Sunday, 27 March 2016

From Passion to Easter: a series.

Passion Sunday to Easter Sunday

There is a sense of completeness that comes with a series of linked sermons, as each one tells a part of the story in the build up to Easter, and so here they are, one after another, beginning with...

Passion Sunday

Philippians 3:4-14

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

John 12:1-8
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

What makes you so passionate that you pursue it for all your worth? When thinking about Passion Sunday, maybe we need to look at passion as we understand it.

When I first met my wife-tobe, I, unsurprisingly, thought she was very attractive. I also decided that she was waaaaay out of my league. She'd come back from a holiday and was looking very tanned whilst I had my usual Arctic-white pasty face. Much as I was attracted to her, never in my wildest dreams did I think she'd see anything in me. We also had a very different outlook on life and she came across as a strong and engaging woman who seemed very comfortable up on stage with nothing but her guitar for company. I, on the other hand, deliberately played a huge drum kit with lots of cymbals and twin bass drums. This had the effect that when I was on stage you could see there was someone behind the kit, but not who it was. I couldn't see the audience and they couldn't see me, which suited me fine. I was also the one who would gravitate to the back of a party where I didn't have to speak to anyone. You see why I thought I wouldn't have a chance.
Alison and I went away to the Greenbelt festival as a part of a small group of people. Now remember that at this time I was a newly graduated scientist who was very engaged in rational arguments. So had you asked me if I believed it was possible to go from attraction to wanting to be married to someone over the course of a couple of days I would have laughed at you. But that's what happened. I went from seeing Alison as a beautiful young woman to realising that, from the depth of my being, she was the one with whom I wanted to spend my life, despite our differences of opinion on so many things at that point. You see this had never happened to me before. I'd had a number of girlfriends and one very serious relationship, but they had all sort of... happened. I had never found myself in a position of wanting to pursue someone who I thought wouldn't be interested in me.

This was new ground.

With shared musical interests as an excuse, we agreed to meet after work one evening. So I dug out the nicest pair of tight jeans I had and a really stylish white shirt and went to the bookshop where she was then working.

As I walked in through the door, she looked up and did a double-take.

That was a classic moment that remains forever etched in my memory because at that point I realised that she had seen me, really noticed me. And so it began. Alison was the first woman that I had ever really and truly pursued with a passion, and within a year of that she was my wife.

But it raises all sorts of questions now. First it makes me wonder what others have pursued with a similar passion. I wonder what you have gone after with all of your heart.

But then it made me wonder...

...Do I pursue God with the same kind of passion?

Is my relationship with Christ so very important that I would do anything for that love?

Our two Bible readings contain the stories of two people who made Christ their passion. And I love the story of Mary of Bethany. But first let me clear up a couple of points. Mary of Bethany was not the same person as Mary Magdalene, and nowhere in the Bible do either of them get portrayed as a prostitute. Now it is true that Luke has a similar account of a so-called 'sinful' woman doing something similar to Jesus, but that was at the start of his ministry and in someone else's house. This account, however, takes place in the house of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, three siblings who lived with one another in Bethany. It also takes place not very long after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, a miracle which set his fate in stone when the Jewish leaders saw what he had done.

The other thing that is probably worth mentioning is that there is some suggestion that Mary, Martha and Lazarus might have been quite well off. First they had a family vault for burial, but secondly because of the financial cost of what Mary did. Now just so you are aware of the value of the perfume, according to the complaints Judas made it was worth 300 denarii. A denarius was a day's wages. So if the average wage now is something around £24,000, then the value of that bottle was perhaps the equivalent of £20,000 worth of perfume. Of course it may well be that Mary had saved up for a long while to buy it. Or perhaps it was a gift given to her. It might have been her life savings that she had used just the previous week after watching what Jesus did for her in raising her brother. But whichever way you look at it, this was hugely expensive perfume.

This was not a cheap gift.

Do we love Christ that much?

Mary knew she owed Jesus everything. He had given her brother back to her, and she would have known that this one action, more than any other, would ensure that Jesus was likely to be pursued by the authorities and probably executed. Jesus had put his life on the line for the sake of her brother and somehow she needed to respond with passion to that. It was in her act of passion, of anointing Christ, that she demonstrated the love she had for him. Mary knew what was coming, and she wanted to show her gratitude to him in an incredible act of love.

