Jesus Wept (John 11:35)

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Sometimes we know too much.

I know, for instance, that John 11:35, “Jesus wept”, is the shortest verse in the Bible, Everyone knows that, it’s a trivia quiz answer.

Except that it isn’t.

Well, okay, it is in the King James translation. But not in the NIV, or in the original Greek, and besides, the chapter and verse numbers came a long time after John and Paul and the others were writing.

“Jesus wept.”

Its shortness is its power, a blunt statement of fact that nevertheless affects the gravity of everything around it by its sheer mass and weight. It’s anything but trivial.

Jesus arrives at the village of Bethany too late, apparently, to heal his friend Lazarus. He has to face death threats and recrimination and anger and frustration from those around him, all while his friend lies in his tomb, wrapped in grave clothes.

And there are conversations about God and theology and hope, and yes, they’re important, but when Jesus looks at that grave, all that stops. It stops and Jesus breaks down and weeps.

We know too much, of course. We know why Lazarus is famous, we know what Jesus is planning to do, we know this story’s happy ending. And yet maybe we don’t know as much as we think we do, because somehow this whole narrative revolves around Jesus’s tears. We know Lazarus is coming back, so why all the weeping? Why exactly is Jesus crying?

Grief? Empathy? Anger at death’s presence in creation? Frustration that of all the deaths in the communities in which he lived, only a few were reversed in this way? Did the words of Lazarus’s sisters cut him like a knife? Even though he knew that a resurrection was at hand, did he still mourn for Lazarus’s suffering, for three lost days?

“Jesus wept.”

That’s the problem, right there. My theorising. Because sometimes, more often than we’d like, Christians need to follow Jesus’s lead, need to shut up and weep.

We find it inadequate. We’re God’s ambassadors, after all, and so we feel that we need to provide answers. We tweet Bible verses out of context and quote textbooks because if we can’t answer the near immortal question of suffering right that moment, then God is somehow threatened and dishonoured.

But the presence of theology isn’t necessarily the presence of God. Sometimes we’re too busy talking and knowing too much when God wants us to weep. Weeping is openness, vulnerability, solidarity, incarnational. Our hearts break and when they do we need to grieve, grieve and know that God grieves with us. Words and homilies come tumbling down with the world around them and all that’s left are tears, for minutes or hours or days.

“Jesus wept.”

Lord, help us to silence our answers and insecurities and weep with those who need it, and let our hearts break along with yours.

 

Trying to Hear Good News Again

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24 hours of politics and disaster and people trying to speak for God but instead painting a picture of what looks like a tyrant. I don’t know what to do when faced with this, don’t know how to reconcile the tensions of faith that seem so hard but that others seem to handle with unhindered ease. There’s too much noise and too many tears and more sound bites than any society needs.

But I’m sitting in my car, catching my lunch break, and all I can think about are stories, stories that I’ve heard since I was a kid, stories that tell me what God is like, when I listen.

And so I remember that, for all we discuss and describe and invent him, God seeks us out; he finds us when we’re hiding up a tree from hostile neighbours, when we sneak out to do our chores at the worst time of day because we’re avoiding glances and gossip. He stands in front of us when those who’d police our morality are getting ready to throw rocks at us; he turns and smiles at us when we’re creeping around behind him, terrified that a more direct encounter will reveal our shame and get us sent away.

He finds us at the dinner table, passing us the soup as we plan to betray him, washing our feet just hours before we screw up yet again.

He weeps at funerals and sorts out the drinks at weddings. He’s kind to children and doesn’t see them as an inconvenience, playing with them even if they’re snotty or clumsy or if they’re screaming the place down because their world isn’t quite right.

He supports prison visiting and feeding the homeless and treating the poor with love and compassion. He’ll face down an army of demons for the soul of one young man, and he’ll cause riots in temples because he knows the difference between going to church and going to God. He’s with us during storms, during fights, during sickness. He’s with us in the wilderness.

He lets his guard down in an act of self-sacrifice, laying down his life because life, love and forgiveness are more important that conspiracies and power and death. He becomes vulnerable to nails and spears, but in doing transforms an instrument of torture and oppression into a message of grace and reconciliation that leaves graves empty and the world transformed.

