Easter Sunday (John 20:1-18 and Psalm 118:1-2, 15-18)

Psalm 118

The Lord has punished me severely but he has not given me over to death. In these words of the psalmist we hear the voice of one who has tasted the bitter things of life. One who has known defeat, fear, loneliness and anxiety. One who has felt that God himself has turned against him. “The Lord has punished me severely”. We can only speculate what the psalmist had undergone to make him believe that not only was God bringing bad things to him but that this was a punishment, a punishment, one must presume, that was accepted as due.

 

But the writer of these words did not waver in his belief that God was good and that God’s steadfast love endures forever.

 

Today, this Easter day, we remember that Jesus faced those dark hours, alone at prayer in the garden, asking to be spared, and then, at the end, alone and abandoned nailed to a cross. We remember, too, that through those hours and days when all seemed lost and his mission futile Jesus did not falter and did not despair. Today we remember that his faith and his obedience were vindicated.

(John)

 

The resurrection is hard to believe in and hard to understand. In the story John tells we hear that this was so for those who witnessed it most closely as it is hard for we who have only the story. Mary finds the empty tomb and thinks the body has been stolen. Simon and the nameless disciple who runs with him see and believe but don’t yet understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Even when Mary actually speak with Jesus she starts by asking him where he has taken her Lord’s body.

 

It isn’t until Jesus says her name, “Mary”, that she realises who he is. “Rabbouni”, she answers.

 

The resurrection is hard to see, hard to believe in, even if you’re there, and we are there. We are no further from Jesus than Mary, Peter and the beloved disciple were.

 

Jesus says to Mary: “Don’t hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the father.” Mary can’t touch him and we know that he was not the same as he was before. Mary is not the only one in the gospels who meets and speaks with the resurrected Christ without recognising him.

 

Christ is risen and he is transformed.

 

Christ’s rising transforms.

 

So here we are, on Easter Sunday. Here we are singing the glad songs of Christ’s victory. But where is he? Is he here? Is Jesus here with us, as he was with Mary on that glad morning all those many years ago? Is Jesus alive? Does he walk the earth?

 

In one way it’s easy to say “yes” to those questions. After all it’s what we’re meant to believe. Saying yes to this sort of thing might seem like the price one pays for admission to the Church or perhaps to heaven. In another it’s hard to say “yes”, at least for me. I don’t really know what it means. I know Jesus is no easier for me to see than for Mary, if anything even harder.

 

But I know that “yes” is the right answer, not as a price to be paid but as a wonderful gift that I’m offered and would be foolish to refuse.

 

Christ is risen! Christ is here! Death is conquered, sin is no more. These are hard things to believe, to really believe so that we’re filled with joy.

 

God has put an end to sin and death in the resurrection of our Saviour Jesus. Today we are like Mary, looking at an event we can’t quite grasp, encoutering a man we can’t quite recognise.

 

Listen for his voice. Listen to hear your name called. He is here. He lives. We live. God’s victory is shared with us.

 

Alelluia.

 

 

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Good Friday (John 19:16b-30)

It is finished”. Jesus hangs on the cross. He gives his spirit up to God. Now it is Friday. Christ is dead. We are left, like the women at the foot of the cross, to mourn. Good Friday is a day to mourn, a day to remember, a day to weep. A day when those who love Jesus turn to one another, like Mary and the disiple Jesus loved and pledge to take care of one another.

Good Friday is a day to recall that while Christ is with us always he is also absent. That while we remember him faithfully we are also like those first followers were on that first Friday.

How many of us expect to see the risen and ascended Christ walk our streets? How many of us expect to hear and see him in life? For how many of us is the return in glory a real and vivid expectation?

We adapt to the life we know, as the disciples thought they would have to do. We accept that the world is full of sickness, pain and death. We learn to live with injustice, starvation and war.

This world is not the new creation we are promised, any more than Jesus hanging broken on the cross is the messiah his followers were looking for.

Like them we look at a broken and bleeding world and we look to one another to make it bearable. We come into the Church as Mary went into the disciple’s house, looking for sanctuary and comfort.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Jesus himself commanded it from the cross.

It isn’t enough, though. He had promised them that he would return to them, and he did. He has promised us that he will return to us, and he will. This is Friday and we should mourn but even on Friday, even through the long Good Friday that is our lives without the physical presence of our saviour and without the recreation of all things, we have to remember and believe the promise of Easter, the promise that all, in the end, will be well.