Do we have that kind of passion for Christ?

Do we want to have that kind of passion, because it is clearly very costly. But then the more we receive from someone, the more grateful we become. I wonder how aware we are of what Christ has done for us?

St. Paul was. When you look at what is essentially his CV: 'circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless', what we find is a man who, from the perspective of his Jewish faith, had it all. How many of us could say that, with respect to keeping the commandments, we were blameless? Yet everything that he had achieved he counted as rubbish when he compared it to knowing Christ. Even the righteousness he had achieved he counted as worthless compared to the righteousness that was counted to him as a gift from God because he had put his faith in Christ.

Do we ever feel that passionate about anything, let alone about Christ?

Of course some might class this as extremism, but there is a difference between passion and extremism. In extremism you want everyone to follow you and do what you do. In extremism you are willing to enforce your views on others to make them submit to what you believe in.
But in passion it's as if there are no others. You barely notice anyone else because of the focus of your attention on that about which you are passionate. Passionate believers in anything don't care about onlookers, just as Mary didn't care. Being seen isn't a part of passion; it's far more pure than that.

Do we get like that with Christ?

Do we get like that with anything?

There's a frightening verse in the book of Revelation chapter 3 when Jesus is speaking to the rich church of Laodicea. He tells them that he wishes that they were either hot or cold, but because they were lukewarm he would vomit them out of his mouth. Riches, all too often, lead to complacency.

Sadly, that seems to be something we have witnessed here. Since news broke that we were being left a big legacy, giving has plummeted to the point that even the interest earned on the money invested won't close the gap between what it costs to run this church and what its parishioners are giving. We are on the verge of wasting a gift which, if used properly, could make such a difference in the parish. When there is a great need to invest in people, instead we seem to see it as a way of backing off our giving. Is this an indicator of the level of our passion for Christ? Or maybe we're just not aware of the need.

But we do refer to ourselves as being created in the image of God. And we do think of ourselves as having Christ as our brother. So if we want to look at what passion means, then it is his passion to do the will of the Father and to open the gates to heaven which should be our inspiration. It is his passion for his friend Lazarus, whose death had moved him to weep, whose raising to life was going to cost Jesus his own life; that is passion.

The one thing that keeps coming out over and over again in these stories is relationship. My on- going passion for my wife depends on our relationship. Mary's passion for Jesus, St. Paul's willingness to count everything he had achieved as rubbish compared to knowing Christ, these are stories of relationship. It is by being in relationship with Christ that we will find we are driven to passionately live as people of God. If we are not engaged in that relationship; if we are not praying; if we are not knowing and being known, then there will be no spark to ignite passion, there is only habit and duty.

So once again it comes back to the time we spend in the presence of God, recognising the lengths he goes to for us. If we are lukewarm about prayer, if we are lukewarm about worship; if we are lukewarm about being silent in the presence of God, then there will be no passion in our relationship. And if this all sounds scary, and if it sounds like changing your relationship with God could be risky because, being English, we know how passion can upset our carefully controlled world, well you're right, passion is all of those things. But my own experience is that, in those rare times when I actually manage to lay aside all that I want and simply focus on reciprocating the love of God, then I realise I don't care about the effect it could have on my life. Nothing is worth more then him.

Yes, passion can be disorientating because living like that changes us, but it's a good change.

But for now, let us ask ourselves about passion. Let us ask ourselves about how much of an impact on how we live does our relationship with Christ have. And let us seek him with all our heart and be changed. And if you're not sure, then just take a step towards him and see what happens.


(From the meditation given at The Well on Passion Sunday)

I read a wonderful fiction book a few years ago in which a woman described her forty year marriage to a much younger man who was contemplating asking his girlfriend to become his wife. She said something quite simple yet very profound to him: 'I have been married for forty years to four different men, all called Bob.'

Change is a fact of life.

