Saturday, April 11, 2009

Holding On

The passage which we read from the Acts of the Apostles is one of the earliest Christian sermons on record. That remains true whether it's an account of what Peter actually said, or whether it's Luke's attempt at reconstructing what Peter might have said. No doubt it's a reflection of the kind of sermon which Luke had heard the first Christian leaders preaching when he was travelling with Paul around the Mediterranean. He had been one of Paul's companions on his last fateful journey to Jerusalem, and had met James the brother of Jesus, though Peter doesn't seem to have been present on that occasion.

He knew, however, that Peter was absolutely in agreement with Paul that 'God shows no partiality.' Everyone, no matter what their cultural or religious background, is acceptable to God if they fear him, or show respect for him, and do what is right. He also knew that the first Christians were different from their Jewish compatriots because they believed and preached that Jesus was Lord of all, and that through Jesus God has brought the possibility of true peace to human beings.

Of course, this gift of peace - which is brought by Jesus - is not just what the English language means by the word 'peace'. It's a translation of the Hebrew word shalom, or the Aramaic word shlama and the Arabic word Salaam. As such, it means far more than just the absence of conflict or the feeling of restfulness. In Semitic languages like Hebrew and Aramaic it also means completeness, wholeness and well-being. Sometimes the English Bible even translates it with the word 'salvation'.

And this message of wholeness brought by Jesus had begun not just with the preaching of the early Church, but with the ministry of Jesus himself, who had spread the message of wholeness and well-being not just in his own teaching but by doing good and healing all who were oppressed. And the peace which he was able to bring to people was the sign not only that he was more powerful than the forces of conflict and disease, but also that God was with him and had anointed him, or set him apart from other people, as his chosen representative on earth.

This same message was also proclaimed, as we have seen, by the first generation of Church leaders - people like Peter and James. And they were able to reinforce its power and persuasiveness by pointing out that they themselves had been witnesses of these dramatic events, culminating in Jesus' death and resurrection, when he appeared to them and ate and drank with them after he rose from the dead.

It's clear from the message which the first Christians proclaimed that the risen Jesus had celebrated holy communion with them and had commissioned, or commanded, them to go out and spread the news that he is God's permanent representative, the judge of both the living and the dead, and therefore he - and his followers - have the power to forgive the sins of all who believe in his name.

No wonder that this radically new message set Peter, Paul and James on a collision course with their Jewish contemporaries. Although they claimed to be true Israelites, this was, in effect, a new religion.

And today, of course, this groundbreaking message is essentially unchanged. The cross decorated with flowers is a symbolic representation of the gospel of completeness, wholeness and well-being, and the singing of hymns at the church door is a symbol of the message that conflict and disease can still be overcome in Jesus' name, and that people can be put right with one another and with God if they place their trust in him.

But songs and symbols are not enough. Just as in the ministry of Jesus, strong words have to be backed up by convincing actions. The Church has to be seen to be doing good and bringing healing to the oppressed. And it's a vital task because, sadly, as we proclaim the gospel today, we face a tide of indifference and ignorance about the Christian faith, or indeed about any kind of religion.

On Good Friday we tried to give out palm crosses to the passers-by as we made our way through the streets of Hemsworth during our walk of witness. Some welcomed them, as a tiny reminder of the significance of the day and a gesture of goodwill. But many people, especially men, were hostile. From their reaction you might have thought that we were pushing drugs. This lack of empathy is what makes the task of proclaiming Jesus' message more urgent, of course. It underlines the urgency and the necessity of proclaiming our faith not only in words and gestures but with actions that promote peace and well-being.

I think we have to ask ourselves, however, what is the Church most famous for proclaiming? Is it Jesus' message of completeness and healing that makes the headlines? No, it's the constant faction fighting within the Church about sexuality, the ministry of women and other less important things. If we are to be true to the Church's original message, the message which those first preachers had witnessed Jesus proclaiming in word and deed, both before and after his resurrection, we have to make sure that what people see us working for and hear us talking about is peace, wholeness, completeness and forgiveness.

