Friday, May 19, 2017

When God is Pierced by Grief

Luke 2.27-35
Simeon is the sort of purveyor of doom and gloom whom we can well do without when we’re celebrating something good, like a new birth or a christening, because he’s likely to spoil our mood. Mary and Joseph were feeling happy and optimistic because they were dedicating their firstborn son to God in the Temple, and at first Simeon made them feel even better when he told them that their son was destined to be a guiding light, pointing all the nations of the world to God’s way for them. It’s amazing stuff. But then he spoilt it all by revealing that, from his perspective, the glass was only half full and a lot of emptiness remained. And it was an emptiness filled not just with uncertainty, but with rejection, denial, pain and suffering.
The definition of a parent is someone who worries about their children. The columnist Gaby Hinsliffe said that after the suicide bombing at the Manchester Arena 'all parents were reminded of the never-ending dread of losing a child.' And that goes for grandparents to! She wrote, 'To love is to fear, and that is what I never really grasped before parenthood... Having children is one long process of daring yourself to let go' because you know that 'they need to make their own way in the world... To love is to fear but learn not to show it.'
When a couple are expecting a baby they often say, ‘We can’t wait for the baby to be here, then we’ll  be able to stop worrying.’ Ha, ha! As if that’s going to happen! They will worry about their children until their dying day, and - if they grow to adulthood - they’ll still be worrying about their children long after the children have started to worry about them as well.
Simeon’s prophecy was included in the Gospel because the early Christians felt it revealed something about Mary, how her soul had been pierced to the quick by the sword of grief when her eldest son was rejected. When a parent grieves, they grieve forever. The wound is always fresh. However, she came to terms with her grief sufficiently to turn from being one of the first opponents of Jesus’ ministry to becoming part of the inner circle of his most committed supporters.
I think the other reason why Luke included this unsettling story is because it reveals something about the nature of God, for God is Jesus’ parent too. Much is often made, in traditional theories about the Cross, of the need for God’s wrath about human sinfulness to be satisfied or dealt with in some way. God is bound to feel wrathful about a lot of what goes on in human society - things like the abuse of power, especially when that power is used to hurt innocent victims, or the careless damage we do to the planet, and so on. These things hurt him deeply and cause him great offence. He is also pierced by the sword of grief whenever people suffer and the world is harmed, and - like Mary - he was pierced by grief when Jesus was rejected and killed.
Through Jesus people were able to see with their own eyes what God was doing to save the human race and the world in which we live. He was a light for all nations and to some people this was the gift of peace. But it brought out darkness and rejection in others. So what should have been a cause for rejoicing brought grief instead.
Of course, because - like Simeon - God can see into the future, what happened to Jesus on the Cross can hardly have surprised him, but nonetheless it must have disappointed and dismayed him. Grief still comes as a shock and hurts us profoundly, even when we know that someone we love is about to die.
When we are pierced by grief God grieves too. And when we plumb the depths of grief we can know that he has grieved before us and understands how we feel. God is not aloof and untouched by suffering and harm, he experiences it with us. He too has had to dare himself to let go of a creation that he loves so that we can learn to make our own way in the world with his help.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Building the New Jerusalem