It is going to happen to you. Alison, my wife, married a young scientist who, like she, wanted to be a full-time musician. We were both hard rockers at the time; she with her white electric guitar, white leather jacket and awesome vocal and me with my huge mock-snakeskin covered drum kit with double bass drums. She ended up being a professional harpist married to a vicar. What's more, this vicar, me, started his ministry from a quite rational state of mind; not averse to the ways of the Holy Spirit by any stretch, but nevertheless, a scientist through and through. Throughout my first few years as a minister, if you wanted to look at my sermons you would see an element of the scientific method about the way I would write. But then, as many of you remember, my sister became ill and died.

The vicar that this church called was, within a year of starting, gone.

Gradually a new one emerged with a somewhat changed understanding of the ways of God. That was vicar mark 2. Mark 2 then went on sabbatical and was then called by God into engaging with the otherworldly viewpoint of the British Pagan community, something that the early rational and scientific version would have found very difficult to do.

Change and change again.

Change keeps happening to us. Sometimes we curse it because we would like the status quo to persist. We'd like to not get any older. We'd like our youthful freedom to remain. We'd like to make plans in the absolute certainty that they would come to fruition, and so on. Change just keeps on happening, and most of it, so it seems, is not a matter of our choice.

Yet what if I said that not only is change a part of life, but change is willed by God?

Note this from Isaiah:

Isaiah 43:16-21
Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honour me, the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.

'I am about to do a new thing.' Those are the words for the Old Testament reading for Passion Sunday, an encouragement from God that he is going to accomplish something that has not happened before. We now read this as referring to Christ, but in its original context it was all about the people of Judah in Babylon being brought home from exile.

God does new things. But that does not necessarily mean things that make life better for us.

The western dream is that you meet someone nice, set up home, buy stuff, have a family, buy more stuff, grow old together and enjoy a comfortable retirement into a sedentary and comfortable old age of at least 90 plus, owning lots of 'stuff'. But for God's people we are often called to a different way. And change can be uncomfortable.

Change starts when something to which we have grown accustomed is altered, and in Isaiah God says, “Look, I am doing a new thing”. For a time we struggle with this, trying to integrate it into who we are and finally we make peace with it and learn to live with what has taken place.

The theologian Walter Brueggemann recognised that there are three stages to how we respond to change; Orientation, Disorientation, Reorientation. I wonder where you are with respect to these three at the moment.

Think about the life you currently have. Does it seem stable at the moment? Have you reached an equilibrium? Are you happy with that? Have you reached a place of feeling content that you are doing what God is calling you to do?

Or do you feel like you're in a rut and need to do something different?

Imagine a landscape in front of you. Parts of it are completely flat and level. Might that describe where you are at the moment? Might that be the way of life to which you have become accustomed. Are you happy with that? Do you feel like you are in the place where God has called you and probably doing what you are called to do at this time?

You can see a long hollow in the landscape. What might that mean to you? The bottom of the it might indicate a sense of being stuck in a rut, of desiring a change that never seems to come.

There are also slopes and contours to the land. Some are steeper than others. You may feel that you are in need of a change but not too sure how to go about that. You may be wondering whether God is wanting you to do something new. Or you may be in the middle of a disorientating change right now and not sure how to cope with it; it might feel like you're sliding down a hill and not in control.

And there is a small hill. This could mean a number of different things. Maybe this is a new place, a new orientation, at which you have arrived. The view is good but you notice how easy it is to fall down the sides of that. When you're getting used to a new place it's easy to feel precarious there.

But remember, all new places feel like that initially. Gradually the ground comes up to meet you, and slowly rises above your head until you feel you the 'new place' has become the 'old place'. The hill of a re-orientation can become the plains of an old one.

So where do you feel you are at the moment? And where would you like to be? And what are you planning to do about it?

Palm Sunday

Luke 19:28-40
When Jesus had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’ So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
‘Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!

Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!’
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’

Picture the scene if you will. It's a bright spring day, but Jerusalem is up in the hills and there is still quite a chill in the air, and so, as a crowd makes its way towards the city for the Passover festival everyone still has their cloaks wrapped around them. In the midst of one particular group there is a man who is quite obviously the centre of attention. Another small group of men are walking towards them, having come from a slightly different direction, and they have a borrowed donkey in tow.

Clearly the man at the centre has planned ahead because he wants to make a statement.

