Saturday, April 17, 2010

Needing a Change

Psalm 30, Acts 9.1-6, Revelation 5.11-14, John 21.1-19

Psalm 30 was written by someone who was recovering from a serious illness - so serious that the Psalmist thought he, or she, was going to die. In fact, when things were really bad, the Psalmist said to God, 'Look, if I die I won't be able to praise you any more or tell other people about your faithfulness.' And then things looked up. The Psalmist felt so much better that he, or she, was even able to dance for joy and the psalm closes with a promise to go on praising God and never to be silent.

The psalm reminds us that when things are going well, we tend to be full of confidence, but the minute things start to go wrong we are easily filled with dismay. We need to remember that God's favour lasts for a lifetime.

But what about after this life has ended? The psalm contains many clues that the Psalmist wasn't really thinking about life after death but, of course, for Christians the psalm inevitably makes us think about resurrection. It tells us that God can restore us to life from death, that weeping lasts only for a night and joy comes in the morning, and that we can go on giving thanks to God for ever.

The Book of Revelation makes a virtue out of death and resurrection. If Jesus had not endured death for us - and been slain like a sacrificial lamb - he would not be worthy to be praised. The modern fashion for interpreting Jesus as a good man, or a charismatic leader, and measuring the impact of his life and teaching in isolation from his death is - according to the writer - to miss the real point about him. The meaning of his life endures, and changes the future, precisely because he died. This means, of course, that the Psalmist was wrong to expect God to rescue us from danger and death. We should praise God not because he saves us from death, but because he is able to bring us through death.

The two New Testament readings continue the theme of resurrection because the risen Jesus is the central figure in both stories, but they're really about the impact of faith, or spiritual experience, on the way we live and what we do. Saul, or Paul as he was known in Greek, had an amazing spiritual encounter with Jesus which literally stopped him in his tracks. He set out for Damascus as a persecutor of Jesus' followers, and he arrived in the City as a follower himself. But being a follower of Jesus is about much more than discovering that Jesus is alive. It's much more than feeling different about ourselves. It's much more than discovering the meaning of life, or feeling confident in the face of death - important though all these things are. It's also about doing. But Paul doesn't decide to do some things because he now belongs to Jesus. Instead, following Jesus is about being told what to do and then going and doing it whether or not it suits us, or fits in with our plans, or makes us feel good. It's about submitting to a whole new way of being and living where we are under orders.

Peter and his friends make the same discovery in the story from John's Gospel. Although they know that Jesus is alive they have returned to their old way of living - as if we can have an encounter with the risen Jesus and then resume life as normal. But we can't. Once we meet Jesus there is no going back. Everything is changed. For one thing, extraordinary things start to happen. When we place our lives in Jesus' hands opportunities are given to us to make a difference to the people and the world around us, and if we want to be true to him we will keep our eyes open and be ready to recognise the chances he gives us to serve him. Anything less would be a denial of what being a follower of Jesus really means. Simon, nicknamed Peter, accepts the challenge this time. He has denied Jesus three times, now he affirms three times his willingness to be a shepherd of Jesus' little flock.

Did you watch the leadership debate on Thursday? Its seems to have transformed the election. The key question it raised was about change. There seems to be an assumption that we do need a change. Gordon Brown's 'steady as she goes' message, that he is an experienced pair of hands at the helm of the ship of state during tempestuous times, didn't cut much ice. Even though he made his case in an impressive way, because people want a change, the only question which the debate provoked was, 'What sort of change do we want?' Nick Clegg won the debate because he managed to persuade viewers that David Cameron can't offer a real change, a change for the better, but only more of the same. Clegg repeatedly described himself as representing newness, whereas both Labour and the Tories were the old parties.

Whether Nick Clegg persuaded you, or whether you think he just made a clever sales pitch, the theme of real change is what our readings are all about. To be a follower of Jesus we have to really change; we have to become totally new; we can't go on being and doing more of the same.

