Monthly Archives: April 2017

Unrecognised

It is surprising how often Jesus is not recognised.  Today’s story of a walk with a “stranger” (Luke 24:13-35) is an example.  The resurrected Jesus is the same, but not immediately known.  There is time for talk on the road, and Jesus listens.  It is a good school of evangelism.  As he listens, he discovers what these two travellers had hoped for, expected, and felt about events as they had unfolded.  He gets an insight into their disappointment and confusion.

Then – only then – “he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (v27).  I wonder how long a list you could write of the Old Testament passages which tell us something about Jesus?  We may not see them as “proofs”, for there is always discussion about how they were originally understood, but there is plenty to guide and encourage us.

I suppose the biggest references would be to the “Suffering Servant” in Isaiah, especially Isaiah 53.  A pointer to how suffering might set people free!  With the Servant, and joined totally, is the King, the Messiah expected to succeed to King David’s legacy.  For that we might look to the Jeremiah 33:17f, as well as to the gospels.  The idea of the Servant King, whose glory is at the cross, will explain a great deal to us of who Jesus was, and what he did.

Is that it?  I think there were many more references Jesus could have picked up.  His favourite title, “Son of Man” has a meaningful background in Daniel 7, as a figure empowered by God.  Then there is the expectation of a “prophet like Moses” in Deuteronomy 18.  Earlier in Isaiah are the passages we typically read at Christmastime – the descendant of Jesse (King David’s father) bringing peace (Isaiah 11), but also Emmanuel – “God with us” (Isaiah 7.14).  The one who brings light to Galilee, and is “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9).  Perhaps Jesus talked of the donkey-riding King of Zechariah 9, or the prophesied birth in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).  There are more you could look for.

These are useful references in Eastertime.  They may not “prove” anything, but they make us think more deeply, and help us understand how much history came to a climax and fulfillment at Jesus death.  He was so many things, fulfilled such varied hopes and expectations.  Faith can wear thin if we only explain in one way, endlessly repeated.  Jesus then remains unrecognised as the one for us.  That is a disaster!  God has provided many dimensions to wonder at, and a Lord with a heritage worth deeper exploration and greater appreciation.

Good doubt, bad doubt

It is important to encourage the right sort of doubt – and not the wrong sort.  But do we know the difference?  John (John 20:19-31) tells the story of the first Easter evening.  Jesus appeared to the disciples, but Thomas was absent, and refused to believe their story.  It must have been a difficult week!  When Jesus appears to them all, a week later, Thomas outdoes the others in his declaration of faith.

So, what is good or bad doubt?  Bad doubt is an excuse.  I can’t prove that my choice of spouse will be right – so I won’t make a commitment in marriage.  I can’t prove that my choice of career is correct, so I won’t put energy into doing it well.  You can go on.  Bad doubt feeds cynicism, laziness, lack of faith.  There are many things we either cannot prove in advance, or don’t try to.  (I drive a car, but don’t check the brakes every time I start off).

Thomas teaches us a sort of doubt which may not be comfortable, but looks for an answer.  Jesus resurrection is so unlikely, he wants good reason.  When he gets it – as Jesus invites his checking – he is ready to change his opinion and commit.  Without his doubt, would he – could he – have been as firm in his following a Risen Lord?  Good doubt is helpful, encouraging us to ask the right questions – questions which can deepen understanding, strengthen conclusions, sharpen our perception of reality.

Resurrection

You don’t need modern science to tell you that dead people stay dead.  True, in my lifetime there have been changes of definition – we used to talk of heartbeat or breathing, and now both can be replaced by machines for a time.  But if you resuscitate a dying person, you still have to deal with the reason why they were dying in the first place.

So, when Matthew tells us of Easter Morning (Matthew 28:1-10), he is not saying that the crucified and buried Jesus has been resuscitated.  He is very carefully saying (as Luke says in Acts 10:40) that Jesus has been raised from the dead.  He is the same, and not the same.  Recognisably the same person, his body seems to work under different rules, and is clearly not weak and failing.

We’d love to know more.  What exactly is involved? How does this happen?  And we are not told.  Perhaps it would be beyond us.  We are given reasons to believe, but no explanation of the mechanism.  Matthew is careful to lay out reasons: Jesus had warned his disciples, there was prophecy, the tomb is empty – despite the guard, and the difficulty that causes the authorities.  Perhaps most important, I cannot think disciples lived new lives, and went to their deaths, for a lie.

Matthew is keen to explain that the risen Jesus continues the relationship with his disciples that has been the most important part of their discipleship.  As time went on during his ministry, they didn’t learn a system, progressing from elementary to standard and advanced.  They got to know him, what he was like, what he thought important, how he used the power and gifts of God.  That would continue.  It might not be an easy beginning: all had made mistakes earlier, but now, they had to come to terms with the fact that at Jesus betrayal and trial and death, they had all failed – seriously.  Re-forming that relationship with Jesus would be difficult, but vital.

