Easter Sunday 2013

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Sometimes I think I’ve been a Christian too long. That’s nothing to do with doubt or boredom; rather it’s the familiarity with which I approach the scandalous miracles of my faith. Christmas becomes shopping and hospitality and turkey instead of God weaving himself into history and nature and politics, his story dancing with our own.

And then that miracle of incarnation finds its fulfilment in Holy Week, the terrifying vulnerability of God on Friday, the controversies of God washing feet and getting crucified… They’re easy to take for granted now, two thousand years later, and it’s easy to forget how revolutionary and radical it all was.

And then Sunday; the tomb is empty. And despite the hints and prophecies, no-one seems to have expected what happened. We’re too used to it; it’s hard to put ourselves in the shoes of those who were there at the time, the people dealing with the pain and heartbreak and fear of current events. To them it was life, not a festival.

And we can’t just view Easter as a festival; it’s the finale of a story. We see some of this in John’s determination in reminding us that Jesus was buried and rose in a garden. The epic that started with Eden, with the Fall, with the introduction of pain and death and conflict into the human experience is resolved here, the two gardens acting as cosmic bookends. Adam falls, Jesus rises… No wonder Mary mistook him for the gardener.

Mary. There’s another controversy. The first witness to the resurrection was not only a woman, which immediately made her suspect to the power structures of the time, but a woman with a past. The story of Easter is passed on through the marginalised and broken, and not only are lives restored but they’re sanctified and made greater by the presence of God. This isn’t just compassion for the marginalised, this is taking the marginalised and making them saints.

We can’t forget this part of the story. We can’t forget any of it, or lose it amid bunnies and familiarity. This Easter, let’s pray that we’ll see the season with new eyes; let’s pray for a greater vision of resurrection.

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Easter Saturday: The World Come Tumbling Down (Luke 22:54-62)

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In the silence of Easter Saturday, what was going through Peter’s head?

He’d failed, of course, having denied knowing Jesus when asked by a couple of servant girls. He hadn’t been threatened, he hadn’t cracked under torture. No, the one time he kept his mouth shut was when a couple of kids notices he had a funny accent.

We think of it as cowardice, and it probably was, but here’s the thing, I think it was a strange, ‘manly’ form of cowardice.

I mean, look at Peter’s actions in the past. At a time when Jesus prophesied his own death, Peter got angry – “No way! They’ll have to get through me first!”

In retrospect it sounds like an empty boast, but maybe not – maybe Peter was utterly sincere, ready to stockpile the ammo and board up the windows the minute they caught a glimpse of their enemies. His boast came not long after confessing that Jesus was the Messiah, one of the New Testament ‘s great proclamations of faith, but while he got it right, he was still a long way from understanding what was really going on.

That’s why Jesus reacts so badly to Peter’s outburst. The path to Calvary isn’t a triumphant march, it’s a journey to the Cross, and the disciples just don’t get that. They want an easy win, one that doesn’t involve nails and a crown of thorns. Maybe that’s why Jesus yells “Get behind me Satan!” – a simplistic, easy way of establishing Jesus’s kingdom had been presented once before, during the temptation in the wilderness; it was a cheap parody of victory then and it is now, but imagine how attractive a cheap parody might seem when the alternative was crucifixion…

What if Jesus was presented with temptations, not just once but all the time? And what if he overcame them all, even when the ones doing the tempting were his family and friends, even when he could see them building an empire on sand, despite all the teachings and prophecies against that?

Peter spouted more than he listened and now his world’s come tumbling down.

See, while not everyone was looking for a military Messiah, enough people were to make it a popular belief that he would throw out the occupying Romans. Peter thinks he’s picked the winning team, and he has, but today’s Easter Saturday and that victory seems to have faded away. The Romans have won. Jesus has been crucified, just like every other revolutionary and wannabe Messiah.

Maybe we see a hint of this after the Last Supper, on the walk to Gethsemene. Jesus makes a seemingly out-of-character comment about taking swords; one of them is Peter’s and even though they’ve only got two between the Twelve of them, he still thinks he can make a fight of it.