In some ways that suggests a once in a lifetime transformation, like the one which Saul underwent on the Road to Damascus, a genuine watershed between his old life as a persecutor and his new role as a champion of Christianity. But Simon Peter offers us an alternative model of what it means to be a Christian. Here is someone who kept on changing in response to his encounter with Jesus - first when he left his nets by Lake Galilee at the start of Jesus' ministry, then at Caesarea Philippi when he recognised that Jesus was the Messiah, again when he changed in response to the resurrection appearances of Jesus, then - after his rooftop vision at Joppa - when he decided to go to Caesarea and baptise Cornelius, and finally when Saul convinced him that he had denied Jesus again, and become a backslider, after he was persuaded by Jesus' brother James and some of the other leaders of the Early Church that Gentile converts should be circumcised and observe Jewish food laws.

Isn't this what most of us are like? We alternately deny Jesus, or slip backwards into our former ways, and then rediscover his challenge and make a fresh start. And it's not just as individuals that we have to do this constantly throughout our lives. We also have to change repeatedly in response to Jesus' challenge in our life together as the Christian community. He comes to meet us, in the Eucharist, as he met his first disciples for breakfast beside the Lake, and when he meets us he always challenges us to be ready to accept the need for real change.

Sour Dough and Breaking Bread

Isaiah 25.6-9,
In this short passage from Isaiah the prophet talks about a celebration feast. His words remind us of what Jesus said to his disciples at the Last Supper: From now onwards I shan't drink from the produce of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.' Was Jesus thinking of this Endtime banquet of vintage wines and rich fare?

The Prophet goes on to say something very striking. The celebration will be held to mark the lifting of a great shroud that blights the lives of every person from every nation on earth. For God will swallow up death for ever.

This is a wonderful new idea in the Old Testament. It's still not the concept of resurrection. Isaiah is, I think, looking forward to the future not speaking about the past. He's holding out the hope of life everlasting for the living rather than a promise that death will be put into reverse. But, of course, the idea was soon developed to take on board the notion first that God would raise up those who had been martyred for their faith, and then that his power could destroy the past consequences of death as well as its hold over us in the present moment.

And, says the Prophet, this wonderful promise will come true in Jerusalem. Christians believe, of course, that the prophecy was finally realised on Easter Day.

Psalm 114
Psalm 114 reminds us that we believe and trust in a God of mighty deeds, a God who can turn back the sea and part rivers to enable his people to cross on dry land. Even the Earth sometimes trembles at the Lord's presence, and he can bring springs of living water cascading from deep underground out of apparently barren rocks. He can do amazing, life giving things. He can bring about miracles to rescue his people.

1 Corinthians 5.6b-8
Paul quotes a saying of Jesus. It only takes a little leaven to leaven the whole lump of dough.

In Biblical times, of course, people didn't make bread with yeast. They used sour dough, or leaven, which is made by allowing a small amount of dough to ferment and be activated by wild yeasts in the flour and in the atmosphere. Creating a new sour dough takes a few days and involves careful nurturing. Even today, the best bakers make their own sour dough although I can never be bothered to mess about like that myself when there are pockets of dried active yeast available in all the supermarkets.

Once you have made your leaven, of course, you don't have to keep repeating the process from scratch. Instead you can simply keep back a small amount of the sour dough each day, mix it up with some of the new batch of bread dough, and it will quickly all become leavened ready for tomorrow's batch of breadmaking.

Now and again, however, it is good to get rid of the old leaven and make a fresh start - creating your sour dough from the base elements again. This is what Paul is describing here. He us reminds of the need to purge the old sour dough from the breadmaking process to get rid of any unpleasant flavours, or any loss of effectiveness, that have corrupted it over time.

Christians must constantly do the same thing in our spiritual and ritual life. We must look at the things we are doing, at the ways we are worshipping, at the pews and furnishings even that surround us, but above all at the message that we preach. Has it grown stale? Has it lost its effectiveness? Does it need purging and renewing? Worst of all, has what we believe become influenced, perhaps, by our own selfishness and personal opinions, our own prejudices and wicked ideas? Every now and again we must go back to the source - to the life and teaching of Jesus - and make a fresh start based on his sincerity and truth.

This idea inevitably makes Paul think of Passover. The reason for eating unleavened bread at Passover was because the people of Israel, waiting to escape from oppression or on the move through the Wilderness - on their way to the Promised Land - didn't have time to make sour dough, mix it with the new batch of bread dough which they were making each day, and then wait for the dough to rise. But Paul seizes on the idea that getting rid of the old sour dough gives us the chance to make a fresh start, and combines it with the Passover tradition of eating unleavened bread. Jesus, the Passover Lamb sacrificed for us, is also our new sour dough, our new leaven, leavening the whole lump of dough which is the Christian community.