Isaiah 26.1-9
Revelation 21.1-4
This is a picture of what God’s perfect world order would be like. Of course, for the Prophet, it would be centered on Jerusalem. For Christians it would be centered on the New Jerusalem, which could be anywhere. When I was at college in Manchester there was a giant tapestry on the wall. It depicted the New Jerusalem, but if you looked closely many of its buildings were actually famous local landmarks. The artist was saying that Manchester could be the New Jerusalem if its people obeyed God’s will.
And that message comes straight out of Isaiah’s prophecy. The gates of the New Jerusalem will be opened to welcome in those who keep faith with God, who are unwaivering in their pursuit of peace.
The Prophet sets up a stark contrast with another mountain city, which thought it was better than Jerusalem, which has been brought low because of its disobedience. ‘The poor and the needy, or the abused, stomp all over that city!’ he says.
But although Jerusalem is on a mountain it’s not clear where this rival city was, nor even if it’s meant to be an actual place, because in any case the Prophet says that God will makes the path straight or smooth for those who trust him to bring about justice, who are earnestly seeking to know his will and are ready to obey him.
Verse 9 might mean that God ‘wants to teach everyone on this earth how to live right,’ and - in order to bring that about - we just need to make people more aware of God’s way. Or it might mean that when God’s judgements or decisions start to be enacted on the earth then its inhabitants will learn the right way to live.
I think it’s this latter meaning which is more appropriate to Christian Aid Week. There’s a place within Christian Aid, and similar organisations with the same charitable purposes, for education, for telling people how we can  all have better lives, and how the way can be made smoother for those facing the greatest challenges, if everyone just learns to live right. This is one approach to ‘making the ask’, challenging people to donate to the cause.
But in the end our primary purpose has to be enacting God’s decisions, smoothing the way ourselves, so that the earth’s inhabitants will learn the right way to live not by what we say but by seeing our example. That’s the other way of ‘making the ask’, inspiring people by showing them what the New Jerusalem could be like if we all started keeping faith with God’s will.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