And then along comes the Temple police and Peter draws his sword and in the confusion he cuts of the ear of a servant. That doesn’t sound like a well-aimed act of swordsmanship, it sounds like someone who wants to be a hero but really doesn’t have the hang of it. Let’s face it, he was trying to kill someone; maybe he thought he was drawing first blood in the Messiah’s great battle of liberation.

And then everything falls apart, because Jesus gives himself up, he rejects the use of violence, he heals his enemy.

The Messiah wasn’t meant to heal his enemies! He was the Lion of Judah, from the lineage of David! They didn’t heal their enemies, they kicked ass!

“They were looking for a lion,” as speaker Tim Day said yesterday, “But they found a lamb.”

We know now that this was how it was meant to work, that Christ’s death on the cross was a great redemptive surrender, the ultimate Passover Lamb, God sacrificing himself for his people. We know that because of 2,000 years of theology and sermons. But what about the people who actually lived that first Easter?

We find it easy to look at Peter and condemn him for not standing by Jesus, but I’m willing to bet that, in the hours after Good Friday, no-one condemned Peter more than Peter himself. And if he was guilty, well, maybe he was guilty of the same things we are, of wanting Jesus to live up to our politics and prejudices, of not really wanting him to heal the enemies we spend so much time trying to wound.

We want to win, and if we can’t win we want to go down in flames. We’re not so keen on sacrifice. I guess Peter wasn’t either – fighting’s more attractive than surrender. Was his denial motivated by cowardice? Partly, yeah, I guess, but maybe it was also something to do with a world falling apart at the seams.

In the silence of Easter Saturday, a thousand dreams and expectations lie dead in the dust.

But it’s still Saturday, and Sunday’s getting closer…

This post was inspired by two recent podcasts: Mars Hill Bible Church’s recent sermon on sloth, and the Meeting House’s Good Friday service.

Good Friday and the Vulnerability of God (Matthew 27:27-31)

imagesHere, on Good Friday, in Matthew 27, we see the vulnerability of God.

This isn’t new; Jesus didn’t appear just in time to get crucified. For over thirty years, God became human, growing from a helpless child into a man who spent at least three years of his life in the firing line. This is the paradoxical, near incomprehensible truth of the Incarnation; that the God who appeared in fire and blazing light became small, became approachable, became vulnerable.

He wandered the desert, vulnerable to hunger and heat stroke and wild animals. Throughout his life, he was vulnerable to colds and measles and broken bones and headaches. He needed food and clothes and shelter, to go to the bathroom, to cut his nails, to cough and sneeze and belch, to the possibility of accidents or cancer or plague.

He became vulnerable to death, not just his own but the death of loved ones, of a father, of friends, to watch the tears and to hear the wailing and to sit quietly comforting. He cried, he yelled, he got overwhelmed and scared. See, there, in a garden, the man crying and praying and sweating blood – that’s God and he’s vulnerable.

He was vulnerable to authority, even when that authority was oppressive, even when it engaged in cover-ups and conspiracy, when it fabricated evidence against the innocent and plotted to save itself from a perceived threat. He became vulnerable to corrupt police, scheming politicians, occupying invaders and a friend turned informant. The Son of God, victim of whispered conversations in shadows and broken authority structures, collateral damage in the pursuit of Religion and Empire.

He was vulnerable to his principles, because they got him killed. His wasn’t a message of flower power and kittens, it claimed that kings and priests had it wrong, that their palaces and temples would fall. He confronted people about the things that kept them from God. Sometimes that lead to freedom; other times it just lead to rage.

He was vulnerable to violence, a God capable of being beaten and broken. Skin gives way to flesh, to blood and God is vulnerable to sticks and thorns and spears and nails. He becomes a victim of torture, of unimaginable pain and the equally unimaginable anticipation of that pain. His friends are nowhere to be found, his family are far away. abandoned by those who know what’s going on, isolated from everyone else. It’s just him and a group of soldiers, the swords of the emperor. He’s vulnerable to mockery, a whipping boy for people who probably didn’t care who he was, just another outlet for the boredom and frustration of men who were probably just obeying orders.

He was vulnerable to gossip. Well, that’s no surprise, I mean, everyone thought Joseph was his dad, but if you ask around in Nazareth you might hear different rumours. And then he started implying he was the Messiah, that he was God, but he was from the back-end of nowhere so maybe he was just a crazy person, but then he does hang around the wrong crowd… I heard this, I heard that, all the snarky whispers and knowing looks. He was aware of them, of course, people always are, as much as the gossips try and tell you that this is just between you and me.