Potters Bar 17 March 2013: Who is saved? The elections of Abram and Noah and the calling of a Christian (Genesis 12:1-9 and Romans 4:13-25)

God chose Abram. He picked him out and he spoke to him. “Abram”, God said, “leave your country, your family and your father’s house, for the land I will show you. I will make you a great nation, I will bless you and make your name so famous it will be used as a blessing.”

 

God made Abram some big promises. “I will make you a great nation.” “I will make your name so famous it will be used as a blessing.”

 

Abram obeyed God’s commands. He left his country and he set off, with Sarai his wife and with Lot his nephew.

 

Together they set off into the land God would show them.

 

We know nothing about Abram before his choosing, his election, by God. There’s nothing in the story that explains why Abram was chosen. God gives no reason, offers no justification. Abram is chosen by God for blessing and to be a blessing to all the nations.

 

His special place in God’s plan comes suddenly and without warning in the Genesis story. In this he is different, for example, from Noah, the last person before him who was chosen to play a unique part. Before we hear of God’s instructions to Noah we hear that “Noah was a good man, blameless in his generation, and he walked with God.” We understand that God chose Noah to build the ark and ensure the survival of life after the flood. Noah was righteous, he deserved this.

 

We don’t know anything like this about Abram. He is chosen to become the father of the people of God, the people of Israel. That’s all we know and as his story unfolds, and then as the story of the people unfolds, it becomes clear that neither he nor they are especially pure, especially righteous, especially holy, except through God’s choosing.

 

Abraham himself lies and fights. He pretends Sarai is his sister and not his wife so that she can join the harems first of Pharaoh and then of Abimelech without harm coming to Abram. He takes a concubine, Hagar, when his wife can’t give him a child and then when, eventually Isaac is born to Sarah he drives poor Ishmael, the son of Hagar, off into the desert. Most shockingly of all Abraham is prepared to sacrifice Isaac, to kill him with a knife, until God sends a ram to substitute for him.

 

Abraham’s story is one we might struggle to see as that of a great man of God. And yet that is what it is. Abram is chosen, as we’ve heard, and then God makes a great covenant with him. God promises Abraham many descendents and that they will occupy the land. God promises to be his God and the God of his descendents and in return Abraham has to promise that they will remember God, dedicate themselves to him, and that they will mark this belonging through the practice of circumcision.

 

Abraham is chosen and he accepts that choosing. What marks Abraham out is his willingness to trust God, to have faith in God’s promises and in God’s good will, even where that seems impossible. When he goes to sacrifice Isaac at God’s command he tells his servants to expect them both to return. Even when he is commanded to do this dreadful thing his faith does not waver.

 

Abraham isn’t chosen by God to be the father of God’s people because he is good, he isn’t especially good. Neither is he chosen by God to be without suffering. Abrahams’s life is a difficult one in many ways. When Sarah makes him send Ishmael away we are told that “this greatly distressed Abraham because of his son”. This parting would haunt any father for the rest of his life.

 

Abrahams’s life was blessed by God in many ways, as promised, but these incidents, the driving of Ishmael into the desert and the putting of Isaac on the altar, and the giving of his wife to two great kings throw huge shadows over it. Abraham was blessed by God but lived a life as marked by trouble as any of ours.

 

The great blessing was his legacy, the people founded through Isaac, the people of Israel, who would go into exile in Egypt and return to the land with the great Law given at Sinai. Who would build the temple of God’s dwelling, who would be the people through whom the creator God made himself known to his creation, through whom God would come to earth in the person of Jesus.

 

So that’s what God meant when he said Abraham would be a blessing to all the nations. He blessed us all in Christ. Abraham’s true blessing is nothing that happened in his own life, no special benefit he received for himself. Through Abraham’s faith the path was made along which Jesus would walk. Abraham’s election was fulfilled in Christ.

 

I want to suggest that something similar is going on when God chooses the members of his Church. When God chooses us, calls us, brings us to this place. God hasn’t singled us out for special favour in the sense that our lives will be untroubled and carefree. Our faith doesn’t entitle us to that kind of divine reward. No the Church is called into being as a blessing to all.

 

Just as the people of Israel were created through Abraham to be a dwelling place or a representative of God so the Church is a dwelling place and representative of God in Christ. We are called to let Christ be present to his world. Present in the word spoken, present in the bread and the wine of communion, present in our love for one another, present in our service to our world. That’s what the Church is for. Not to make us feel or even be better. Not to convince people that they should join us to save their souls. Not to provide a shelter from a sinful world, like the Ark built by the good man Noah.

 

The Church is here to be a sign of God’s love but more than that to be the place where God and the world can meet, where God can reach out and bless all the nations, like the people founded by the faithful man Abram. The Church’s destiny is to be the sign of God’s promise of blessing until that promise is fulfilled. Nobody is saved on their own. God’s plan is one for the salvation of all and we have our part to play in that plan.

