Sunday, March 30, 2008

Meeting Jesus on the way

Acts 2.14a, 36-41
The interesting thing about the early history of the Christian Church is the speed with which it grew, and the influence which it exerted even in the most unlikely places. We are now used to the idea that the mission to the Jewish nation, begun by Jesus himself and continued with great passion and enthusiasm by his first disciples, was a failure. The Jewish faith continued unaltered and most Jewish people rejected the Christian message that Jesus was the expected Lord and Messiah.

However, if the mission was a failure, it was a glorious failure. When they first heard the Gospel, Peter's Jewish hearers were cut to the heart and - as a result - three thousand were converted to the Christian faith on the Day of Pentecost alone.

Perhaps we expect failure too readily and perhaps we put too little confidence in the story of Jesus. If we allowed the Gospel story to speak for itself, perhaps more people would be as moved as were the visitors to Jerusalem who listened to Peter's first sermon. But then again, we must ask ourselves what it actually means to be added to the number of Jesus' followers. Does it mean becoming a member of the Church, or does it mean finding truth and meaning in Jesus' life and death?

The language of baptism and repentance suggests a radical change in the way that Peter's hearers chose to live, and this is borne out by Luke's account of how they shared their possessions, but these were very early days before formal institutions such as congregations and church services had been developed. It is not exactly clear how far people had to join in with what the circle around the apostles was doing in order to be counted as followers of Jesus. Did the Church, then and since, too easily and too hastily become an institution which lays down inflexible guidelines about how to follow Jesus instead of allowing people to be guided by the Spirit within?

1 Peter 1.17-23
This passage gathers together many different ideas from the New Testament understanding of Jesus, especially but not exclusively those found in John's Gospel. First, there is the idea of Jesus' death as a ransom - but not one paid in precious metal, which has no lasting value as Jesus himself made clear, but a ransom paid instead by Jesus' own death upon the cross. Here the writer goes on to adopt the way that John's Gospel interprets the crucified Jesus, as the Passover lamb sacrificed to save the people of God from slavery - not to Pharaoh but to the futile ways which we inherit as part of our human nature.

The writer then draws on several other ideas found in John. There is the idea that the mission of Jesus was destined to happen even before the fabric of the universe was laid down. There is the idea - derived from Jesus' own commandments - that to follow him means to love one another as he has first loved us. And finally there is the idea of a new birth, or new beginning, made possible by God's Spirit at work within us.

And our belief in all of these things depends on the resurrection of Jesus which, as both Paul and John also argue in their writings, is the essential basis of our faith and trust in God.

Luke 24.13-35
What is it that keeps the two disciples, perhaps Cleopas and his wife, from recognising who the stranger is? It has traditionally been assumed that God himself keeps them from recognising the truth, so that future generations may have the benefit of hearing this beautiful and engaging story. But isn't it more likely that doubt and fear, ignorance and lack of faith, were the true cause of their lack of recognition?

Then again, who is it that the two disciples actually meet? Is it a Jesus whose resurrection body is so different from his former appearance that it is difficult to recognise him without the eyes of faith? Or is it a Jesus who is shrouded in a huge and mysterious cloak like some First Century hoody? Or is it simply a true believer, someone who has seen and understood the real significance of the Easter story because of his deeper understanding of the Jewish scriptures and his greater willingness to have faith?

And when the eyes of the two disciples are finally opened, and they recognise him, is it because - as in BBC1's "The Passion" - the stranger suddenly changes into the familiar Jesus whom they knew before? Or is it because they suddenly understand the true significance of breaking and sharing bread - that, whenever his followers do this together in obedience to him - Jesus is in their midst? And does the stranger vanish as if in a puff of smoke, or does vanish from the story because he continues on his way once the disciples no longer need his reassuring presence and have decided to return to Jerusalem?

The beauty of the story is that, in a sense, it does not matter which of these interpretations is the right one. It works equally well on all of these levels. One thing is certain, whatever happened on that original journey, we can encounter the risen Jesus in the strangers we meet on our journey through life, just as he said that we would.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

More About Resurrection

Acts 2.14, 22-32
This passage from Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost is the closest that the first Christians come to mentioning the empty tomb, and then Peter does so only by implication. Assuming that David is the writer of Psalm 16, Peter reflects on David's celebration of God's power to rescue him from death. Clearly, David himself was not rescued because - says Peter - his tomb is with us to this day, so the psalm must be prophetic. David must have been looking forward to a time when his royal House would be able to triumph over death through his descendant Jesus. Setting aside the fact that modern scholars think the psalmist is not talking about actual resurrection from death, but about being rescued from the brink of death, the obvious implication of Peter's words is that - in contrast to the tomb of King David - Jesus' tomb is empty. Then Peter concludes, however, not by emphasising the fact of the empty tomb but by stressing once again that the first disciples are witnesses to Jesus' resurrection. It is personal testimony to the resurrection of Jesus which really counts. The empty tomb seems to be mere icing on the cake.