I write all this because it’s easy to forget when the world is full of placards telling us who God hates, when the Internet is full of tweets that express theology by sacrificing compassion. I write all this because churches cover up abuse and hoard wealth while people starve. I write all this because I fail to let all this change me and I need the reminder.

And when that happens I write it to rediscover his grace, to hear the good news once again: Christ is risen, and he is eternal, and his kingdom is built in our midst, so he can sit enthroned in a bus shelter if he so desires. For he is among us, our God and King, a crucified servant forever outside an empty tomb.

Pentecost (Acts 2)

pentecost2Tongues of fire and a mighty rushing wind and a babble of languages that the speakers never learned… The story of Pentecost is intrinsically supernatural. But it’s supernatural for a reason, a key moment in the building of God’s Kingdom.

The story is well-known, a Sunday School staple. The disciples are gathered together when the Holy Spirit arrives, manifesting as wind and fire and leading to 3,000 people becoming Christians. This is seen as the birth of the early church; it’s a seriously important moment.

All this was happening during Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks, a pilgrim festival serving two purposes – a celebration of the harvest and a commemoration of God giving the Law on Mount Sinai. Jerusalem was full of pilgrims – Jews from (in modern terms) Iran, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Italy, Greece and Jordan. They came loaded down with their harvest, taking it to the Temple to be blessed by the priests. And yet, while they were doing this, they encountered…

Well, they encountered God, each of them in their own language. They were fulfilling their religious observations at the Temple, but the real explosion of God’s power and presence happened outside of those structures. Look how people react to the disciples – they’re immediately identified as Gallileans, yokels, and while they’re standing there miraculously speaking a whole bunch of languages, they’re still easily characterised as drunks. Why? Because these aren’t part of the elite, they’re not the priesthood or respected authorities. They’re on the margins, tax collectors and fishermen, not the sort of people to whom 3,000 pilgrims should be looking for spiritual guidance.

And yet the priests are oblivious as a fisherman explains what’s going on, while the curse of Babel is reversed.

Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine this sort of world. Christendom has been in existance for something like 1,700 years and we’re terrified about losing that influence. We really don’t like being on the margins; we’re so used to the cathedrals and the tax breaks and the politicians sucking up to us that we forget that, when God launched His church in earnest, he did so with a bunch of people who were written off as drunks. The whole point of the Book of Acts is about how the disciples find themselves increasingly working in those margins to share the good news of Jesus with people outside the power structures that dominated society. This is where that begins.

Peter quoting the prophet Joel points to that – “I will pour out my spirit on all people… And everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” If Pentecost celebrated the original giving of the Law, this is the inaugeration of a new church, one empowered by the Holy Spirit. That empowerment is vital – it’s not about the miracle of spontaneous translation in and of itself, it’s about what that means for God’s Kingdom – “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem,” Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel. Well this is where all that begins, with the Spirit enabling a motley group of ex-fishermen to build a new kind of Kingdom after their King ascends his throne.

And the truly scandalous thing about this? That it extends to us. Because that Kingdom is still being built. Pentecost was the spectacular fulfillment of a promise of which we’re a part, and the same Holy Spirit empowers us to be the church Christ wants us to be, a church that isn’t afraid and dismissive of the margins, of the disenfranchised, of the outsider. That’s scary – it may be because that mission is fundamentally outside of most of our comfort zones; it may be because the Holy Spirit Himself takes those comfort zones, puts them into a blender, then sets fire to them. But look at Peter – that’s what God can do through us. Scary, yes, but also a privilege.

We’re called to build the Kingdom. And Pentecost is ours.

Tamar (2 Samuel 13:1-22)

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There are times, writing this blog, when I think I should leave a topic alone. After all, others have already said what I want to and said it better. Mandy Marshall’s post ‘The Silent Screaming of Tamar’ is one of those cases – it’s a powerful, important piece. You should read it.

All the same, I’m still writing this post, because Tamar requires those of us with a voice to use it. This is a story characterised by the silence of those with power; to participate in that silence isn’t an option. And I’m writing it because, only this morning, there are new reports of yet another sexual abuse cover-up by the church.

So, 2 Samuel 13: Tamar, daughter of King David, is raped by her brother and nothing is done about it.