Potters Bar 10 March 2013: What is salvation? (Psalm 19:1-19 and Luke 19:16-30)

Jesus saves. There’s a statement one might expect to hear from a pulpit. I’ll say it again. Jesus saves! Well we know who Jesus is, I should think, if we’re here in church. We probably also know, or at least have heard, that he saves. What we might well be less clear about is what that means. Saves. There’s a word. Saves. Jesus saves who? Jesus saves how? Jesus saves from what? Jesus saves for what?

Think again about what we heard from Psalm 18 this morning. “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer”; “in my distress I called to the Lord”; “He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters.” Here we have a vivid image of God as rescuer, God acting like the crew of a lifeboat, finding us where we are in danger, bringing us back to a place of safety. The Lord is a good shepherd and also is our safe refuge.

 

This is one meaning of “Jesus saves”. Jesus, God, rescues us from danger and brings us home. The danger from which we’re rescued isn’t, in the first place, storms at sea or the onset of our enemies, although those in such distress may well call out to God.

 

What Jesus ultimately rescues us from is sin, after all. Sin, or its consequences, are the equivalent of the raging sea, we are like the crew of a boat incapable of surviving this threat and Jesus like the lifeboat that comes to take us safely to shore. “Jesus saves” means, among other things, that Jesus plucks us from danger and takes us clear and home.

There another sense of “save” though, which although it doesn’t work too well with the Greek works brilliantly in English. We “save” for things as well as save from things, and so does Jesus. He isn’t like the lifeboat captain, who doesn’t worry about what those he rescues do with themselves after they are rescued.

Jesus doesn’t rescue us without knowing or caring who we are, interested only in the fact that we’re in the kind of danger it is his job to react to. Jesus saves each of us individually because he cares about, he loves, each of us individually. He doesn’t save us from a particular danger, he saves us from not being what we’re made to be.

We’re made in the image of God. We’re made to be the image of God. That’s what Jesus saves us for, that’s what he saves in us. He doesn’t save us to live more of the half-life we live without his salvation. He saves us into a fuller life than we could ever live without him. As Gerald reminded us at Bible study the other week: “eternal life is now”. Jesus doesn’t save us just in the future, for a life after death. Jesus saves us into eternal life here and now. Jesus saves us for life with God.

So, Jesus saves us from danger, from sin; Jesus saves us for eternal life, for life in full relationship with God, as the image of God. Jesus saves us from and Jesus saves us for. But what is that like, for us? What is it like to be saved? How do we see the danger? How to we know ourselves to be safe?

Let’s turn to the story of the rich young man, who came asking Jesus what he needed to do. “What good must I do to get eternal life?”, he asks. The obvious question, for me, to ask about this is why he wants to know.What has brought this young man to Jesus? What is he worried about and why does he ask Jesus?

I think he must have felt some lack, some danger, in his situation. After all he was already following the law, as he tells Jesus when reminded about God’s commandments about how to live. “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?” What made him feel he lacked something, when he had no idea what it was?

How many of us have felt this? How many have felt that all that we have and all that we do are not enough? That we want and need more, that we need eternal life, a life free from all threat? The young man in the story turn to Jesus like a child waking from nightmare turns to his mother. He doesn’t know what he’s afraid of. He doesn’t really know what he wants. But he trusts Jesus to save him from whatever it is that threatens and to guide him to whatever it is that he needs.

And Jesus reacts like a mother should. He doesn’t ask what the young man means, he doesn’t dismiss his fears, he tries to soothe him. He tells him to follow the law, as he already is. And when that isn’t enough to make him feel better, when he asks “What so I still lack?” Jesus points out to him the dead-end he’s running himself into. “If you want to be perfect” he says, “go sell your possessions and give them to the poor”. Jesus doesn’t command this without prompting and when he does he says “if ..” before doing so. Jesus doesn’t say that the young man has to be perfect he tells him what perfection looks like.

The young man wants Jesus to save him from his fear, his worry about the future, but in the end Jesus can’t do this. He goes away sad. That’s because he didn’t stay for the end of the story, doesn’t trust Jesus quite enough to wait for him to finish. When the disciples react with horror and disbelief to the dialogue they’re heard (“who then can be saved?”) Jesus move to reassure them. “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

What Jesus saves us from, ultimately, is our imperfection. He tells the disciples, in effect, not to worry about being perfect. It doesn’t matter that we can’t save ourselves, that our boats aren’t up to the storm. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know what we’re afraid of and we don’t know what we want: “with God all things are possible”.

