Sunday, 25 April 2010

Easter 4: What kind of heroes...?

Acts 9.36-43, John 10.22-30

As you may know I grew up in Exeter. Like all Devonians I knew the story of our great local hero, Sir Francis Drake, who defeated the Spanish Armada in the time of Elizabeth the first. We learned Henry Newbolt’s poem, Drake’s Drum, at school. “Drake he’s in his hammock and a thousand miles away/ ‘Capten art thou sleeping there below” and we all knew the legend that poem referred to. If there was trouble, all we had to do was beat the drum, which is still kept at his Devon home, Buckland Abbey, and he’d return from his watery grave to defend us again. “Take my drum to England” he says in the poem, “hang et by the shore/ strike it when your powder’s runnin’ low. / If the Dons sight Devon, I’ll quit the port of Heaven/ and drum them up the Channel as I drummed them long ago.”

The idea of the hero who’ll one day return wasn’t just a Devon thing, though. Later on I lived near Glastonbury, where, of course, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table lie sleeping in the centre of the Tor waiting for the call to arms, when the hill will split open and they’ll ride out to the rescue – allegedly.

We all seem to need heroes. It’s true now, and it was just as true in the time of Jesus. The people we meet in our Gospel reading were in the grip of heroic dreams like these. That’s what lies behind the question they ask Jesus. “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

It wasn’t just any hero they had in mind, though. They were thinking of one particular man – a hero from their history - and the clue to who that was is in the opening words of the reading. “At that time, the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple.”

The festival of the Dedication. What’s that about? It’s called Hannukah in Hebrew, and it is a celebration of a victory won by Judas Maccabeus about 170 years before Christ. (1 Maccabees) 
Israel was under the control of a foreign empire. It was the story of their nation’s life. Assyrians, Babylonians and Greeks had all ruled over them. Now it was the turn of the Seleucid dynasty. The Seleucids had inherited the Eastern part of Alexander the Great’s empire when he died. Their power stretched from the Mediterranean shores right to the edge of India, lands where there were people of many different cultures and faiths. The Seleucids were basically Greek in their outlook, though, with a Greek model of what civilisation should look like. They didn’t mind people worshipping their own gods and following their own ways, so long as they accepted Greek gods and Greek ways of organising their societies too, just as we tend to assume that everyone would be better off with our models of Western democracy, and a McDonalds on every corner.

To many people, even among the Jews, this sort of cultural imperialism was fine. The Greeks were seen as sophisticated and modern. But there were some Jewish groups who were having none of it. They stuck rigidly to their principles, their ancestral faith and customs. There was only one God, one right way of living, and it was the Jewish way. They weren’t remotely interested in multi-culturalism or Greek ideas of progress. The Greek world could do what it wanted; they weren’t going to bow down to it.

The Seleucid king Antiochus IV saw trouble looming, and he decided to get tough. He sent troops into Jerusalem, right into the Temple. They looted its treasures, desecrated the altar, set up an altar of their own to the Greek God Zeus complete with statues, which Jewish law forbade. They even sacrificed pigs in the heart of the Temple; it couldn’t get worse than that for traditionally minded Jews.

One of those Jews was a priest called Mattathias. He had five sons – Judas Maccabeus was the middle one. The nickname, “Maccabeus” means “the hammer” which probably tells you all you need to know about him. Mattathias was appalled at what was happening in Jerusalem. So he withdrew into the mountains, with his sons and his followers, to wage a guerrilla campaign on the occupiers.

To do this, though, they had to have the support of the local people, and not all of them saw things Mattathias’s way – some of them weren’t even Jews. So Matthatias used force. His followers compelled the local people to keep their very strict version of Jewish faith. They made them circumcise their sons. They destroyed the places of worship of other gods. They savagely punished anyone who stepped out of line. If that sounds familiar, it should do. These are exactly the same tactics that the Taliban are using in Afghanistan today.

Finally Judas Maccabeus came down from the mountains, leading his army, and marched on Jerusalem. Against all the odds, somehow, they prevailed. His troops took back the city, and the first thing they did was to go to the Temple, tear down the statues of Zeus, clean up the mess, put things back to rights. When they had done that they held a festival to re-dedicate their sacred space. The people of Israel never forgot this great triumph. They never forgot Judas Maccabeus, the hero who’d brought it about. Every year they told his story again at the festival of the Dedication, Hannukah. And when they were conquered by the Romans – their independence didn’t last long – it was Judas Maccabeus they looked back to, Judas Maccabeus they longed for.