Luke 24.34-49
It's not absolutely clear where Emmaus was. It's certainly not the place which modern tourists visit, because that's too far from Jerusalem. Perhaps it doesn't matter because the journey functions as a kind of microcosm of the Christian journey. It begins and ends in the holy city of Jerusalem, the place where Jesus died and to which the first Christians expected him to return at the end of time. The two disciples start out sadly and forlornly but then Jesus joins them on the way. His arrival leads them eventually to a new understanding and a complete change of direction.

Is this what our lives are sometimes like? We lose direction and purpose. Then Jesus overtakes us and injects new meaning and new direction into our journey. We find ourselves starting again, reinvigorated by a new sense of purpose. Is that what the Church's life should be like? Should we sometimes pause, on our journey - as Jesus and the two disciples paused at Emmaus - so that we can take stock, and think afresh?

If so, it's interesting, isn't it, that the journey can also be mapped out as an act of worship - a sort of prototype of the Christian liturgy. It begins with the two disciples confessing their sense of failure and loss. Jesus rebukes them, but perhaps he also offers them a sense of forgiveness and new hope as he goes on to expound the Scriptures to them. The disciples show concern for Jesus as he makes as if to continue his journey alone, perhaps reflecting the prayers of concern that we offer in our services. And then, finally, comes the climax of the liturgy - the breaking and sharing of the bread - the moment when we know that Jesus is with us, just as he promised he would be - and the sending out where the disciples, burning with new enthusiasm, hurry back to Jerusalem to continue the task of proclaiming the Good News.

Why were the disciples prevented from recognising Jesus? Is it because he looked different? Is it because, in his risen form, we can only meet him in the liturgy - as we worship, explore the scriptures and share the Eucharist together? Or is it because the disciples met Jesus in a fellow traveller, a stranger on the way who turned out to have deeper insights into the truth about him than their own very partial understanding?

Who were the two disciples? In John's account of the crucifixion we are told that one of the witnesses was Mary of Clopas, Mary the wife of Clopas. Here we are told about Cleopas and his unnamed companion. Is this his wife, Mary, returning home with him?

Many later Gospel writers claimed to have access to what Jesus taught his disciples after his resurrection, and often these ideas turned out be a strange and eclectic mixture of popular ideas designed either to increase the appeal of Christianity, or to give it a new twist that happened to suit the writer. For a while some of these Gospels were fashionable but in the end they were all rejected. Luke's story survives because he doesn't attempt to make up the contents of that sermon on the road to Emmaus. He simply tells us that Jesus unpacked the stuff about himself in all the scriptures.

The Lord is risen. He is our companion on the way, and we can recognise him in the breaking of the bread.

Prepared to Believe

Luke 24.1-12

Very early on the first day of the week, in 'the deep dawn' - at first light - the women came to the tomb. In Luke's account there is no mention of their concern about how to remove the stone from the entrance so that they can anoint Jesus' body. Before they have chance even to think about it they have entered the tomb, discovered that it is empty and realised - almost as an after thought - that the stone has already been rolled away.

Of course they are puzzled, or 'utterly at a loss' as the Revised English Bible puts it, but straight away an explanation presents itself. Looking round they find two men in dazzling white are standing beside them.

Mark's account has only one man, wearing ordinary white clothes, so Luke has heightened the drama in more than one way. The dazzling clothes remind us of Jesus' appearance at the moment of transfiguration. Clearly for Luke this is a holy encounter and the women respond immediately by bowing their faces to the ground, whereas in Mark's account it's not quite clear who the young man is - he might even be an ordinary human well wisher, who has arrived at the tomb before the women and figured out for himself was has happened.

And why two messengers? Is Luke strengthening the evidence for the resurrection by telling us that two people, not one, and people who are clearly heavenly beings, were able to testify to the women about it? Or does he simply have access to a slightly different version of the story? The two men are also more emphatic than the young man in Mark about what has happened. The living one, they say, is not to be found among corpses. And then they go on to reveal that they somehow know about Jesus' teaching, before his death, that he must be crucified and on the third day rise again.

