Tag Archives: betrayal

Why read the Passion?

In many Churches this week we will read a longer passage, to follow through Jesus’ Passion story (Mark 14:1-15:47). To listen to this Passion story is to face 2 sides of reality.

One is the consistent failure of the people around Jesus.

  • Judas betrays him
  • the disciples don’t understand, fall asleep, desert
  • Peter denies him
  • the crowd want him crucified
  • Pilate doesn’t care to give him justice
  • soldiers and condemned prisoners mock him

Whatever is being achieved is not the result of human effort, offers no encouragement to depend on human goodness . .

The other side is sometimes forgotten. Jesus fights the battle against evil and death which he will win, but it is a most unusual war.

  • total casualties 1 dead
  • non fatal injuries 1 cut ear – healed immediately
  • psychiatric trauma all participants come to deal with reality better as a result of observation / participation
  • economic damage none, (unless the failure to avert the Jewish War a generation later is included, despite attempts by Jesus to avoid it). Some fishermen change trade.
  • political aftermath the Kingdom of God is established, but does not overturn other structures of government. Some officials with varying degrees of corruption are embarrassed.
  • lasting effects incalculable. The only war whose results are not buried by history.

Perhaps we begin to see why it had to be like that.  It is difficult to read, not because it is complicated, but – well, painful.  Yet this is the good news of Jesus.

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.

Are you Religious? (Epiphany)

Are you “religious”? You may get asked if you go to Church. I struggle to answer – I’m happy to be a Christian, and freely choose that life daily, and I’m not shy of my work as a priest. But “religious”? It sounds a bit odd, a bit out of reality and life as we know it.

Of course, Matthew is religious. His gospel is full of links to religious practice, and quotes from the OT. Yet, strangely, only Matthew tells this story of the Wise Men, which drags Jesus into the real world. Does that sound odd? Perhaps. Let me try to justify it:

Herod the Great has visitors. Perhaps he welcomed the exotic, or hoped for profitable trade, perhaps he was just bored – but their question immediately dispels boredom. “Where is the child born to be king of the Jews?”  Alarm bells sound all through Herod’s brain. He was ruthless, and paranoid. He was King, and nothing would interfere with that – he killed one wife and three of his sons on suspicion of treachery.

“Where is the new King?” is not heard as a religious question (unlike where will he be born – for which you need to know the Old Testament prophecy of Micah). Herod sees it as about Power, politics, control. In his world, competition is to be crushed, violence used as a tool, and winner takes all. Matthew sets his religious story right in the struggle for power, with the bullies and the treachery and the bloody violence of that time (and other times!).

So, he acts: He tells the Wise Men he would like to “worship” the new King – do you fancy being “worshipped” like that? Perhaps not. The Wise Men are wise enough to get out, find Bethlehem, a house, a child.

And they worship him. Not as Herod would have done, with a dagger. Not “Hello, how nice to meet you, I’m a very important person too.” They bow, worship, recognise someone on a different level altogether. They give expensive presents (you’ll have heard of the significance of gold for a king, incense for a God, myrrh looking to death – if not, look at the hymn “We three Kings of Orient are.”)

And that’s it. Mission accomplished. Time for home  – but being wise men (and warned in a dream), they go by a different route.

Have you ever wondered what happened to those presents? We don’t know. My guess is that the gold financed the journey to Egypt, to escape Herod’s massacre of baby boys up to 2. (You know that story? It fits with Herod’s character, which knows only the importance of his own success). Maybe the frankincense was sold too, to some religious person. The myrrh may have soothed cuts and scrapes as the boy grew and learnt to use the sharp tools of a carpenter – it can be used as an antiseptic.

So, are you religious? I don’t really care, unless it annoys your friends, or keeps you in a fantasy. But in the real world, are you with Herod, or the Wise Men? Where do you think real power lies, and what is it for? You have to answer, but not on paper. In conversation, what you do, and what you don’t do, you will show your attitude to power, and the way you use power, and land on one side or the other . .

