Sunday, 26 April 2020

The Long Road: Easter 3

“We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” . That’s what the two exhausted, disillusioned disciples say to the stranger who joins them as they trudge along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, seven miles away. “We had hoped”. What a sad little phrase that is. It’s the way we talk about things we know can never happen now.  “I had hoped I’d see my friend one last time before she died,” we might say, “but I was too late”.  “I had hoped to be able to go back to my favourite place, but I’m too old or ill now to travel”. “We had hoped to have a child,” couples might lament “but we’ve tried everything and we’ve had to accept that it’s not going to happen”.  None of us gets through life without regrets, and they can feel like heavy burdens.

These disciples “had hoped” that Jesus would throw out the Roman occupiers and restore Israel’s freedom and self-government. But his death on the cross seemed to have put an end to that hope once and for all. It was a shameful death which marked him out as a failure in the eyes of the world, and also implied that God had abandoned him too. “We had hoped, but we don’t anymore.”

The odd thing is that these disciples then go on to say that they’ve heard stories that Jesus’ tomb is empty and that some of his female disciples have had visions of angels telling them that he’s alive. You’d think they’d have wanted to stick around in Jerusalem and check that out, but instead it seems to have been the final straw, the news that’s propelled them out of Jerusalem, on their way home. But after the emotional roller-coaster of the past week, going from wild excitement as Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey to the depths of despair when he was arrested and killed, maybe it’s easier to give up and slink away back to their old lives.

It all feels so pointless. They’d given their all to someone who they were convinced was God’s Messiah, but how can he have been if God allowed him to be crucified? If they’ve got that so badly wrong, what’s the point of even trying anymore?

But this stranger helps them to see what has happened in a different light. Bit by bit, he takes them through the stories in their own scriptures and shows them that again and again in their history, God has been at work in times of apparent failure. Grace has emerged from disgrace.

There was the time the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, apparently forgotten by God, But just when it seemed all was lost, he sent Moses to lead them out of slavery to a new future in the land of Canaan. Later on, the people of Israel were exiled to Babylon, when Jerusalem and its Temple were destroyed by Babylon’s mighty armies. It seemed as if there was no hope for them, that they’d never go back. But through the prophets God encouraged them. Through the prophet Jeremiah God told them, “ I know the plans I have for you…plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future and hope.”  (Jer 29.11)

That future might not look like the one they “had hoped” for, though. Isaiah spoke of a leader God would send, but he wouldn’t be a military hero. Instead he would be a suffering servant, “despised and rejected” held to be “of no account”, but through him they would find the healing and blessing they needed.  Christians have often seen the likeness of Jesus in these words, whether that was what was in Isaiah’s mind or not. However we interpret them, though, they tell us something important about the way God works.

We tend to think of success as something big and obvious and shiny. We think of ourselves as successful when our team wins, when we get a promotion, when our business is making money. We measure success by the size of our salary, the number of people who vote for us, by how many “likes” we get on our Facebook posts. But the Bible tells us that God sees it differently. His grace, his presence, his blessing is often found in the events that look like disasters, the people who look like failures, losers.

As the stranger explained the ancient scriptures, it was as if the world began to shift around those two weary disciples. Perhaps this this awful thing that had happened wasn’t the end after all, but a new beginning? The Psalm we heard earlier spoke of God who delivered “my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.”  Maybe God could be in the disaster of Christ’s death too?

Maybe they remember how, again and again in his ministry, Jesus had told them that God was at work in the small things - the grain of yeast, the mustard seed – and in the people his society saw as small too, those who were regarded as expendable, unimportant – women, children, the poor, the disabled. Was there a possibility then, , that God might be at work in the ultimate humiliation of crucifixion, a punishment designed to mark people out as worthless nobodies?

