The Stranger on the Road (Luke 24:13-35)

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They were walking to Emmaus, about 7 miles from Jerusalem. About 130 years earlier, this had been the site of a great battle, Jewish rebels triumphing over Greek forces. After Herod the Great died thirty years earlier, the village was burned to the ground after the inhabitants attacked a Roman garrison. Now it had been rebuilt and become home to a disciple called Cleopas, who was now trudging his way back from Jerusalem, the aftermath of the crucifixion bearing down on him.

We celebrate Easter Sunday as a glorious explosion of new life, but as he walks the road to Emmaus, Cleopas is still living in Saturday. He’s leaving Jerusalem, where within the space of a week Jesus has gone from being popular hero to an abandoned victim of conspiracy and crucifixion, all the hopes and expectations of the last three years nailed to a blood-soaked plank of wood. On the horizon is the site of a Jewish victory, yes, but that had been a long time ago and Herod had showed what happens to anyone hoping to change the world.

So when Cleopas encounters a stranger on the road, he explains the situation with a sense of loss: “We’d hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel.” With the benefit of hindsight we can smile at how Cleopas is missing the point – we know the big reveal, after all, that the stranger on the road is the resurrected Jesus. But maybe Cleopas needs this moment of unrecognition for his preconceptions and prejudices to be reconfigured.

And so, despite a long theological conversation, it’s only when the stranger breaks bread and gives thanks – a eucharistic moment that echoes the last supper – that the stranger’s identity is revealed. The Last Supper forms the basis of our communion services, speaking of Christ’s death, but this second meal is its bookend, the revelation of his resurrection.

Maybe we need to hold the revelation of Emmaus in our hearts every time we eat the bread and drink the wine, remembering not just the crucifixion but the fresh vision of Jesus granted us by his emergence from the tomb, the miracle we encounter when the Stranger on the Road turns out to be the risen Saviour.

That’s not a once-a-year moment of sacredness in the Spring. It’s every Lord’s Supper – no, it’s every day. Heaven knows I need to make resurrection a daily remembrance. As we walk with Cleopas into another week, may we meet Jesus once again, and find the Saviour in the Stranger on the Road.

The Singing Army (Luke 2:13)

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Just a quick post today, because my mind has been blown by a post from Pastor Brian Zahnd and I wanted to get the thoughts down quickly, at least while we’re still in the Christmas season.

See, Luke 2:13 talks of a heavenly host of angels appearing to the shepherds and announcing the birth of Jesus. And we’re so used to nativity plays depicting this as little girls in white frocks and tinsel halos that we miss something important.

The ‘host’ is an army.

The Greek word used is ‘stratia’, which has martial connotations, and throughout the Old Testament, God is described as the Lord of Hosts, which again is military imagery. This may be a choir, but it’s a choir of soldiers.

Now, put this into context: Israel is ruled by the Roman Empire. There are troops on the streets. The inhabitants have a long history of knowing what it means for an army to turn up. But this time the army is on their side, right? After all, the angels talk about good news and a saviour and peace; all terms associated with Caesar but which are now being given to Israel’s Messiah.

A choir singing this would be radical enough. Make it an army and maybe the shepherds could be forgiven for thinking that God was about to sweep in and destroy Herod and Caesar and any other enemy of God.

And yet that’s not what happens; as Zahnd points out, there’s more singing than fighting. The Kingdom of God does not arrive through violence, even violence from righteous angels. It arrives through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The story starts here with a song, but it truly finds its ultimate fulfilment in Easter.

Maybe that exposes some of our idolatry. Military might can appear a whole lot more present and physical than the Now-But-Not-Yet Kingdom of Christ, and maybe we’d prefer the reign of God to come through guns and drones and aircraft carriers; praise the Lord and pray he’ll pass us the ammunition. Heck, not long after the angels appeared to the shepherds, Herod slaughtered innocent children in an attempt to assassinate the Messiah. There were parents around Bethlehem who might have been glad of an angelic army.

It’s hard to see a kingdom of peace when your standing in the craters of empire, so hard, in fact, that we can lose the ability to remember that God doesn’t have to play by our rules and with our toys; he can create and resurrect his own Kingdom, rather than build on our broken foundations, no matter how hard that may be to see from the perspective of a year like 2014.

