Peeking Behind the Curtain (Mark 15:37-38)

rent-veil“And Jesus cried out with a loud voice, and breathed His last. Then the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.”     Mark 15:37-38

This is huge.

That said, I don’t think its hugeness is fully in the immediate act of the veil being torn. It’s in the moments after, the silence after the dust has settled and the initial shock has worn off. Because, of course, someone peeked.

I can’t say this for certain, but I can say that, if you put a big red button in a room, and a sign saying “Do Not Push”, someone will eventually push it. Oh, they may wait until they’re alone, they may never admit to pressing it, but the temptation will be too much. It is, after all, a big red button, and the sign says quite clearly “Do Not Push.”

The veil – more of a giant curtain – was a “Do Not Push” sign. The presence of God was said to dwell in the this room, accessible only to one man once a year, a man with a rope tied around his waist in case the sheer holiness of God struck him down on the spot. The veil was a boundary, and frankly it sounds like it was safer to respect that boundary.

And yet the ancient scriptures are full of stories of those who caught a glimpse of God and lived – Abraham, for instance, or Jacob, Moses, Isaiah…

Respect the veil for your own safety?

Or take a risk, take a peek, hope to catch sight of God…?

Someone would have looked. I’m sure of it, sure as I am that someone would eventually press the big red button. Heck, that someone would probably be me.

And if someone had looked, what would they have seen? Would there have been a bolt of lightning, a slain priest? Or would the room have been empty, something somehow more terrifying than a mere smiting. After all, wouldn’t that mean that God was absent?

Entirely absent, though, or just somewhere else? Somewhere down the road, perhaps, hanging on a cross, his power and majesty incarnated not in lightning and in fire, but in the pain and the blood of a suffering servant.

God’s presence moved, no longer contained in a room in a temple in a city, but mobile and verbal and vulnerable and approachable.

If someone had peeked, what would they have seen? What would they have thought? Maybe God’s left the building. Maybe everything’s changed.

They couldn’t have known that, in a few short decades, the only reminder of the Temple would be a wall. The Holy of Holies would be gone. And then where would God be?

Elsewhere, God manifests in other ways – a man executed by an empire, a ‘gardener’ standing outside a tomb, tongues of fire and a rushing wind. He has moved outside the box, never really contained by the box in the first place. God isn’t contained by our preconceptions; he’s not hidden by a veil but incarnated as a carpenter.

Lord, give us the eyes to peek.

Calling St. Matthew (Matthew 9:9-13)

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We don’t know much about Matthew. He was a tax collector, and he’s immortalised as one of the gospel writers, but beyond that he’s a bit of a mystery; we know more about him than, say, James the Less, but he’s no Simon Peter. When it comes to apostles, Matthew is firmly mid-table, his name cropping up in lists but almost more of a trivia answer than a man.

Careful though; when it comes to the Bible, lists are often more than lists. Sometimes they’re flat-out scandalous.

For instance, Matthew was a tax collector, and that carried more baggage than a trolley at Heathrow. This wasn’t a nice, middle-class civil service position, this was a political statement. This meant you’d chosen the occupying Romans over your own people. This meant you’d sacrificed your principals in favour of a quick buck. This meant you were a traitor. This meant you were a target.

Tax collectors were subcontractors, collecting revenue for Rome and top slicing some nice profits for themselves in the process. An ultra-nationalistic group like, say, the Zealots, were never going to like that. By siding with the enemies, tax collectors made themselves a target for assassination.

So look at the list of disciples in Matthew 10:2-4 and consider just how significant it is that one of them’s described as a tax collector and another is described as a Zealot. When Jesus said “love your enemies”, he was determined to make that a reality.

We see some of this when Matthew first shows up. Jesus makes a beeline for the tax office and repeats what he’s already said to people like Peter and John: “Follow me.” This time it’s more of a statement – the Pharisee attack dogs are straight onto him. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” they ask his disciples; I suspect a few of the disciples were asking the same question.

Jesus’s answer is pithy and cutting – the healthy don’t need a doctor but the sick do. Matthew has a shady past and Jesus will deal with it, but this isn’t some paternalistic lecture. Immediately Jesus hits out at the Pharisees – go back to the Bible, look up Hosea and figure out why God prefers his followers to prioritise mercy over religious ritual. He ends by saying he’s here for ‘sinners’, not the ‘righteous’ – at least Matthew realises that his life has gone off the rails. If you’re convinced of your own religious superiority, however… Well, God needs people he can actually work with, not people who spend most of their lives sneering at those who allegedly don’t make the grade.