In Luke's version the women very soon get over their surprise. Of course the two men have placed beyond any doubt what has happened at the tomb. Jesus is not there. And have even linked the disappearance of his body to Jesus' own teaching. All that remains is for the women to announce this Gospel message to the other disciples.

And yet, even Luke chooses not to disguise the fact that the other disciples are unconvinced. The story of the two men in dazzling white doesn't impress the Jesus' other at all. In fact, they regard the whole account as nonsense. Only Peter, in a disputed ending to the passage which isn't found in the best manuscripts and may even be borrowed from John's Gospel, has the energy and enthusiasm to go himself to the Tomb to see if what the women are saying is true. He too finds it empty, and sees the grave clothes, and goes home marvelling.

So what are we to conclude from Luke's account? I think he means us to understand from this, and some of the other stories he tells, that Easter is always about faith and never about certainty. The women could have arrived at the tomb to find Jesus being raised. Instead, they're simply told - when they arrive - that they're looking in the wrong place. And, although Luke has the message conveyed to them by angels, nonetheless it's still only a challenge to go on looking for Jesus among the living - to meet him in friend and stranger, like the travellers to Emmaus. The angels don't say where these meetings will take place.

And the disciples too, not just the eleven special friends of Jesus, but 'all the rest' as Luke calls them, face the same choice that we face today. Are they prepared to believe the message that is being proclaimed to them or they going to believe something else - that the women are deluded, that they have gone, by mistake to the wrong tomb, that Jesus' body has been stolen, or that he somehow revived in the tomb and made good his escape? The story of the resurrection is marvellous, incredible even, but is it any more incredible than the alternative explanations?

That is what everyone of us has to decide for ourselves. But one thing is for sure, unless we are open minded, unless we are prepared to believe, we shall have great difficulty meeting Jesus among the living.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

It is Accomplished

Psalm 22, Isaiah 52.13-53.12, Hebrews 10.16-25, John 18.1 - 19.42

Psalm 22 is the psalm which Jesus quoted from the Cross, and therefore it has always had a special fascination for his followers. What brought it to his mind? Some people have suggested that he was conducting a sort of long range Bible study, drawing our attention to the resonance that the psalm has with his own situation. But it seems more likely that he cried out in a genuine agony of mind and spirit. John is so embarrassed by the whole episode that he omits it from his narrative completely. It doesn't fit with his picture of Jesus being glorified by God through suffering.

As Bill Ind, the former Bishop of Truro, reminded us in Wakefield Cathedral this morning, his cry of dereliction tells us that - even for Jesus - the outcome of the crucifixion was not a foregone conclusion. Despite his own enigmatic predictions that his suffering and death would lead to resurrection and vindication, in the end, racked with pain and doubt, Jesus did not know for certain how it would all end.

For John that's too unsatisfactory. He wants us to know that everything is being played out according to God's plan. He sees the uncanny resemblance between the predicament of the Psalmist and the death of Jesus as part of the evidence for that plan. It's all written down, preordained in fact, in Scripture. And that's why, although he squeamishly omits to mention verse 1, he does quote verses 15 and 18.

Early Methodists were fond of calling themselves worms, and verse 6 gives us a clue as to why that might be. Shockingly, if we associate this psalm with the sufferings of Jesus and recall that these words were playing over and over in his mind as he died, we see that he too must have felt as though he had been reduced to something totally insignificant and subhuman, a mere worm. This is why he cried out that he had been forsaken.

The Psalmist is taunted by the same sort of taunts and derision which were thrown at Jesus. Perhaps this shouldn't amaze us. This is the kind of thing which believers always face from sceptics when they're in trouble. 'If there really is a good God he will surely grant you success, and rescue you from suffering.' Even the Psalmist cannot believe what is happening to him, and if Jesus quoted this Psalm it's surely because - faced with the intensity of his own pain and despair - he couldn't quite believe it either.

'I shall live for him,' says the Psalmist at the end. But he's not talking about resurrection, about being rescued and vindicated by God after death. Despite the reference to the dead bowing down before God, the people who wrote the psalms did not believe in real life beyond death. They hoped instead that their cries would be heard and answered in their lifetime.

