this point of the season, together with the Readers, we try and present different ways of understanding what took place on the cross to take us deeper into what we believe. This year, though, something else has dawned on me; something has broken into my rational, theological musings which I would like to think is the Holy Spirit. And it's very simple:

For God so loved the world that he sent a person, not a theology.

Herein lies the problem. Humans are rational beings, and rationalism is more prized now than ever. We believe that if you do x then y will happen. Light a fire and you get heat. Put your hand too close to the fire and you'll get burnt. I often hear people say, 'Everything happens for a reason.' I don't believe that myself as I think the universe has a strong level of chance and freedom built in, but it shows the default rationalism that we have as humans. So we expect the rains to come, and if they don't, then something must have caused that and, in a time before we had even begun to understand climatology, we assumed that it meant we had angered a god who needed to be appeased. It is this strand of 'appeasement theology' that I don't think has a place in Christian belief.

An example of what I mean is that the Aztecs believed that the rains would only come if sacrifices were made to the god Tlaloc. At the central American Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan, archaeologists have found the remains of forty two children, mostly males aged around six. They were all suffering from natural illnesses such as abscesses or infections that would have made them cry continually. These tears were required by Tlaloc, in order that they would wet the earth. And so the children were sacrificed to him. Action and reaction. We need rain. We depend on our god to bring the rain. He needs the tears of children. If we supply the tears he will convert it into rain and we will all have the crops. It is better that a child dies for the nation than that we all starve for lack of rain.

But God so loved the world that he sent a person, not a theology.

Why am I relating this story? It's because it seems to me that some of the theologies surrounding what took place on Good Friday are far closer to a primitive belief in a tribal deity than they are to a belief in God most High, the One who calls himself 'Loving' and 'Father', and I need to say why that is a problem before describing what I mean about Christ.

There can be nothing more abhorrent than when a parent sacrifices their child to appease an angry god. Yet many believe something closely related to that about the death of Christ; that God sacrificed his own Son for our sakes in order to appease his own anger at our sin? So much theology of the cross feels to me like a system. God hates sin and sin demands judgement which is death. Someone has to die for the sin, so that someone has to be the Son of God, because only then can the anger of God be turned away.

Really? Can't God simply forgive us? For God so loved the world that he sent a person, not a theology.

But is that still what we believe about God? Is he someone who is so angry with us about our sin that his honour has to be satisfied? Is he a capricious God who must be calmed down by blood? You see that's what bothers me so much about the emphases that a number of our theologies of the cross seem to have. The god which they seem to be about feels more like a tribal deity than God most High. I have no problem with believing that God gets angry with us, I just struggle with the idea that he needs someone to die in order for that anger to go away.

This, then, is a litmus test for me about Christian theology. If in some way an aspect of proposed doctrine reduces God to the role of a tribal deity, then it really ought to be sharply questioned.

You see we call God 'Almighty'. We say that God has limitless power. We say that God is all present, all knowing, all understanding, and yet in the same breath we say that God can't forgive us unless someone pays the penalty for our sin. Really? Are we honestly saying that God cannot simply forgive us because we ask him to?

When your children do something wrong and say sorry, do you demand some kind of restitution or do you simply accept the apology and move on? You might require some act of penitence from them, but that is so that they learn not to do it again. The penitence is there to make the child realise just how serious an act it was.

God doesn't need the sacrifice of Jesus' life in order to forgive us. I think it's us that needs it. I think it says more about us than it says about God.

It was indeed a sacrifice, but it was the sacrifice intended to end all sacrifices. God doesn't need sacrifices, humans do. We want A plus B to equal C. We want action and reaction. We want systems that make sense to us, but God wants an end to that, for God so loved the world that he sent a person, not a theology. And so God looks at us and says, 'This must cease. The Torah (Jewish Law) has shown the people that they cannot make themselves good. They make sacrifices to try and cover the ground that cannot be covered. And so I will forgive them when they ask for my forgiveness, and as a sign that they will comprehend I will give them a sacrifice that will end all sacrifices. I will do the ultimate act of penance for them.'

On the night before he died Jesus said, 'This is my body, broken for you. This is my blood shed for you.' When he died, according to John the last thing he said before he gave up his spirit was, 'It is finished'. It's done. It's complete. The perpetual cycle of sacrifices is over.

I believe that God declares, 'After this they will never again need to offer an animal, for there is no offering that they can give which will be greater than the offering that I give, that of the Life of the Universe.'

So if it wasn't restitution, what do I mean by, For God so loved the world that he sent a person, not a theology'?