We should trust Jesus, trust God, like a baby trusts her mother. The baby doesn’t know what’s wrong, doesn’t know what will make her feel right with herself and the world, but her mother does and her mother takes care of it. That’s what being saved by Jesus is like. The dangers we feel without understanding are dealt with. The needs we have that we don’t have the words to describe are met.

We are brought to safety and we are put right so we can be complete as we are meant to be. Jesus saves. Jesus saves us. Jesus saves the world. Amen.-

Brookmans Park 3 March 2013 (Luke 13:1-9, “Repent

Trying to help and advise people whose behaviour is self-destructive is horrible. Those locked into patterns of feeling and action which hurt them and those around them are so hard to reach and to change. One can see the ways in which they are doing themselves harm and sometimes some of the reasons why. One can see the often quite simple changes that would release them from their situation and make them into the happy and successful individuals one would like them to be. But the solution can only be reached through change in them that no-one else can bring about. They have to alter themselves and to do so they have already to be different people.

This bind, where those who need to change can’t do what needs to be done, no matter how clearly others can see it, is very painful and is the situation Jesus faces in our gospel passage this morning. He says: “unless you repent, you too will all perish”, he says that if you don’t “think again” or “change your mind” (the meaning of the word translated here as “repent”) you will be destroyed (a more literal translation of the word given as “perish”). “If you don’t change you will be destroyed”: how many parents, spouses, friends have said that? If you carry on as you are it will end badly.

Jesus is saying to those around him, he is saying to us: “The course you are following will end in disaster! Change your mind! Change your ways!”

So what kind of self-destructive pattern is Jesus trying to save us from and what is the disaster that looms for us?

He starts from two disasters, the killing of the Galileans as they make their sacrifices and the collapse of the tower in Jerusalem. One of these is the act of the Roman occupying power and the other is an accident, an “act of God”. Jesus doesn’t deny that those who suffered in them were sinners but he insists that they were no worse than anyone else. Their particular sins can’t be the cause of the what happened because otherwise we would all be overwhelmed in the same way.

Jesus tries to turn us away from looking for a reason for these events that would reassure us that we are secure. Instead he tells us that we are in danger of meeting the same fate. “Unless you repent, you too will all perish”.

We often think of repentance in terms of confession and guilt. We repent of something. This doesn’t quite catch what Jesus is saying here.

To repent is to change your mind, to change yourself, to become different. It is the kind of thing we want an alcoholic or a drug addict to do. Put aside these things, break with this life, start afresh, turn over a new leaf. That’s what Jesus is saying to us. Begin again! Begin differently.

The big change Jesus wants us to make is in our attitude to ourselves and to God. What he is urging us to do is to put God at the centre of our lives instead of ourselves. Elsewhere in Luke’s gospel we hear him say: “ whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.” He is telling us that our patterns of self-centred and anxious looking after ourselves is the kind of thing that will bring us to destruction. Repent! Change your ways! Lose your self to God, then you will be released into life.

To repent is to turn yourself around so that instead of looking at the world and at God from the viewpoint of what’s good for me you look at yourself as belonging to God. That’s what loving God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind is like.

It seems odd that losing yourself like this is what can save you from destruction. Lose your life to gain it. This seems odd until you repent, until you recognise the true relationship between us and God, our total dependence on a God we can and should trust.

Our sinfulness, the state we repent out of, is more than anything else our refusal to trust God, to have faith, which is mostly trust. We strive to be independent, in so many ways. We try to be the judges of what is right, to rule our lives, to be the ones who know and measure and assess. That’s what sin is. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they said that they weren’t content to let God be God and to be God’s creatures. They wanted to be like God, they wanted to be independent.

But that isn’t possible. We aren’t God. We can’t know nor can we act like God. To try is to cut ourselves off from the source of life and of goodness. Our perishing, our destruction, isn’t some vengeful act of spite on God’s part. It’s more like the withering of a plant which has lost its roots. It follows from not being nourished. We aren’t self-sufficient, we do depend on God and if we isolate ourselves from God by rejecting his love and not trusting his care we will perish.

Repent! Says Jesus. Turn! Turn to God! Trust God’s love, accept God’s care, stop pretending you can manage your life without God. Surrender yourself to God, recognise that you are God’s creature, connect to the source of life. If you don’t then you will destroy yourself.

God loves us, God wants what’s good for us, but we have to be ready to accept that love, to follow God’s way. That’s what Jesus is calling us to do. Can we hear? Can we change? Can we stay changed? With God’s help we can and we will.

Praise be to God.