Again, the Suffering Servant Song seems like a wonderful premonition of Jesus' death and vindication. The parallels are probably so striking because Jesus identified himself with the Suffering Servant and saw these Scripture passages as the blueprint for his own life and death.

The Servant achieves success, and is raised to honour and exalted, but only through terrible suffering. On the way to that recognition he first endures an experience so awful that the whole world is appalled and disgusted at his fate. Again, like the Psalmist, he is reduced to something subhuman, unrecognisable as a human being.

However, unlike the Psalmist, who feels that he began life enjoying God's blessing, the Suffering Servant was - from the very beginning - someone with no beauty, or grace or majesty to attract attention and popular acclaim. He was always despised and overlooked. Whereas the Psalmist says that he has previously been close to God, people thought that the Suffering Servant was being punished by God for some unnamed sin committed by his ancestors.

Yet, says the Prophet, the Suffering Servant is really enduring the punishment that belonged to other people - to generations yet unborn. His death is cathartic, making it possible for human beings to make a new beginning, freed from the curse of past iniquity and sinfulness. Unlike the Psalmist, who was ultimately rescued from suffering to live long enough to write the psalm, the Suffering Servant is arrested, sentenced, slaughtered and assigned a criminal's grave. There is no doubt that he dies.

However, he is also healed and vindicated. We end as we began, as the Suffering Servant is allotted a portion with the great.

Who then, is the Suffering Servant? A model for Jesus' own tragic death, certainly, but - from the Prophet's perspective - the Suffering Servant is probably the remnant of faithful people from Israel who were taken captive by the Babylonians and Assyrians nearly a hundred years earlier, exiled and put through terrible suffering, but whose faithfulness in adversity has allowed future generations to begin a new chapter in their relationship with God.

For the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, the power of past suffering to cleanse the sins of future generations and wipe the slate clean is underlined by another Biblical figure whom Christians quickly associated with Jesus - the High Priest who offers the annual sacrifice to God to cleanse the whole nation on the Day of Atonement. But, whereas High Priests like Annas and Caiaphas were condemned to do this year in, year out, Jesus makes a sacrifice which is effective once and for all. There need be no further offerings for sin.

Moreover, he has opened the way for us to make our own approach directly to God - without the need for other human intermediaries. Whereas the people of Israel had been dependent on the High Priest to enter the holy of Holies and make atonement to God on their behalf, we can all enter God's presence because Jesus has cleansed us, and wiped away the history of past selfishness and wrongdoing, even more effectively than the Suffering Servant, for his cleansing is not just for future generations but for all generations. And his example should rouse us to love and active goodness.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, we see at once that Jesus is in charge of proceedings. He is not a hapless victim, but a champion of the oppressed, someone who ardently believes in the cause for which he is about to die. He knows everything that is going to happen to him and reassures Peter, who has struck out in panic at the High Priest's servant. 'This is the cup the Father has given me,' he says.

John's account is very sparse. He omits the melodramatic details that we find in the other Gospels such as Jesus turning to look at Peter as the cock crows, or people blindfolding Jesus in order to tease him. He moves swiftly on to the main action, pausing only to explain the true significance of what is happening through a series of set pieces.

There is what we would call a typographical error, of course, in verse 19, where John forgets that Annas is not actually the High Priest, but just a former High Priest and the father-in-law of the present High priest, Caiaphas.

It's important to John to emphasise that Jesus dies on the Passover, and so becomes the eternal Passover Lamb for the new nation of Israel which his death is inaugurating. For this reason the Jewish leaders stay outside Pilate's headquarters while the drama is played out inside.

It isn't true that the Jewish leaders were not allowed to put people to death. Within a few short years the High priest would order the beheading of Jesus' own brother, James, because he was proclaiming the resurrection and messianic status of Jesus. But all of the Gospel writers say that Pilate had a hand in Jesus' death, even though this was very inconvenient and made Jesus seem like an enemy of the state.