When the people in today’s Gospel meet Jesus in the Temple, where all this happened, at that festival of Dedication it is this story they are thinking of; the story of a hero, the story of deliverance. It stirred and excited them, but it is a story that is profoundly disturbing to modern ears. Many liberal Jews today feel ambivalent it. Judas Maccabeus’ victory was a victory for a very narrow, nationalistic view of God’s kingdom, and it was a victory won by oppressing others.

It’s clear that the story disturbed Jesus too because he refuses to buy into the model of heroism it offers. These people want him to be their Messiah, their deliverer. He’s charismatic, popular, brave, with an authority which feels as if it comes from God, “How long will you keep us in suspense…?” they ask. But he knows he can never be the new Judas Maccabeus they long for. His vision of God’s kingdom is very different and his way of bringing it about is different too. If this is what they want, he is bound to disappoint them.

He’s not a military leader. He hasn’t got a band of guerrilla fighters, just a handful of ordinary fishermen, an ex tax-collector who has probably collaborated with the Romans, a random assortment of women. And instead of enforcing the law, as the Maccabeans had, he often seems to challenge it, or even break it - working on the Sabbath, consorting with unclean people. There are no stirring speeches urging his followers to defend their national identity or smash their enemies. Instead he speaks words of love, peace, acceptance, forgiveness, and a welcome that extends to everyone, deserving or undeserving.

As he points out to his questioners, what he says and does should tell them all they need to know. What you see is what you get. This is really it – there’s no military conquest around the corner, just a movement of love and justice. And it will end on a cross, with him forgiving those who crucify him, not mustering his armies or calling down the wrath of God on those who oppose him. My sheep hear my voice, he says. They might be good sheep or bad sheep, lost sheep or found sheep, Jewish sheep or Gentile sheep; what matters is just that they want what I want. If you want a new Judas Maccabeus, you are looking in the wrong place.

This is a good story to hear as we approach a General Election. It asks us to consider what we are looking for in our leaders, and what we really want for our world. It is easy to fall for spin, for external appearances, slick presentations, and those who organise political campaigns know it. It is easy to fall for appeals to our own narrow self-interest too. It is much harder to ask what the substance is, and to look beyond ourselves to the needs of others.

But perhaps, as well as that, this story asks an even deeper question about our need for heroes in itself. Isn’t there a danger that we are looking for others to build the world for us, rather than seeing our responsibility for the way the world is and the way it will be? Leaders have a part to play, but ultimately it is what each of us does, in our own families, workplaces and neighbourhoods which makes the difference. In the first reading we heard today we met Tabitha, or Dorcas in the Greek. She knew this well. She didn’t wait for someone else to act. She was, says the Bible, devoted to good works and acts of charity. When she died her friends appealed to Peter for help. And what is it that they point to as proof of her heroic virtue? Not conquered nations or powerful positions in the state, but needlework. “All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made.” It’s not what you would call dramatic stuff, but this is clearly a lady whose practical love for others has transformed lives. We can all do something, and what we do matters, the story tells us. In the coming General Election we can at least turn out and vote, for example, because to do so shows that we care about our communities.

Handel wrote an oratorio about Judas Maccabeus. That great Easter hymn “Thine be the glory” is set to a tune from it. He didn’t write an oratorio about Tabitha; it’s probably hard to come up with a rousing piece of music about sewing. But in the end, who did the most good? Perhaps it was Tabitha with her needle, rather than Judas with his sword, as she created God’s kingdom one stitch at a time.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Easter 3: The miraculous catch

John 21.1-19

Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.

153 fish. It’s one of those details in the Bible that makes you sit up and take notice. What is so special about 153? It’s not an approximation. It’s not a round number. But it hardly seems likely, either, that anyone would have sat down on the beach and counted, and then felt it important enough to keep a record of exactly how large this catch was. Yet the Bible is specific. 153 fish.

