Tag Archives: death

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.

April Fool Easter?

It’s not often Easter falls on 1st April. (Yes, I looked it up! It has happened once before in my lifetime – 1956, and will come again in 2029,2040, but not then till 2108). I mention it because it seems to fit with Mark 16:1-8 – a funny end to the gospel, as the women run from the tomb, afraid? We almost want to ask, “Are you serious?” (Yes, verse 8 is the end, although there are 2 other endings given in most bibles, they are not in the best manuscripts, and look like attempts to “round off the story” from other gospels).

We can suggest all sorts of things:

  • Mark wanted to explain how unexpected this was, adding to the authenticity. If you were going to invent a story – be more plausible!
  • Better: He continues the theme of the failure of Jesus followers (the men are no better!) – which emphasises what God does, and the hope for imperfect believers (yes, like us!) later.
  • And perhaps: This is the end of part 1. Part 2 is being written by the believers for whom Mk wrote – they know about the spread of the Church (it has reached them in Rome), about the importance of the Resurrection, and the power of the risen Christ. What Mk is saying – to us as well – is “Now, write the next chapter”

Fear of the unknown is real in today’s Church, too. As we face changes, there will be voices that cover the fear with cynicism or ignorance. Perhaps we can go back to the good old days? Perhaps the changes we don’t like thinking about will never happen? But no, what is past brings us to our present. The present we need to face with faith.

“We just have to carry on as we have in the past”. No. The past contains some big mistakes. In Wales we have failed to engage with younger people, or indeed to evangelise their parents and grandparents, for half a century now, and unless we find the courage to do so, the Church will die out in Wales with us – and we will have to answer for failure, complacency, and unfaithfulness. (There may be other fears and failures where you are – something to think about).

And that is why it is important that the women were afraid, and that they got over their fear. If you look at Acts 10:34-43, you will see how Peter felt all sorts of doubts about going to a Gentile – it took a dream, and a summons to show him God’s way, but the result was vital.  He went beyond his fears.  If you look at 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 (another reading set for Easter Sunday) Paul was not surprised his friends in Corinth were daunted when some of their congregation died, and they wondered if they had somehow missed out, or made a basic mistake in the meaning of the gospel. He had faced death himself, more than once, and could sympathise, but also remind them that the Christian Good News was, in 2 words, “Jesus, and Resurrection”.

Peter and Paul are both clear that the Christian faith stands, and faces fear, on the Resurrection of Jesus. That did 2 things:

  • it meant life had to be lived with a new perspective and horizon, no longer just for 70 years (more or less), but for life and eternity. It challenged fear of death, and of illness.
  • It meant Jesus was right. God raised him, and underlined all that he had taught and done. Fear of the unknown is now limited – God knows. We have reason to learn to trust Jesus.

What we face is not new, except in detail. The shadow of death, the fear – of the unknown, the unexpected, or just of not coping, is still real. It is a fear that needs to be faced, with a risen Lord.

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.

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.

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.

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!

Christ the King (Kingdom 4c)

This week we celebrate Christ the King.  Most of us have some idea what a King (a ruling King, rather than a constitutional monarch) might look like.  Words like power, glory, majesty, and rule come to mind.  Power and authority are hotly contested in our world.  We expect a strong man, with more than words behind him.  Glory is less obvious; I might think of magnificence, but I suspect the re-discovery of the word “awesome” may be closer the mark.  Majesty might imply the right person for the right job, someone with the necessary qualities, like wisdom, intelligence, experience, understanding . .  We have an idea what a King might look like – but is it the right idea?

The reading is Luke 23:33-43, the story of Jesus crucifixion.  It is no mistake.  This is the enthronement of Christ the King, but we may need to take time to come to terms with it.  Jesus as King has power.  Here, on the cross, he does what only he can do, and offers his own life as a sacrifice to win our freedom and to win the victory over evil.  While it may not be the sort of power demonstration we expect, this is the final showdown.  There is no greater power than this.

The glory of Jesus is the glory of service.  As king, he does not subjugate, but frees.  If he has coercive power (remember the cursing of the fig tree?) he much prefers to heal, reconcile and liberate.  This is real glory.  In the same sort of way, his majesty is not expensive clothing, a luxurious setting and careful stage management.  This scene is awe inspiring for what it is, not for how it is made to look.