And so as they stand on the Mount of Olives, with a superb view across the valley to the walled city opposite, with its colossal temple at the centre, gleaming in the sun, some of the people put their cloaks over the donkey and the man climbs on to it.

As the procession winds its way down the steep hill, others from their group grow so excited at what they are seeing that they throw their precious cloaks on to the ground in front of him. Now remember, these people have walked a long way and camped out over several nights. The cloak was a garment that kept you warm at night as well as by day. To throw it on the ground in front of someone was a clear sign of honouring that person.

The symbolism, to any Jew of that period, was clear and we should take note. Jesus was demonstrating that he was a ruler who had come in peace despite the way the people would treat him. Riding on a donkey was a tradition for Israel's kings.

And so the disciples and the crowd sing their praises to God. It's also worth noting that, whereas the other accounts have the crowd shouting 'Hosanna' which translates as 'Save us', Luke records no such thing. This is typical of Luke, as I've been discovering, because he actually leaves out some of the material that Mark has, despite basing his Gospel on Mark's. That's because Luke has a different understanding of what's taking place, and more about that will follow in the Good Friday address.

So here we are on a Sunday that became known as Palm Sunday because of the exuberance of the crowd, and yet just five days later, Jesus is hanging on a cross. How do you go from the celebration of Palm Sunday to the wreckage of Good Friday? One of the questions that we so often ask about this whole story arc is this:

How could a crowd that was so full of singing praises to God on a Sunday be so ready to shout out 'Crucify' less than a week later?

The answer may be more simple than we often think. They didn't. It's a trick question. I think it's two different crowds. You see Jesus, like all good Jews living in the Middle East, would periodically make the journey to the temple for a festival, but Jesus didn't come from Jerusalem, he came from Nazareth, from the Galilee region up in the north. And the kind of responses we often read from the southerners about 'ignorant fishermen' leads one to conclude that the residents of Jerusalem probably thought of themselves as cultured and the Galileans as ignorant northerners with funny accents.

So the scenario could be a little like this if we were to re-imagine it into our own time and culture. In the Black Country there has been a prophet with his broad Black Country accent. He's been speaking out against injustice and he's been healing people. Then he and his followers walk down, through Birmingham, around Oxford and eventually into the middle of London. As they approach St. Paul's Cathedral they start shouting out about how God has come amongst them, and of course they are all speaking in their broad accents. Meanwhile all the rich, white, well educated middle class Londoners who commute in from Richmond look on bemused. To start with they can barely recognise what the people are saying because of their accents. Then when they do start to figure it out, they just look down their noses at them. 'These ignorant Brummies, what do they know about theology and God?' And in the middle of the crowd there are a bunch of learned Brummie vicars, called the Pharisees, who are saying to the followers of our Black Country Jesus, 'Shhh, stop it. They think we're stupid as it is. They can't even tell a Black Country accent from a Brummie one!You're not making it any easier for us.'

But of course, the crowd takes no notice, and so the Pharisees turn to Jesus, who they know well having verbally and theologically jousted with him for the last three years, and ask him to tell his followers to be quiet, at which point Jesus declares, in his broad Black Country accent, 'I tell you, if they were silent, the very stones would cry out.'

However, over the course of that week it all goes horribly wrong. The Black Country crowd start to see the real danger of the capital city, and when Jesus is arrested, they kind of melt away, like almost all of Jesus' disciples did. They become overwhelmed by a new and louder voice; one which is angry at Jesus and his uncultured ways.

By the end of the week, using trumped up charges and judicial trickery, the rich, wealthy and powerful people have the upper hand.

Talking of which, have you noticed how little the world has changed when it comes to politics?

And so when they shout, 'Crucify!' there is no one left with the courage to sing praise to God any more.

So I wonder, which crowd would we have been in? I wonder, would we have kept our nerve? When someone says to you, 'Are you a Christian?' how do you respond? When the going becomes difficult, who will still cry out, 'Praise God'? When people poke fun at us, will we still remember all that Christ has done in us, the ways we have been changed by the Holy Spirit to become better people than we were?