Her father does nothing, beyond expressing an empty fury.

Her other brother does nothing, at least not for two years. When he does, it leads to civil war, although this seems driven more by his dynastic ambitions that an innate sense of justice.

Their servants do nothing, because it’s more than their jobs are worth.

And Tamar disappears from the narrative; her story becomes that of her brothers and we never learn of her ultimate fate. We never hear about her tears, her bruises, her sleepless nights and her nightmares. She survives, but we don’t hear anything about it; when the story switches to rebellion and war, “what happened to Tamar?” is a question conspicuous by its absence.

In recent months the UK has been rocked by a series of scandals and investigations involving sex crimes carried out by prominent members of society. The Catholic Church has been scarred by revelations of child abuse for decades. There have been scandalous, high profile stories of sexual assault in the US and India. And somewhere along the line power structures were prioritised over the innocent, failing countless Tamars. The organisation becomes more important than people.

The minute that happens, any pretence of supporting those who need it most has been sacrificed, pretty much deliberately. The survivors of abuse are written off as unreliable, untrustworthy, troublemakers. The Church ceases to be a safe place while justifying itself with theology. It seeks to save its own life, which is a sure fire way of losing; we sit around bemoaning our declining influence while moral crimes like this are revealed on a weekly basis. Go figure.

Meanwhile Tamar sits in a corner, ignored and inconveniently weeping.

The fact is, this post shouldn’t have to be written. There shouldn’t have to be debates over ‘legitimate rape’. There shouldn’t be a ‘rape culture‘. It’s wrong and disgusting and the involvement of some branches of the church in covering it up and brushing it under the carpet is obscene.

“Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me,” Jesus once said. He still weeps with Tamar, with all the Tamars. The tragedy is that he does this while his church is still too willing to draw the curtain, to look the other way.

Ascension Day (Acts 1:1-12)

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The Ascension is one of those stories I’ve never quite known what to do with. I mean, the theme is clear – the resurrected, eternal Jesus leaves Earth in preparation for the next phase of the story, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But I just can’t picture it without having questions – Jesus physically goes up into the sky? But we know Heaven isn’t somewhere in orbit, right? Add to that art’s tendency to make the scene look at little odd and we’re left with a narrative I don’t really ‘get’.

But I’m British, and we have a monarch, and so the answer was there in front of me all the time. Because while you can ascend into space, you can also ascend to a throne. The Ascension is all part of Jesus leaving his physical interaction with Earth and (re)taking up his divine lordship over the universe.

Paul knew this. In Ephesians 4 he draws a connection between the Ascension and Psalm 68. This Psalm is basically a musical history of Israel, the people singing it as part of a liturgical parade. Verses 15-18 talk about God taking his throne in the Temple, on Mount Zion; here, on different mountain, Jesus also ascends to his throne.

There’s something going on here that’s directly relevant to us today. Psalm 68 talks about the triumphant king receiving gifts, but Paul interprets that in the sense of give-and-take; he gives gifts as well. The king takes his throne, and then he empowers his subjects to build his kingdom.

I’ll make a confession, here and now – I find it difficult to appreciate that the King of the Universe is on my side. Oh sure, I accept it in a general sense – Christ died for us all – but the idea that the divine strengthens us? I know the theory, but I struggle on with my own limited strength and resources. And then I get tired and frustrated and wonder why God doesn’t seem to be helping me.

Well, maybe he is helping – it’s not like I’ve ever gone under, after all. Or maybe it’s because I don’t quite know how to leave something at the foot of Christ’s throne. It’s probably a failure of trust, or maybe a fear of losing control. Letting go is an act of will – sometimes it’s not like dropping a possession, it’s like giving up an addiction. Maybe one of the first gifts some of us need to ask for is the gift of letting go.

That’s all very negative though; let’s end with a positive. The king lavishes gifts on us, making us prophets and teachers and leaders, musicians and writers and artists and artisans. Some of us can preach to a stadium full of people, some of us make an awesome cup of tea. Whatever they are, we’re given those gifts to build up the kingdom.

On Ascension Day, Jesus rose to the throne of heaven and released the Holy Spirit to turn his followers in the builders of the Kingdom. That work is on going.

And the King is on our side.