This may be a surprise, or just a reminder that we all have to remind and re-educate ourselves, so different is the Christian understanding to what we are used to in our cultures.  Yet all scripture points this way:

  • the gospels all build up to a climax at the cross, recorded in detail.  There is no “alternative ending”
  • the gospels also record Jesus trying to warn the disciples, explaining what will – what must – happen, and his refusal to escape to personal safety.
  • the early Christians preach Jesus death and resurrection as central to their story and their hope
  • in that Christian story, the figure of the coming King (Messiah) is also the Suffering Servant prophesied by Isaiah

And it is not only scripture (or my interpretation of scripture!).  Christians still, in different traditions, celebrate by remembering Jesus words of sacrifice at his last meal with the disciples – this is my body, given for you . . this is my blood of the new covenant.  They still hold to the creeds, with their recital of Jesus death and resurrection as of central importance.  Hymns and worship songs again and again return to the cross, Jesus death and sacrifice – for these are the source of Christian commitment and motivation.

Let’s celebrate Christ the King!

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.

Jesus (Proper 11, Pentecost 9)

Turkey is in the news – an attempted military coup. Nearly 2000 years ago, Paul wrote a letter to Colossae a small town in what is now Turkey. There was a problem in the Church in Colossae; they were getting their faith wrong, in a way which mattered. We won’t worry too much about how they wanted to improve on the gospel, but let’s look at what Paul said:

First, Colossians 1:15-20 Its all about Jesus. Jesus is how we see what God is like – is God remote, severe, judgemental, or is God a pushover, a sugar – daddy? Well, the answer (to those and lots of other ideas) is – look at Jesus. Get to know the stories about him. He’s friendly (to all sorts of people), very human, but also powerful, and has deep understanding and sympathy.

For the Colossians, he might have been the start, but they wanted to “improve” this faith in one way or another. Paul isn’t having that. Jesus continues in charge, superior to the powers of heaven.  It is Jesus who died to set us free, it is Jesus who is head of the Church, the source of its unity.  These are things you may only have found that out recently – or some of you may have been in Christian things for years. Either way, you don’t get away from needing Jesus, and the forgiveness he gives!
Then, Colossians 1:21-23  talks about how that affects the Colossians. Their past had been one of alienation – led astray by the false values of a corrupt society (does that sound familiar?). But Jesus (yes, focus on him again) had intervened to set them free by his death. They are not being allowed to get away from the physical – because of their delight in the metaphysical and “spiritual” – very ” in quotes “, Paul ties them down to the actual, bodily death of Jesus. Their future depends on their holding on to their initial commitment to the gospel they once heard and accepted.
After the central and continuing importance of Jesus, and God’s purpose for the Colossians, Paul talks about his own role. He sees himself as entrusted with a message – not some secret knowledge to be passed on to initiates, but the gospel taught to believers openly. That is our message, too. If you know what Jesus did and does, don’t keep quiet about it. The glory is not some religious experience, but the presence of Christ among believers – the new life they share, and in which they grow in holiness and service.

There are lots of people who need to know these things:

  • Jesus has to come first – in Church, in my life, in the way I do faith.
  • There are many round us who forget, or don’t know, that without Jesus’ death for us, we are lost in the false values of a corrupt society.
  • And there are those, even in religion, who do not remember the responsibility we have of sharing the gospel message, and living and working for it – even when that means suffering.

Constructive Doubt (Thomas)

This Sunday we remember Thomas, reading of his doubt in John 20:24-31. Thomas is also remembered as the traditional founder of the Church in SW India, as a disciple of great loyalty (John 11:16), and one who could speak out and gain an explanation others probably also needed (John 14:5).
John 20:24ff teaches us a good deal about the proper place of doubt. Thomas missed Jesus at Easter, and wants evidence. It says something for the disciples’ relationships that he was still with them a week later, when Jesus again appears. Jesus is not angry at Thomas, but offers his battered body as proof. Verse 27 refers to doubt (or disbelief or faithlessness, according to translation), suggesting that it is not the opposite of faith, at least for those of Thomas personality. We need to allow questions and doubt, (not cynically and unendingly, but) to reach a more firmly grounded faith.
We don’t know if Thomas accepted that invitation to probe, but whether it is the wounds, or Jesus knowledge of his words, the reaction is remarkable. “My Lord and my God!” It seems that going through his doubt has brought him further than those who did not share that experience. His words are an embarrassment to those who cannot accept Jesus deity, but also to those who have no intention of being ruled, or living as disciples committed to obedience to a master.
Jesus’ reaction contrasts those who “see” him and those who will not. This is a reference to those who shared his company on earth, but perhaps also to those who “saw” his identity as Messiah, and as “God with us”. We may not live in the first century, but will find it easier to trust and follow as we recognise Jesus identity, and place in God’s plans for the universe and for us.
John ends his chapter recording the purpose of his writing – to bring readers to believe in Jesus and find life. The miracles he refers to in verse 30 are those of Jesus ministry, but should we include additionally the miracle of life given through faith in him?