Tag Archives: death

Not immune – but protected!

“I’ve been good, why is this happening to me?” Sadly this is a common wail of Churchgoers in trouble. Paul gives some answers in Philippians 1. (We are set to read Philippians 1:21-30, but it may be helpful to start a bit earlier – perhaps Philippians 1:12-30).

Paul is in prison (v13), yet his whole attitude is far beyond duty and courage! Even though some people are trying to make trouble for him (v17), he is happy. How does he manage this?

He has no illusions about the Christian life being a guarantee of no trouble, no hard times, no suffering. Quite the opposite, if his being in prison (not a pleasant experience) will help the gospel, then he is happy for that to happen. The experience is clearing up what is at stake, helping others to confront the challenge of the gospel – as persecution has often been a tool for strengthening the church – “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (as is said in East Africa). Paul draws strength from realism: he knows the failings and weaknesses of other people, but also he knows the God who is in control of all. His trust is in God, and with that he can cope with people.

Life and death! Paul knows the possibilities of his situation, and has come to be able to say

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

Philippians 1:21

It is a vital line for many others who face death, whether through disease (as we all do, at some time), or through physical danger. Sadly, we don’t now seem happy to speak positively about preparing for death, preferring to let it creep up on us unawares. Is a sudden heart attack the ideal end? No, for it allows no time to prepare, no repentance, no sorting of finances and relationships. Yes, to prepare for death needs the courage to face dying; and yes, it is a good thing to do – for our own sake as we face God, and for the sake of friends and family, as they adjust to a new situation.

Paul, guarded by armed soldiers, is in no position to avoid the realities, and he has worked through his thoughts and feelings to this wonderful and helpful statement v21. What do we rely on? If Christ, then he will see us through death. If something else, then we need to change – and that brings us to the third paragraph Philippians 1:27-30.

“the important thing is that your way of life should be as the gospel of Christ requires”

Philippians 1:27a

This is your safeguard, in all sorts of ways:

  • if you have enemies, who oppose and ridicule your faith, live it consistently, and they will have no ammunition. More, they will be given fair warning of their own danger.
  • if you are frightened of what may happen in the future, of the uncertainty that is always part of life (health, work, family …) then live as a Christian and you will develop the resources to cope with all these things, as well as to recognise that many will never come.
  • even should you ever be afraid of the “nasties” of the spiritual world, of black magic or vodoo or anything else you should not be involved with – this is your basic protection. Live as a Christian, for Christ does not allow his people to be seriously hurt by the enemy.

So I hope you see that Christians are not “immune”. All sorts of things can and do happen to them, but they are still safe with a God whose work is not stopped. They can face death with reasoned courage; they know that living as Christians is a preparation and protection which will get them through good times and bad.

Like a Virus?

Jesus lived a very long time ago, in a different country, culture and speaking a different language. How can his life be relevant to us in in the 21st century? In Romans 5, (today we read Romans 5:12-19), Paul contrasts Christ with Adam (even more remote), but would argue that both are still relevant.

“sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin”

Rom 5:12.

Whatever you make of the story of Adam’s rebellious disobedience of God’s instructions in the Garden (it wasn’t just that he didn’t want to do what he was told – he wanted to take over God’s role and be in charge!), there is no doubt that the consequence of death and disaster coincide with our experience. Death is something we don’t talk about much, and don’t deal with very well. Wishful thinking abounds as people tell us what they “like to believe”. Yet we all experience temptation and failure – that is, sin – and know the consequences only too easily lead to death (whether our own or someone else’s). It is just as if Adam had released some deadly virus into the world, and we all now suffer because it cannot be contained.

Paul then goes on, in an aside, to talk about “Law”. The 10 commandments were long after Adam, given when Moses came down from Mount Sinai. But they didn’t introduce or invent Sin. The Old Testament law defined sin, and helped people recognise what it was. They knew it was nothing new, even then.

Today, when awareness of truth and right seem less clear, that Law not only helps to explain what God is like, but to show up how different we are, and how much we need help or transformation. Escaping sin has never been a question of just making a bit more effort – or getting old and less energetic!