Part Two
So if the death of Christ, and the manner of his death, was not primarily about dealing with a capricious tribal deity, what was it about? If I'm going to try and explain that then I apologise but I'm going to need to tell you something about me. This is not a confession, but reflecting on my own nature and how I react to situations is a way in which I have begun to understand more of what this is about, and to explain this I need to tell you something of my own story.

Just over nine years ago I found myself at the home of the church's Patron as the interviewing panel asked me questions about who I am and what kind of vicar I would be. At that point in time I had no clear sense of calling to come to this parish, that didn't come until the day after, and I was determined to be honest. And so I explained something to them which I think some people who see me in the pulpit or after church might find strange to hear. I'm very shy. I often pray to God, 'Why didn't you call someone who was an extrovert? Why couldn't you have left me in my little dark laboratory where I only had to deal with a small number of people?'

Please don't get me wrong; I am not for a minute saying that I don't like people. Quite the reverse. I love being with people. It is purely that being with lots of people takes me a long way out of my comfort zone. So when I had a sabbatical study leave in 2012, it shouldn't be a surprise that I spent almost the entire period in isolation in a caravan in some of Britain's most awesome countryside. Yes, I spent time amongst people of other beliefs, but those were just one or two days in each week usually. For the most part it was studying and writing in the midst of woodlands and seashores. It was about an escape back into the comfort zone of being an introvert. And so it was that those first few weeks of coming back into parish ministry were very difficult. I think that some who know me well probably saw that in me as I know I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve.

So why am I telling you this? Well I want you to extrapolate what I've just said about being out of my comfort zone, a story that in one way or another we can all connect to, to what it must have been like for the Son of God. How far out of his comfort zone did he have to come? What must it have been like to have had infinity as your border, to be present to the entire universe, to rejoice in the love of heaven, and then to decide to leave all of that, to be bounded by a thin skin, to be born in blood and water, to be brought up amongst your own people who disowned you, in a nation under occupation?

And yet, whilst we might struggle to leave our comfort zones (I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels like this, Jesus didn't hesitate. The Word of God became physically present to the world, and he engaged with it. He didn't run from it. He was born, had brothers and sisters, learned a trade, had to relearn the rules of the universe he'd moulded, and was simply here, amongst the people he loved. He allowed himself to be captured by those who opposed him. He allowed himself to be questioned by those whom he could easily have answered, could have trampled into the dust with his answers. He permitted them to flog him to within an inch of his life, and finally to nail him to the cross.

And it is at that point that we remember his words: “If anyone wants to be my disciple then they must pick up their cross and follow me.”

God so loved the world that he sent a person, not a theology, and that person, the Son of God, says to those who call themselves his disciples, 'Yes, I know you will need times alone, but you must engage with the world. You must follow me into the world.'

There are many theologies that surround the mystery of what took place on Good Friday through to Easter Sunday. Some of them help us to engage with truth, and some of them seem unhelpful. But at its most basic root, before and beyond all the different theologies, comes the central way in which God the Son engaged with life, right through to rejection, despair and death, revealing the courage of God, the courage that resides within his followers in the Holy Spirit.

This, to me, is a crucial part of the message of Good Friday.

When Jesus says he is the way, the truth and the life, this is how it is worked out in reality, by engagement with the world of which we are a part. The Life of the universe allowed himself to die. No wonder he sweated tears of blood the night before and asked the Father to take this from him. For the Author of Life to be swallowed up in death would have been more fearful than any of us can comprehend. And in this courageous and willing engagement with life we find the heart of what so many of us find so difficult, the willingness to be present in all aspects of life.

Many years ago Alison and I lived in a part of Watford that was a hugely transient and had a multi-cultural population. Opposite our house was a little corner shop run by a young man of Indian descent and his family, and I can remember musing with him one Saturday morning that he would only just get to know someone and they would move away. Back then it seemed to be the kind of place you would first buy a house or rent before you could afford to move to some place that you really wanted to live. But here, in this parish where we live, we find quite the reverse. I have often referred to this parish as arrival villages. Once you get here, unless your job moves, generally you stay. I mean, if your base is in the West Midlands, where else would you want to live? To many people it feels that there are few places that are so desirable.

We're not isolationist, but many people who live here have come here because they want to get away from the city and the smog, and because they have been able to afford to do so. Yet as a church we have to look at Christ on the Cross, the God who engaged fully and completely with every aspect of the world, from the Galilean countryside to the prostitutes of the cities and everyone inbetween, and remember that he says, “Follow me”.