Maybe this is why a particular line from a carol has resonated with me this week:

And man at war with man hears not,
The love song that they bring.
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

We look to God’s army, but we don’t listen to their song; we look for power but we don’t recognise it in cross or cradle. In 2015, let’s pray that this would change.

Subversive Samaritans (Luke 10:25-37)

Jan_Wijnants_-_Parable_of_the_Good_Samaritan“Hate crime against disabled people rises.”

“Twitter abuse: Why cyberbullies are targeting women.”

“Thousands of hate crimes reported in Greater Manchester.”

“Gay bashing attacks on rise in NYC.”

It’s easy to read the Parable of the Good Samaritan and see it simply as a simple, sweet story – yes, we need to be nice to people, even people who are different, lovely. But if we leave it at that, we miss something important.

After all, it’s easy to say we should treat everyone as Christ would treat them, but it’s a bit harder to confront our own prejudice and accept that those who are different are also our neighbours – that’s the experience of the Teacher of the Law who was originally on the receiving end of this parable, to the extent that he couldn’t even bring himself to name the hero of the story. But sometimes it goes beyond even that. Sometimes Samaritans have to be subversive.

It’s no secret that the world can be a hateful place – the headlines quoted above testify to that. Ditto for 1st century Samaria and Judea, where Jews and Samaritans loathed each other, so ask yourself this: what happened to the Samaritan after he did his good deed?

Was he the subject of gossip, of abuse? (“What d’you think you’re doing, wasting your money on that piece of trash?! Traitor!”)

Did he keep quiet, maybe explaining what had happened only when necessary, and even then leaving out some key details?

Did he aggressively defend his actions, telling his family and friends that yes, he helped an injured Jewish guy and yes, he’d do it again if he had to?

There are no answers to these questions: the Samaritan was a literary construct used by Jewish to challenge the prejudice and narrow-mindedness of his audience. But it’s not one man’s racism that Jesus confronts, it’s a whole social context where some people are considered ‘in’ and some people are very, very ‘out’. And this isn’t unique to Galilee two thousand years ago; the fact is, sometimes taking a stand for what’s right comes at a cost; sometimes loving our neighbour is the most subversive thing we can do.

And yet there’s a power there. Slow and painful as it may be, Jesus’s call to love and compassion is more likely to heal our broken communities that building more walls and spewing more hate. This Kingdom will be built on helping those who need it, not leaving them bleeding in a gutter, not joining in with the beatings. There are times when that’s easy. There are other times, when we’re faced with offering support and hope to those society has deemed to be the enemy, when being a Good Samaritan requires courage and sacrifice.

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,”¬†said Martin Luther King. In a world where there is political and online capital to be made through hurling abuse and accusations, it’s a statement with which it’s worth guarding our hearts.¬†Especially when, too often, the church props up the systems and attitudes that Christ may call us to confront; especially when God builds his Kingdom through the compassion and courage of the world’s subversive Samaritans.

Jesus and the Two Swords (Luke 22:35-38)

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Sometimes you read things in the Bible that makee you pause uncomfortably. Not just the big things, but the odd verse that seems to have awkward implications. Here’s one that’s bugged me for a while.

Why does Jesus let the disciples take two swords to Gethsemane?

It’s a moment of high tension. The group has just eaten the Last Supper, Judas has disappeared to commit the most famous act of betrayal in history, and Jesus has just prophesied that Peter’s going to deny knowing him. It’s probably fair to say that spirits were low.

And then Jesus tells the disciples that, while previously they’d lacked nothing, now they need to be prepared for hard times – get a new bag and wallet and…

And a new sword.

Wait, what?

The disciples respond to this by showing Jesus the two swords they do have (which raises other questions), and Jesus says that it’s enough. Which is crazy, because there are a minimum of twelve people here, on their way to an inevitable confrontation with authority. If anyone in the group thinks that two swords is enough to mount a violent response to what’s coming, they’re delusional.

Or maybe not. After all, they’ve been raised on stories like that of Gideon, where God ensures victory for those facing ridiculous odds. Maybe they figure this is the case here; it’s not like Jesus hasn’t already shown his power over nature and spiritual forces. No, it’s the implication of them carrying swords that makes me uncomfortable, especially as Jesus seems to authorise it. It seems contradictory, especially in the light of “Love your enemy” and “Turn the other cheek”. Heck, it comes just seconds after he quotes Isaiah 53, which is all about the Messiah triumphing without violence.