It was only when they sat down with the stranger and asked him to break bread and give thanks with them that this new future started to come into focus though. In this familiar gesture they recognised him as Jesus, and everything started to make sense. Who else would have walked seven miles with them, in the wrong direction, away from the place where the action was? Who else would it be than the man who’d told them stories about prodigal sons who were loved even when they ran off and wasted everything they’d been given and shepherds who searched relentlessly for sheep who had wandered away until they found them? Who else would it be than the man who’d never given up on anyone?  The future they “had hoped” for, of political and military glory for Israel might be gone, but God’s future, of a world where all were loved and welcomed, was alive and well. They leapt up and ran back to Jerusalem, along that seven mile road that had seemed so long, transformed by the joy of it all.

I don’t know about you, but this coronavirus lockdown is starting to feel like a long slog, like that despairing trek to Emmaus. Are we nearly there yet? No, apparently not. This could go on for a long time yet, and many of the things we “had hoped” for aren’t going to happen now. That might be trivial things like holidays, or really important things like careers, businesses, or even the chance to see loved ones whom the virus has snatched away. We wonder what the world will look like on the other side of this, and how we will live in it. But the promise of this story is that Jesus walks beside us through the losses and the failures, just as much as the successes. He’s with us as we are, where we are, accompanying us into the future, however different it is from the one we imagined, and blessing it with his presence in the ordinary things of our lives. What we “had hoped” for may be dead and gone, but God’s plans for us aren’t, his future for us isn’t and his hope for us never dies.

Monday, 20 April 2020

Seeing and not seeing: Easter 2

Audio version here
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” says Jesus to Thomas. We’re doing a lot of “not seeing” at the moment. We’re not seeing our loved ones. We’re not seeing familiar places, like our church building. We’re not seeing the congregation. As you listen to this, you’re not seeing me.
Far more painful, of course, many people haven’t been able to see those they love when they are in hospital or in a care home, and maybe haven’t had the chance to see them to say goodbye if they have died.

Seeing, touching, being in the physical presence of one another matters to us. We’re physical beings, built for flesh and blood relationships with one another. A letter, email, phonecall, videocall are good, but they aren’t the same. Virtual reality isn’t real reality, and we know the difference.

So maybe we can sympathise with Thomas. Why should he believe that Jesus has risen from the dead when he hasn’t seen him with his own eyes and touched his wounded flesh? He needs a real experience of his own, not just a second hand report.

And that’s what he gets. Jesus appears, just for him, it seems, and invites him to reach out and touch him. That’s when the penny drops for Thomas, when he realises not only that Jesus is alive, but that this risen Christ has transformed and changed him too, and will continue to do so. He doesn’t say “So you are alive! Fancy that!” he says “My Lord and my God”. He calls him Lord; he gives Jesus the authority to direct and guide him. He calls him God ; he recognises in Jesus the source of life that overflows into his own life.

Thomas doesn’t just find that Jesus has come to him in that locked room; he also finds that he has come to him in his own locked heart.

That’s what the Gospel writer wants us to pay attention to. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”. Blessed are those who discover Jesus at work in them and around them. Blessed are those who discover the reality of his resurrection because their own dead hopes are raised to life.

John’s Gospel was written towards the end of the first century, sixty or seventy years after the events it describes. There can have been very few, if any, people still living who could possibly have known and seen Jesus in the flesh. He was writing for all the generations who came afterwards, including us, who would have to believe “without seeing” unlike Thomas and those first disciples, or perhaps would have to learn to see in a new way in order to find the risen at work.

Over many decades of ministry, I’ve had countless conversations with people who’ve experienced God, who’ve felt his presence with them, maybe just in an odd moment, maybe repeatedly. I’ve known it myself too. No one has ever reported seeing Jesus appear miraculously in a locked room, but they’ve found him in the words of the Bible or the stillness of prayer in ways they can’t deny or ignore.  People  have often told me that they’ve encountered God in others too, when they’ve received love and welcome that they didn’t expect, or when they’ve given help to others and found that they have come away feeling blessed themselves, knowing that something holy has happened. They might not be able to explain it, and it certainly doesn’t mean that all their doubts and questions vanish, but the penny has dropped. Faith has become real. It has taken root, in ways that change them forever.