False News

Isaiah 28.9-19, Matthew  13.13-16
In verse 9, the Prophet ponders how God is going to get across his message to the heedless people of Israel, North and South. Without Sir Lynton Crosby to help him distill his message into a few telling one liners, it will be like trying to explain the subtleties of Brexit to toddlers newly weaned from the breast who are just starting to speak a few words.
Imagine me reading a book to my two grandsons, both aged two. If it has plenty of pictures, and I set about it at a brisk pace and with plenty of animation, there’s a good chance we’ll get to the end of the story before they lose interest - but only if it’s well written, punchy and absolutely engages them.
The problem for God is that his message may be gripping and punchy, but it’s not a message that people really want to hear. When the Prophet Amos called for justice and fairness to roll down like a river in spate, that never runs dry, there was something delightfully vague about it. He was appealing to the people of the Northern Kingdom to mend their ways and include social justice in their definition of how to do the right kind of religion. But when Isaiah renews the challenge, perhaps 40 years later, Amos’s appeal has been turned into a very specific threat.
The Lord is going to send someone mighty and strong - the Emperor Sargon II of Assyria - who will come like a storm of hail, a destroying tempest, or an overwhelming flood. God’s hand will hurl Sargon down to the earth, where he will trample the heedless people of Israel underfoot like an avenging angel. It’s gripping stuff, but it’s not necessarily what you want to hear if you’re looking for hope and comfort in difficult times.
Is it surprising, then, that this rather bleak message doesn’t really engage people? They prefer to switch channels. Isaiah’s dilemma is quite a modern one really. Just as today we surf the Internet looking for the sort of news we want to hear, and ignoring unwelcome or unpalatable opinions, so the people of Israel and Judah tune out whenever God tries to tell them how disaster might still be averted. The message comes across as, ‘Blah, blah, blah… Precept, upon precept, upon precept, line upon line, upon line.’ Boring or what? And as for the impending disaster, what disaster?
When Isaiah tries to communicate God’s message it’s as if he can’t get the words out right or is speaking a foreign language. People just don’t respond, and he wonders whether God even expects them to hear. After all, even when God had offered rest to the weary they wouldn’t listen. It still seemed like precept upon precept, line upon line. So why should they listen now? Perhaps God has been laying a trap for them all along, gradually hardening their hearts to his uncompromising message so that they will focus only on the news they want to hear.
Jesus takes up the same idea in some of his teaching. He’s fond of saying, ‘Let anyone with ears listen,’ as if some people are bound to be on a different wavelength. And in Matthew chapter 13 he complains, borrowing words from Isaiah himself, that people’s ears are stopped up and their eyes are covered. They don’t seem able to see, or hear, or understand, because if they could they would surely turn to him and he would heal them.
But here Isaiah takes the idea in an intriguing direction. He’s convinced that some of the scoffers, who are rubbishing his message and encouraging others to ignore it, are actually peddling false news, an alternative narrative that makes sense of the world in a way they would like to be true.
So the rulers of the southern kingdom, based in Jerusalem, accept that the overwhelming scourge of the Assyrians is going to pass through Palestine, threatening both North and South, but they’re convinced ‘it will not come to us.’ It’s as if they think they can have their cake and eat it. They can disobey God, and ignore his precepts, yet still come out on top.
But the really intriguing thing is that Isaiah is convinced they know their narrative is false. It’s not as though they really believe they can make a covenant with death and the underworld to stay away from their land. They know it’s a ridiculous idea. They fully accept that they’re taking refuge in lies and sheltering behind falsehoods. But if it keeps the people happy, and stops them from taking to the streets, it will have served its purpose.
The story that Pope Francis had made a covenant with Donald Trump was exactly the same kind of cynical deception. The perpetrators knew it was false, but if they could only get enough people to believe it then they could soften Trump’s image, at least at the margins.
And we could say the same about some of the Leave narratives in the Brexit campaign, not least the bold claim that leaving the EU would be good for the NHS. My brother was in a lift with two hospital cleaners at Pinderfields Hospital just before the referendum. ‘Which way are you going to vote?’ one asked the other. ‘Well I’m going to vote for Brexit because we’ve got to save the NHS,’ the other replied.
The BBC has responded to its lamentable failure to call out false news by appointing a fact checking correspondent to weigh the competing claims of the party manifestos in the general election. And Facebook has published guidance about how to recognise false news, although one suspects that the people who are most drawn to the eye-catching headlines of false news stories won’t find the guidelines a riveting read. They certainly haven’t stopped the endless stream of false news stories about the sudden death of celebrities like Graham Norton, who has died a number of times recently on my Facebook page.
Isaiah says that God has his own answer to false news. ‘See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation. I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet.’ Or, to put it another way, ‘Justice and fairness will be the measuring lines’ for calling out the lies of false news. Isaiah concludes, somewhat optimistically, that the false news ‘will be swept away.’
It’s optimistic because of course the uncompromisingly stark narrative of the real news remains, and people still don’t want to hear it, even when the out and out falseness of the false news has been exposed. The scourge of Sargon II will still pass through. The false leaders and all their followers, North and South, will be beaten down by it and as often as the Assyrian army passes through the land it will claim fresh victims. Even Isaiah admits that it will be ‘sheer terror to understand [his] message.’ Who can blame people for continuing to click on the false news they prefer to hear even when they know, in their heart of hearts, that it’s highly problematic, to say the least?
Is that what continues to feed the popularity of climate change denial, and the false hopes that house prices can continue to rise without deepening the housing crisis, or that immigration can be reduced without affecting the availability of goods and services, or that good health and social care can be provided without raising taxes, or that pensions can be sustained without a radical rethink of what retirement means and how it’s going to be paid for?
All we can do is encourage our people to use justice and righteousness as the measuring lines for distinguishing truth from falsehood, right from wrong, and perhaps put out some narratives of our own, or at least give some likes and endorsements to the stories which seem to be most true, as a tiny corrective to the deluge of false news in the social media.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Sargon II and the General Election

