How can we celebrate Christmas against the backdrop of so much darkness in the world?(more…)
For our Shepherds in the St Luke’s Gospel account of that first Christmas Eve it started as just an ordinary night watching over their flock of sheep. They had no inclination of the disturbance to their lives that was about to happen and the ‘news of great joy’ they were about to be part of. (more…)
Like an innocent child wandering by itself into the kitchen and pressing the switches that will set the house on fire, some biblical texts have been taken out of their original setting and used in ways that would have horrified the original speaker or writer. Here in this passage we have one with exactly that history.
‘No one’, said Jesus, ‘has a love greater than this, to lay down your life for your friends’. That is true, gloriously true. Indeed, Jesus was on his way to his own execution as the most dramatic example of the point. The cross is clearly in in view here, when Jesus says that laying down your life for your friends is the highest form of love, and then says ‘and you, of course are my friends.’ But during the First World War, this text was used again and again, in sermons and lectures, set to music and sung by great choirs, with one single meaning: therefore you, young man – they were mostly young men – must go off to the front line, do what you are told and if necessary die for your country.
They did, in their tens of thousands. God honours, I believe, the self-sacrifice and dedication of those who sincerely and devoutly believed they were doing their duty. But i also believe God judges those who use texts like this as a convenient rhetorical trick to put moral pressure on other people, when what they needed was a bit of moral pressure on themselves to ask: Why are we doing this at all? If we must have a war, is this really the best way of fighting it? Are these sacrifices which is another convenient religious word; people spoke of ‘the final sacrifice’, forgetting that in the bible human sacrifice was condemned over and over again the best way both of winning the war and of preparing ourselves for the world that will need rebuilding after it’s all over?
The easy identification of ‘our’ side with God’s side has been a major problem ever since Christianity became the official religion of the Roman state in the fourth century. Ironically, as Western Europe has become less and less Christian in terms of its practise, its leaders seem to have made this identification more and more, so that both sides in major world wars of the twentieth were staffed, as we have already noted, by Christian chaplains praying for victory.
This sits uneasily alongside a passage like this one in John’s Gospel, where the talk is of love, not war. In a world of danger and wickedness, It won’t do for everyone to pretend there are no hard decisions to be made. But precisely one of the great dangers, and great wickedness, of the world is the very common belief that fighting is a fine thing, that war is a useful way of settling disputes, and that to, to put it crudely, might is right. One of the reasons human civilisation has struggled to promote justice is the recognition that things aren’t that easy. And justice, at its best, knows that it has only a negative function: to clear the decks and leave the world open for people to love one another.
You can’t legislate for love; but God, through Jesus, can command you to love. Discovering the difference between what law cannot achieve and what God can and does achieve is one of the greatest arts of being human, and of being Christian. In the present passage we are brought in on the secret of it all.
The command to love is given by one who has himself done everything that love can do. When a mother loves a child, she creates the context in which a child is free to love her in return. When a ruler really does love his or her subjects, and when this becomes clear by generous and warm-hearted actions, he or she creates a context in which the subjects can and will love them in return. The parody of this, seen with awesome clarity in George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four, is when the totalitarian ruler (‘Big Brother’), who has done nothing but oppress and terrify his subjects, nevertheless orders them to love him. And the devastating climax, after the initially resisting subjects have been brainwashed, is that it works. At the end of the book, the hero is, in a sense, happy. ‘He loved Big Brother.’ And the reader knows that at this moment the hero has ceased to be truly human.
Jesus though, issues the command that we are to love one another, and so to remain in his love, because he has acted out, and will act out, the greatest thing that love can do. He has come to make us more human, not less. He has come to give us freedom and joy, not slavery and a semi-human stupor. He has come so that we can bear fruit that will last, whether in terms of a single life changed because we loved somebody as Jesus loved us, or in terms of a single decision that we had to take, a single task we had to perform, through which, though we couldn’t see it at the time, the world became a different place. Love makes both the lover and the beloved more truly human.
At the heart of it all is the humility that comes from knowing who’s in charge. ‘You didn’t choose me; I chose you’. I was once asked, on the radio, which religion I would choose if I could. I pointed out that the idea of ‘choosing your religion’ was a mistake in the first place. Religions are not items on the supermarket shelf that we can pick and choose – though many today try to live their lives that way. Or, if they are, you’d have to say that following Jesus wasn’t a ‘religion’. It is a personal relationship of love and loyalty to the one who has loved us more than we can begin to imagine. And the test of that love and loyalty remains the simple, profound, dangerous and difficult command: love one another.
There is an account in the New Testament of St Peter’s instruction on the Christian faith to a man called Cornelius and his household (Acts 10). Who was Cornelius? He was a Roman soldier stationed in Caesarea. He was in charge of about one hundred men in the army of occupation. We are told he was a devout and God fearing man who gave generously to Jewish causes, so he was obviously a friend of the local Jewish community, we are told that he prayed constantly to God. He was not a Christian at that point, but was clearly looking for something, a man whose religious instinct had been awakened, no longer just dormant. But he had never heard of Jesus, or at least only indirectly.
However, he received a special message from God and was told to seek out Peter. Peter was not all that keen on seeing Cornelius simply because he was not a Jew, but then he too received a special message and was told to receive Cornelius. So they met. Peter instructed Cornelius in the Christian faith and eventually the Roman and his family all became Christians, followers of Christ. Peter had to explain that Jesus had been killed ‘by hanging him on a tree’, yet – and here was the important and difficult part -‘ three days later, God raised him to life’.
