Tag Archives: cross

King !?

Pilate faces a poor man in court, and he just cannot understand (John 18:33-37). He has condemned many would-be revolutionaries, but Jesus doesn’t fit the type. He suspects those who have handed him over.

“Are you King of the Jews?” Well yes, he is, or rather King of Kings. What Pilate, the poor politician, cannot understand is what the gospel writers have been telling us all along. Jesus is Messiah, the promised King – but his Kingdom will come as he also takes the role of Suffering Servant.

Pilate would never understand the need for the cross. Jesus wins his Kingdom not by conquest and coercion, but by taking the place of guilty humanity, and dying for each of us. Only in that way can we be set free. Only by such extreme measures can we come to a Kingdom which is not only eternal and universal, but also:
a kingdom of life and truth, of grace and holiness,
a kingdom of righteousness and justice,
of love and peace.

If you find that hard to take, look again at all 4 gospels. Each, in a different style, makes Jesus death and resurrection the climax and centre. Each makes clear that there is no mistake, no accident. Jesus is King, and chooses the path to his throne.

It involves truth – not compromise, or uneasy coalition, but truth. Pilate’s next line is, “What is truth?” It sounds very post-modern. As if what is true for you might not be true for me – but we must live in Jesus’ Kingdom, and follow his standard of truth.

In addition to Pilate’s court, our other readings give us entry to two others. Daniel’s vision (Daniel 7:9-14) sees not only the “Ancient One” take his heavenly throne, but with God the Father is “one like a human being” – in the older translations, one like a “Son of Man”. You may remember Jesus’ favourite term for himself, and see in God the Son the one given “dominion and glory and kingship” – an everlasting dominion, a Kingdom never to be destroyed. Prophecy from generations before Jesus birth.

Another vision of heaven comes from John the divine in Revelation 1:4-8. Here we see the heavenly Christ, “who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, . . “ Marvellous words, not only for the persecuted believers of the first century.

He is the Lord of 3 tenses: “who is, and who was, and who is to come”. Pilate has not only lost his grip on truth, but he has forgotten / ignored the higher court which will judge him. A drama of incomprehension is played out in Jerusalem, but a higher court will give a different verdict.

And where does that leave us?
I hope we can take warning from Pilate’s failure to understand. Jesus Kingdom will never make sense to those who value only earthly power, possessions and status. But it is truly the most wonderful Kingdom ever. It brings
life and truth, grace and holiness,
righteousness and justice, love and peace.

There is no coercion, no bullying, but entry for all who want to belong, to learn the new way of discipleship. It costs nothing, it costs everything. As Jesus stands on the opposite side to Pilate, who do you side with?

Is that a new commitment, or does is show clearly in your past life?

Either way, will it be clear next year to those who know you best?

Mistake – or . .

If I ask you to read Mark 10:35-45, I wonder how you react. It’s not that it’s complicated or difficult to translate; it is just very different to what we are used to in the media, and in what seems to be “ordinary” life. I hope, though, that you do find something to take away, ponder, and perhaps talk about.

I wonder if you see a warning. James and John were ambitious, perhaps even a bit ruthless about their aims. But they hadn’t really thought it through, and if Jesus had been less sympathetic it could have got them into all sorts of trouble. (2 crosses, or let the other disciples deal with their ambitions?). This shows up a real gap between Christian thinking and what passes for ordinary standards and expectations – a reminder of the gap, that we have to understand and get over.

But if there is a warning here, there is also an encouragement. These two are key disciples, and despite their blunders they are still included in Jesus circle of friends and students. Not only that, but their imperfections are not air-brushed out of the gospel account – quite the opposite. That’s got to be good news! If Jesus could choose and use people like that, there is hope for us, with all our imperfections.

Or perhaps what stays with you is that last verse, Mark 10:45, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” It fits with the Old Testament lesson Isaiah 53:4-12, about the Suffering Servant who would redeem many. It fits with the Hebrews reading (Hebrews 5:1-10) about Jesus as a High Priest, bringing people to God and God to people. But it doesn’t easily fit with our culture of celebrity.