I find that truly difficult and I expect you do too. I want to sit under a tree and ponder; to sit at my desk and write; to listen to the birdsong, to live in isolation on a seashore, and he looks at me from the cross, and then he looks across at all the people he engaged with and says, “Follow me.” I want to sit by the sea, in the comfort of a warm spring breeze, to climb a mountain in the joy of still being able to, and he looks at the way in which living as the Way meant he was always going to be on a collision course with those who made up the religious rules, and he says, “Follow me.”

The death of Christ on the Cross is a radical call to live a life that engages with the world around us rather than fleeing from it, despite what doing so might cost us. That's what Jesus did and it cost him everything and he says, “Follow me”.

For God so loved the world that he sent a person, not a theology.

So what then does the Cross of Christ mean to you? I can tell you all about the different theologies which mean that now we're right with God through Christ, but at the heart of the Gospel is a more simple message, that of the person of Christ engaging with the world whatever the cost, and he tells us that if we are going to be his disciples then we have to as well.

Where someone is sat in their home crying in the loneliness of bereavement; Christ wants us there. Where an addict weeps at her inability to kick the habit; Christ wants us there. In the family party full of laughter and joy; Christ wants us there. Amongst the people who believe things that are radically different from us; Christ wants us there. In the jail cell with the terrorist; Christ wants us there.


Simply because that's where he went, and that's where he goes. Remember back to Palm Sunday and you'll remember the call to be the vehicle through whom Christ is made present. I promise you, half the time you won't have a clue why he wants you there; he just does. That's been a central part of my life as a priest, just being present, with no ulterior motives of trying to get under people's skin so they convert to Christianity. No, it's simply that Christ spent time with people, loving them, because that's what God does, so that's what we should do.

The cross of Christ, in the final analysis, is a deeply uncomfortable call to be a part of the mission of God. The question it places on my heart for me and for us all is simply this: if we are going to call ourselves disciples, then are we going to pick up our own crosses and engage with the world ourselves. Or would we prefer just to have the theology, the understanding?

For God so loved the world that once he had sent his Son, he sent his followers to live in the world as Children of God. Will we follow him into the lives of those around us?

Easter Sunday
Mark 16:1-8
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint [the body of] Jesus. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

The Easter Sunday story is one of everyday life being utterly turned around and changed forever, whilst somehow remaining earthed in the ordinary world. It's about the extraordinary in the ordinary. To explain what I mean, we need to look at Mark's Gospel.

Now it's very rare that we use Mark's account of the Easter Sunday story. It contains none of the extras that we find in the other Gospels. Jesus doesn't even make an actual appearance himself but leaves it to a young man in a white robe, who we usually presume to be an angel, to tell the women what has happened.

In the past I have referred to the Gospel of Mark as the Gospel of failures in the way that all of the 'important' followers of Jesus fail to do what he has asked of them, and the same thing happens here. The women, instead of going to see Peter and the other disciples, flee in terror. Why is it like this? Because that is the ordinary normal response to an extraordinary situation.

Think about it from the women's perspective, and remember that these were real women, not cardboard cut-out super heroes. They were literally putting their lives at risk by going to the grave on the Sunday morning. Rumours had been circulating about Jesus being raised from the dead, so the authorities would have been expecting someone to remove the body and then tell everyone that Jesus had been raised, and the women would have known this. And so as they near the tomb they see that it's already open. As they draw closer there is fear in their hearts and the adrenaline is pumping. Maybe they feared that they were about to be implicated in a crime, the theft of a body to perpetuate a rumour. That is the ordinary normal response to an extraordinary situation.

And then, when they arrive, not only is the body of Jesus missing, but a young man, dressed all in white in a robe, is sitting there and tells them that Jesus has risen from the dead and that they must go and tell the disciples to return to Galilee where he will meet them. But it is all too much, and the women, trapped between the fear of being caught by the authorities and being thought of by the disciples as just mad, simply run away. That is the ordinary normal response to an extraordinary situation.

And at that point the original Gospel of Mark finishes. In fact in the early church they were so upset at where it ended that two further endings were written at a later point to try and draw it to a conclusion. Everything that follows on from Mark 8 verse 8 is an addition to what the writer himself wrote. Don't get me wrong, this isn't remotely questioning the reality of the resurrection; the young man in the white robe made it quite clear that Jesus was raised from the dead. Instead I want to suggest to you that Mark was making a deliberate point by ending the Gospel where he did, and it's this, that through Christ, the extraordinary has broken in to the ordinary.