That is one of the important things about Easter for us.  Like those disciples, we face the challenge of building a new life.  Even if we have been Christian for decades, it is always a new life, resisting the easy slipping back into the habits and ways of the surrounding world.  Can we live in the way he still lives, following his lead, keeping close?  It always has been a challenge, and still is.  We don’t have to make the journey to Galilee, but seeing Jesus, and what he is doing, is very much part of our Easter agenda.

Fitting it all together

The gospel reading this Sunday is long – either the full account of Jesus’ Passion from Matthew, or a shorter version.  That leaves us to try and make sense of all that is going on.  It is rather like a detective story.  Different events, perhaps connected, but is there a pattern?  It all comes together at the Cross, as Jesus dies, with the last strands tied up at the Resurrection.

Let me try and bring two major strands together. One picture of Jesus comes from the prophet Isaiah, who spoke of a “Suffering Servant”.  It doesn’t make easy reading:

Isa 53:6 All of us were like sheep that were lost, each of us going his own way. But the LORD made the punishment fall on him, the punishment all of us deserved.

His suffering is, somehow, for us. By his death, he sets us free. It’s not obvious – partly because it is not flattering. It means I need someone else to die in my place. Coming to terms with that is part of the offence of the gospel – like the reminder that Christian life begins with repentance, and trusting God to do for me what I am incapable of.

But I talked about a detective story. Alongside this theme of Suffering for us in the way Isaiah described, there are others. Perhaps the easiest is Jesus the Messiah King:

Mat 21:5 “Tell the city of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you! He is humble and rides on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

On Palm Sunday, Jesus rides into Jerusalem, cheered by excited crowds.  All through his ministry, he had spoken of the Kingdom of God (Matthew calls it the Kingdom of Heaven), and slowly his friends came to understand that it didn’t mean a revolution against the Romans. It meant a community of people, for whom “God rules” – God in charge, directing lives, activity, priorities.

It seems that Jesus was the first to put together these 2 great ideas – the King, and the Servant. 2 ideas which nobody else had imagined could combine in one person!  But don’t think that is all there is. We could talk about why it was important that his identification with us included suffering, so that all who suffer and have suffered know he understands. We could talk about Sacrifice, and how Jesus is both priest and sacrifice. Or we could see that through the language of the “Lamb of God”.  That’s not a complete list! There are so many things brought together, resolved and explained at the cross. But if that is difficult to focus on, or to remember for more than a minute, just take the two.

Jesus is the Suffering Servant. Isa 53:5,6  But because of our sins he was wounded, beaten because of the evil we did. We are healed by the punishment he suffered, made whole by the blows he received.  All of us were like sheep that were lost, each of us going his own way. But the LORD made the punishment fall on him, the punishment all of us deserved.

Jesus is the promised King  Psa 89:3,4  You said, “I have made a covenant with the man I chose; I have promised my servant David, ‘A descendant of yours will always be king; I will preserve your dynasty forever.’ “

and if nobody expected those to come together, that is why it was unexpected!

The direction of Power

The story of Jesus visiting his friends and raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-45) is a powerful introduction to the crucifixion and resurrection – though Lazarus is brought back to human life, and will die again, and Jesus is resurrected, to eternal life with no further death to face.  You can see why we read it on Passion Sunday, looking forward to the final events of Jesus’ earthly life. It stands with the raising of the widow’s son at Nain, and of Jairus’ daughter, as signs of Jesus power, even over death.

But it is not only Jesus Power, it is about his motivation. In fact there are at least 2 other things to see in this story.  Jesus cares about these people. They are friends. He knows how different the 2 sisters are – Martha will meet him with forthright words, Mary with emotion. Jesus accepts that. He sympathises, and is moved to tears himself. Yes, his power, and this action, is important – but he is no showman, manipulating his audience to do tricks. Lazarus restored life will be a witness, and a support to the family.

So we learn about Jesus power, but also about his sympathy and relationship with this family and its members.  Thirdly, again importantly, we see how his conversations deepen the faith of Martha, Mary, and the others there. Martha: “Yes, Lord, I Believe that you are the Messiah”. Mary just comes to Jesus and kneels at his feet. For the moment, they are entirely bound up in their bereavement (which would have had serious consequences for their lives). Yet it will not be long before the faith now dawning and strengthening will be essential to them as Jesus disciples are scattered after his execution.

Are we just onlookers? I hope not. We need to know each of those 3 things, and to know them not just intellectually, with book learning.

  • Jesus is powerful. Some idea of what he can do is vital for us to trust.
  • Jesus cares. Even minor characters – the ones we might call unimportant – get loving and sympathetic treatment.
  • Jesus wants to talk with us about faith, life, and where we are going. Only when that happens can we find our way – His way – forward.

I imagine Mary said many times, “Why did it have to be like this?” We could answer, we are so glad it was like that, and written down for us to benefit!