He was vulnerable to politics, a nuisance to be disposed of. He was vulnerable to spiritual abuse, a church more interested in structures and power than in revelation or the possibility it was mistaken. He was vulnerable to the mob, a conquering hero at the start of the week, the latest hate figure at the end. He was vulnerable to a twisted public morality, a terrorist favoured over a peacemaker, a healer rejected for a killer. Why? Well, it was more lucrative to back the killer, and besides, everyone loves a bad boy.

He escaped a mass slaughter that claimed the lives of other children, and in doing so, he fled to another country, a country in which he was a stranger, an immigrant, the suspicious Other.

He was vulnerable to blunt force trauma and nails through his hands and thorns tearing his flesh and suffocation and organ failure.

Here is the mystery and the majesty of the Incarnation – that God became, in Jesus, vulnerable to the things to which we are also vulnerable. He stands alongside the beaten, the oppressed, the innocent, the survivors of torture and rape and child abuse. He was on the receiving end of anger and malice and gossip, of violence and conspiracies and betrayal. As Jesus hangs there on the Cross, he’s the victim of all these things the world finds so powerful.

In one way he hangs alongside countless millions; but in another… This is the Servant King, the Vulnerable God. And that cross, instrument of torture and oppression is now so many other things beside. The world is being transformed, a new kingdom is on the horizon, and those things that once made us feel strong will be thrown aside and broken. But for now it’s Good Friday and the story of a vulnerable God.

Who are we standing next to?

Maundy Thursday 2013 (John 12:1-8)

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It’s Maundy Thursday, on which we remember the Last Supper, so obviously we’re not going to talk about the Last Supper. Call me unconventional if you want, but that’s just how I roll, and today I’m rolling towards John 12.

It’s not entirely unconnected to today’s commemoration though, as in the UK we have the tradition of Maundy Money, by which the Queen makes presentations of money to deserving senior citizens. She apparently considers it an important part of her devotional life, and it has interesting links to a dinner party held a couple of thousand years earlier…

So Jesus and the disciples are at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus (and the facetious part of me wants to know how the after-dinner conversation went – “Lazarus, hi! How you doing? Still alive?”), when Mary anoints Jesus’s feet with an expensive perfume. Fair enough, but this raises some hackles – Judas in particular complains that she’d have been better off selling the money and giving it to the poor.

Now, we immediately side against Judas because, well, he’s Judas, but on the surface it’s a fair question – after all, there’d be no shortage of neighbours sitting on or near the poverty line. And while this story is often used as an example of extravagant worship, that has its own dangers – look at how Jesus warned about making great shows of piety. Look at how the prophets warned against making holy sacrifices while ignoring the earthly poor. Judas has a point.

No, wait, come back. It’s not that simple. Because while Judas’s outrage forces us to look at our motives when it comes to worship, it’s really just a mask – while he sounds very noble and sacrificial, John tells us what’s really going on – he’s a thief and he’s looking for a chance to embezzle Jesus and the others. His words sound great, but his heart… Well, it’s not long before he’ll be earning thirty pieces of silver.

And that’s the danger, isn’t it? It’s not about actions, because in another world Judas could have been right and Mary was doing this for show. It’s about what’s in the heart.

Am I writing this blog because I want to learn about God or am I in it for the site hits?

Am I preaching because I want to tell people about Jesus or because it gives me power and authority and attention?

Am I composing this worship song to express something of the beauty and majesty of faith or because it’ll make s good closing track for the CD?

Am I doing the church accounts to support the Kingdom, or because it’s a nice little earner and I’ll never get caught?

What’s in the heart? That’s the question that matters, after all the mock concern for social justice and the smell of expensive perfume has faded. Jesus knows this, and it’s a question he returns to, in one form or another, over and over again. And he affirms Mary’s actions, not because there’s anything wrong with caring for the poor, but because it was a genuine, heartfelt act of worship.