Isaiah 14.3-21
At first sight Isaiah’s bitter poem about the downfall of the king of Babylon doesn’t appear to have much resonance with us. It seems to be describing long ago events in a far away place. Until we realise that already, by the time of Isaiah himself, the poem is being recycled.
It originally referred to the Assyrian King Sargon II, a man with a terrifying reputation who nonetheless managed to get himself killed while on campaign in a remote part of his empire. Sargon had just celebrated the pinnacle of his many achievements by completing a brand new capital city, but he didn’t get to enjoy it. Within months his army was defeated, in an apparently insignificant provincial rebellion. The fighting was so fierce that the body of the king couldn’t be recovered and had to be abandoned on the field of battle. Legend said that it couldn’t even be found by his enemies and had been left to rot or get eaten by dogs and wild animals.
To have suffered such an inglorious fate it was assumed that Sargon must have committed a terrible sin that had offended Assyria’s gods. The humiliation was felt so keenly back in Assyria that no monument was ever built to his memory and his name was simply erased from the historical record by his own son.
And if that’s how his own son felt about him, you can imagine what the people of Israel thought. Sargon had destroyed their kingdom and marched a lot of their people into exile in what was certainly an act of cultural genocide, where they were settled in some barren out of the way place, and it may have been an act of physical genocide too because they disappear from history.
One of Israel’s poets, or perhaps a poet from the southern kingdom of Judah where the cousins of the people of Israel lived, couldn’t wait to make fun of Sargon’s fate. ‘That cruel monster is done for!’ gloats the writer. ‘He won’t attack us again. Now the people of the world are celebrating with joyful songs.’ Even the trees have had a reprieve. No one is chopping them down for firewood for an invading army or to make siege engines.
The poet imagines what sort of reception must have awaited Sargon when he went down to the world of the dead. With great excitement the people whose nations he brought down gather round him. ‘Are you the man who made the world tremble and shook up kingdoms? Now you are just as weak as any of us! Your pride and your music have ended here,’ they scoff, ‘In the world of the dead.’
Sargon had aimed at an eternal throne above the highest stars alongside his gods but, whereas kings are normally buried in glorious tombs, he has ended up instead lying unburied, just another dead body killed in battle, lying underfoot like a broken branch. This is poetic justice for someone who’d captured countless cities, turned whole countries into deserts, murdered their people and refused to let his prisoners go home.
But Sargon had been long dead by the time Isaiah took up the same poem and used it against an unnamed King of Babylon. Although it had been intended as a barb against Sargon II and Assyria, the sentiments are timeless really. They express how the little people of the world often feel about the high and mighty, the ruthless schemers, the movers and shakers.
We only have to think about how people responded, at least initially, to the fall of Colonel Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein, or to the death of Osama Bin Laden, or how they are reacting now to the reconquest of the short-lived Islamic caliphate set up by ISIS. Recently young men brandishing machine guns posed alongside a British television reporter on the very spot where Djihadi John once executed British and American prisoners, the place where ISIS had promised that Armageddon - the final battle between good and evil - would be won by them. It was the symbolic equivalent, for a television audience, of Isaiah’s poem.
Our politics are conducted on a different plane, but there’s still plenty of room for ruthless cut and thrust. Witness the meteoric rise and fall of the alliance between Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, or the public celebrations in Thurnscoe when Margaret Thatcher died. People of different political persuasions still celebrate the look of defeat on the faces of Michael Portillo and Ed Balls when they lost their seats in Parliament. But instead of going down deep into the world of the dead they went deep into the world of entertainment. Michael Portillo was condemned to making all the great railway journeys of the world until he runs out of steam, and Ed Balls to being the butt of the judges’ jokes on Strictly Come Dancing.
In the weeks ahead, if Theresa May doesn’t win the expected landslide, or Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t stave off the annihilation of the Labour Party, or Nicola Sturgeon sees her grip on Scotland starting to slide, their fall could be just as sudden and precipitous, if not so deadly, as the fall of Sargon II. After all, in under a year David Cameron has gone from running a country to planning and installing a luxury garden shed - an imitation shepherd’s lambing hut on wheels - where he can sit and write his memoirs in peace and quiet.
We need to believe that it doesn’t have to be like this. People don’t have to either win or lose. There is an alternative way. The way of gentleness and compassion, the way of truth and sincerity, the way of justice and peace, the way of reconciliation. And we have to believe this because it’s the way of Jesus.
In his letter to the church at Philippi St Paul encourages his readers to ‘think the same way that Christ Jesus thought.’ Unlike Sargon he did not just aspire to be like a god, he ‘truly was God. But he didn’t try to remain equal with God. Instead he gave up everything and became a slave, one of us.’ He was humble not haughty, obedient not proud, willing even to die on a cross.
Jesus modelled a pattern of leadership where the leader aims to serve and help the people that he or she leads, not to exploit, or mislead and deceive them, or rule the roost over them. And precisely because of that God has given him the highest place. Whereas Sargon was erased from history, at least for a time, the name of Jesus will always be honoured above all others. ‘So at the name of Jesus every knee will bow down.’ Whereas the dead make fun of Sargon in Isaiah’s poem, even the dead - those ‘under the earth’ - will acknowledge the true lordship of Jesus.
The bitterness and vengefulness with which the poem about Sargon ends mean that, inevitably, the outbreak of peace which the poem celebrates is likely to be shortlived. The crucifixion of Jesus appears at first sight like a similarly humiliating and catastrophic end to the ignominious fate that was  suffered by Sargon, but Jesus’ story doesn’t end in the world of the dead. It ends in resurrection, and with the throne above the highest stars alongside God, which Sargon aspired to but was denied.
As followers of Jesus we’re called to model the same spirit of humility, gentleness, collaboration and compassion which made him glorious. Politics and leadership in general is not a Game of Thrones, a chance to show how clever and manipulative we can be. Leadership, whether in the wider community, or in the church, or at work, or at home, is an opportunity to serve others and together seek the common good. We shouldn’t be looking for strong leaders, we should be looking for right-minded leaders, and leaders whose aim is to serve.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The meaning of the resurrection