So don't be intimidated by what others think. Don't be intimidated when they say, 'Your beliefs are rubbish.' Don't be intimidated if, because you are a Christian your politics change because you know that Jesus always had a heart for the poor and the disabled. People will mock us.

I think, therefore, that the tale of two crowds spread across this week, is a reminder to us that there are going to be times when we are going to have to make a choice. There are going to be times when, even though we may be embarrassed by our fellow Christians and what they say and do, we need to be ready to say, 'You can mock all you want. You can take the mickey out of me for what I believe, but it changes nothing. Christ is still my Lord.' Jesus tells the Pharisees that even if he does tell them to shut up, even the stones will shout out praise.

That's as may be, but wouldn't it be better if it were our voices?

Good Friday

Let me describe the vicarage garden to you. As I write this I can see at least three large self-seeded ash trees that weren't here when we arrived. There's a copper beech which is just coming into leaf and blossom, several apple trees, one of which has forgotten how to bear fruit so now has a nesting box instead, and there's a very wild patch towards the end which is also host to a growing willow arch. In front of the glass sliding door there is a large bird feeder on which up to a dozen birds can be seen at any one time although at the moment there are only three, and about four meters to one side there is an old birdbath being frequented by a robin.

All of this is true. I could go on to tell you that the grass needs mowing and the weeds need weeding and that I've just seen a nut hatch bully two long tailed tits, but that they're persistently returning.

But now, let me describe the vicarage garden for you.

I fling wide the sliding door and step outside, wishing that my feet were bare on the damp green grass. As the door opens the air space I occupy is filled with birdsong. My senses are almost overwhelmed by the sights and sounds and smells. As the birds sing, so the bright spring sun warms the chilled March air. And my spirit soars as a sense of joy fills the core of my being. I feel the cares of the day fall from my shoulders and my spirit gives thanks to the Spirit within me for calling me to such a beautiful place.

Same garden.

What I began with was factually correct, but the second telling was a description of what the garden means to me. And this is how it is with theology and belief. I can, and will, tell you what it means, in so far as I am able, but I can also tell you what it means to me, what my experience has been. Both are important, but only one has the power to challenge us.

So let's remind ourselves about what Christians believe about the death of Christ.

Our theology, at face value, is very simple. God is utterly perfect; glorious beyond our comprehension. The Creator of all things, and this is a big universe, is more powerful than we can even begin to comprehend. Yet this Creator is also big enough to want relationships with each tiny member of his creation (and yes, note I didn't just say 'human'...) But there is a major difficulty with this. Exposure to God, in all of God's perfection, would utterly destroy us because we are a long way from perfect. Each of us knows how, on a daily basis, we screw things up; we do the things we shouldn't do or we don't do the things we should do. This is what we call sin; the human propensity to screw things up. And so any relationship between us in our sinful state and God in his perfect state is impossible. The writers of the New Testament are then explicit, that Christ died to save us from our sins; that in some way his death and resurrection reconciled us to God. The technical word for this is 'atonement' which is a compound word, 'at-one-ment', that through the death of Christ we are made at one with God; we are able to enter an intimate parent-child relationship similar to the one that Christ himself had.

The difficulty begins in how we understand that Christ achieved that, a difficulty that is further enhanced because not only does the Church of England have no official doctrine about the atonement, even the writers of the New Testament and the church throughout the last two thousand years has not been able to agree on how Jesus did it.

Permit me a moment to give you a very brief introduction to some of the major theories, although I'll hold one back for Easter Sunday to try and explain what I believe.

In the early church they lived in a culture in which sacrifice was a part of spiritual life. One would offer up a sacrifice to whichever deity you followed in the hope that by giving up something of value, so you would be given something of even greater value, in this context to be reconciled to God: The principal of unequal exchange.

So for some of the early church they held the belief that Jesus offered his life as the once and for all ultimate blood sacrifice to obtain the forgiveness of our sins. The problem for the modern mind is, why would God need a sacrifice to forgive sins? Can he not simply forgive them if he is all powerful?