In John's version of the resurrection story, Jesus meets Mary of Magdala in the garden near his empty tomb. Unable to contain her emotion she tries to cling to him. It's an understandable reaction. She has gone, in a moment, from a sense of utter loss and despair to a recovery of hope and joy. Jesus is not gone forever. Instead, he is with her and she will never be separated from him again because he has even overcome death. But no sooner do these feelings of peace and completeness start to overwhelm her than Jesus rebukes her. 'Do not hold on to me,' he tells her, 'But go and announce the good news to others.' And, with that, she pulls herself together, contains her emotions and goes, as she has been bidden, becoming as she does so the first apostle of Jesus - that is, the first of many people sent out by him to tell his brothers, and everyone whom she meets from now on, 'I have seen the Lord!'

I think there's a message for us contained in this moving story. We, too, are not to hold onto Jesus. Our primary objective is not to have a good time - as we praise his name, and sing the familiar hymns, and decorate our cross. It's not to keep our church the way we have always known and loved it, or to tend the flame of tradition. It's not to renew our own sense of wholeness and completeness, or hope and joy in the faith. It's not simply to remind ourselves that we can never be separated from Jesus, even by death. Our primary objective, if we are to be true to the gospel proclaimed by Jesus and his first followers, is to go and announce the good news to others, not in a language that we can understand, not with our own cherished songs and symbols, not in ways that make us feel safe and secure, but in their language and their idioms, in ways that make sense to them and make them feel comfortable and secure, ways that can best convey to them the age old proclamation that we have seen the Lord.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Jesus and The G20

Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29
John 12.12-16

Psalm 118 is what scholars sometimes call a processional psalm. It may also have been a royal psalm, where the king was led in procession to the Temple. It was certainly one of the psalms which pilgrims chanted or sang as they approached the Temple Mount at festival time. It's also one of the most often quoted passages in the Bible.

The psalm begins with a note of celebration. The pilgrims are nearing the end of their journey and they're in the mood for rejoicing as they get ready to enter the Temple precincts. The cantor chants, "Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good." And the people reply, "His steadfast love endures forever!"

We're surrounded by so much fear and uncertainty because of global warming, the financial crisis, the world's rising population and scarce resources. No one knows what the future holds, but it often looks pretty bleak. Popular films like Cloverfield and I Am Legend show us vivid glimpses of what disaster might be like, and how we might cope if it happened. But the psalm says, 'Give thanks to the Lord!' Why? Because 'he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!'

That's not to say, of course, that the trouble will all go away if we choose to sing God's praises. We still need to stop the temperature rising, and kickstart the economy, and start a green revolution to try to save our planet. But the psalm reminds us that God is on our side. He is willing us to succeed, to make a difference, to change the future. He is good! And his steadfast love endures - even in times of trouble and danger. He's not a fair-weather friend. He's the God who is with us in storms and earthquakes. His love is steadfast. It endures. So much so that it is forever. Nothing can snuff it out. Not even death.

As the pilgrims chanted their praises the procession would have wound its way through the narrow streets until it reached the gates of the Temple itself - the gates of righteousness, the gates to the place where people can meet God and be as close to him as anyone can ever come on earth. Except that the psalm says only the righteous may enter. No one else can go in.

Now if you had been a pilgrim who had trekked halfway across the known world to visit the Jerusalem Temple you might already be feeling pretty righteous, cleansed somehow from all the sordid and selfish associations of ordinary life by the privations and sacrifices that would have been entailed in making your journey. You might have marched in through the gates of righteousness full of confidence without a second thought. But the cantor doesn't feel like that. He knows that, by his own efforts, he could never deserve to enter the Temple and join in the worship of the righteous. And yet all is not lost; he need not be left behind; for the Lord has answered his need and become his salvation so that he too can enter the gates. More than that, the stone that the builders rejected - the unrighteousness person who should have been locked out of the Temple worship - has become the chief cornerstone, and this is so marvellous and unexpected that it is clearly the Lord's doing.

Who is the person, then, who is singing the psalm at this point? Is it the whole pilgrim people who, together, are saved and made righteous by God to become a cornerstone of this great act of celebration? Is it, in other words, a 'corporate' person chanting these words - a body of people acting as one? Do the pilgrims recognise, when they finally reach their destination, that there is still something missing - not matter how far they might have come - and that they still need God's saving power? Or is this a lone voice, the voice of the priest or the king, who must be made righteous by God in order to play a special role as the chief cornerstone of Temple or national life?

