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.
They’re 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.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Sharing in the Terrible Sufferings of Christ

Matthew 21.1-11
Giotto di Bondone was a medieval artist and architect who lived in the city of Florence at the end of the Thirteenth Century and the beginning of the Fourteenth. He was the son of a farmer and he was looking after his father’s sheep when a famous artist admired some drawings he’d made to pass the time. Tradition has it that he was drawing pictures on rocks in the fields because paper was so expensive at the time.
Florence was a turbulent place to live. Giotto painted a famous portrait of the poet Dante, but Dante was then driven into exile. However, none of this is reflected in his picture of the Entry into Jerusalem, which doesn’t look the least bit like a demonstration. It’s a peaceful religious procession led by a priest like Jesus, his hand raised in blessing for the people of Jerusalem, some of whom are bowing to greet him. One has got down to place his cloak in the road. The crowd behind Jesus is made up of dignified saintly types and Jesus himself is the very image of calm and serenity. The most exciting thing happening in the picture is that someone has shinned up a tree to cut down a palm branch.
Contrast Giotto’s picture with the one painted by Anthony van Dyke who lived in the first half of the seventeenth Century and died just before the English Civil War. One of his most famous paintings was a portrait of King Charles I but his picture 'Entry of Christ into Jerusalem' is one of his earliest works, painted when he was just 18. It depicts a more ambivalent scene than Giotto’s stately entry into Jerusalem. Some of the onlookers look anxious, others doubtful, one seems positively annoyed. The crowd following Jesus are ordinary people, not saints or holy men, and none of the onlookers are especially posh. The man in the foreground, holding a palm, is very muscular and only half dressed, clearly a working man accustomed to taking off his cloak to keep cool. The crowd looks more like a delegation of workers going to meet the bosses than a religious procession, and Jesus himself looks sad and apprehensive. There are no women in van Dyke’s picture, either, as though a procession so rough and tumble as this is no place for them to be, whereas there are lots of women in Giotto’s crowd.
The other striking thing about the pictures is the absence of children. When both artists were working more than half the population would have been 18 or under, like van Dyke himself, and there would have been been even more young people around in the time of Jesus. Yet where are they in the pictures? There are some short people in Giotto’s picture, possibly because the artist himself was reputed to be very short, but if they’re supposed to be young people they’re on the very cusp of adulthood. It seems that both men applied a ‘Nine O’clock Watershed’ to their depiction of Holy Week. It was a subject for adults only.
So how should we respond to the pictures? First, I think, by affirming that Holy Week is in fact a story for people of all ages. Children are not exempt from life’s disasters and tragedies. Sadly there is no ‘Nine O’clock Watershed’ in real life. The terrible suffering of Jesus offers comfort to all of us because it holds out the promise that, whatever happens in our own lives, he has some inkling of what it must be like to endure it. He’s there for us, to hold our hand and to help us find a way through, as  he found a way through from Good Friday to Easter Day.
Second, I think we can affirm the central place of women in the Easter story. They were definitely there; Giotto is right. And they were in the crowd following Jesus, as well as in the crowd that welcomed him into the city. Van Dyke is wrong to depict the disciples as exclusively male.
In fact, Jesus embraced stereotypically feminine strategies for coping with life. He chose to serve, not to be served, and in his confrontation with the authorities he didn’t respond aggressively, but submissively. He chose to embrace suffering, not because he considered it to be good to suffer for its own sake, but as the best hope of bringing about positive and lasting  change.
Finally, I think both artists give only a partial picture of what it was like when Jesus entered Jerusalem. Giotto depicts Jesus solemnly coming to bless  the city he had wept over and holding out the possibility of  reconciliation with God. Van Dyke offers us a more ambivalent image, where Jesus seems resigned to rejection and apprehensive of the fate that awaits him.
We could conclude that one artist helps us glimpse more of the divine side of Jesus’ nature and the other shows us more of his human side. Except that I’m not sure the difference is quite so clear-cut.
Is the human side of Jesus still keen to bless the waiting crowd even though he fears that they may turn against him? In van Dyke’s picture, despite the anxiety and apprehension written plainly on Jesus’ face, he still reaches out to the crowd in greeting. And does God share Jesus’ apprehension about the terrible suffering that lies ahead, or is he confident of Jesus’ ultimate victory on Easter Day, or does he feel - like us when we face suffering - a mixture of emotions?