A second early model draws on a comment Jesus made in Mark 10:45 where he says that he offers his life as a ransom for many. The question that has to be asked would be, to whom is this ransom paid? Some parts of the church believed that we were held prisoner by the devil in our sin, but that he released us from his clutches by receiving what would have been a far greater payment, the death of the Son of God, i.e. Christ's death was the ransom paid by God to the devil for us. The devil was then thwarted when the Son was raised from the dead. He got his ransom but then lost it again. Whilst there are still people who believe this, again there are questions about it. No Biblical writer says anything about to whom payment is made. Many nowadays would question whether this kind of relationship exists between God and the devil.

Then there are the more popular models which have gained ground over the last few centuries, which are the substitution models. Here God is presented as standing in judgement over sin. The penalty of sin is death and so we can expect nothing more than eternal separation from God. So far this makes rational sense, regardless of whether you believe it, hence it's popularity in the modern scientific era. But it is then suggested that instead of punishing us, God the Father sent Jesus to be killed on our behalf. God the Father substituted his Son instead of us and enacted judgement and punishment on him. Now from a rational perspective one can understand how this works; it's a kind of balancing the scales. Everyone deserves to die for their sin and the only one who could die for everyone's sin is God himself.

Those of you who are parents should be able to detect the problem with this.

It portrays a God so angry that he has to take it out on someone and so he takes it out on his Son. Recent scholars have likened this to divine child-abuse. Whilst many in the Evangelical church hold this to be the only true interpretation, it is relatively recent in church history and has massive shortcomings.

So can you see the problem?

Christ's death and resurrection are central to the Gospel, yet no one can agree on how he achieved what he did, which is the reconciling of God with humanity. And to make matters more complicated, this year we are studying Luke's Gospel and there is a body of opinion, not universal but well supported by good theologians, that Luke has no theology of the atonement with respect to the cross. Now if this sounds outrageous, it's worth briefly mentioning something that many of us are unaware of. Many Christians know of the theory that Mark wrote his Gospel first and that Luke and Matthew based their Gospels on Mark's adding material from a separate document called 'Q', and also the fruits of their own eyewitness researching. That leads to the assumption that what they did to Mark was to add to it. However, in Luke's case that isn't true. Luke also deleted some aspects of Mark's Gospel, and this was a shock to me, as I suspect it may be to you.

Remember that verse I mentioned a few lines back, that in Mark 10:45 it says, 'For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to give his life as a ransom for many'? Matthew has exactly the same thing, but Luke does not use this verse. He appears deliberately to have omitted it. What we get instead is a greater emphasis on the Holy Spirit in his writings than is found in the other writers.

(I should mention that there is also a large block from earlier in Mark's Gospel that's missing, but it is these isolated verses that seem to indicate that Luke may have a different understanding of the meaning of Jesus' death from that of Mark and Matthew.)

Now the debate echoes loud and long across theological journals, between books and around the internet, asking the question, 'Did Luke actually believe that Jesus' death atoned for our sins?' I would not declare myself an expert on this by any stretch, and I don't want to rehearse the arguments for and against in any depth because it seems to me that the most important thing is that there are arguments.

We can have any number of discussions about how Jesus saved sinners through his death on the cross, but the important thing is not how he did it that he did do it. I think the key comes in Luke 23:44-46, the death of Jesus. Let me re-read this for you:

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.
'The curtain of the temple', what does that mean? To understand it you have to know how the temple was laid out in several courts. Furthest out was the Court of the Gentiles. That was as close as the non-Jews could get to the temple. Next you have the Court of the Women for Jewish women. Closer still was the Court of the Men. In front of them was the Court of the Priests. Then you got into the inner sanctum of the temple, and at the centre was the Holy of Holies, the holiest place on earth where it was believed that the glory of God dwelt behind a thick heavy curtain. Only the High Priest could go in, just once a year, and the other priests would tie a rope around him so that they could haul him out if he was overcome by the presence of God.

That thick curtain, that thick veil between the presence of God and the rest of humanity, that is the temple curtain to which Luke is referring. What Luke is saying, I believe, is not how Jesus reconciled humanity to God, but that however he did it, something about his death meant that there was no longer any barrier between us and God.

And all of this brings us back to my description of my garden. I want to close with a story about how I became a Christian. I don't tell this story often because I fear it will make people think that you have to have some amazing experience in order to be a proper Christian. I prefer to think of it as Jesus whispering to me for years and finally getting tired of me not listening and so he began shouting. We need to learn to hear the whispers.