Jesus keeps butting up against this them-and-us attitude. We’re righteous, they’re sinners; they’re traitors, we’re freedom fighters; we wear white hats, they wear black. Jesus rejects that idea, to the extent that even a simple list of his disciples becomes offensive. It’s easy to see our enemies as godless heathens; it’s far more challenging to realise that our enemies must become our family, and that family banquets therefore involve both sinners and saints; or rather, sinners who become saints.

Today is St. Matthew’s Day. In Sheffield, the EDL are on the march against immigration and Islam; in Nairobi, gunman have killed 20 in a shopping mall. We violently express our divisions and rain down violence on our enemies.

In the pages of the gospels, a tax collector and a Zealot are on the same team, brought together by the scandalous grace of Christ. We need to become that scandalous again.

Peter’s Accent (Matthew 26; Acts 2)

st-peter-preaching-at-pentecostApparently I have an accent.

I recently moved to Derby, forty miles away from where I grew up, and boy, do people know I’m not a local. “You’re not from the East Midlands!” people say when I give them my address, often just before imitating how I say “Dudley” and name-dropping Lenny Henry.

Now, I can live with this – it’s rarely meant in a negative way and it forces me to overcome my natural anti-sociability and actually interact with other human beings. But let’s not kid ourselves, accents are one of the few remaining acceptable prejudices. Oh, we pretend to be all about equality and fairness, but then we read articles like “ESSEX ACCENT VOTED WORST IN UK POLL!”

(The Brummie accent, not a million miles away from my own, came second from bottom in that same poll, which is one of the few things to which we can be thankful for The Only Way is Essex.)

(I should also mention that it was felt necessary for my dialect to receive its own translation of the Bible.)

Anyway, you know who else faced this sort of prejudice? St. Peter, that’s who.

We see it at his lowest moment, as he sits in a courtyard and denies knowing Jesus. Those he sits with are suspicious; they ask questions, too many questions, and they know he’s from Galilee because they recognise the accent, and they keep pushing and pushing and pushing…

And Peter snaps and says he’s never met Jesus.

His accent gives him away, after all, he’s a Galilean, and therefore a working class bumpkin who could only possibly be in Jerusalem because he was following a Galilean rabbi, right? That’s how we tend to read the story, because our view of accents is that they play into certain social stereotypes.

But Galileans weren’t hicks. They lived on a trade route, in a centre of religious learning. Besides, there would have been plenty of visitors in Jerusalem for Passover. Yes, people are sneering towards the region throughout the gospels (“Can anything good come from Nazareth?!”, for instance), but at least some of this seems to be based on local rivalries. You know, like a poll that says I have the second worst accent in the country.

But maybe something darker is going on. After all, Jesus has just been arrested because he was allegedly fomenting, which ties in with current affairs: only a couple of decades earlier, Judas of Galilee lead the Zealots in a failed revolt, and the region was also a hotbed of Sicarii activity. Now here’s a stranger with a Galilean accent showing up just as an alleged religious terrorist gets hauled away by the authorities. Maybe people weren’t laughing at him because he sounded like a chav, maybe they were expecting him to pull out a sword and start swinging.

Peter’s distinctive way of speaking gets mentioned again, this time in Acts. When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, and crowds of pilgrims heard the disciples speaking in different languages, some dismissed them as uneducated drunks. But again, this seems to be down to local snobbery, considering how many important leaders and rabbis came from the area, and maybe this is the lesson of Peter’s accent, because accents are an easy way for us to judge people; sometimes that’s just in fun (frankly, I can cope with being called a Yam-Yam), but sometimes it shades into racism, fear and genuine prejudice – think of how attitudes to Muslims degenerated after 9-11 and 7-7.

And so the leader of the church that emerges after the resurrection has an accent that gets him in trouble – so what? God doesn’t see the world as we do, doesn’t fall prey to prejudice or stereotyping, doesn’t fit in with our class distinctions or our snobbery. He pours out the Spirit on all people.

Even those who talk funny.

Jesus vs. Maps (John 6)

Jesus-walking-on-water_jpgThere’s a moment in The West Wing in which two senior White House staff are confronted with the idea that our maps are wrong; the northern hemisphere is made to look larger, and therefore more important, and Britain is put at the centre of the world. The scene is played for laughs, but I’ve been unable to look at maps in the same way since; we treat them as dispassionate records of where places are, but beware – they’re also rife with assumptions and biases, and if you think I’m exaggerating, consider that back in the day maps were centred on Jerusalem – the world looks very different.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that sometimes Jesus goes toe-to-toe with geography.

For instance, take the story of Jesus walking on water. It’s a Sunday School classic, and everyone knows it was Lake Galilee that he walked upon. But when John recounts the story, he emphasises something significant – the lake was also known as ‘Tiberias’, as was a nearby city. Now, at the time Jesus took his stroll across the water, this was a recent development; the city of Tiberias was found by Herod Antipas in AD20, as a way of sucking up to the Emperor, the lake being renamed as the city grew in prestige. This wasn’t just a nice bit of urban planning; it was a political statement that exposed some of the tensions of the time – many more militant or religious Jews refused to settle in Tiberias, although it’s loyalty to Rome meant it became the default centre of Jewish culture after the fall of Jerusalem in AD70.