On Good Friday I spoke about how, once we start thinking deeply about them, many of the different beliefs surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus seem very difficult to understand. The ending of Mark's Gospel almost seems to trade on that. Mark doesn't tell us what to believe. He leaves us, as he leaves the women: disorientated and amazed; fearful and puzzled. That is the ordinary normal response to an extraordinary situation and I want to suggest that actually that is a very proper response to the news of the resurrection. In fact I would go so far as to say that if we haven't been left feeling like that about it, then we haven't ever really thought about it. I mean what is it that Christians proclaim? Simply this, that the Son of God was born as a human, lived, taught and performed miracles and after he was killed for telling the truth, he was raised from the dead. If we have reached the point where we just take that as read, then we may have stopped thinking about it. We need to take a step back into the reality of the Easter message, that Jesus was raised from the dead, simply to allow ourselves to be disorientated and fearful about it. That is the ordinary normal response to an extraordinary situation. And in Christ, the extraordinary has broken into the ordinary.

This disorientation was the response that Jesus received throughout much of his ministry. He kept changing people's reality. So if we don't sometimes feel that way about it then we ought to question whether we are taking it seriously enough. The trouble is, if we don't take it seriously, if we don't get the reality of the Son of God being executed and then rising from the dead then all we end up with is something puerile.

A certain politician wrote these words for a Christian magazine this week: 'Easter is all about remembering the importance of change, responsibility, and doing the right thing for the good of our children.'

No it isn't.

Easter is about the radical message that the Son of God died and was raised from the dead, and that demands our attention. It's about the extraordinary breaking into the ordinary.

So what does it mean for us? I think we have to think about who the angel is speaking to and what he actually says. In terms of who he's speaking to, it is important that we recognise that it is the women who receive the good news of the resurrection first. Throughout the whole of the ministry of Jesus he has championed the cause of those who are least in the world. So it is significant that it was the women who were the first witnesses, because they were always considered as less important than men in Jewish society, just as they have been in the Church of England for so long. By choosing them to hear the message, the Kingdom of heaven is making a very forcible point about who is really important and who is just self-important. Through Christ the extraordinary is breaking into the ordinary.

Secondly, the message conveyed by the angel is hugely significant to what I'm saying today. He doesn't say, “Go and tell the disciples to meet with you in the temple at midday tomorrow when Jesus will appear to everyone and show his risen self to the whole world.” Instead he tells them to go home; go back to Galilee where it all started, and Jesus will meet you there. Other New Testament writers tell of some of those encounters. But what is significant about this is that Jesus still doesn't go to the seat of power. Despite being resurrected from the dead and having all the power he needs to march up to Pontius Pilate with an appearance that would have overthrown the whole Roman Empire, or going to the High Priest, Caiaphas, or to King Herod, despite all these things the message he sends to his disciples is, “Go home, back to the rural countryside. I'll meet you there, where it all started.”

Jesus isn't going to the power centres. He never has and I don't think he ever will, not in the context of being good news anyway. Instead he meets the disciples at the water's edge, where he first met them, and makes them breakfast (see the end of John's Gospel). And ultimately that is the message for us too. Where are the important places to meet with Jesus? In your kitchen. In your car. In your family. Amongst your friends. Through Christ the extraordinary breaks into the ordinary.

Your context; where you live; the life you live, that's where the risen Lord Jesus meets us. Where it's messy and uncontrolled; where you wish you could live more fruitfully; where old age is taking its toll or where you are too young or the wrong gender or sexuality to be taken seriously. That's where the risen Jesus meets us. Through Christ the extraordinary breaks into the ordinary.

Jesus is in the everyday messiness and confusion of life. Right here; right now, the extraordinary breaking into the ordinary.

This place, this little group of villages and hamlets, he's here too. Your life, your slow to wake up when the alarm goes off, sleepy after lunch, angry when the kids won't go to bed, bemused by your parents choices, frustrated at work or school or college, that's where he is.

So what does that mean for us?

I think it's simply this: we haven't got to go chasing off anywhere else to experience the presence of God. It's right here, Heaven in ordinary life, the presence of Christ in all things. Every aspect of life can be transformed by the resurrection, because through Christ the extraordinary breaks into the ordinary. It's not just about going to heaven; it's not just about so called 'pie in the sky when you die.' Everything in this cycle of Easter addresses has revolved around the same belief, that it is about how ordinary lives can be, and are being, transformed by the extraordinary presence of the risen Christ.

So if you're tired of being ordinary, listen again to the simple words of Christ, 'Follow me.' I promise you, you'll never see ordinary in the same light again.