Although he was the one truly righteous person in human history, when Jesus hung on the cross he allowed himself to suffer the fate of the unrighteous, to be condemned and put to death, to be wounded and brought low, to be made vulnerable, to be cast out of the holy city and left to die in torment, and thus to become the bearer of the world's unrighteousness in order to show us how we might be made righteous. And that is why Jesus probably saw himself as the final and enduring embodiment of the person who sings this verse in the psalm. He is the last and greatest stone which the builders rejected, the stone nonetheless which went on to become the enduring cornerstone, the marvellous means by which the whole human race could be put right with God simply through believing in him and in his way of living and dying.

When the gates of the Temple opened to greet them, the pilgrims would have entered into their final act of praise, reminding themselves that 'this is the day that the Lord has made' and we should 'rejoice and be glad in it'. The psalm is talking here, I think, not just about our attitude to special holy days, like the day of the festival when this psalm was traditionally sung, but about every day, for every day is consecrated to God. Perhaps there is also a reference here to the idea that the day when we are put right with God is a special day, a red letter day in the calendar, a day particularly on which to rejoice and be glad. And for Christians that day is, of course, Good Friday - the day made special for all time by the death of Jesus.

There might - I think - be one false note in the psalm, where salvation is equated with success, but that really depends on what we mean by success. If you've been listening to the news this week you can't have failed to miss the stories about the G20 Summit of world leaders in London. It began with a whir of helicopters and a zoom of jets bringing the leaders from the corners of the globe, and it ended with a celebrity dinner at which presidents and their consorts clamoured to get J K Rowling's autograph and the First Lady hugged the Queen. If success means having enough power or celebrity to get yourself onto the guest list at Number 10, then I think the psalm is wrong. Salvation and that kind of success are not the same thing. The gates of righteousness do not open for successful entrepreneurs, performers and politicians, because true success has to be measured against the template of the crucified messiah, the stone whom the builders rejected. But if the plea in the psalm, for God to save us and grant us success, is a prayer for God to help the world's people come together to solve our problems with wisdom and compassion, then - of course - it does not contradict the way of Jesus at all. In a more thoughtful moment during the summit, Gordon Brown said that Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism and Hinduism all in their different ways reflect a sense that we must share the pain of others, that we believe in something bigger than ourselves and that we cannot be truly content while others face despair. If that's how we really define success at the G20 Summit then success is not incompatible with salvation after all.

The pilgrim procession seems to have ended with the people entering the Temple ahead of the priest, or the king, who stayed on the outside until they had all gone in through the gates. Then the people would turn and welcome the leader with words that the crowd would borrow to welcome Jesus on Palm Sunday, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord'.

And, of course, the Psalm also calls on the pilgrims to 'bind the festal procession with branches', like the palm waving crowd which welcomed Jesus, although I'm not sure quite how you actually go about binding a procession with branches and other translations say quite different things, such as 'bind the festival sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar' or 'with branches in your hands start the festival and march round the altar.' I think the second version is a more appealing idea of what the psalmist might have meant.

Jesus' entry into Jerusalem is supposed to be the triumphal entry of a king, just like the procession of the pilgrims who entered the Temple ahead of the King of Judah, chanting their welcome to him and carrying the branches of trees. Jesus' followers also went ahead of him, consciously echoing the same procession. Except that Jesus' choice of a donkey to ride on also evokes the words of another Bible passage, from the Prophet Zechariah, who foretells the coming of a new kind of king, a king who believes in disarmament - who will get rid of war chariots, horses and weapons and, in the words of John Lennon, 'give peace a chance'. The Gospel writer says that it was only after Good Friday that his followers realised how Jesus would fulfil this prophecy and give glory to God.

This week the leaders of the world arrived in style at the G20 Summit. No donkeys, or underground trains, or bus rides for them. But who were the true heroes of the hour? Someone wrote in an opinion piece in the newspapers that the unsung heroes were the ordinary people who came to protest about the two greatest challenges which we face - the climate crunch and the credit crunch. The writer reflected that one day the people who stirred themselves enough to go to London and join the protest will be remembered, either with gratitude or chagrin, while those of us who stayed at home will be seen to have missed the opportunity to try to bring about vital change.

Well today we remember the people who stood up and were counted among the followers of Jesus when he arrived in Jerusalem for the final showdown of his ministry. Even though they may not have understood exactly what was going on, until after the events were over, at least they were there to welcome him.