John 20.19-29, Romans 8.31-39
We often wonder what the story of Jesus’ resurrection is telling us about life after death. But there’s another question we should ask, what’s it telling us about life here and now? 

We believe that God became human in Jesus. That means God shared everything we experience, including birth and death. Yet the story of the resurrection reminds us that becoming human, and subject to human weakness and suffering, cannot diminish God. Even dying, while it's very final, cannot be the end of God. 

So rather than asking what God becoming human reveals about God’s nature, we can also ask what God becoming human, and dying and rising with us, reveals about human nature. I think it expands our horizons beyond this life and our understanding of what human existence can be like right now. 

First, God becoming human shows us that the human body can be infused with God’s presence. Incredible as it may seem, our bodies are capable of being God’s dwelling place or Temple. He is with us, dwelling in our bodies, through everything that happens to us, in all our living, and our dying. 
The resurrection simply takes this on to the next stage of existence. God is still with us, or we are with God, inseparable from him as St Paul puts it, even in what comes next after death when our bodily life ceases. 
Second, the wounds that Jesus suffered on the Cross are clearly central to Thomas’s understanding of what it means for God to continue to be with us both in this life and beyond death. Even before he sees the risen Jesus Thomas makes the wounds the key test of what God overcoming death must be like. Without them the Jesus whom the disciples have seen in his absence cannot be the real thing, only a spectral imprint of his former self, left behind when he died, like a ghost. 
His wounds confirm what we learned on Good Friday, that believing in Jesus is not a lucky talisman which protects us from harm. Resurrection doesn’t turn back the clock and undo all the bad things that have happened in the past. Jesus is not like Jairus’s daughter, or Lazarus, or the Widow of Nain’s son. He’s not been given another chance to live the rest of his life as if nothing had gone wrong. 
In the immortal words of Mr Spock of Star Trek fame, the resurrection is, ‘Life Jim, but not as we know it!’ It’s life in a different dimension, that doesn’t prevent death from happening but transcends it. 
In times past people used to swear oaths on ‘God‘s wounds’, the wounds suffered by Jesus on the Cross. Even in our much freer society, where almost anything goes, swearing on God’s wounds seems distasteful so the oath has fallen out of use, except in Shakespeare's plays. But it was a reminder that although God can’t be diminished by death he’s certainly not unscathed by it. God can bleed, just like us. And God carries scars, just as we do. 
It’s often said that God is changeless, but the wounds inflicted on Jesus when he was crucified contradict that idea. They must have changed him. They not only changed his outward appearance, but they also show us that God is powerfully affected by what happens. Where there are physical scars there must be emotional scars too. Perhaps God experiences post traumatic stress even if he isn't disordered by it.
The wounds are a visible reminder that God continues to be affected by suffering because he still enters into our suffering and pain. One of our older hymns describes his wounds as sweet injuries because they reveal the depth and the enduring character of God’s love and commitment, to be alongside us in all that life might bring. 
And that brings us to final thing which the resurrection teaches us, perhaps especially but not exclusively in his appearance to Thomas. It teaches us that the Good News about Jesus being human can never be reduced to a set of beliefs which we’re just asked to accept in our hearts. 
As Thomas instinctively realised, to be real - and certainly to have real impact - it must have tangible outcomes. We must be able to touch and feel the Good News.
Princess Diana showed this when she held hands with someone dying from AIDS. In that simple act she recognised that it was meaningless to say that people with HIV or AIDS should be treated normally. She had to live the message. She had to take the gloves off and hold out her hand. 
For the Good News about Jesus to be real today it has to be incarnated, or resurrected, in us. It has to come to life, and be lived out, in what we do. Someone has said that we should never imagine helping other people, or caring for them, is just a warm-up act for the real task of winning their hearts and minds for Christ. That would undermine the very heart of the Good News itself, which is that God took on human nature in order to touch us, and heal us, and share with us in our moments of deepest need. 
The risen Jesus never appeared to anyone without asking them to do something. The resurrection is a call to serve others and give ourselves for them, as Jesus gave himself for us. As someone else has said, ‘The only way to interpret the Christian message for today’s world is to live it.’ But hasn’t that always been the case?