St Jerome, in the fourth century, suggested that this was the total number of species of fish known to exist at the time, and so it symbolised the completeness of this catch, though there’s no foundation for it in ancient literature. Other people have pointed out that if you add up all the numbers from 1 to 17 you get 153 – I’ve tried it; it works – and 17, as these theorists say, is the sum of 10 and 7, both numbers which in the ancient world also suggested perfection and wholeness. The truth is that we don’t know where this number comes from. I am sure that Dan Brown could make a blockbuster novel out of it. But in the Gospel writer’s mind it probably does have something to do with totality. We can tell that not only from the context, but also from other references in the Bible to nets and fishing. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells a sort of mini-parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind,” he says (Matthew 13.47). In the Old Testament too, the prophet Ezekiel has a vision of his nation as God wants it to be. Central to that vision is a great river, flowing down to the sea, making stagnant waters fresh, bringing life to all that is in it. “People will stand fishing beside the sea* from En-gedi to En-eglaim; it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea.”

John echoes that vision in this story. Here is God’s kingdom, coming to birth among you, he says, a vision of abundance and plenty, a kingdom which is for all. That fits with everything else we see Jesus saying.

The early church struggled with that, just as we still do. We set limits. We make conditions. For the early church the tensions were between Jews and Gentiles. For us they may be different. We might find ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, saying “you’re welcome if you think like I do, if you worship like I do, if you behave in ways that I approve of, if you are prepared to fit in to the way we already do things, if you go through the right rituals.”

But I don’t think this is just about the boundaries we set between people – those who are in and those who are out. It’s also about the inner boundaries we create as we try to keep parts of ourselves from God. The disciples in this story – and Simon Peter especially – knew that they had failed Jesus when they ran from him as he was arrested. They couldn’t turn the clock back. That failure is a part of them, a part of their life stories. What are they going to do with it? They go fishing to remind themselves that this, at least, they can do – to try to kid themselves that that bad stuff never really happened. But even in this, they fail. There are no fish - until Jesus comes along. It is only then that they get the point. They are accepted as they are, in their wholeness, good and bad.

I think that is a message most people need to hear. We often expend a great deal of effort covering up those things we are ashamed of in our lives. We try to look good, but in order to do so we have to cut off bits of ourselves, leave them at the door of the church. But God wants us to come to him as whole people. If we don’t come like that, we might as well not come at all.

There were 153 fish in the net, and the net was not torn, says the Gospel. How far do we think we can stretch the love of God before it breaks? Are we anxiously trying to protect him from being overloaded, cautiously sidling up to him, and trying to stop others doing things which we fear will offend his delicate sensibilities. It sounds daft when I put it like that, but I think that is sometimes what we are trying to do. Of course, it is daft. God can cope with us, and with others. The net of his love, the net of his kingdom is big and strong enough for the whole catch, for whatever we put into it. It won’t break. Whoever we are, and whatever we’ve done, he can hold us securely.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Easter 2: "Yes, but..."

April 11th 2010       Easter 2
Acts 5.27-32, John 20.19-31

Today is often called Low Sunday. The “low” in Low Sunday is actually a corruption of the Latin word Laudes, which means praise – it is supposed to be a Sunday when we continue our Easter rejoicing – but that hasn’t stopped people feeling that “Low” often captures the mood better. After all the excitement and hard work of Easter it is easy to find that energy is low, numbers are low, everything is low this week. Even the readings can feel like a comedown from last Sunday’s extraordinary visions of angels. In the first reading, the apostles are hauled in front of the Jewish authorities, in deep trouble because of the message they are preaching. Then there is Thomas, refusing to believe that Jesus is risen unless he sees him for himself, wounds and all. It all points us towards a darker side to the story we celebrated last week. Perhaps instead of Low Sunday we might call it “Yes, but…” Sunday . “Yes, Christ is risen, but…at what cost? “Yes, Christ is risen, but what does that mean for those who follow him?” “Yes, Christ is risen, but do I want to have anything to do with it?”

For the early Christians those questions were real and urgent. Many of them paid for their determination to follow Christ with their lives. Last week I described Easter as an explosion, something that radically altered the landscape of people’s lives. It was a creative explosion, something that set them free and gave them new purpose in life – otherwise they would never have bothered with it - but explosions are dangerous and frightening too. It is clear that they sometimes wondered whether the turmoil and pain their new way of life brought them were worth it. Like Thomas, they sometimes struggled to believe, struggled to follow.