1 Peter 3.3-9
Peter's theology is taken up and developed by the author of the Letters of Peter. He begins this passage by talking, in similar terms to last week's passage from Paul's letter to the Church in Colossae, about our personal experience of Jesus' resurrection. Paul described becoming a Christian as a spiritual experience in which we are drawn into the dynamic of Jesus' resurrection. We die to our old life and are raised to a new one by believing that Jesus died for us and is alive again. The author of 1 Peter draws on a different metaphor to describe the same experience'. Like the author of John's Gospel he prefers to compare becoming a Christian to rebirth rather than resurrection, but he links the two ideas. Our new birth into the Christian faith comes as a result of a living hope which Jesus' resurrection makes possible.

However, like Paul, the writer draws parallels between the actual historical experiences of Jesus and our own personal faith journey. Jesus had to suffer and die in order to enter into his risen power. In the same way, Christians must expect to endure hardship and suffering in order to share in Christ's glory. This is a logical extension of Jesus' own teaching about carrying our own cross if we wish to follow him.

The difference between us and Peter is that we must believe in the resurrection even though we have not seen the risen Jesus. But, once we believe, we can begin to enter into the same indescribable joy which the first disciples felt at Easter.

John 20.19-31
There are echoes here of another theme in John's Gospel, the story of doubting Thomas and John's teaching about it. Like the author of 1 Peter, the author of the Gospel is keen to emphasise not only the importance of believing the testimony of the first disciples, but also the necessity of suffering and death as a prelude to sharing in Jesus' resurrection life. The enduring wounds in Christ's body are a reminder that there is no easy way to glory.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Resurrection

Acts 10.34-43
The key thing about this passage from Peter's sermon to Cornelius and his companions is his assertion that Jesus' first disciples were witnesses to all that he did. It is their testimony which is the bedrock of the Christian faith and especially of the Easter story and Peter senses immediately that the message of Jesus' resurrection and vindication by God is so extraordinary that people will struggle to believe it unless they can be convinced of the utter integrity and honesty of the testimony they are hearing.

The first part of his proclamation, that Jesus went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed before being put to death by hanging, is a matter of public record. Everyone listening to the sermon knows it is true. But the second part of Peter's message, that God chose this happy band of followers to witness Jesus' resurrection appearances and to eat and drink with the risen Jesus, is something which has to be taken on trust. The only alternative is to assume that the evidence is either misconceived, and the disciples have been deluded by some sort of mass hysteria into believing that they have seen the risen Jesus, or else Peter's sermon is a reckless and dishonest attempt to gain influence and turn the tables on Jesus' opponents by inventing a bold and incredible lie.

For a time, of course, the jury was out. No one knew whether the disciples had simply made up or imagined their accounts of Jesus' resurrection, or whether they were true. And still, of course, there are those who would argue that the Easter story is either a delusion or a fairytale made up to raise the spirits of Jesus' followers. However, even opponents of mainstream Christianity, such as the Jewish scholar Professor Geza Vermes, are impressed by the spiritual energy and determination of the early Christians. He has no doubt that they were motivated by a genuine experience of Jesus' presence and power. In his view, nothing else can explain the dynamism and success of the early Christian mission. The disciples believed that it was the risen Jesus himself who had commanded them to preach and testify about him.

Colossians 3.1-4
Paul takes the concept of resurrection a stage further. For him the Easter story is not just about what happened to Jesus after his death, it is also about personal transformation. The same spiritual power that gave Jesus victory over death enables all Christians to be remade in his image. This change can be described in one of two ways, either as a rebirth experience or as a new kind of life. Paul speaks of dying to our previous existence and rising to new life with Jesus.

When we recall Paul's own conversion experience, it's easy to understand how he was able to make this connection between our personal experience and the Easter story. His life changed so dramatically after he met the risen Jesus that it could only be described as a complete transformation. Before that encounter he had been one of the leading persecutors of Jewish Christians, but afterwards he became one of the leading proponents of the new faith. Before his Damascus Road experience he had been a thoroughly orthodox Pharisee. Afterwards he was to become a radical thinker even by Christian standards, passionately arguing that salvation was now available to Gentiles on equal terms with Jewish people. He lost all his former friends and networks, and had to make new ones. All his reference points in life where utterly changed. No doubt it must have seemed to those who had known him in his former life that he was indeed dead to them, and they must have grieved his loss. And as far as his new friends were concerned, his life had indeed only just begun and he had to learn a whole new way of being.

Of course, Paul's experience is one that we, too, are invited to share. the Easter story can become real for us in exactly the same way.

Matthew 28.1-10
But, although it is valid to spiritualise the resurrection story in the way that Paul and Geza Vermes do, in the end it rests on an historical claim that someone who was put to death has also been brought to life again in a startling, new and dramatically powerful way. And that's why the Gospel writers find it necessary to talk about the empty tomb.

