Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Path of Obedience

This reading marks the turning point in St Luke's Gospel, where Jesus begins a roundabout journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. The point is that he is now on a collision course with the Jewish authorities and everything he does is building up to that final showdown.

Some people don't want to be part of his confrontational approach, and Jesus makes clear that they are free to reject him if they wish. No one must try to coerce or pressurise them. Someone posting on this blog has been trying to persuade me that, because St Luke and other Scripture writers, use the stories of Elijah and Elisha as a resource when they are telling the story of Jesus, that necessarily means the stories about Jesus are made up. However, whereas the New Testament writers usually try to show how alike Elijah and Jesus are, here interestingly St Luke contrasts the two. Elijah believed in coercion, and in calling down fire from heaven. Jesus does not.

Even to those who are prepared to follow him, Jesus is keen to point out the hardships and difficulties which lie ahead. If people are not prepared to accept the cost of discipleship, they should turn back.

That cost includes having no permanent home, leaving behind your family – even when they are in great need, and leaving the past resolutely behind. It is what generations of Methodist ministers have done, but I can testify from personal experience that it is a very hard thing to do. Even now the Methodist Church is reconsidering its policy on stationing ministers because of a shortage of volunteers. However, last week's floods are a vivid reminder that those who look for permanence in this world are bound to be disappointed. Only in the realm of spiritual and ethical values can we hope to find anything of truly lasting significance.

Following Jesus can sometimes create a conflict of interest – when being like other people in our village or our family, and sharing their values, is different from being like Jesus. Some sects have used passages like this one to justify calling for a complete break from family and friends in order to join their circle of initiates. That involves placing too much emphasis on sayings which were probably meant to be exaggerations anyway. But nonetheless, as followers of Jesus, we all have to ask ourselves whether we are prepared, if necessary, to take the lonely path of obedience if staying behind would prevent us from moving on with him.

Muslim extremists have shown again this weekend what they understand by the path of obedience. Christians have sometimes been guilty, too, of wanting to bring down fire on the heads of unbelievers, but Jesus' rebuke to James and John reminds us that the way of true obedience is the way of peace and love.

Lord, we pray for decision-makers: for Gordon Brown and his new Cabinet, and those who advise them, that they may be guided by the quest for freedom, truth, and justice.
We pray for the times when decisions are hard, when they are about protecting freedom and safety in the face of the threat from terrorism, or when they are about how best to cope with extremes of weather and climate.
And we pray for our own difficult choices, which we have to make when we are lost and confused.
We pray for those who have no choices left: people who have been caught up in the floods, people who are victims of poverty and hardship or ill health.
And we pray for our churches: that we may make the right choices in proclaiming the Gospel, even when it means leaving behind things that we cherish. Amen
(Based on an original prayer published in

Monday, June 04, 2007

New Life

St Luke implies, but does not say, that the widow and her family were poor.[1] This wasn’t true for every widow, of course. Rich widows had more control over their affairs than any other women. They could choose whether or not to remarry, whom to marry, and how to spend their money until they did marry again. But poor widows were in a real fix, because there was no welfare state, so they were dependent upon their children to earn money for them – especially their sons. And the widow of Nain had only ONE son! If they were poor, his death would mark the end of all hope for the rest of his family, including his mother. They would be reduced to begging, or to relying upon the charity of their neighbours.

Yet even a rich widow might grieve especially for the loss of her only son. If she cherished the memory of her husband, she would be especially conscious that it was her son who was supposed to carry on the family name. And, anyway, ONLY sons often have a special bond with their mothers.

If we take the miracle at face value, as the people of Nain clearly did, it immediately evokes the memory of the great Prophet Elijah, who also raised a poor widow’s son from the dead. On seeing that miracle, the widow said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth." This is what the people of Nain recognise about Jesus. ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ they say, and the word about him spreads throughout Judea and all the surrounding country. But Luke is anxious to emphasise that comparisons with Elijah are very far from Jesus’ thoughts as he enters the town. He isn’t seeking what one commentator calls the ‘Wow!’ factor in front of a large crowd of impressionable onlookers, he is simply responding with compassion to a woman’s tears.