So I was fifteen and, despite having been brought up by church-going parents, I was beginning the well trod path away from the church. I was discovering girls for the first time in earnest and just, kind of moving on. My next door neighbour, Helen, with whom I had more or less grown up, had become involved with a local church youth group. She kept inviting me to things and I kept finding excuses not to go. But one day she invited me to go to a film with her and her mum being run by Youth for Christ. I have no idea why I said yes on this particular occasion rather than on any other, but I did. The film was about how a pastor in New York got to know a street gang called the Mau Mau's. He persisted in telling them about Jesus over many months and in the end many of them turned to Christ.

At the end of the film one of the local Youth for Christ leaders, Andy, who was only in his early twenties, got up on the stage and said he would like to say a prayer giving thanks for the film. He told me sometime later that he had no idea what to say, just that he had to get up there. After the prayer Andy asked us to keep our heads bowed and said that if there was anyone here who would like to find out more about Jesus then just to go quietly to the back of the hall and there would be someone there who would speak to them. It was at about this point in time that my heart started racing. I remember thinking clearly to myself, 'I'm OK, I go to church. I'm OK, I go to church.'

And then I was on my feet.

Someone told me I kicked over someone's tin of coke on my way down the aisle and that I more or less ran to the back. I don't remember that, but I do remember being met by a local Baptist pastor called John who sat with me and prayed with me as I gave my life to Christ. The whole time I was literally shaking and this went on for over an hour. Helen's mother, who also happened to be my Godmother, that's how long we'd know each other, sat next to me and put her arm around me while I shook. From there on my life changed direction quite dramatically, and I can plot a direct line from there to here.

The point of me telling you this is simple.

At that point in time I knew no theology. All I knew was that now Jesus was in my life and I was saved. I didn't know how it worked.

I didn't care.

In fact the model of theology that was explained to me that night, of penal substitution, is the one that I like least because, as I've said, it sounds to me like divine child abuse. But it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter how I have been reconciled to God. All that matters is that somehow, through Christ, through my Lord, dying and being raised, I know that I have been put into a relationship I do not deserve and which means more to me than anything else.

That's the difference between sitting at the window and describing the garden and getting out there and being overwhelmed by it's presence. Doubtless, over however many years are left to me, my theology will change and develop, but what I want more than anything, for me and for all of us, is an on-going life-changing rich encounter with Christ that can happen in quiet whispers or loud shouts.

As a middle-aged man I can tell you that these days he whispers to me more. Perhaps I've learned to listen a little better. But this means more to me than I think I can convey in words. I know that I sometimes have a bit of a reputation as a woolly liberal, but that's only because sometimes I can't put mysteries into words, I have lots of questions and I don't think God gives us simple answers.

But I do know I'm saved, and I do know that Jesus did it.

Easter Day
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.

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.

In that reading from John's Gospel we hear of the first encounter that the risen Jesus has with Mary Magdalene. Initially she doesn't recognise him which seems strange to us because we wonder how she could not have known who he was, that is until we put a few things into the mix. Mary might well have held her grief in the day before while she, with the other women, had begun the preparation of the spices and ointments with which they were going to anoint his body. Those of us who have been bereaved know that there is a time between death and funeral when we go on autopilot to do what must be done. If that's how it was for Mary, when she arrives at the tomb to find it empty that grief is going to flow over her in wave upon wave, so her eyes are going to be flooded with tears. It is also sunrise, and if she has been looking into a dark tomb and then turning around to see someone who may well have the sun behind him, she's going to see a silhouette. On top of that, have you ever had that experience of running into someone you know well in an unexpected place? You know that initial disconnect before you place them? It happened to me at sunrise last Easter when a good friend who doesn't live locally came to the service as a surprise, and because I didn't expect to see her, and the light level was a little low, I didn't recognise her. Well imagine how much more when you saw the person die two days ago. How much more difficult would it be for your mind to accept what it's seeing. So it is not until that moment when he says her name that she knows who he really is, and responds saying, 'Teacher!'