That’s what happens to Thomas. His faith takes root in him in a new way, changes him, makes him look at the whole of his life differently. We don’t know for sure what happened to him after this, but early Christian legends tell of him travelling eastward and taking the Christian faith to South India where he was eventually martyred. That’s not at all unlikely; there were important trade routes between the two countries, and Jewish settlements in India, and there’s is a group of churches, the Mar Thoma churches, which claim to have been founded by Thomas, and which still worship using ancient Middle Eastern Syriac rites.

Whether those legends are true or not, though, it’s certainly the case that it was people like Thomas, ordinary people, who were the ones who spread the word about Jesus, often at great cost to themselves. They lived out the faith they professed in such a way that others wanted what they had too. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here. They found the courage to rise to the challenges that faced them, and they found it because their faith was real, personal and deeply rooted. It wasn’t just an idea, or a nice warm fuzzy feeling, but something that permeated every fibre of their being.

The challenges for us may be very different, but living out our Christian faith is always demanding too; that’s why we are often so bad at doing it! Loving others when it’s difficult to do so, speaking and acting for justice and peace when we are tired of doing so and it seems to be pointless, putting others before ourselves when it would be so much easier not to, keeping going when the road seems long and tough; these aren’t things we can do for long in our own strength. We need to know that beyond and above and beneath our own resources we have the strength of God to draw on.

At the moment we can’t look for God in our church buildings. We all miss that, but perhaps it’s a good thing to be deprived of it for a while, because it reminds us that God isn’t, and never has been, imprisoned in walls of stone. He can turn up wherever he wants – in our private prayer and reflection, as we read the Bible, as we serve others, and allow ourselves to be served by them. All we need to do is make sure we turn up there too.

Thomas missed Jesus in that upper room the first time because he wasn’t there. And if Thomas hadn’t turned up the following week he’d have missed him again, and maybe missed him forever. Turning up is an underrated discipline – just turning up, to pray, to reflect, to read, to serve – but this story reminds us of its importance. Developing a faith that’s real and deep rooted doesn’t happen by accident. It grows in us as we deliberately look for God at work in us and around us, day by day.  

That might mean just taking 5 minutes a day to sit still, to be aware of ourselves and what we are doing and how we are feeling about it, and put it in God’s hands. Or it might mean taking a moment before and after some task we are doing – another  Zoom meeting, or home-schooling task, or phone call to someone we’re concerned about  - just to say, “Where are you in this, God? What do you want to say to me about it?”

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”. In this Easter Season, when we’re reminded of the risen Christ’s tendency to turn up unexpectedly, may we also keep turning up, day by day, so we’re ready to meet him, quick to recognise him, open to receive the gift of his love, prepared for what he calls us to do in the world.  Amen

Sunday, 12 April 2020

While it was still dark...

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb… While it was still dark…

John’s Gospel is very specific about the time when the empty tomb was first discovered.  The other Gospels say that it was at daybreak, but John tells us that it was “still dark”.

I don’t know about you, but there have been quite a few days recently when I have woken while it’s still dark. We’ve all had a lot on our minds. I feel like I know too well those hours before the first glimmer of daybreak is visible. Often the birds have started to sing, as if they know something we don’t, but it is still as dark as midnight outside. When it comes, the dawn comes fast, and the shadowy shapes outside become the familiar ordinary landscape, but at that moment it’s all hidden in darkness.

That’s the moment, says the Gospel, when Mary came to the tomb.

Darkness and light are very important in John’s Gospel. It begins by telling us that Jesus is “the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it” (Chapter 1) It tells the story of Nicodemus, the Jewish leader, who comes to Jesus “by night” (Chapter 3), not only because he doesn’t want to be seen, but because he feels as if he is in the dark. He can’t figure out who Jesus is, and wants to know more.

At the end of the Last Supper, when Judas goes out to betray Jesus, the Gospel says starkly, “and it was night”. It’s not just a reference to the time of day, but to the sense that from now on, this will be a story set in the darkness of hatred, pain, sorrow, fear and despair.  When Mary sets out to go to Jesus’ tomb on that Sunday morning, she is still living in the darkness.  She can’t see a way forward. She can’t see a future. She’s lost sight of hope.