Matthew tells the story of the guards posted at the tomb to make sure that Jesus' body was not stolen either by his sympathisers or by opponents determined to prevent it from becoming a place of pilgrimage. He has already recounted that an earthquake shook Jerusalem at the moment when Jesus died; now its after shocks continue and signal Jesus' resurrection. Both the guards and the women who had come to anoint Jesus' body see an angelic vision and then, as the women flee from the empty tomb filled with a mixture of fear and great joy, Jesus meets them and they worship him.

This is resurrection recounted as history, just as demonstrably true as the death of Jesus because - like his death - it is witnessed by many different people. Has Matthew made up the details of the story, because he wants it to be true and because he feels the need to ground the resurrection in some verifiable facts? Or has he encountered genuine witnesses of the facts which he tells us about and, if so, why don't Peter and Paul mention them in their earlier accounts?

For some reason the first Christians - Peter, Paul and their contemporaries - did not see the empty tomb as important. To them it proved nothing. What counted for them was knowing for sure that Jesus is alive and that is a personal, spiritual experience, not a piece of history. But later Christians needed to know that the resurrection is also a verifiable fact of history and they not only told the story of the empty tomb but found what they believed was its site and made it a shrine that is still a place of worship to this day.

It is clear that Matthew and the other Gospel writers believed passionately that the resurrection of Jesus had involved an empty tomb. What they do not deny, however, is that - even though the tomb was empty - some of Jesus' closest friends continued to doubt that he was really alive again. Every Gospel writers mention this. In the end I think this is their way of acknowledging that all of us have to discover for ourselves that Jesus is alive and what his resurrection means for our own lives. So may we each discover in our hearts that the Lord is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Self-Emptying

Isaiah 50.4-9a, Philippians 2.1-11
This is a passage about God's Suffering Servant. But the Servant is portrayed not as a victim, but as a decisive figure who offers encouragement to the weary, listens attentively to God's will and who suffers only because he steadfastly confronts God's opponents instead of turning back. He knows that he will not be disgraced or put to shame because the Lord will help him, and therefore he sets his face like flint to those who are abusing him. He urges like-minded people to stand alongside him and defies his adversaries to 'bring on' the moment of confrontation because he is confident that he will soon be vindicated. No one will be able to pronounce him guilty when the cavalry arrives to rescue him.

Is this the Suffering Servant whom Christians would identify with Jesus? Not quite. For Jesus did suffer disgrace and shame when he was betrayed and killed upon the cross. God did still vindicate him, but not before his death.

When the King of the Goths first heard the story of Jesus' crucifixion he said, 'If only I and my warriors had been there, the Lord Jesus need not have died.' It was a noble sentiment, but the King had entirely missed the point of the story. Jesus had to die in order to give us an enduring victory over suffering and death. In that sense his destiny diverges from that of the Suffering Servant in this song.

It would be nice to think that whenever we stand up to tyranny, bullying or oppression we will always be vindicated. But sometimes we not only have to suffer to overcome injustice, we also have to risk defeat and even death.

The famous hymn about the self-emptying love revealed in Jesus' life and death is the traditional focus of today's passage from Paul's letter to the Christians in Philippi, but the preceding verses are equally interesting. They describe the character of Jesus. He did not look to his own interests, but to the interests of others. His humility led him to regard the well-being of other people as more important than his own safety or status. He had no selfish ambition or conceit. Instead he was motivated solely by compassion and sympathy. This is what self-emptying means. It means being prepared to give up control over one's own destiny and submitting to the will of God like a slave.

In Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice, the heroine Elizabeth Bennet says of Mr Darcy, 'Indeed, he has no improper pride.' But, if Jesus is the model for our behaviour, pride is always improper.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

New Life

Ezekiel 37.1-14
This passage is probably about spiritual renewal and the rediscovery of hope in the face of overwhelming despair, rather than about the promise of resurrection from the dead. But, of course, what Ezekiel describes is a kind of resurrection. He was addressing the nation of Israel. Can we reapply this famous passage to the New Israel of the Church? Often the Church despairs of the possibility of resurrection and new growth, but with the Spirit there is always hope. Similarly, there is still hope for our nation, despite its secularisation and the spread of cynicism and doubt. Slaves in the American South took comfort in this story and composed the famous spiritual about 'Dem Bones' because of its promise that God can snatch victory even after defeat. The Easter story renews the same theme.

Romans 8.6-11
Paul develops the same theme as Ezekiel. Human nature by itself cannot submit to God's will and is, he claims, actively hostile to what God wants. The kind of radical selflessness which God demands is simply impossible for us to adopt - unless we are renewed by God's Spirit. If we allow God's Spirit to take control of us we can belong to God and find the life and peace which otherwise elude us despite all our strivings. This is a kind of mini-resurrection, paralleling what happened to Jesus on the cross and the more dramatic picture in Ezekiel's vision of a whole nation being raised to new life.

John 11.1-45
The story of Lazarus is an acted parable of the sort of resurrection experience which Paul and Ezekiel describe. Jesus knows this and reluctantly takes the decision to wait until Lazarus has died so that God can be glorified when he is raised back t life again. John makes clear that he story is not really about our final resurrection from death but about the new quality of life which God can give us right now - and which endures despite physical death.