Friday, April 14, 2017

Meeting God Face to Face

Exodus 33.12-23, John 20.1-18
The writers of the material in the Book of Exodus are obsessed with the theme of encountering God. They return to it again and again.
This shouldn’t surprise us because encountering God is what spirituality is all about. It’s the Holy Grail, if you like, which all believers are pursuing throughout this life and into the life beyond.
Here Moses is told most emphatically that a full-on encounter with God is just not possible. It’s too scary. He will go mad or die. Only a partial revelation is safe.
It’s a bit like the Greek myth of the Gorgon. Anyone who gazed upon her face was turned to stone. Even in death she retained this awesome power.
Christians know, however, that God is not like the Gorgon. We can look upon his face and yet remain alive. If anything, this encounter can enrich our lives to the point where our old life seems trivial and incomplete by comparison.
Of course, meeting God as Creator of the universe would doubtless still be immensely daunting. This face-to-face encounter with God is only made possible for us because we can look upon the face of God become human, in the person of Jesus.
This is what Mary did in the garden on Easter Day. And the first thing to say about her face-to-face encounter with the Risen Jesus is that it had a very ordinary quality. She mistook him for the gardener, more Monty Don than Lord of All.
The second thing is that it was deeply personal. Jesus spoke to her by name, ‘Mary!’ Some faiths teach that when we die we’ll be absorbed into the very being of God, and perhaps that’s true, but even if this happens we’ll still be individuals, called by name.
Preserving my individuality, making it possible to pick me out of a crowd, is the reason why my parents gave me a middle name, because in any medium sized crowd there’s always someone else called Bishop. When I started secondary school the teachers were always asking me, ‘Are you related to the Bishop in the Sixth Form?’ I don’t why this mattered to them, but it was always a conversation stopper because I wasn’t related to him.
Of course when you get into an international arena like the Internet, being called by a particular name isn’t so useful for preserving your uniqueness! A quick search for my name brought up 34½ million entries! There’s even another person with my name, who’s roughly my age, who was once a bank robber, and another who’s a professional footballer. And that’s just in England!
Moses reminded God in our reading from the Book of Exodus that he was already God’s friend and that God had been pleased with him. That’s why he felt sure that God would always go with him and grant him peace. But even so he couldn’t look on God face-to-face. He could only be permitted to get a fleeting glimpse of God’s glory.
Similarly Mary already knew Jesus before she saw him in the garden on Easter Day. They were on first-name terms. But in contrast with Moses’ experience, although he’d now been raised from death, she did get to see Jesus’ face-to-face and even to touch him.
The resurrection of Jesus became the guarantee that even beyond death personal relationship matters to God. Though he’s different, he’s still Jesus, and he still cares about Mary, and each one of us, as unique individuals with a special place in his heart.
That’s why the Methodist Church’s book about membership has the title, ‘Called by Name’. Each of us is being called by Jesus to have a one-to-one relationship with him. Even if there are 34½ million people with the same name he will still  have a unique relationship with each one of us.
Finally, Mary’s relationship with Jesus was dynamic, not static. This shouldn’t surprise us. As someone has said, if it’s going to endure ‘love has to bend, adapt and grow to meet the changes in our lives that will inevitably affect our relationships.’ Marriage, children, caring for relatives who become frail or unwell, unemployment, all sorts of things can have a bearing on our relationships, and our love for one another has to cope with these challenges. We can’t pickle the way that we relate to one another in aspic.
Mary couldn’t cling to the past, to the Jesus she used to know. Nor could she go on loving him in the same way. Continuing to love Jesus meant going and doing something for him.
And that challenge applies to us, too. Loving Jesus, committing to follow him, belonging to his Church, is not something static and unchanging, a one-off decision that we look back on with justifiable satisfaction. It’s a process. It’s constantly changing. Our love for Jesus needs renewing. And it’s dynamic. It involves doing - in Mary’s case, going and telling the other disciples about him.
Of course, Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved had only seen a static situation - an empty grave. The disciple whom Jesus loved, let’s call him his favourite disciple, chose to believe that something dynamic and life-transforming had happened, and to believe Mary’s report. As readers of the Gospel, or listeners to the story, we have to ask, ‘Can we bring ourselves to follow his example, or are we going to be doubtful and hesitant like Peter?’
St Paul observed that, although we may get to look on God’s face in Jesus, even meeting God in Jesus is still a death-defying experience. The encounter forces us to die, and go on dying, to our old way of life and to rise, and go on rising, to new life in him. So, like Mary, we still meet God in Jesus at our peril. There are no free lunches.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Thanking God in the Midst of Suffering