Reality Check (Advent 4a)

The Disnification of Christmas is almost complete.  I don’t want to be rude to the Disney franchise – I like being entertained, but you know what I mean.  The Nativity story has become a fairy story, scrubbed clean, with cute angels, a baby, and all the editing to suggest that it belongs to the world of make-believe to be fed to small children and left behind by grown-ups.  It’s not real, it doesn’t belong in the world of work, politics, adult relationships, or anything serious.

But Matthew insists on telling the story as happening to real people, with difficult decisions and painful moral battles to fight.  His nativity focusses on Joseph, (Matthew 1:18-25), a man with a problem.  He is betrothed to a girl, Mary.  Betrothal is a serious commitment, yet she has become pregnant, and not by him.  We are not told of his feelings – we could imagine a roller coaster of anger, betrayal, doubt, compounded by a story of an angel visiting her.  What we are told is that, despite this upset, he decides to do the “right” thing.  He will divorce her (betrothal was that serious!), but without making a big fuss.

He has just made up his mind when, in a dream, an angel appeared to him.  The angel is no comic figure, nor even a romantic support, but a messenger with instructions.  He is to go ahead with the marriage, and support and protect the child who will be “Saviour”.  Does that make everything all right?  Again, we are not told of his feelings.  He does as he is told.  No doubt he endures many snide comments, unfair allegations about his behaviour.  He may even have been glad to leave Nazareth, though the journey to Bethlehem was a serious challenge.

The gospel writers do not record in detail how Joseph, or even Mary (who carries more disapproval), react to this.  What effect does it have on their relationship?  How do they deal with the burden of unfair criticism, innuendo, exclusion?  We don’t know.  Or rather, we aren’t given a dramatic account of their struggles.  What we do know is here: Joseph was a righteous man (v19), and he did as the angel of the Lord commanded (v24).  Jesus was born, and protected as a child, and learnt love, and faith, and the ways of God from his parents first.  I cannot believe he was brought up by people bitter at their past, untrusting of each other, with a permanent grudge against society.

So perhaps we need to listen the the story Matthew tells with such restraint.  As a story for grown-ups, who struggle with injustice, and being judged, and having a hard time – a story for real people, a little like us.  We may wonder why God doesn’t make life easier for us, but here it seems there was a reason.  Perhaps there will be more reasons when we look back.

Entertainment for the young?  Looked at like this, it seems almost unsuitable.

 

War and Disaster (Kingdom 3c)

The Christian gospel is good news – that is the literal translation of the word also translated “gospel”.  But sometimes you read a passage like Luke 21:5-19, and see reference to the destruction of fine buildings, war, disasters, persecution and betrayal, and think, “Good news”?

But the gospel is indeed good news, because these evils are recognised.  It is so easy to reduce Christian faith to a parody: “Be nice to people, enjoy the countryside, help those less fortunate.”  There is nothing wrong in any of those, of course – but without a strong reason to motivate a life of service and sacrifice, it is only platitude – so much hot air.

The reason comes as Jesus speaks of the sometimes painful reality of human life.  And it is the fact that he not only speaks of evil, but faces it himself, that gives weight to the way he leads.  Jesus faced a plot to kill him, was slandered and betrayed.  It is after he has been flogged and during his crucifixion that he forgives (as he had taught others).  By facing the evil of the real world, he overcomes it and offers us freedom.

The good news is about a kingdom where peace and justice rule, and healing and truth are found – a kingdom open to all who will admit their need of forgiveness and follow the one who leads the way through death to life.  Without the reference to the hard realities, it might seem just another bit of wishful thinking – a tale for children, to be left behind with childish things.  But a gospel which depends on one who lived this, went to his death by torture forgiving, and returned to encourage those who, despite their failures, wanted to be his followers; – that is a gospel for the real world, and for people who have grown to know some of how hard it can be.