When she gets to the place where Jesus was buried – where she herself had seen him buried– the stone has been rolled away. She fumbles around in her own mind for an explanation – she’s still in the dark. The body must have been stolen! That’s all she can imagine. It’s a reasonable guess. There would be plenty of people who wouldn’t want Jesus’ tomb to become a rallying point for his supporters. But it’s only a guess, the first thing that comes to her mind.  

She runs to tell the disciples what she has found. Peter and another disciple run back with her, to see for themselves. But none of them is any the wiser for all their running about. All they can see is a tomb - the word “tomb” occurs eight times in the first eleven verses of this reading just to rub that in. It is all about the tomb for them, the place where Jesus’ body had been. No one can see beyond that tomb. The “other disciple”, unnamed in the Gospel, but often assumed to be John, sees and “believes” but we’re not told what he believes. Is it that the tomb is empty, or is something more than that?  Whatever it is, it isn’t enough to keep him there. Along with Peter, he just goes home – what else is there for them to do?

Only Mary remains - weeping. And that’s why she’s the first to encounter Jesus himself. She doesn’t realise it’s him for a while. The darkness she arrived in is very slow to disperse. She only recognises him when he says her name. When someone calls us by name, we know that they know us – we know we must already have a relationship with them, even if we can’t remember who they are or where we know them from. As soon as Mary hears this man call her by name, she knows that this is someone to whom she matters, and in an instant she knows who this must be.   . This is the moment when the light dawns for her, and the darkness starts to melt away. This is the moment when she stops seeing the tomb and is able to say to her friends “I have seen the Lord”.

But she only had this encounter because she stayed around, because she was prepared to stand there and weep and wait. If she hadn’t done, if she had gone home with Peter and the other disciple, she would have missed this moment. 

We’re all doing a lot of waiting at the moment, and perhaps some weeping too. We’re in the dark, we don’t know how our current crisis will end. No one wants to be where we are – least of all, of course, those who are ill, or who have watched their loved ones suffer, and in some cases, die, or the healthcare professionals working on the frontline. But this is where we are, in the dark, often wanting to weep, or actually doing so. It doesn’t feel much like Easter, if we mean by that a time of joy and fun, fluffy bunnies and chicks and chocolate. It can feel strange to even try to do the things we’d normally do.

I had a dilemma about this service today, though to be honest, it’s probably the kind of dilemma that only a priest would struggle with. What should I do, I wondered, about the lighting of our new Paschal Candle?  In normal times, a new candle is brought into church on Easter Sunday morning, and lit at the beginning of the service with blessing and ceremony, and the lighting of everyone else’s candles from it. But obviously we couldn’t do that this year, and even if we could, should we?  

Perhaps, I thought, we should leave it until we first meet again in church. Perhaps we should just delay Easter until better times. But, as I read this Gospel passage to myself I knew that this year, lighting that new Paschal candle was more important than ever.  The time when we most need light is when it is still dark, as it is for us at the moment, as it was for Mary when she came to the tomb.  Jesus didn’t rise in the blaze of noonday, when everyone had their lives sorted out, and understood what was going on, and had everything under control. He rose when no one had a clue what was happening. He came to his disciples, calling them by name – Mary, Peter, Thomas…He knew them, even though they couldn’t recognise him in the darkness that surrounded them. And the same is true for us.

Today on this strangest of Easter Sundays, we may be in the dark, but Christ still comes walking towards us, calling our names, meeting us wherever we are, telling us that here, even here, especially here, he is risen, bringing hope that is stronger than despair.

May we hear that voice, calling to each of us in the darkness, bringing the light of his presence which we so desperately need.  May the risen Christ find each one of us today, and remain with us always.

Sunday, 5 April 2020

Palm Sunday

Mathew 21.1-11

Evidently, John Wesley, famous as the co-founder of methodism used to sit in many different seats in church to see what the view was like and how audible the preacher was so that when it was his turn he could do his best to be seen and heard.

Well I think I’ve sat in virtually every pew space in Seal church yet in around 18 years of preaching this is the first time that I don’t benefit from visual contact with those I’m preaching to. Speaking to my laptop isn’t quite the same, but I’m grateful for the technology to give this a go.