2 Corinthians 1.3-11
This is an unusual prayer because it is a celebration or thanksgiving, but not a celebration of all the good things we receive from God but a celebration of God’s goodness to us when bad things happen and when we are suffering. Paul says that God wants to ‘comfort us when we are in trouble.’ But God doesn’t just want to cheer us up and make our troubles more bearable, he wants to comfort us so that we can then go on to share the same sort of
comfort and encouragement with other people who are in trouble too.All of this is built on the example of Jesus who, Paul says, endured ‘terrible sufferings’ - whipping and crucifixion - not for their own sake but in the hope of bringing comfort and strength to us when we are suffering. He came through his ordeal so that he could hold out a hand to us, to encourage and help us, in our troubles. And Paul says that, having been encouraged himself by the example of Jesus, he believes he has been able to share the same sort of comfort and encouragement with his own friends.
Paul goes on to tell his friends about his own horrible and unbearable experiences while working as a Christian minister in modern day Turkey. They were so bad that he thought he and his companion, Timothy, were going to die.
He’s probably referring to beatings and imprisonment, or to being attacked by a mob in the city of Ephesus. But he also had a long term eye condition which affected his sight and may have contributed to his sufferings. He always got someone else to write his letters down for him, probably because he couldn’t see well enough to write.
Fortunately, some good did come out of these troubles. As well as giving him the strength to comfort his readers, as they patiently endure the same kind of sufferings, it forced him to stop trusting in himself and start trusting in God.

The point Paul seems to be making is this, obviously all of us would like to live a trouble free life but, if trouble and suffering should come our way, we can either let these things make us bitter, resentful and inward-looking, or we can seek comfort from the example of Jesus, from the presence of his Spirit with us and from other people, to help us cope with our troubles and then we can share that comfort with others and try to make their lives a little bit more bearable too.