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Hezekiah and Lazarus

Isaiah 38.1-5, 9-20, John 11.1-45
King Hezekiah experienced something that all of us want to avoid. He got very sick. Worse than that, he was close to death. We normally think of Jeremiah as the bearer of bad news, but here it’s Isaiah who was sent to tell him that ‘the Lord says you won’t ever get well. You are going to die.’ Isaiah advised him to put his affairs in order.
Hezekiah had been quite a good king. The Bible says that ‘he obeyed the Lord, just as his ancestor David had done.’ With some exaggeration, it goes on to claim that ‘no other king of Judah was like Hezekiah, either before or after him,’ and that ‘he was successful in everything he did.’ This is because he closed all the ancient hill shrines, which had sometimes been associated with pagan worship or with sacrifices offered by people who weren’t ordained as priests. Instead people had to worship God in Jerusalem.
The Old Testament doesn’t expect good people to have an untimely death, so that begs the question, ‘Where had Hezekiah gone wrong?’ Perhaps he shouldn’t have rebelled against the emperor of Assyria and refused to be his servant.
The emperor left his own record of what happened next. He writes, ‘I shut up King Hezekiah himself in Jerusalem, ...like a bird in a cage. I plundered his towns and gave them to [the Philistine kings]. I reduced his territory but increased the annual tribute he had to pay. Later Hezekiah himself sent to me in Nineveh, my royal city, his own daughters.’
You might think things couldn’t get any worse, but it was then that Hezekiah had his near death experience. He cried hard and prayed hard too, and God reprieved him.
The Book of Isaiah records the psalm which Hezekiah wrote in gratitude. His daughters might be prisoners in Assyria, but at least he had escaped from being a prisoner in the world of the dead.
Oddly enough, the way that Hezekiah thought of the world of the dead very closely resembles one of the oldest works of literature, the story of Bílgamés and the Netherworld, which was written in Babylonia where his daughters had been sent into exile. Bílgamés had invented a game with bat and ball which he and his friends played all day long until their womenfolk complained to the gods, who made their playthings fall down a deep hole into the underworld.
Bílgamés best friend, Enkidu, volunteered to go and get them back, and so he saw at first hand what being in the world of the dead was really like. He found that people who’d had lots of children in this life felt like gods, because they had plenty of descendants still left on earth to remember them. But people who had no surviving children sat around moping, because they would soon be forgotten.
In other words, it wasn’t a real existence.  In the realm of the dead people lived on only in the memories of those who’d loved them on earth.  So the people who wrote the story of Bílgamés and Enkidu believed, as Hezekiah  did, that dying would be like a thread being cut off from a weaver’s loom when the garment is finished, or tent pegs being pulled up and the tent folded away when the trip has come to an end. It was a giant full stop.
We talk about ‘meeting our maker’ when we die, but Hezekiah didn’t expect to meet God in the afterlife. ‘No one in the world of the dead can thank you or praise you,’ he says. ‘None of those in the deep pit can hope for you to show them how faithful you are. Only the living can thank you as I am doing today.’
We meet the same attitude when Martha and Mary lose their brother Lazarus. Jesus talks about Lazarus’ death as though it were reversible. Lazarus has only fallen asleep. He can be woken up again.
Understandably Jesus’ friends don’t quite get what he means. As far as they can see Lazarus is either sleeping, or in a coma, or he’s died. Even Martha, who  believes that Jesus is God’s Chosen Leader, expects that her brother will only rise again ‘when all people rise again at the last day.’
And in a sense she’s right. Lazarus’ rescue from the grave is not a resurrection. Death is not behind him, he’s just been granted a temporary reprieve.
This is what Hezekiah felt had happened to him. He says, ‘Your love protected me from doom in the deep pit’ and made ‘me healthy and strong again.’ And he praises God because, ‘Your words and your deeds bring life to everyone, including me,’ but he only means ‘so long as I am alive!’
Hezekiah believed that he’d been saved him from death because God had taught him a stern lesson, by putting him in fear of his life, but had then   forgiven his sins. So why did Jesus save Lazarus from death?
Was it because he was deeply moved by his friends’ grief? John hints at this, but in the end he thinks it’s too arbitrary a reason.
However, there are other possible reasons. Jesus saw himself as a prophet in the same mould as Moses or Elijah. Both Elijah and his protegé Elisha had raised young people from death, apparently because they too were friends of the family and were deeply moved by the mothers’ grief, so perhaps Jesus wanted to show people that God would do the same for him if he asked it. Again John hints at this as a possible reason for the miracle. The crowd was already muttering that if Jesus really were such an amazing healer, ‘couldn’t he have done something to stop this man from dying.’ At the tomb of Lazarus Jesus is reported as saying to God, ‘I want these people to be sure that you have sent me.’
But John suggests a third reason. He identifies seven signs which Jesus performed during his ministry to show the kind of salvation he was bringing. The raising of Lazarus is the sixth of those signs which punctuate his Gospel. According to John, Jesus told his friends that Lazarus’ death had ‘happened so that God’s own presence among human beings may be clearly seen; and that it may be clearly seen, too, that the Son of God makes God’s presence real for men and women.’
So what did this sign reveal about God’s presence in Jesus? Surely not just that Jesus was caring and compassionate, nor even that he was a great prophet and miracle worker like Elijah and Elisha. Its key purpose was to show that Jesus is ‘the resurrection and the source of life. Whoever trusts’ in him ‘shall come to life again, even though they die and nobody who is alive and trusts in him shall ever die.’
And yet, although the raising of Lazarus was a sign, it’s not the real thing. It’s just a foretaste, a promise that if we trust in Jesus - as Mary, Martha and Lazarus did - we shall come to life again even though we die. because life in him is indestructible.
All of us are going to have Hezekiah moments in our lives, or we’re going to sit at the bedside of someone going through the same kind of dark night experience. We’re going to have moments of doubt when we wonder just how strong that bond between the believer and Jesus really is. ‘I thought I would never again see you, My Lord,’ says Hezekiah in his psalm. ‘Can God’s love  for us in Jesus really overcome death?’ we may wonder.
And even if we’re not assailed by doubts of that kind, we might feel - as Hezekiah did - that our bones are being crushed, as though a lion were savaging us in its jaws, or that our lives are being wrecked or have turned sour, or that we’re being terribly abused by the circumstances which have befallen us.
Like Hezekiah, we know that the Lord’s ‘words and deeds bring life to everyone,’ but he could only pray that God would make him ‘healthy and strong again’ whereas we have the promise of Jesus that even though we die we shall come to life again.