Thomas is an intriguing figure in John’s Gospel. In Matthew, Mark and Luke he is just a name in a list of disciples, but John brings him to life for us in three little encounters which, taken together, form a little sub-plot in the story of Jesus.

We meet him first when Lazarus dies. Jesus and the disciples are on the far side of the river Jordan. They have escaped there from the mounting hostility of the Jewish authorities. They have just tried to have Jesus stoned, but he has managed to get away. Then the news comes. His friend, Lazarus is dead. Jesus announces that he will return. Most of the disciples are aghast. “Why Jesus? You’ve only just got out – why go back into danger?” Only Thomas speaks out against the caution of the others. “Let us also go, that we may die with him,” he says to them. What good will that do? None really. But it tells us that Thomas is an all-or-nothing sort of man, someone who likes things clear-cut, definite. It also tells us how important it is to him physically to be where Jesus is. When Jesus is around, Thomas can face anything. Even death would be ok, so long as Jesus is there by his side.

The next time we meet Thomas is at the Last Supper. Jesus’ death is imminent now; they can all see it coming and they are worried. Jesus tries to reassure them. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. I am going to prepare a place for you. And you know the way to the place where I am going….”

“Hold on a minute, says Thomas, “No we don’t!” “We don’t know where you are going, so how can we possibly know the right route.”

Thomas is right. Whether you have a sat-nav, an old fashioned map, or are just asking for directions from a passer by, if you don’t know where you want to end up, you don’t stand much chance of getting there. But the answer Thomas gets from Jesus is an enigmatic one. “I am the way” he says… What is that supposed to mean? Again we see Thomas’ two anxieties at work. He needs to be with Jesus. He needs to know what’s happening, but Jesus is going away, and Thomas is baffled by his vague and mysterious words.

It seems especially hard then that it is Thomas, and only Thomas, who misses out when Jesus first appears to his disciples after the Resurrection. He’s not there in the house on the day that Jesus rises. We don’t know why. He has to wait a whole week to see him, and there’s no guarantee, of course, that he will ever have this experience for himself. Maybe Jesus’ appearance was a one-off? Of all the disciples, Thomas is the one who needs to see Jesus in the flesh most desperately – that’s what those two earlier stories have told us. And he’s also the one who’ll find it hardest to cope with the sheer mystery of the resurrection. Thomas - clear thinking, cut and dried Thomas – is never going to find it easy to bend his mind around something so strange. And who can blame him? I expect most of us would feel the same. In John’s Gospel Thomas stands for all of us when we are anxious, doubting, needing something we can rely on.

Thomas, of course, gets the reassurance he longs for in the end. There is Jesus, standing in front of him, showing him the wounds of the cross. And Thomas is filled with joy.

So that’s all right then. All’s well that end’s well. Except that it isn’t as simple as that, is it? Because as Jesus points out, those who come later will have to believe without seeing. “Have you believed because you have seen me, Thomas? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” It’s as if Jesus has stepped out of the story for a moment into the world of those who will hear and read about this later, and that’s what we need to do too, if we are really going to understand what it is telling us.

John’s Gospel was written around 90 AD – 60 years after the Resurrection - probably in Asia Minor, modern Turkey, maybe in Ephesus. We don’t know who wrote it. Like the other Gospels the name was added later. It was written too late, though, to be by the apostle John. This is the work of a second-generation Christian, reflecting on the stories he’s heard from those who were around Jesus, the stories which have shaped the faith of his community. That makes them less reliable historically than if they were eye-witness accounts; we don’t know how accurate they are. But on the other hand, the fact that the stories have survived, and that there is a Christian community in which they are being told tells us something very important; it tells us that whatever happened in Jerusalem must have been very powerful and very convincing indeed.