Have we really come to terms with Jesus choice of ministry – choosing to die, rather than to escape (as he could have done). Do we really want to follow and learn to imitate that sort of Lord?  We don’t need other people to remind us it is a strange choice. We easily forget that the eucharist (Holy Communion, Lord’s Supper, Mass, liturgy, breaking of bread – there are many names) we celebrate is a thanksgiving for the death and resurrection of the Son of God who died for us. Because it was necessary, because that sets us free, and allows the love of God to get to us, and through us to others.

I wonder how you react to a gospel reading like that.

Do you take warning, not to let ambition lead you astray?

Are you encouraged by the fact that Jesus uses real people, with their rough edges?

Do you find yourself wondering again about how differently God works, because we would never have planned Jesus ministry like that?

I don’t really mind, I just hope that you do react to it, and take it away, think and pray about it, and find ways of talking about it, too.

The Climax

(There is also a Dialogue Sketch on this gospel passage, which you can read here.)

If you watch films classified as “Thriller”, or read paperbacks, you expect a Climax: chase, showdown. But you don’t know how it will start, or what form it will take.  This week, Passion Sunday, we find out how the gospel will climax.  Jesus will die.

The arrival of “Greeks” (John 12:20-33) – probably not Jews – seems to make Jesus aware of what is coming, and he talks of the death of a grain of wheat, and recoils in horror, (verse 27), before seeing the glory of God in this.

This is the climax of the gospel. This death, unjust, inhumanly cruel, marking the apparent victory of all that is against Jesus and the Kingdom he announces – this is the glory of the Son of God. That is exactly what they mean. Jesus is not going to march into Jerusalem as King and replace Herod, or Pilate, or even the High Priest. He will allow himself to be captured, condemned, flogged, and crucified. Then he will rise. No wonder he hesitates.

We still find this odd, and also recoil. How can this be? What sort of success is this? The answer is history – history we prefer to forget! Jesus’ Kingdom does last, and offer better hope to all, than any other.

And then there is this odd verse about judgement. John 12:31 “Now is the time for this world to be judged; now the ruler of this world will be overthrown.”  How can the cross bring judgement? Remember John 3:17 “For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its saviour”. What does this mean? John seems to be saying that the cross brings, not a judgement of demons carrying you away to the furnace, but – well compare

  • John 12:47 “If people hear my message and do not obey it, I will not judge them. I came, not to judge the world, but to save it.”
  • John 12:48 Those who reject me and do not accept my message have one who will judge them. The words I have spoken will be their judge on the last day!
  • And John 9:39 Jesus said, “I came to this world to judge, so that the blind should see and those who see should become blind.”

There is judgement for those who fail to see in the crucified Lord the Saviour – Messiah, Suffering Servant, Son of God. That the judgement is a missed opportunity, a continuing in darkness, makes it no less terrible. It does not make Jesus a punitive figure, the main actor in a “Sting” operation to catch the unwary. He remains the sign of God’s love, the costly opening of the door to life. But to refuse the life he offers is to take a dark and terrible way, and represents a most terrible judgement, equal, and greater, to the terrors he endured for us.

The Gospel is a thriller. Its climax comes at the Cross. At one and the same time, the Cross brings freedom, and judgement to those who will not take it.

Lifted up ?

(The fourth Sunday in Lent is often kept as Mothering Sunday, and there is a dialogue sketch on that theme here.)

“As Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the desert, in the same way the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” These words from John’s gospel may seem a puzzle (John 3:14-21).  They come at the end of Jesus’ private conversation with the Jewish Pharisee, Nicodemus.  It helps to look back to a story from the wilderness wanderings, about poisonous snakes (Numbers 21:4-9). Moses commanded the people to make a bronze snake, put it on a pole, to offer a cure to those bitten.

It may seem a strange idea, but you can see some reasons for it:

  • it showed the need for faith, to believe in the cure.
  • it required action according to the instructions, to take given cure.

Jesus picks this up in the gospel (in conversation with Nicodemus). He, too, must be lifted up on the cross to gather people, who will either take advantage of his sacrifice, or refuse to associate with it.

In many Churches a cross marks a gathering point.  It may be on top of the building, or a processional cross carried at the beginning of a service, or one placed at the centre of the building.