Outside, people are gathering because they know Lazarus was raised from the dead and they want to see what Jesus can do for them. Inside, a disciple says he wants to help those in poverty but is really only in it for himself. And in the middle of all this, only one person seems to see beyond the activity and crowds and opportunism to recognise that the Messiah is here and that he’s deserving of worship. Mary does what she can to honour that and it costs her; economically, yes, but also her heart. Selfishness is no longer an option because Jesus is here.

I don’t have that heart.

Maybe, this Easter, I need to get praying that I would.

 

More thoughts on Maundy Thursday here and here

 

Sheep and Dogs – Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman (Matthew 15:21-28)

christ_canaanite_womanCards on the table – I’m uncomfortable with this story.

I always have been. I think it’s the way Jesus comes across – here’s a woman who desperately needs help for her daughter, and instead of jumping straight in there and healing the kid, Jesus is dismissive, appearing not to want to help the woman because she isn’t Jewish. It’s awkward and uncomfortable and I’d much rather Jesus be eager to help someone who’s suffering, thank you very much. Our sympathy is with the woman, not Jesus. Maybe that’s the point.

I’m not going to sit here and pretend I fully understand this, but there’s more going on that I originally realised. The language Jesus uses here may be uncomfortable, but it seems to be making a bigger point, and as the gospel writer, Matthew seems to be pushing us in a certain direction. Something’s going on here…

Okay, first of all, where’s the woman from? Tyre and Sidon, in modern day Lebanon. In other words, not Israel. So when he says “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”, it’s not that straightforward because he’s deliberately walked to a non-Jewish area. Sure, there may be Jewish residents in Tyre and Sidon, but if he’s really only focused on Israel then he’s going about it in a funny way. The word ‘only’ is interesting as well – working with the lost sheep of Israel first is one thing, but only? That’s an exclusivity that doesn’t seem to marry up with the rest of the New Testament. In fact, it flat out contradicts what happens in Matthew 8, where Jesus heals a centurion’s servant, praises the faith of this gentile and goes on to talk about how non-Jews will have a part in the legacy of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Hmm.

So, does Jesus say anything else about Tyre and Sidon that might explain his attitude towards the woman?

Matthew 11:21-22: ““Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you…”

The pagan cities of Tyre and Sidon are closer to God than towns in Galilee? An occupying Roman centurion has greater faith than Israel?

And this woman gets ignored? Nah, there’s a twist somewhere.

And anyway, she isn’t completely ignored. Jesus tells her that you don’t feed your kids’ bread to dogs; the woman replies that even dogs get crumbs from the table. And it’s that response that gets Jesus’s attention, resulting in her faith being praised and her daughter being healed.

Even though she’s been compared to a dog. In some ways, Jesus’s words echo the Sermon on the Mount – don’t give dogs what is sacred – but there he’s talking about wild, unclean, feral dogs; the word here refers to a pet, which makes things a little better, I guess, but it’s still uncomfortable language. At least when he’s talking about lost sheep, it plays in to an Old Testament metaphor with layers of meaning and history and theology behind it.

But the woman seems to accept it. Maybe she picks up on an underlying point that the disciples don’t – that God isn’t just for Israel, even if that’s where the whole things starts. Maybe Jesus is right to focus on particular communities at the moment, but right now this woman needs help and if Jesus has moved on tomorrow, then she’s willing to take today’s crumbs because it might be the last chance she gets.

Maybe that’s why Jesus praises her faith – he’s not one option among many, another tick list. Meeting him is last chance saloon for the woman’s daughter, and in a world where messianic claimants were fairly commonplace, the woman’s trust in Jesus is quite radical. In fact, she illustrates to the disciples (who wanted to send her away) what Jesus was saying in Matthew 11. If they’d had their way, she’d have gone away and left them in peace… And her daughter would remain unhealed. Yes, Jesus’s language sounds harsh, but maybe it’s rhetorical, aimed at an audience of 12 men who would one day have to carry the message of Jesus far beyond Israel’s borders. They need to see that people from outside their community can have faith in their God, because that’s going to be their mission in years to come.

I still don’t know if I’m entirely happy with the story, and I’m not pretending to have any great answers here. But the Bible is bigger and more complicated than we sometimes give it credit for, it’s meant to challenge our assumptions and make us ask questions. The sheep and dogs in this story have, for me, been a reminder of that.

And that’s before we start looking at the bread…

(Thanks to @AcombParish, who inspired me to look at this story in more detail.)