The Gospel story describes a group of disciples huddled in a locked room in Jerusalem, afraid even to go out into the streets of their own town, and yet, a generation later, they have taken their message to distant lands, to Ephesus and places like it. How has that come about? It can only have happened if there has been some massive transformation in their lives. The frightened men we meet in that locked room couldn’t have gone to the end of the road for a pint of milk, never mind all the way to Ephesus, risking persecution and death for their trouble. And what about those to whom they go, those who, as this story reminds us, haven’t seen the risen Christ as they have? What convinces them – what convinces the writer of this Gospel - that this message is worth hearing, worth passing on, worth living by, worth even dying for? It is what they see in the lives of those who proclaim it, their love, their capacity to forgive, their commitment to breaking down barriers between people and communities. The second-generation Christians of Ephesus may not see the risen Christ, but they see the power of resurrection at work in the apostles, and they want what the apostles have for themselves. It seems to me that it nearly always works like that. We are far more often drawn towards faith by the lives of others than by clever arguments or persuasive presentations. It is the love, courage and integrity we see in them which makes us ask questions, want to know more. On the other side of that coin is the rather sobering thought that there are also people looking at us, seeing – or not – the risen Christ at work in our lives.

Jesus said to Thomas, “I am the way”, and this is what he meant. We find him as we walk the path he walked, a path which may wound us as it wounded him, but which leads to wholeness and peace. We find him, and we reveal him to others as we live the life he lived. It’s not magic. It’s not easy; that’s why we so often fail to do it. But it is where Christ is today, in us.

I began by saying that today could be called “Yes, but…Sunday”. “Yes, but what difference does it make? “Yes, but do I want to be a part of it?” These are questions we all have to answer for ourselves in the end, but it comes down to this. The risen Christ comes to us first in the “locked rooms” of our lives, just as he did in Jerusalem. He comes to the places where we most need him, the places of our fear and doubt, places we often don’t want to be in ourselves.. He comes to offer us forgiveness, change and freedom. It is as we accept those gifts and start to walk with him that his risen life can begin to grow in us, giving us the courage to go where he leads us, and take that life out to others too.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Easter Sunday: Easter Explosions

Easter Sunday 2010
Acts 10.34-43 Luke 24.1-12

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” ask the angels of the women who have come to Jesus’ tomb.
What an insensitive question to ask a group of grieving people who have just lost their friend! Where else would Jesus be? They saw him buried, the stone rolled across his tomb just a couple of days before. Luke tells us so. They haven’t gone to the wrong tomb by accident. This is where Jesus was, and where, as far as they are concerned, he still should be. But the angels tell them it isn’t so. “He is not here: he is risen! Why do you look for the living among the dead?” It is a shocking question. I think it’s meant to be. The women are stunned, and so is Peter when he finally comes to check it out for himself. Nothing is as it was. Nothing is as they expected.

On Good Friday we had one of our Messy Church sessions here. Messy Church, for those visiting us today, is an all-age gathering where we explore Christian faith through cutting and sticking and generally making a mess. It certainly lived up to its name on Friday. The church was packed with children. It was a riot of glue and glitter and paint. One of the things we made was the splendid Easter banner you see over there. The point of it was simply to get the children to explore the colours of Easter – the whites, yellows and golds which you see in the altar frontal and vestments. There was no real plan or design – the children could paint what they wanted, and stick whatever they could find to the banner, so long as it was white, yellow or gold. That’s the glorious, riotous result. I tried to decide earlier what it was that it reminded me of. In the end it came to me. It’s like an explosion in a Cadbury’s Creme Egg factory…

Its exuberance expresses something very important about that first Easter Day, though, because that was like an explosion too, an explosion which broke apart the expectations and the understanding of the people caught up in it; the women at the tomb, the disciples they announced their news to, and those who heard the message of Christ from them. Nothing could ever be as it had been before.

It wasn’t just the fact that a man had been raised from the dead which made their world explode, though. That might sound odd to us, because the sheer unlikeliness of the story is usually the thing that we get stuck on. But that’s because we come at it with a 21st Century mindset. Our first thought is that resurrection defies the laws of nature. Could it happen? we want to ask, and if so, how? We pick the stories apart looking for ways to explain this puzzle, or explain it away. For first century people, though, that wasn’t nearly so much of a problem as it is to us. For them it wasn’t the laws of nature which ruled the world, but the will of God. He controlled the boundaries between life and death. If he wanted to raise someone from death, he could. So it’s no good looking for answers to our questions in their stories – we’re unlikely to find them. What mattered most to them wasn’t whether God raised Jesus from death, or how, but why and what it meant that he should have done so. The conclusion they came to was that when God raised Jesus it was a declaration that he had been with him all along, even on the cross, that he was God’s chosen one, that the message he had preached really was God’s message. Those who had crucified him had declared it to be blasphemy, but the resurrection proved that wasn’t so, said the first Christians.