“But the free gift is not like the trespass” v15 Now we are coming to Jesus. A world stuck in sin leading to death is pretty miserable, but Paul points us to the far greater power of Christ. Adam unleashed a problem – Jesus pours out the solution. The grace of his death is the answer to both sin and death. His sacrifice brings forgiveness to all who will accept it, his resurrection opens the way to eternal life for the faithful.

Paul wants us to have confidence in the effectiveness of what Jesus has done. We know the bad news; however hard we avoid thinking about it, it is part of our experience and the experience of our world.

Are we equally experienced in the good news? Jesus sets us free from sin, and from the effect of death. It is the offer of a totally different life, to be lived in a new way with new power. But it needs accepting and doing.

Understood.

“You don’t understand what its like!” – perhaps we remember the cry as the typical complaint of the teenager. But it is not a feeling limited to the years of adjustment to adulthood.

Increasingly we hear people being pressured in their jobs, by managers themselves being pushed harder and harder for results. Too often the employee feels unheard and not understood as they are pushed.

More and more families are pressured by the varied wants and demands of different members. We are encouraged to be our own people and do our own thing – but no one explains how that will fit with the personalities and agendas of others with whom we share our lives.

There is a danger that church life can add to the problem: Live like this, support that, we must do more . . So Hebrews comes as a relief. (We read a short paragraph from the end of chapter 2 today – Hebrews 2:14-18)

Jesus shared our life. It was necessary for us to know he understands, even if he didn’t need that experience to empathise. A fully human – and not wealthy or favoured – life was lived before his death. And it was his death that set us free from the fear and power of death. Indeed, his death opens our way to new life.

If Jesus had not lived like us, there might always have been the suspicion that he didn’t – couldn’t – know what it feels like. We might have felt as if we were being shouted at by some drill sergeant, who had no intention of running the course, or facing the enemy. But v17 “For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God” – an intermediary, bringing us back to God.

We read this encouragement with the story of the Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2:22-40) – a helpless baby brought to the Temple to fulfill the requirements of Jewish Law. We are reminded of how fully Jesus was immersed in the life of a faithful Jewish family, and in time would take a full part in it. Of course, Simeon and Anna recognise something wonderfully out of the ordinary in this child. He will bring change, and fulfillment of many hopes.

The “growing up” of God’s plans for his people was not without some painful adjustments, just like the “growing up” of children taking their place in the adult world. The Messiah recognised in his mother’s arms turned out to be the Messiah who did not meet popular expectations, at least not in the way some looked for. People would struggle to understand the way God chose to work – as they have in every age, and still do. But at least we cannot doubt that God in Christ did “know what its like!”, and had every sympathy for what Christians would face and struggle with.

Why Resurrection?

Where does the Resurrection of Jesus fit into Christian thinking? So much seems already complete on Good Friday: Jesus had become High Priest and offered one sacrifice for all time; he has given his example, and his body and blood. Yet the resurrection is central in early preaching, for two main reasons.

First (as we see in 1 Corinthians 15:19-26) because the power of death has been broken. Someone has come back. So the perspective of this letter – and all Christians – is longer than a human lifespan. (So verse 19, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” – but our perspective is eternal). Many people like to think their loved ones continue after death – but without any reason for their hope. Jesus gives reason, and structure, to that hope.

Secondly, the resurrection transformed the disciples, because God raised Christ. This was most dramatic for Paul. As Saul the Pharisee, he was sure Jesus was a false teacher: his attitude to the Law and Tradition; his taking authority to himself; and the claim to be Son of God – all, in Saul’s thinking, condemned him. But then Saul, persecutor of Christians, met the risen Jesus. Since he was alive, by the power of God, he must be right – and all Saul’s ideas wrong where they differed. The resurrection of Jesus is the most wholehearted affirmation of his life and work.

So, the Resurrection shows life beyond death, giving a new perspective to human life. It proves Jesus’ authority to be that of God the Father. And so it reminds us that Christianity is Christ – we are his followers, he is our Lord.

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!