It is just a symbol, but is a powerful reminder that Christians are the people of the Jesus who was crucified. But do we want to be family? Do I have to belong? There are different ways of belonging, but the test becomes admitting to, or refusing, Jesus. Banners, and badges have always been used to gather those with an allegiance.

Jesus victory is not the sort that has everybody wanting to say, “I was there,” “I was with Him”. It leaves us the choice. Who am I with? Do I want to belong? Nicodemus obviously finds it hard, though he will work through it all, and believe. (see John 19:39)

What do you (really) want?

What do you want – really, really want? I can guess some answers:

  • sun, even a holiday in it
  • Money – a lottery / Premium bond prize
  • a Ferrari, / gadget / status symbol

But I seem to remember a few stories which centre around 3 wishes. All too often the first two are disasters, and the third has to be used to put things right. Reality breaks in, even to fairy tales!  There are lots of things we want, without the consequences. Human nature always has eyes bigger than its stomach, and a desire that forgets the dangers of selfishness.

Today’s gospel (Mark 8:31-38) is very revealing about what Jesus really wants. We have just passed the high points: first, Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah (the promised great King), then Jesus was Transfigured.  And Jesus takes that cue to tell them about his coming suffering. Peter had probably been dreaming of success – perhaps Prime Minister in Jesus government of Religious Restoration, a comfortable and honoured position. And Jesus says, “Get away from me, Satan, Your thoughts don’t come from God but from human nature!”

Jesus didn’t want to suffer; he wanted all the usual things – home, family, to be loved, accepted and respected. He was fully human, tempted as we are. But what did he want most? He knew that what he wanted above everything was to do what only he could do, and bring humanity back to God. He wanted to finish his ministry successfully.

He wanted the disciples to understand. Here, in chapter 8, twice in 9, and again in 10, he tries to make them face up to reality. But they can’t; only later do they remember, and understand.

“Have a cross”. “Expect a hard time as a Christian”. “Only those ready to die should apply”. As advertising slogans, these lack something important.  Or do they?  Jesus wanted all the usual things, but when it came down to it, he really wanted to serve God, no matter what. And he did. The disciples couldn’t get their heads around it, and went on arguing about who was most important, and other “key issues”. But when they saw how it played out in Jesus life and death, they knew what they really wanted, and they offered their service and their lives.

So what about us? What do you really want? Will you settle for Sunday lunch, a bit of TV or social media time, and life as usual? – or have you caught a glimpse of something worth so much, a vision of what God might do, that is enough to put you to service, no matter what?

Yes, the stakes are high, and the warnings on the tin of Christian life are scary and blunt. But can all the Christians be mad – or is it all the others?

Must Jesus suffer?

As you read this post, do you count yourself as a Christian?  If so, “What do you do as a Christian?” only because you are a Christian, and would give up if you no longer claimed that faith?  You might need time to think about this – but if you cannot identify anything, does that throw doubt on your faith?  [If you do not describe yourself in this way, do you understand that to claim Christian faith should mean a real difference in ordinary life?].

A second question: “How do you do it?”.  Unwillingly, with a long face, or can you manage a positive sense of the privilege of discipleship, and the honour of service?

Today’s gospel (Matthew 16:21) says “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised”.
He must.  It is clear in all 4 gospels, and the New Testament generally. The story works up to the cross. But Peter doesn’t get it – like many today. He sees Jesus as Messiah – King, and is looking forward (perhaps with some doubts) to celebrity, glory, winning. But God has very different ways, and the Messiah will win through suffering. Jesus tone makes it clear that is not negotiable, not a detail to be skimmed over.

I think we might all have some sympathy for Peter, and find it hard to keep in focus this strange way God chooses to work. Why does Jesus have to die? What good does it do?  Evangelical Christians will say firmly that He pays the price for our sin, and it is only by his death that we are free. That’s true, and if you haven’t come to terms with being in debt for your life, you need to do some thinking about it with God, and perhaps with 1 Peter 2 esp v24.