So what was this message? Jesus had come, according to his own words in the Gospels, to proclaim the kingdom of God, a kingdom where everyone was welcome. Men, women, children, Jews, Gentiles, saints, sinners, lost sheep, prodigal sons, tax-collectors, prostitutes. The first would be last, and the last first. “God shows no partiality” says Peter in our first reading from the book of Acts. If you want to follow Jesus, to be part of the kingdom of God, you can, whoever you are, whatever your background.

For many of those who met Jesus this was wonderful news, powerful, healing news, which gave them dignity and status they had never had before. That was certainly the case for these women who came to the tomb. Women in first century Israel were largely excluded from positions of power and leadership. They had no real voice, no real control of their lives, little education beyond the skills necessary to run a house.
Jesus, by contrast, had treated them as equals, talked to them, taught them – learned from them sometimes too. He’d challenged them, supported them, never patronised them, never put them down, never made jokes at their expense, never stereotyped them. No wonder they followed him. What a world he held out for them! But then he had died on the cross, and they must have felt that all their hopes had died with him. That vision of a new world in which they were treated with such humanity and love seemed to be just a mirage, a cruel delusion, something which had been snatched away as soon as they had reached for it.

When they came to the garden on that Easter morning all they intended to do, all they expected to do, was to complete the burial rites they had started on Good Friday and go away. They would entomb their dreams along with Jesus’ body, and go back to the lives they had come from.

But there were the angels, and there was the empty tomb, and now these women are the ones who are hearing the Easter message that Christ is risen, the ones who are sent out to tell it to the rest of Jesus’ followers. Them. A bunch of women. They are met with disbelief on the part of the male disciples. It’s just an idle tale, they say… It’s not surprising that they got this dismissive response. Women weren’t considered to be credible witnesses in a court of law. Why should they be in any other field? But their “idle tale” turns out to be true.

There isn’t just one Easter explosion going on here – the explosion of the Resurrection itself – there are multiple explosions. Everyone involved – women and men – find themselves looking at a new world in which nothing is as they thought it would be, relationships are changed, hopes are reborn. The early church, in which this Gospel was written perhaps 30 or 40 years after the Resurrection, was a place where women held positions of leadership which they didn’t have elsewhere. We find many of them mentioned in the book of Acts and in Paul’s letters too. How had that come about? It was the result of this Easter explosion, this moment when a bunch of women are entrusted with the message of good news for everyone else.

A decade or so ago a former Bishop of Durham got into a lot of trouble in the press for suggesting that the resurrection was “more than just a conjuring trick with bones.” “Bishop doubts resurrection!” screamed the headlines. But he was right. If all we worry about is what you might call the mechanics of the Resurrection – whether and how a dead body came to life – we miss the question it really asks. Not just, “Is Christ risen?” but “Are we risen?” Not just, “Is Christ alive?” but “are we alive?” Are we the people God calls us to be, living our lives with the fullness he wants for us, or are we hemmed in by other people’s expectations, or our own, imprisoned by old fears and regrets, stifling our dreams and denying our visions of what might be.

In a few minutes we’ll be baptising Reuben. I am sure that his parents and friends have all sorts of hopes and dreams and visions for him. Some of them will come about; some won’t. Some might be the wrong hopes, dreams and visions anyway. However hard those who care for him try to give him the best life they can, though, Reuben is sure to find himself at some point, like all of us, squashed into moulds that don’t fit, weighed down with regret or stuck in something he wishes he could have avoided. Our prayer for him is that when that happens he’ll be reminded of the explosive message of this Easter day on which he was baptised, reminded by his parents and godparents, reminded by this church, by all of us as we love and care for him. We can remind him in words, of course, telling him about today, teaching him the stories of faith. But better than that we can remind him by living the message we proclaim, by letting that Easter explosion happen in our own lives, letting God challenge and change us. Baptism and Easter belong together because both speak of new beginnings, endless hope, life that nothing can destroy. Whatever has happened in our lives, they say, we can start again, rise again. Life is stronger than death, hope is stronger than despair, love is stronger than hatred. Change is possible. We can all be made new. Explosive news! Christ is risen!

