Tag Archives: sacrifice

Seeing in a new light.

Jesus’ Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-43) is a strange story, even when compared with the miracles and unexpected events of the gospel. What does it mean? What difference does it make?

It does highlight the need to read each part of the gospel in context. Not only does this come in the middle of the gospel, It is in a chapter full of change.

The 12 have been sent out 2 by 2 on mission. Coming back, the crowd interrupted their “time off” with Jesus, and he fed 5,000. Then Jesus asks about what people are saying about him, and Peter recognises the Messiah, the promised King sent by God – but immediately Jesus talks, not of majesty, but of suffering and death.

Then comes this mountaintop experience, perhaps throwing a new light on what is happening. Jesus shows the glory of heaven. Moses, representing the Old Testament leaders, and the Law, is present as a witness, and so is Elijah, not just representing the prophets of the Old Testament, but also the forerunner promised in Malachi 4:5-6. They talk of Jesus “departure” – the Greek word is “Exodus” – which he will “bring to fulfillment in Jerusalem”.

Perhaps you see what is happening. Jesus is taking his mission in an unexpected direction. He will deliberately avoid a revolution to try and make him King, and instead offer himself as a sacrifice. Will the disciples understand? – Will we?

Peter is still thrilled by the experience, and he wants to stay. The heavenly voice has a different priority – “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”

The journey of faith will test their loyalty. Jesus will go in directions they did not expect – and did not want. But they continued to learn to listen, trust, and follow.

That’s all very well in the first century. We might think we know better, and set off into Lent with the same routines – choosing something to “give up”. But what we need to do, especially at a time of change, is to consider the cost of Jesus’ rescue, and to “spring clean” our spiritual habits to make sure they fit the needs of faith now.

Yes, society is changing, the Church is changing; perhaps it is a time of uncertainty or transition for you, too. So we all need a new vision of Jesus, which give us confidence and the motivation.

“This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”  – because that is specially important when things are developing rapidly, and may not be as they seem.

At the bottom of the hill, they have to face a failure to heal. The disciples need of Jesus is again clear. They are learning to reflect God’s glory, to work with the Holy Spirit and follow God’s chosen way. But they have not finished learning, and neither have we. So keep close to the Saviour, and keep listening!

Being part of one another.

What does Jesus mean when he says, “ I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If you eat this bread, you will live forever.” (the first verse of this week’s extract from John 6 – John 6:51-58).  It is obviously important (and, incidentally, one of the sayings that mean you can’t just take Jesus as a wise teacher. This is either a madman, or someone – really important!)

It doesn’t help that Christian tradition has divided into 2 very different ways. Some take this, admitting it has something to do with the eucharist / communion, as little more than a visual aid. Jesus tells us we ought to eat together, and this is a picture of fellowship and a reminder of the story of the Last Supper, which leads on to his sacrificial death.

On the other hand, others will give almost magical significance to the bread of communion, seeing it as the guarantee of Jesus’ presence in power, and the celebration of the eucharist as the answer to all problems, and the only real way to worship. And rather than just scratch our heads, we ought to go back to the text and see what Jesus is saying and John recording for us:

6:49 “Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died.
6:50 But the bread that comes down from heaven is of such a kind that whoever eats it will not die.”

On the way out of Egypt, the Israelites learnt to rely on God, who gave them manna to eat. The crowd who enjoyed the feeding of the 5,000 know that story, but Jesus wants them to look beyond a free lunch. What else is available? Life – real, lasting, quality life. But how is it to be had? (Their big question, and ours!). The answer is not complicated, though some will not see it.

It is neither just a question of how you think and form your opinions. Nor is it a matter of doing the right rituals. It is – Jesus. He will be / has been the sacrifice. We will live if we feed on him. But how? Some of the crowd seem to suspect cannibalism, or at least a very un-Jewish drinking of blood. It is symbolism – but more, sacrament (“the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”).

We feed on Jesus as we hear, understand, and put into practice his teaching. We feed on Jesus as we come, perhaps tired, or preoccupied, or doubtful, and make ourselves a part of his people, his body. We feed on Jesus when we do what we think he wants, or directs us to.  It means we recognise our need of him, and asking for his help, become committed to learning and following.

We feed together in the service we call “eucharist” (thanksgiving), (or “Holy Communion”, “Lord’s Supper”, “Mass”, “Liturgy”, “Breaking of Bread”). Publicly gathering and admitting our need to be fed, strengthened, livened up. Tiny quantities of bread and wine; eaten, absorbed, becoming part of us. We are no longer independent, our own masters. It is not the physical act of eating that is vital – we remind those “nil by mouth”, the coeliacs and the alcoholics of this. Yet it helps to go and take, with empty hands, in company of others who need Jesus too.

This text is simple, and yet difficult. It makes clear that it is never enough to be impressed and influenced by Jesus. We must make a closer identification, so that he and I are linked, even mixed. On the other hand, the dependence is on God / on Jesus (yes, the two are very close here) – and not on having a priest available, or getting yourself ordained.

It is easy to see how tradition has sometimes distorted the meaning, because the challenge of letting Jesus in so that he becomes part of us, and we of his body, is always great.

EAT me?