So it seems that something else is going on here. After all, in the garden, the swords actually get used and Jesus is scathing. condemning their use and healing their damage. “If you live by the sword, you’ll die by the sword,” he says, which would seem to be a good reason not to buy one, right?

Maybe this is the point. Maybe there’s something prophetic about this whole scenario, a way of displaying God’s message to the powers and authorities standing in that garden. Yes, Jesus could call down angels or storms or fire and brimstone to obliterate his enemies. Yes, there are images of a warrior God throughout scripture and these are valid. But this isn’t how humanity will be redeemed, the Kingdom won’t be established through swords and spears and drones and guns. The Kingdom will be established with a cross, and through this the wounds and scars of friend and enemy alike can be healed, a Kingdom more interested in ploughshares than swords.

A victory won through swords can’t lead to resurrection. A victory won through the cross does.

“Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs?” Jesus directs this to those who’ve come to arrest him, but maybe the disciples need to hear it as well. After all, they’re the ones fighting for the Kingdom, not against it.

(BTW, always be wary of a church that rejoices in any wounds other than those of Jesus.)

And so maybe this all gets summed up in the story of Malchus (the luckiest person in this story, because let’s face it, although he temporarily loses an ear, that probably wasn’t what Peter was aiming for). In any other scenario, he ends up maimed for life; in this one he’s healed by his ‘enemy’. This should clue us in to the nature of the Kingdom – it creates a space for healing and restoration, not violence and anger, and while it may be uncompromising and challenging at times, that should be rooted in the Holy Spirit, not in the arrogance and rage of some dude who thinks he’s doing everyone a favour by waving a sword around.

I wonder what happened to Malchus, whether he went back to his life and carried on as normal, or whether he ended up as one of the ‘bad guys’, like the centurion or the thief on the cross, who ended up recognising who and what Jesus was at a time when all his followers had disappeared.

And I wonder what happened to all those other people wounded in the name of God.I wonder where will they see Jesus the Healer, rather than Peter the Swordbearer?

Advent 2014: Do Not Be Afraid

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There are times I think I shouldn’t be writing this blog.

I love doing it, and it’s a way of stumbling towards God. But I’m aware of my limitations – I’ve never been to seminary, and I’m not going to pretend I suffer from hypocrisy more than I should. Does the world need another imperfect voice adding to all the noise?

But it’s still Advent, we’re still finding our way to the stable. And I noticed something today that I’ve not picked up on before.

Joseph was a righteous man, we’re told by Matthew’s gospel, and we expect that to have certain connotations. He should hold true to the tenets of his faith, right?

So when he discovers his wife-to-be is pregnant, knowing he’s not the father, there are rules to be followed. And while the rules would end very badly for Mary, at least the moral standing, the religious integrity of the community would be maintain. Joseph was a righteous man, the Bible tells us, so surely he followed the rules.

Well, no. He decides to quietly end his relationship with Mary so she’s not disgraced (or, you know, stoned to death). He doesn’t follow the rules, and yet he’s not called righteous in spite of this; he’s called righteous because of this. Don’t forget, this is before he knows the truth of the situation, which he learns in a vision in which he’s told not to be afraid.

When the angels appear over the hills of Bethlehem, they don’t proclaim the arrival of the Messiah to the respectable and the reputable. They home in on the despised and mistrusted, one of the professions that wasn’t even allowed to give testimony in court. The shepherds are sent straight to the baby – no ritual, no rites, just go.

“Do not be afraid,” they’re told.

There’s a moment, thirty years after the stable, when Peter is confronted with a miracle and he falls to his knees and begs Jesus to leave, because Peter’s a sinful man and Jesus is divine.

And how does Jesus respond?

“Don’t be afraid,” he says, and Peter becomes a disciple.

There’s a danger in making faith all about managing sinfulness, even more so when it’s about managing the apparent sinfulness of everyone else. Christmas is about something bigger and more compelling than that; it’s about drawing people towards God, not because of their own personal righteousness but because of God’s boundless love and grace. We sometimes want God to be a judge, a disciplinarian, an agent of wrath and vengeance, but Christmas doesn’t play by those rules. We’re constantly told not to be afraid, and that’s not just of the circumstances but also of the God behind them. The stable is inclusive; don’t drive people away; bring them in instead.

“Do not be afraid.” The barriers between God and humanity are breaking down; Bethlehem leads to the cross as God reaches out to us, not because of our goodness but because of his. Go to the stable; you’re still invited.