Good Friday "He was numbered among the transgressors"

Luke 23.32-42

“This man has done nothing wrong,” says the criminal who has become known to us as the penitent thief. In the Greek, the word we translate as “wrong” is one which literally means “out of place” – atopos. “This man has done nothing out of place”, he says, and yet here is Jesus, very much out of place, outside the city walls, on a cross. He hangs between two people who know full well that in the cruel judicial climate of their times, they were getting what they should have always seen coming to them. We may not agree with capital punishment, let alone brutal public execution like this, but the two criminals crucified with Jesus lived in a society where it was commonplace; they might not have wanted it to happen to them, but they didn’t think there was anything unusual or unjust in it happening in itself. It was just the price you expected to pay if you did wrong. But this man crucified between them has done nothing wrong, nothing that should have brought him to this place, and it is that fact which stuns the thief crucified on his right. Something new and strange is happening here, he realises. A man who didn’t have to be here, who could have turned back and saved himself, has chosen to let himself be “numbered among the transgressors,” as the Old Testament reading put it. He’s done nothing “out of place” and yet here he is, out of place on the cross.

In fact, Jesus has been “out of place” his entire life, out of place at his birth, in a stable – what kind of place is that to have a child, out of place as an exile in Egypt, escaping Herod’s wrath. And when he grew up he didn’t choose the lifestyle of a respectable rabbi. He went among people who were “beyond the pale”, outsiders of various kinds, women, children, foreigners, people who were ritually unclean, morally suspect, suffering from diseases which others saw as proof that God was punishing them. In the kingdom he was bringing in they would not only be accepted, but at the head of the queue, welcomed, healed, forgiven by God, given status and dignity. It’s not hard to see why that would have worried those in power; it spelled trouble, disruption. They had nothing to gain and everything to lose as far as they could see. So once again, and for what the religious authorities hoped was the last time, Jesus found himself “out of place”, nailed to a cross outside the city walls, dying among those he has lived for.

If you’ve had a chance to look at the display here beside the pulpit you will have seen that it focuses on this story of the penitent thief, the one who recognised Jesus’ “out of placeness”. It also, though, has a collection of prayer requests on it. They come from young men who are prisoners in Rochester Young Offenders Institution. I happen to know the Anglican Chaplain to the prison, Susie Simpson, so I asked her if it would be possible for her to ask the young men who are part of her Lent group in the prison to tell us what they would like us to pray for.

They responded with enthusiasm as you can tell if you read their requests which come straight from the heart. There are requests for prayer for families left behind while they are serving their sentences, for strength to cope with being in prison, and that somehow they will be able to turn their lives around, learn to live the right way, make their mums proud of them. They know as well as anyone that going straight is hard and that they might not make it, but many of them want to try. Just like that penitent thief somewhere deep down a lot of these young men are hungry for love, for hope, for a new life. And that hunger is enough for Jesus. “Today, you will be with me in paradise,” he says.

It is easy for us to judge others, to take a quick look at lives that have gone awry and write them off. “Lock them up and throw away the key,” the tabloids cry, but that isn’t the way of Christ. He makes himself at home wherever people need him – on the cross, in the prison cell, in the squalor, the darkness and the broken dreams which most of us turn away from and try to pretend aren’t there. It is important that we understand this, not just for the sake of those who are obviously – to our eyes – “beyond the pale” – those lads in Rochester Prison for example - but for our own sakes too. We may never been on the wrong side of the prison gates, but the fact is that we have all done things we are rightly ashamed of, things we’d rather forget, things that can’t be put right or airbrushed away. If we take the attitude that sin and those who commit it should be kept out of sight and out of mind, what is God to do with those dark places in ourselves? How can he bring healing to those places, if we will not admit that they exist?