As we continue to read John 6 (this week, John 6:35 and 6:41-51), we see the crowd arguing.  First comes the old complaint: He can’t be special, he comes from our neighbourhood, and we know him.  Some people still take offence at the idea, not just that Jesus is special, but that he is much more than “one of us”, and one who must be followed and obeyed.

Verses 44 and 45 gives us two sides of a puzzle.  God must draw people to Christ and belief, yet any who want to find truth can be sure of help.  Each side is helpful – we need to understand that some people will not hear, but also that none who want to learn are refused.

The “bread of life” is one of the important “I am” sayings.  It would be dangerous and wrong to make it a magical understanding of receiving Holy Communion, and equally wrong to ignore the connection to the service in which we give thanks (“eucharist”) above all for the sacrifice of Jesus death and the triumph of his resurrection – the central points of faith.  We do that with more than words, with action, and by eating.

Is it just eating? No. To gobble stolen consecrated bread would be of no advantage.  It is about feeding on Jesus – through his teaching, his life, understood, obeyed, absorbed by the power of the Holy Spirit into our life, transforming from within the person.  What is eaten becomes part of me, provides energy, rebuilds my body, alters my mood.  Eating together with other believers brings us together, as sharing a meal always does.  With them we worship, becoming more like what we hold worth praising, and give thanks (remembering how much there is to be thankful for), and by our prayers try to work with God and with one another.

Jesus gives everything for us.  We are invited to receive what he gives, to let it become part of us, to change us, to energise and direct us.  Never a mere ritual, an act of personal worship may assist and advance the process.

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)

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!”

Rewards ?

We read in Matthew 10:40-42 of rewards, but don’t think God owes us a place in heaven.  It is hard to say tactfully that none of us – not even the best – earns favour.  To think of marching up to the gates of heaven and asking for what we deserve would be disastrous.  By comparison with the holy goodness of God, we all fail and cannot hope to meet the standard.  What we deserve – is judgement, a “fail”.

Mercifully, that is not the end of the story!  God’s goodness has made an opportunity for us through Jesus and his sacrifice.  Accepting as a gift what he has done, we are offered not only forgiveness, but also a new life and status as God’s children.  (That is by adoption, not by right, so we talk about God’s “grace”).  So we live as those who are free, turning our backs on evil and walking the Christian way in thanks.  Yes, we still try to do the right thing, but as a reaction to a God whose love is beyond expectation, not as earning a place.

But what about rewards?  They are talked about several times in the New Testament.  Those who welcome Christians will benefit. Their welcome or kindness may help them hear the good news that will free them for ever.  Jesus explains more fully in Luke 18:29,30:

“Then Peter said, “Look, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he [Jesus] said to them, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”

So some of the reward is in this life.  [There is more about rewards, for example in Matthew 6 which has much to say about hypocrisy and “looking good”.  1 Corinthians 3 also has some comments about the rewards of Christian ministry.]

If all this sounds great, there is a warning in the Old Testament lesson.  Jeremiah 28:5-9 is an extract from a longer story of conflict between Jeremiah and Hananiah.  Jeremiah had spoken of God’s judgement on an unfaithful people, and his ministry has cost him popularity and his security.  Hananiah prophecies a rapid return of the exiles and life as usual – a popular message, avoiding difficult issues of responsibility and the need to repent of wrongdoing.  While he would like it to be true, Jeremiah emphasises the test of prophecy (does it come true?), and later accurately prophecies judgement on the false Hananiah.  Those who speak for God have to keep to God’s messages; it is a sad warning!

So we have the encouragement of knowing that our Christian mission is not unnoticed, and will be rewarded.  Alongside that comes the reminder to be faithful.  It cannot be right to say just what people want to hear as if it was God’s message.  Indeed, to pretend to know God’s will without understanding can be – fatal.  If that is a sobering thought, it emphasises the importance of the gospel, and our witness to it by action and word.  Getting it right matters!

Glory!

In John 17:1-11, Jesus begins a prayer that will continue through the chapter.  Some find it odd that he, Son of God, should pray – but we understand the three persons of the Trinity to be in close, indeed perfect, communication.

He knows the time of glory – the time of sacrifice – has come, and prays that his disciples may receive eternal life.  Too often we have limited that to some after death experience, but it is meant to be a new quality of life, beginning now and continuing beyond death.  We shall have to discover what it means, as the first disciples did.  It is not the effortless and trouble free existence we might imagine, but does indeed bring a new quality of love (purpose, hope, service, – we could find many words) to what may still be a difficult situation or hard slog.

Jesus is clear that his followers are those God gave him.  For us, it is a mystery how God both gives us freedom of response and yet knows who will be his people.  Yet this group have discovered that Jesus spoke God’s words, and value them accordingly.  He prays for them, rather than for humanity, that they may be protected and united.  Protection we find it easy to understand – there are many threats.  Unity takes more thought.  Why is it so important?  Perhaps it helps to look at the history of Church division, the often personal (or personality) differences which have handicapped fellowship and service.

It is good to have a tradition, to belong to a group of fellow believers.  It helps us find a starting point, a way of doing things.  But let’s resolve to be Christians first, and above all other loyalties and badges.  United with all who follow Jesus and long for his life to be fully realised in them, we shall grow in love and service beyond narrow boundaries.

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!