Thursday, April 27, 2017

Sargon II and the General Election

Isaiah 14.3-21
At first sight Isaiah’s bitter poem about the downfall of the king of Babylon doesn’t appear to have much resonance with us. It seems to be describing long ago events in a far away place. Until we realise that already, by the time of Isaiah himself, the poem is being recycled.
It originally referred to the Assyrian King Sargon II, a man with a terrifying reputation who nonetheless managed to get himself killed while on campaign in a remote part of his empire. Sargon had just celebrated the pinnacle of his many achievements by completing a brand new capital city, but he didn’t get to enjoy it. Within months his army was defeated, in an apparently insignificant provincial rebellion. The fighting was so fierce that the body of the king couldn’t be recovered and had to be abandoned on the field of battle. Legend said that it couldn’t even be found by his enemies and had been left to rot or get eaten by dogs and wild animals.
To have suffered such an inglorious fate it was assumed that Sargon must have committed a terrible sin that had offended Assyria’s gods. The humiliation was felt so keenly back in Assyria that no monument was ever built to his memory and his name was simply erased from the historical record by his own son.
And if that’s how his own son felt about him, you can imagine what the people of Israel thought. Sargon had destroyed their kingdom and marched a lot of their people into exile in what was certainly an act of cultural genocide, where they were settled in some barren out of the way place, and it may have been an act of physical genocide too because they disappear from history.
One of Israel’s poets, or perhaps a poet from the southern kingdom of Judah where the cousins of the people of Israel lived, couldn’t wait to make fun of Sargon’s fate. ‘That cruel monster is done for!’ gloats the writer. ‘He won’t attack us again. Now the people of the world are celebrating with joyful songs.’ Even the trees have had a reprieve. No one is chopping them down for firewood for an invading army or to make siege engines.
The poet imagines what sort of reception must have awaited Sargon when he went down to the world of the dead. With great excitement the people whose nations he brought down gather round him. ‘Are you the man who made the world tremble and shook up kingdoms? Now you are just as weak as any of us! Your pride and your music have ended here,’ they scoff, ‘In the world of the dead.’
Sargon had aimed at an eternal throne above the highest stars alongside his gods but, whereas kings are normally buried in glorious tombs, he has ended up instead lying unburied, just another dead body killed in battle, lying underfoot like a broken branch. This is poetic justice for someone who’d captured countless cities, turned whole countries into deserts, murdered their people and refused to let his prisoners go home.
But Sargon had been long dead by the time Isaiah took up the same poem and used it against an unnamed King of Babylon. Although it had been intended as a barb against Sargon II and Assyria, the sentiments are timeless really. They express how the little people of the world often feel about the high and mighty, the ruthless schemers, the movers and shakers.
We only have to think about how people responded, at least initially, to the fall of Colonel Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein, or to the death of Osama Bin Laden, or how they are reacting now to the reconquest of the short-lived Islamic caliphate set up by ISIS. Recently young men brandishing machine guns posed alongside a British television reporter on the very spot where Djihadi John once executed British and American prisoners, the place where ISIS had promised that Armageddon - the final battle between good and evil - would be won by them. It was the symbolic equivalent, for a television audience, of Isaiah’s poem.
Our politics are conducted on a different plane, but there’s still plenty of room for ruthless cut and thrust. Witness the meteoric rise and fall of the alliance between Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, or the public celebrations in Thurnscoe when Margaret Thatcher died. People of different political persuasions still celebrate the look of defeat on the faces of Michael Portillo and Ed Balls when they lost their seats in Parliament. But instead of going down deep into the world of the dead they went deep into the world of entertainment. Michael Portillo was condemned to making all the great railway journeys of the world until he runs out of steam, and Ed Balls to being the butt of the judges’ jokes on Strictly Come Dancing.
In the weeks ahead, if Theresa May doesn’t win the expected landslide, or Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t stave off the annihilation of the Labour Party, or Nicola Sturgeon sees her grip on Scotland starting to slide, their fall could be just as sudden and precipitous, if not so deadly, as the fall of Sargon II. After all, in under a year David Cameron has gone from running a country to planning and installing a luxury garden shed - an imitation shepherd’s lambing hut on wheels - where he can sit and write his memoirs in peace and quiet.
We need to believe that it doesn’t have to be like this. People don’t have to either win or lose. There is an alternative way. The way of gentleness and compassion, the way of truth and sincerity, the way of justice and peace, the way of reconciliation. And we have to believe this because it’s the way of Jesus.
In his letter to the church at Philippi St Paul encourages his readers to ‘think the same way that Christ Jesus thought.’ Unlike Sargon he did not just aspire to be like a god, he ‘truly was God. But he didn’t try to remain equal with God. Instead he gave up everything and became a slave, one of us.’ He was humble not haughty, obedient not proud, willing even to die on a cross.
Jesus modelled a pattern of leadership where the leader aims to serve and help the people that he or she leads, not to exploit, or mislead and deceive them, or rule the roost over them. And precisely because of that God has given him the highest place. Whereas Sargon was erased from history, at least for a time, the name of Jesus will always be honoured above all others. ‘So at the name of Jesus every knee will bow down.’ Whereas the dead make fun of Sargon in Isaiah’s poem, even the dead - those ‘under the earth’ - will acknowledge the true lordship of Jesus.
The bitterness and vengefulness with which the poem about Sargon ends mean that, inevitably, the outbreak of peace which the poem celebrates is likely to be shortlived. The crucifixion of Jesus appears at first sight like a similarly humiliating and catastrophic end to the ignominious fate that was  suffered by Sargon, but Jesus’ story doesn’t end in the world of the dead. It ends in resurrection, and with the throne above the highest stars alongside God, which Sargon aspired to but was denied.
As followers of Jesus we’re called to model the same spirit of humility, gentleness, collaboration and compassion which made him glorious. Politics and leadership in general is not a Game of Thrones, a chance to show how clever and manipulative we can be. Leadership, whether in the wider community, or in the church, or at work, or at home, is an opportunity to serve others and together seek the common good. We shouldn’t be looking for strong leaders, we should be looking for right-minded leaders, and leaders whose aim is to serve.

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. Perhaps God experiences post traumatic stress even if he isn't disordered by it.
The wounds are 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?