I wonder how you think Jesus would have said, 'Mary', and how she would have responded with 'Teacher'. Remember, there is no punctuation in the original, so it's even possible there would have been a question in her voice. Would there have been a long pause while the penny dropped? Would there have been a 'Teacher?...... Teacher!!!' moment?

But it strikes me that the most important thing about this is hearing him say her name. It is not the name itself but the way he says it, the way that only he can say it. There is something deeply significant about hearing our name spoken by someone special to us, but there is more going on here. There is something deeper being hinted at by the speaking of her name. Something else takes place which makes us wonder even further about the significance of this exchange and it's because Jesus tells Mary not to hold on to him as he's not yet ascended.

What might that mean to Mary and what might it mean to us?

I think it's this: Jesus has named Mary in the first day of a New Creation. In this new creation he communicates far more by sound, by voice, by speaking our names, than by seeing him. People often say that they wish they could have been there and seen it with their own eyes. Indeed that's exactly what Thomas said about the first resurrection appearance of Jesus to the disciples which he missed. But that was the old creation. In the new creation the risen Christ speaks not just to those who can physically see him, but to anyone who wishes to hear him. By being risen and ascended he is able to send the Holy Spirit in such a way that anyone who asks, who learns how to listen, can hear him speaking. We don't have to hold on to him because, within us, he holds on to us.

So what then is this new creation?

Well in some ways it is like the stories told of Adam, Eve and God walking in the garden together. Remember, Jesus was arrested in a garden and here he meets Mary Magdalene in another garden. The garden motif is no accident. He shows her that in this new creation it is once again about walking together, but rather than walking alongside each other, through the Spirit, he will be walking within her.

How then has he made this new creation?

What is this new thing that has taken place? Think of it like this, and this is what I promised in the God Friday address; this is the closest I have come to in understanding what the death and resurrection of Christ means.

In the mists of time emerges a story of God's intention that he would walk alongside his people, but his people, represented by Adam and Eve, continually put blocks in the way. We arrive at a point where we have screwed things up so much that it is no longer possible to be with each other. The perfect love and beauty of God has become more than we can bear because of our human ability to screw things up, otherwise known as 'sin'. And so rituals were put in place to try and deal with this.

In Old Testament times, on what was called the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, the Jewish High Priest would lay his hands on a goat, called the scapegoat. He would pray on to the goat all the sins of the people, all the ways in which they had screwed things up. Then the goat would be cast out of the city to take with it all of the things that they had done wrong away from them so that they could walk closely with God again. With time came a fear that, what if the goat came back? What if it brought the sins of the people back into the city. And so the scapegoat was taken out of the city and killed so that the sins of the people would die with the goat. But they had to do it year after year.

This was a ritual that the people performed, and it didn't solve the problem. And so God took upon himself the way to solve this issue once and for all by sending his Son instead. That gives us a more complete picture of what happened on Good Friday. Jesus, by the will of the Father and his own agreement, becomes the scapegoat on to whom the Father lays the sin of all humanity. When he dies everything that we have done wrong, everything that we are doing wrong and everything that we will do wrong, dies with him.

Some people talk of Jesus taking the punishment for our sins, but it's much deeper than that. He actually takes the sins themselves and destroys them in death so that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that you can do, or that you have done, that can come between you and the love that the Father has for you. Nothing.

But the story isn't over yet. In demonstration of his power over this and to bring a new start, a new creation, Christ is raised from the dead, yet is somehow more powerful, more real than he was before. This is the new humanity, the resurrected body that can live in the presence of God because everything that we ever did wrong has been dealt with and destroyed.

And so now we are in the position where Christ calls each of us by name, and walks within us. He can speak your name and call you into the new garden where we walk with him. This is why St. Paul wrote about becoming a new creation in which the old order has passed away and everything has become new.

That's why our celebrations today means we are celebrating the start of everyone being given the chance to begin again, just like the three people who were baptised at sunrise this morning.

All we have to do is say yes, I want to be a part of this new creation. And then it all begins again.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. Thank you so much for posting. I am about to share this with a dear friend who is a long way from home, a long way from friends and his church and whose soul is lonely. I hope your words will bring him comfort.