So wherever you are sitting, standing or even laying lend me your ears and your imagination as we move to a crowded place, the hectic streets of Jerusalem, as Jesus arrives riding on a donkey.

Can you recall times when you’ve been in a crowd or at least a group of people and there’s been an atmosphere which has heightened your senses and tapped into your emotions in a way that being on your own can never do?

Maybe your team has won a trophy and you line the streets to celebrate as they pass through on an open top bus, I’m sure some will remember doing this for Kelly Holmes after she won gold medals at the Olympics and processed through Tonbridge. Sometimes you have to get there early and wait a long time for your moment to wave and cheer, it can even be hard to stand still as excited people jostle for position.

It reminds me, when ‘social distancing’ first became a thing a colleague suggested it would be OK for matches to continue at the club I support, Arsenal, as the crowds had become so sparse it should be easy for fans to sit at least six feet apart!

Back in more crowded places perhaps it’s a political cause has brought you together with hordes of like-minded people determined to make their views known or possibly it’s smaller scale, forming a human tunnel at a wedding cheering and congratulating the happy couple as they pass through.

Whatever the event we are motivated to be there for a good reason. As we find ourselves being jostled in Jerusalem with the crowd waving palms and throwing coats onto the dusty road it’s a question that we can’t ignore. Are we just curious onlookers, in the city anyway for the annual Passover celebration or are we deliberately in this crowd to see Jesus, to cheer him as he passes shouting ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’?

Hosanna literally means deliver us or save us and King David of Israel had been promised that one of his offspring would rule forever so it’s clear that we have high expectations.

All this commotion has ensured that Jesus won’t go unnoticed, his followers know who he is but his profile continues to rise among those who oppose him as well. Those who are bemused by this great parade ask ‘who is this’ but most in the crowd already knows who he is and tell them ‘this is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’

He’s certainly fulfilling the words of the prophet Zechariah ‘ Tell the daughter of Zion, Look your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey’.  Familiar words to the people of Israel who believed that this king would come for them.

Could it really be true, Jesus is the Messiah, has he come to set us free? Is this the moment that generations have been waiting for? Will he be a great king who will overthrow the Roman Empire and free us from oppression?

When Pilate would ride into the city it was on a fine military stallion, so Jesus sitting on a few cloaks thrown over a borrowed donkey ridiculed all this pomp and pointed to a new way,  a new kingdom. The trouble was that the Romans weren’t renowned for having a great sense of humour when the ridicule of their ways was highlighted like this.

It’s possible that the Roman procession was even taking place around the same time so its clear that the time had passed for subtle persuasion, rival processions, rival ideologies and theologies. This overt mockery was intended to highlight the gulf between the ways of Jesus and the ways of the Roman Empire.

Jesus is truly a king, but he entered Jerusalem as one truly subversive to the establishment be it Roman or the religion of the temple. He understood how the Romans used religion to further their own ends and posed a direct political challenge to them.

As those of us who have shared and pondered many Palm Sunday readings over the years know, the crowds were to be disappointed, the hosannas are heard and answered by God but not in the instantaneous vengeful way that the crowd was hoping for.

As we endure ‘lockdown’ in an effort to protect those serving the weakest in our society ways in which crowds can come together which don’t require physical presence come to the fore. We were already using technology to unite for common causes from everything from crowd funding to lobbying sites such as change,org which unite people in a cause regardless of their geography and social backgrounds in a way that calling for a meeting or rally can’t.

It’s worth keeping this in mind as our procession through Jerusalem leads us to Holy Week. We can share resources and virtual worship but time alone with God is also to be cherished and used wisely.

In just a few days the crowds will turn against Jesus and where do we find ourselves then? Would we who were in the crowd melt away silently into our homes and keep quiet about injustice as he enrages the temple authorities turning tables over, challenging their economic systems and highlighting their hypocrisy? Or are we brave enough to stick by him whatever the cost?

Enjoy the imaginary procession and celebration of Palm Sunday but let’s focus ourselves to journey on through the forthcoming days to the foot of the cross, one day at a time, discovering anew the love that God offers us.


Kevin Bright

5th April 2020