So today, pray for these boys who have asked our prayers. “Remember us,” they ask, just as that thief on the cross did. But let us remember also those parts of ourselves which need forgiveness and healing. Christ lived and died beyond the pale. He is still ready to go beyond the pale for us now, to be “out of place” in the dark places of our souls, bringing his kingdom to us and to all people, and bringing all people into his kingdom.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Maundy Thursday sermon notes

Notes for a sermon preached by Kevin Bright on Maundy Thursday

John 13 1-17 ; 1 Corinthians 11.23-26

Just two themes for your consideration, each of which gives us a strong personal link to Christ in our actions.….

John doesn’t tell us any detail of the last supper unlike the other 3 Gospels but Paul’s letter to the Corinthians recalls the actions of Christ at this the most famous of meals. Paul is reminding the Corinthians not to lose sight of the purpose of the Supper.  They have remembered the tradition but have forgotten (at least practically) the meaning behind it

Martin Luther the 16th century reformer, translator, priest and theologian preached these words on Maundy Thursday 1525:-

‘Therefore it is unchristian to force people under pain of committing mortal sin to commune just at this time; as has been done heretofore, and is still done in many places. For it is not and can not be in keeping with the Lord's Supper to force or compel any one to partake of it; on the contrary, it is intended only for a hungry soul that compels itself and rejoices in being permitted to come; those who must be driven are not desired.

Surely a hungry soul is also one which knows it needs to let others wash its feet and will also do the same for them.

Have you ever considered that if one starts taking holy communion once a week at age ten and continues to do so until age 70, and takes 6 weeks a year on holiday or ill then they will receive 3220 times. Over the years our reasons and needs for receiving it will change.

Perhaps this gets us thinking why we want to regularly take part in a recreation of the last supper.

Why do we come? Out of habit or are we compelled by love, to follow Jesus commandment to ‘do this in remembrance of me’? ‘Do this in remembrance of me’, words of love and hope spoken amidst betrayal, desertion and conspiracy on the eve of his crucifixion.

The instructions do not come from a follower, a theologian or some church committee, the instruction comes directly from Christ. Do we want to reach back to that final meal and celebrate a direct link and continuation with the acts of Christ?

In doing so what do we expect to happen? Are our senses heightened, our minds opened? Might we experience forgiveness, a sense of belonging to the family, hope for our eternal future, energy and strength until we come to be nourished again?

And part two….

In my office this week we had a lady ‘phone in with a query about her property and when my colleague dared to ask who she was she gave her name and was very quick to add ‘I’m a paying client you know’!

There is no doubt that she expected my colleague to jump when she needed something, she wanted her monies worth. I’d say that this country has seen a cultural change; it used to be that if your salad had wilted in a restaurant you didn’t really want to make a fuss but now most don’t hesitate to vent their disappointment insisting on refunds and replacements.

But what about when we are not paying? What do we expect then? Well apart from a few unreasonable people not very much, after all you get what you pay for, right?

So when a school child shares their lunch with a friend who forgot theirs it must be because they haven’t learnt how the world works yet, they need to look down on these poorly organised people, if they let them go hungry they’ll soon learn.

When I was on holiday in Italy I was too stupid to work the parking meter and sensed some young lads watching with amusement while they consumed a few beers at a pavement bar. What happened next, well a couple of them came over, motioned for me to step aside and put their own money in the meter of course, refusing to accept any money from me. Clearly these Italians haven’t yet learnt that foreign visitors are to be treated as outsiders and milked for every Euro they have.

What about the leader who arrives before the meeting to set up and stays behind afterwards to do the washing up and tidy away, have they not learnt that these are tasks for their minions and that they shouldn’t soil their hands with such work.

So we edge towards what Jesus was demonstrating to his disciples when he washed their feet, that loving service to each other, without any expectation of reward is his way. It’s an example to all of his disciples, not just the twelve, but all who claim to follow him thereafter. It’s important to acknowledge that Jesus had each one of us in mind when he did this many years ago.

I know not many would volunteer to have their feet washed now, for all sorts of reasons, but part of the Christ’s message is also that we need to let others serve us otherwise the body of Christ, i.e. our Christian community is weakened due to the fact that talents and skills become under utilised and new skills are not nurtured to new levels of growth.

Words are important, but actions are essential, in serving and showing others how to serve.


Kevin Bright

Maundy Thursday 2010