Although Pilate sentences Jesus to death because he claimed to be King of the Jews, and has the sentence fixed to the Cross as a warning, as usual Jesus is enigmatic about his status. He doesn't want to be seen as a king in human terms because he is offering a new kind of leadership based on suffering and service. To copy his example, as the writer of Hebrews said, kings - and everyone of us must practise love and active goodness, not power and might. This is the truth to which Pilate chooses to be deaf, preferring to treat Jesus' answer as a philosophical teaser.

In their final encounter, Jesus reminds Pilate once more who is really in control of events. 'You would have no authority at all over me,' he says, 'If it had not been granted to you from above.'

In John's version of events no one helps Jesus to carry his Cross. Master of his own destiny to the last, he carries it himself. And, when he dies, he says simply, 'It is accomplished.' The water and the blood which flow from his wounded body remind us that we can share in the new beginning that his death offers if we are baptised and partake of his promise to be with us when we break bread and bless the cup of wine, as he did on the night before he died.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Lifting up the Cup of Salvation

Psalm 116.1-2, 12-19, Exodus 12.1-4, 11-14, 1 Corinthians 11.23-26, John 13.1-17, 31b-35

On the Cross Jesus cried out, 'My God, why have you forsaken me?' But the Psalmist says that God listens to our prayers and therefore we should go on calling to him for as long as we live.

How are we to repay God's goodness to us? In a striking phrase the Psalmist talks about lifting up the cup of salvation and calling on the name of the Lord. How evocative that is of the communion service, when we lift up the cup in memory of Jesus' ordeal as a symbol of our own obedience to the way of the Cross.

'Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones;' another striking phrase. Precious, I think, because we are never forgotten. We do not die forsaken. We are always precious to God, no matter how or when we die.

Roman Catholics would see an evocation of the Hail Mary in the next lines of the Psalm, and it certainly makes us think - yet again - of Jesus, who is not only God's faithful servant but also the child of his obedient serving girl, Mary. His death is, as we are reminded in the communion liturgy, a thanksgiving sacrifice and our response must be to offer our lives as a living sacrifice too.

Our reading from Exodus also reminds us of a sacrificial image - the Paschal Lamb offered as a sacrifice to ward off God's vengeance against the Egyptians. Its blood daubed on the lintel of the door post would mark the occupants out as God's people, specially protected from harm. And, furthermore, it's death was also a catalyst sparking a change in Israel's fortunes. The people were to have all their possessions packed, ready for the journey from slavery to freedom. Then, in verse 14, comes the mention of remembrance - not just a passive act of remembering something that happened a long time ago, but bringing its power and effectiveness into the present moment. This is what Jewish people still believe they are doing as they celebrate Passover.

But Christians have a new Paschal Lamb, Jesus - who was crucified at around Passover time and shared a final Passover meal with his friends. His death doesn't protect us from an act of vengeance, but it does protect us from dying alone, because Jesus has gone ahead of us through death, and perhaps it protects us also from the consequences of our own obsession with ourselves, for through this act of supreme love - laying down his life for his friends - Jesus offers us a new beginning, and a new chance to love others in imitation of him. If we identify ourselves with Jesus we are marked out as members of God's family, part of the new Israel. And his death is the catalyst for change - in our own lives and in the world as we seek to build God's kingdom upon earth. And then, of course, our re-enactment of the Last Supper is also, like the Passover, an act of remembrance - a calling into the present moment of the power and effectiveness of Jesus' death.

Paul's spare account of the original Last Supper makes all of these connections, but without spelling it out. He doesn't mention the Exodus from Egypt or the Passover Lamb but all the elements are there - the meal, the new covenant or treaty, sealed in blood, the identification with the Lamb of God and the repeated act of remembrance until he comes.

In John's version of the story, it isn't a real Passover meal, but a meal that anticipates the Passover when Jesus will be hanging in the Cross. And vengeance really is hanging in the air, but not the vengeance of God. This time it is the vengeance of the forces of evil, which are very close to Jesus in the person of Judas, the traitor. John can see nothing good in his motives.

The theme of servanthood recurs, as Jesus underlines that he is a servant king by the acted parable of washing his disciples' feet. Again, we are challenged to identify ourselves with him and follow his example, acting as the servant of others. It is through our acts of love and service that people will know we are Jesus' disciples, just as it is through his death that the world can see, once and for all, that God was with him and in him, giving glory to all that he said and did.