I say, ‘if’ we take the story at face value, because there are two problems which all readers of the story have, at least, to consider.

The first is this. Was the man really dead? At the time it was customary to bury a dead person within twenty-four hours, and mistakes did sometimes happen. A deep coma can very convincingly mimic death. Only recently, mortuary attendants were startled when a corpse suddenly moved. It was only then that they realized the person wasn’t dead after all. So it’s impossible to come to hard and fast conclusions about whether the widow’s son was really raised from death.

From a purely historical perspective, it doesn’t really matter, of course. Whether or not he was dead, the man was obviously gravely ill and Jesus intervened to restore him to normal life. And, as regards the comparison with Elijah, we again have to ask whether the widow’s son was really dead in that story, too. If the boy WAS dead, of course, then Jesus can only be as great as Elijah if he is seen to be doing what Elijah did.

However, if we leave Elijah OUT of the equation for a moment, it is in some ways easier to interpret the story correctly if the Widow of Nain’s son was NOT dead, but only very ill. For the second problem with the story is that it makes it very easy for the reader to confuse raising the dead with the miracle of resurrection, whereas Christianity teaches us that they are two quite different things. We are all destined to share in the RESURRECTION of the dead, but only a very select number are ever likely to be raised FROM the dead.

People speak very loosely about the two ideas as though they are interchangeable. St Paul is particularly naughty in this regard. He does it eight times in his surviving letters. But the two things are not really the same and if we read St Paul carefully we can see that he is using the term ‘raised from the dead’ in a very different way from the sense in which St Luke uses the word ‘rise’ in his telling of THIS story.

Resurrection is life AFTER death or BEYOND death. “It is life, Jim, but not as we know it.” Being raised FROM the dead, at least in the context of people like Lazarus or the son of the Widow of Nain, means being brought BACK to the life we knew before. It means living to die again. It means being given another chance, but not necessarily a new KIND of chance, whereas when Jesus offers us the hope of life everlasting, or abundant life, he is talking about a NEW kind of life which has much greater possibilities than the life we experienced before, and which cannot be overcome even by death itself.

So what does the story have to tell us today, if we find ourselves standing in the Widow of Nain’s shoes? It tells us, first, that nothing is impossible for God – though, of course, we must balance that by reminding ourselves that – as Benjamin Franklin famously said – our death, like taxes, is certain to happen to us. Christianity isn’t an insurance against suffering and pain. That’s why the concept of resurrection has, in a very real sense, so much more to offer us than simply being raised FROM the dead.

Second, the story reminds us that we believe in a God of compassion, who is moved by our suffering and our tears. That’s why Jesus not only raised the Widow of Nain’s son, but also died for us on the Cross, to make resurrection a real and living hope for all who put their faith in him.

Finally though, and without necessarily any adverse reflection on its historicity, I think the story deserves to be treated SYMBOLICALLY, as a reminder of what God can do to help us in lots of different situations. Can God, for instance, raise dead and dying CHURCHES to new life? And, by that, I don’t just mean to a new lease of the old life – more of the same – which is what many church members often secretly hope for. I really mean, can God raise churches to the new, resurrection life I spoke about earlier? In other words, can God give us a Fresh Expression of Church for the Twenty-First Century? I am sure that he can!

And can God bring new hope, and breathe fresh life, into political stalemates and disasters? What about the Northern Ireland peace process? The fact that Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley can not only sit around the same cabinet table now, but also share a joke with one another, is no less of a miracle than the raising of the Widow of Nain’s son. The demolition of the Berlin Wall, and the peaceful transition of South Africa were also astounding miracles of modern life.

We can only hope that God can have compassion on us now as we struggle to resolve the Palestinian Conflict and to bring greater peace and understanding between Muslims and Christians, or can come to help us overcome the threat posed by global warming. If God CAN help us rise to overcome THOSE challenges, he really will have looked favourably on his people!

[1] Luke 7.11-17