But be aware, too, that Jesus is unique, and all descriptions are metaphors which help us understand, but eventually no one picture covers all the angles. The New Testament does not give just one picture to explain, but many, to build up our understanding. So:

  • Jesus changes places with us 1 Peter 2 (esp v24)
  • Jesus is the sacrifice, the “Lamb of God” John 1
  • Jesus is the High Priest who offers a unique and effective sacrifice Hebrews 7, Hebrews 9
  • also the Pioneer Hebrews 2:10, Hebrews 12:2
  • and Jesus is Teacher (Matthew’s gospel has 5 collections of teaching, “new Law”, like a new Moses (see Deuteronomy 18).
  • this isn’t a full list, you can go on finding other pictures describing Jesus, his work and importance.

That is in danger of being confusing! Let’s summarise and say: It was no accident that Jesus suffered, died, and rose – it was all central to God’s plan to save us in love. The New Testament reflects on something very strange to our culture, assumptions, and ways of understanding, and offers a number of comparisons and pictures in explanation.

If you read another of today’s lessons (Romans 12:9-21), you will find the life described is reformed around Jesus – finding hope, patience, and love for enemies. This is the life which brings hope to Christians in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan today. It is the same life which must characterise our learning to work together. I am sure there are those sitting at home today saying things like, “I don’t like going changing my habits, why can’t I have it the way I want it?” I think Peter would have had an answer, for the Christian must follow Christ and become like him. I think Jeremiah would have sympathised – he had a hard time (Jeremiah 15:15-21) – but also knew the discipline of obedience.

We follow a Lord whose Kingship was shown in the suffering of the Cross. We begin to see how God wins, in situations like yours and mine, in a way totally different to anything Hollywood, or the Islamic State, or Westminster can get their heads around. “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering” Peter, and the others who followed then and later (even now!), would have to learn Jesus way of winning, and see in it the glory of God’s love.

Reality

This Sunday we leave the sequence of readings from Matthew to read a strange story for 6th August (Luke 9:28-36) – 3 disciples seeing Jesus all lit up, and talking to 2 Old Testament characters from long before. What is it all about? Does it matter?

It starts before this of course with Peter recognising Jesus: “You are the Messiah!” (Luke 9:20). Messiah? – The promised King, the one who would put everything right, who would bring all God’s promises true!!!

It’s true. Jesus is that person – but it’s not going to work the way the disciples expect. The Great King will win his place by dying on a cross.  It’ll be a shock and a disappointment to the disciples, but they really need to know this is the best way – this is God’s plan. So a week later they see Jesus in heavenly glory, discussing his “departure” (the Greek is “Exodus”) with Moses and Elijah, representing all the Old Testament hopes and promises Jesus will fulfill. And to underline it, a heavenly voice says  “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him” v35

They are not allowed to stay and enjoy the experience for long – they have to get back to the journey to Jerusalem, and the cross. Later, they will remember, and understand. [There is a point there about Christian experience. The nice ones are not for prolonging and repeating, but for preparing us for better service.]

Do you think this has anything for you?  Jesus is the Messiah / the Great King / the one bringing all God’s promises true!  We like that bit, and prefer to forget: Jesus wins by sacrifice. Only by allowing himself to be killed, and rising to life again, can he win. And he invites us to be his friends and followers, saying that some of the same things will happen to us. We may not always enjoy being Christian.  Doing the things we are told to do may be difficult, unpopular, and hard. But it is the way to get things right, the way we find God’s promises come true.

[I’m sure Peter could have imagined things turning out another way – and took time to understand it was not going to happen like that, and for good reason. We also need to understand that God has to be in charge].  I like to think I know better. It isn’t really like that, I don’t really need to . . . And I need to read this story again and listen to that heavenly voice: “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”

Pleasing – some!

Selective deafness is wonderful! Do you know anyone who can hear “I want some help with the washing up!” as clearly as “Dinner’s ready!”?  In Matthew 11:16-30 Jesus is getting opposition, people won’t hear, and he summarises their attitude. John the Baptist came, and they didn’t like his attitude and lifestyle, – too severe, too harsh; then Jesus, but the parties, the doubtful friends – they didn’t like him either. The fact was – and still is – that both challenged the people to change, and they found it easier to complain than to listen.