If God were not able to reach us in death, the only hope we’d have left is that someone might remember us after we’re gone. But if God can overcome death, so that the life we enjoyed in Jesus continues after it and the thread is not cut off or the tent pegs pulled up and stashed away, then we can trust that he will always remember us. As the Psalmist says, even if we’re forgotten by everyone else, ‘the Lord will not forget to give us his blessing.’

Friday, March 24, 2017

The ideal way of governing

Isaiah 32.1-8, 15-10
Our ideal way of governing is democracy. But that’s not Isaiah’s ideal. For him good governance is not about who governs but about how they do it. Mob rule can be just as tyrannical as despotic rule.
We forget too easily that democracy has limited value unless it goes hand in hand with the love of justice. A just society is a place of refuge in a cruel world whereas an unjust society is harsh and unforgiving even when it has democratic elections, and for how long will it be truly democratic anyway?
In a just society the citizens would make an effort to see things from other people’s point of view. They would open their eyes to see what is really going on. They would pay attention to what other people are saying.
In a just society people would take time to think before they said anything. They wouldn’t rush to judgement because rushed judgements often turn out to be profoundly unjust.
In a just society voters would recognise foolish plans for what they are. They would have a sixth sense for proposals that are self-serving and unfair, that make the poor even poorer and limit access to the knowledge that we all need if we are to become equal stakeholders in society. People would know when ideas are cruel - aimed at destroying those who need help most or denying justice to the weak, and they would instinctively realise when politicians are trustworthy and are trying to help build a better, fairer world.
This sort of society, embracing the right kind of values, would be one where it was truly worth living. It’s a vision that every government and every citizen should make their aim. But, of course, it is unachievable in the real world.
Or is it? Isaiah says not. God’s Spirit is what can make the difference between an impossible dream and an amazing reality. If we allow God’s Spirit to guide us, ‘honesty and justice will prosper and… produce lasting peace and security.’ Even when things go wrong, everyone will rally round to put them right again.
For him it doesn’t matter who brings this about. An authoritarian society that was ruled in a free and fair way would be better for Isaiah than an unjust democracy. But as the Nineteenth Century historian Lord Acton once said, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’  We talk glibly about ‘the great and the good,’ but he said that ‘the great’ - by whom he meant the most powerful people in society - almost always turn out to be bad.
That’s why, in the end, democracy probably gives us the best chance of creating the sort of society that Isaiah envisioned. But only spirit-led democracy can do that. Democracies led by people who tell lies and do evil things is just as likely to turn out bad as any great man or woman.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Covering our ears

Isaiah 30.1-11, 18
The membership of the Methodist Church has declined over the last 12 years from around 300,000 to about 190,000. This decline comes against the background of a similar decline in other Churches and in Christian allegiance in general.
People have wondered why. Perhaps we haven’t worked hard enough. Perhaps we haven’t been listening for God’s guidance. Perhaps we have lacked faith.
Isaiah offers another explanation. We have been listening, but we didn’t want to hear what God has been saying to us. We were like my little brother who, when he didn’t want to hear something, would cover his ears and try to drown out the sound.
‘Don’t tell us the truth,’ we have thought to ourselves. ‘Just say what we want to hear, even if it’s false. We don’t want to hear any more’ about the more challenging way we ought to be going.
We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. The truth can be difficult and uncompromising. It can be hard to swallow. It can be much easier to take comfort in old certainties, traditional  answers, and the way we have always done things. But then we find ourselves wondering why churches are shrinking rather than growing. ‘Don’t tell us the truth,’ we think, ‘Just let us hear what we want to hear, even if it’s false.’
Yet Isaiah also has a message of hope. We don’t have to be stuck in this dead end. ‘The Lord God is waiting to show how kind he is and to have pity on us. The Lord always… blesses those who trust him.’
It’s never too late to face up to the truth and seek to move on. If we trust God to show how kind he is, and to have pity on us, and to bless us we can surely find the courage we will need to on venture to new ground and try new things, to allow God to reinvent us.