Most of the miracles have a theological point to make; walking on water emphasises Jesus’s divinity, his lordship over creation and, as the sea was viewed as the source of chaos and cosmic forces in opposition to God, the triumph of God’s Kingdom. So when John stresses that this took place in an area where the name of the Roman emperor had come to dominate the landscape, at a time when loyalty was a matter of life and death, we’re invited to recognise who’s really in charge.

A similar thing happens in Caesarea Philippi; Jesus asks his disciples who they believe him to be; Peter immediately announces that he’s the Messiah. It would be a great proclamation of faith in any setting, but in Caesarea, surrounded by shrines to other gods, it almost becomes dangerous. The very town is named after an emperor and a king; heck, originally it was named after a god. There’s a reason Jesus asked such a controversial question in this place.

Humans often impose themselves on our landscape; we build cities that act as architectural testament to our power and prestige, we ‘discover’ new lands and give them new names, no matter what those who already live there think about it. We like to believe that God is sovereign, but we also believe that it’s our politician, our pastor, our bombs and drones that will really sort things out. Sometimes that even goes so far as to be a form of idolatry – it’s not spoken out loud, but we can see a glimpse of it every time we look at an atlas.

Jesus, God incarnate, lived and worked in places like this, which should challenge us – what comes first, God or Empire? Or, put another way, whose kingdom has the most territory on our theological map?

(This post was inspired by a podcasted sermon I heard recently – unfortunately I can’t remember who it was by! If it rings any bells, please let me know so that I can add a link.)

Keeping Watch In Gethsemane (Exodus 12, Mark 14:32-42)

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It’s the night after the Passover meal and the household take their positions as they prepare to keep watch. They’re looking out for salvation, maybe, or the power of God’s right hand, and they sit in the traditions of their ancestors, remembering how the Israelites stood vigil on the night they fled Egypt, getting ready to run as soon as a broken Pharaoh gave the word. This is Leyl Shimurim, the Night of Watching.

Leyl Shimurim commemorates the Exodus, and keeping this in mind, maybe there’s an oblique reference to it in the story of the first Easter. The Last Supper has ended, Jesus and the disciples retreating to the Garden of Gethsemane to face the horrors of the coming day. Jesus asks his friends to keep watch with him; knowing what’s to come, he pours out his anguish on his Father; the disciples, either exhausted or oblivious, fall asleep. Mark repeats the phrase “Keep watch” twice in a handful of verses; whether or not he’s referring to a specific ritual, something important seems tied up with those words. And so, not for the last time that weekend, the disciples fail their master.

But had they been able to fight off fatigue, what would they have seen? Their ancestors, had they chanced a quick, awestruck glance out of their window in Egypt, would have seen something powerful, cosmic, raw, primal, an empire brought to its knees overnight. The disciples would have seen a quite different aspect of God – scared, shaking, sweating blood and weeping. Was this something they’d have wanted to see? Maybe, for the sake of their categories, their falling asleep was for the best.

But on the other side of Gethsemene, we see God with 20:20 hindsight. This was a different kind of exodus, one in which God’s majesty would be revealed not through power but through sacrifice, compassion and love. But while I may be good at knowing the words, I’m not as good at seeing how God is at work right now, at living that out in my own life.

So maybe there’s a benefit to practicing a form of Leyl Shimurim, in pulling an all-nighter to become a witness to what God is doing, in engaging with prayer and the Bible in seeking to find God, not just in 1st century Palestine, but also in 21st century England. In the dim stillness while half the world’s in bed, maybe there’s an opportunity to meet with the God who never sleeps.

Still, nowadays we live 24/7, and so there’s something to be said for looking out our windows and seeing how God is actively at work. Watch the church soup kitchen giving people a bed and a dinner for the night. Watch the street angels safely getting party-goers into 3am taxis.

I used the word ‘watch’ there, and that’s when my own words convict me because maybe I should have said ‘help’ instead. Because what’s the point of keeping watch if you don’t do anything about the things you see? Talking the talk is easy, so is blogging the the blog, but staying awake to stand vigil, to discern what God is doing even when he seems far away, can be a whole lot harder…

Because that’s the thing; God is always at work. Sometimes we’re not looking though, and other times we miss it because his actions don’t fit within the confines in which we place him. He reaches out to the outsider and offends the religious and makes empires tremble, and if we don’t keep watch for all that, we miss something important. Because we miss seeing his power and his compassion; we see the world, but we fail to see Jesus.