OK says Jesus, so you won’t listen. Well, look instead!  He thinks of the towns and villages around the Lake of Galilee where he had performed so many healings and miracles, and he denounces them. Why didn’t they look, and see, and react? They had so much more chance than other places that were judged, and will bear the consequences.  (For some reason, the Lectionary leaves out these verses 20-24!)

Of course, Jesus had both the talk and the walk – he explained it and he demonstrated it. We need the same, if we are going to be real disciples, and if we are going to win any other lives for Christ.  But there’s more attraction than that. (v25-27) Jesus reminds us that it isn’t the scholarly and those who spend many hours in study who know God, but the ones he reveals himself to. Scholarship can bring arrogance – the enemy of discipleship.

And what are they going to find, those who accept Jesus direction? A yoke is a way of carrying a load – often a piece of wood that fits across the shoulders, to carry two buckets or loads without having to hold them in the hands, and make it easier and more comfortable. Sometimes in the OT the yoke is a symbol of oppression, a heavy burden.  Jesus doesn’t say that discipleship is always easy, what he does say is that he is easy to learn from because we relate to someone gentle and humble – much easier to accept, learn from, and work for than an arrogant and harsh master.

And, yes, he does say the load is light. We take that with other sayings like taking up our cross, and perhaps remember that we should only carry what we are given. We don’t have to sort out the world, not even our family, just the life we are given.  We don’t have to solve everything, just take the opportunities we are given and use them well.

Jesus’ contemporaries wouldn’t take note of his teaching – it was too challenging, and they preferred what they knew. They wouldn’t learn from what they saw – it might mean they had to do something. And so they missed out, and made themselves liable for judgement.

We have the warning, and the opportunity. Jesus way is lighter than the burden of Old testament commandments and regulations, yet it needs to be heard, and responded to. A tennis player can be on court for hours, and still run, and think, and fight back – training and practise have made it, well, not always easy, but possible, and sometimes fun. A light yoke!

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!

A dark time

It’s a dark time.  Clouds are gathering and optimism in short supply.  As Jesus goes to Galilee, (Matthew 4:12-23) John the Baptist has been silenced, thrown into prison.  But there is prophecy of hope from as far back as Isaiah, and Jesus’ proclamation seems to be announcing something good.

Meanwhile, he is not going to work on his own.  First he calls Simon and Andrew, and then quickly also James and John.  It is not immediately clear how well they know Jesus, nor what they are letting themselves in for.  It seems to be enough that for the moment they will leave normal routine to follow and learn, taking instruction.  There is no contract.  This “discipleship” will take time to work out, but it is worth starting.

We know a little more of how things developed.  These four, with others, stayed as Jesus taught and healed.  Perhaps at first they sat and listened, but no doubt they began to help.  Was it organising those who wanted a private word first? or the practicalities of shopping for food or finding a bed for the night?  How long before they started to re-tell some of the favourite stories, to help people understand what Jesus was talking about?

We know that later, they were sent out in pairs. (Matthew 10:1-15)  Told, not just to preach, but to heal and exorcise people as well!  However they felt at first, they came back celebrating – and went on to learn some more.  There were all sorts of disciples, not just 12 men.  Luke tells us of 72 (Luke 10:1-20), and also speaks of how the women contributed to Jesus ministry too (Luke 8:1-3).  After the resurrection, the Acts of the Apostles explains how it was disciples who spread the message of Jesus.

They didn’t always get it right.  The whole of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians show an enthusiastic, but sometimes mistaken, church.  Early on (todays reading is from 1 Corinthians 1:10-18) we hear of dangerous divisions into groups and cliques.  Paul is clear that unity is important, and that Jesus is the leader, his death on the cross the vital answer to the need of messed up humans.

Disciples don’t become perfect – at least, not until they get to heaven.  But they do understand their need to learn.  Following Jesus goes on.  We learn more than stories to tell.  We become who we are meant to be, and being together is part of the process.  Some things have to go – competition, useless argument.  Some things come to show their value – Jesus, his choice of dying to serve, a future which brings light in the gloom.  Discipleship is still something to value, and keep doing.