I wonder what went through Cornelius’ head at that moment. Was he unconvinced? Sceptical? Why, people don’t die and then come back to life, certainly not in an advanced and sophisticated society such as that of the Roman Empire at that time. But Peter went on: yes God raise Jesus to life, and what is more – Peter hammered the point home – god allowed him to be seen, not by everybody but by certain witnesses chosen beforehand. It strikes me that Peter was being a little modest in his claim about the number of people who saw Jesus risen and alive. St Paul, writing to the Corinthians said that on one occasion the risen Christ was seen by 500 people at the same time, and added: ‘If you doubt it, you can verify the fact because most of those who saw Christ on that occasion are still alive.’ St Paul was writing very early on and knew what he was saying.
But to return to Cornelius, Peter is at pains to point out, ‘now we are witnesses – we have eaten and drunk with him after his resurrection from the dead.’ He could have gone further – perhaps he did – and told Cornelius about the empty tomb, how he had run there with St John. John could not refrain from saying he got there first! They both ran and saw the empty tomb. Moreover, they saw the linen cloth which had been wrapped around the dead body of Jesus, and they saw that the cloth which had covered his face was in a different place.
They had not expected to find the tomb empty. They had failed to understand the teaching of the scripture that ‘Christ must rise from the dead’. St John is at pains to point that out. He and Peter had gone to the burial site only because Mary of Magdala had rushed to tell them what she had seen – an empty tomb.
Where was the body? Who had stolen it? I can see these questions playing in Cornelius’ mind. What had happened? Obviously someone had taken it, someone had stolen it. That was the rumour. This had unnerved the people responsible for killing Jesus. So they had bribed the soldiers who were guarding the tomb to say they had fallen asleep, and while they were asleep someone came and rolled the stone away and took the body. They took the money and spread the story – a very far-fetched story. But the tomb was empty and something very important had happened, because the disciples remembered what Jesus had said: ‘Yes, on the third day I will rise again.’
Where, Cornelius insisted was the body? Where was Jesus? He was told by St Peter that many had seen him alive, but his appearance was often very strange. Mary of Magdala thought he was the gardener. The two disciples walking on the way to Emmaus failed to recognise him, they saw him, but all seemed different now. Jesus had changed, acting after the resurrection quite differently from the way he acted before he died. But he was still the real Jesus, risen from the dead.
Now the apostles’ lives were beginning to change also. Once the Holy Spirit had come down upon them they were transformed and went on saying again and again ‘Jesus has risen from the dead’. The truth of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is what they preached and it is to that they gave witness. Cornelius was received into the Christian community and he too, and his household, became witnesses to the fact that the tomb was empty and Jesus Christ was alive, risen from the dead.
Indeed, many people joined together in community simply because Jesus Christ, true God and true man had risen from the dead. A community grew up out of an acknowledgement of the fact. Even more than that, there were people prepared to be witnesses, even to the extent of losing their lives – becoming martyrs for Jesus. I think of Cornelius going back to his family and reminding them of what they have learned – that they must be witnesses by the way they live, and that Jesus, who had risen from the dead, was to be their leader. They were to learn about the Gospel, follow the things Jesus said and do as he bid.
Everything was different – and so it as to be for us. As we come together at Easter in the great act of worship, we listen to the word of God proclaimed. Then we must go back to our households and tell them that we, too, should be witnesses to Christ, to the Gospel, to the Church. We must be witnesses because out there are thousands and thousands of people who do not know Christ, yet are searching, wanting. The religious instinct in every person, perhaps, in our time is beginning to awaken. Who can tell them where to find the truth but those who belong to the Christian Community which believes in Christ who died and rose from the dead? That is the task for all of us to be witnesses to that fact and to all that follows from it for Christ is Risen, He is Risen indeed and for that we all shout Alleluia.
Mark 16: 1 – 8
One of the programmes that I have been watching on TV is Master Chef. No doubt you’ve seen it or parts of it. Contestants have to cook a two or three course meal in a given amount of time and then submit it to be judged by the presenters, Greg and John, and one or more judges, – generally top star chefs including Beaminster’s own Matt Folas. Just occasionally one of the elegantly laid out food on the plate gets a complete thumbs down from one of the presenters or one of the judges. I’ve seen a couple of programmes where what looked like a good, well presented dish is sampled and pronounced by at least one judge as horrible. Just what is not hoped for or expected by the contestant.
The unexpected is what confronted the woman who’d gone to the place where Jesus had been buried two days earlier. They had gone to finish the burial rituals, embalming the body with aromatic spices. But there was no body. Nothing to embalm, Nothing to anoint. Jesus had gone. Imagine for a moment what must have gone through the minds of the woman. Had Jesus been taken by body snatchers or grave robbers? Had his body been taken by the religious authorities to prevent it becoming a place of veneration? Had it been taken by Jesus’ followers for reburial somewhere else? If so why? And if so how was it that someone didn’t let on where they had buried him. It is one of the pillars supporting the resurrection – there is no place known where the body may be. After all it would soon have become a place to go and put flowers and remember Jesus. Just as people do today at the grave of a loved one. But in the case of Jesus there is nowhere to be close to his body. There is nowhere because there is no body. Jesus died – no doubt about that but Jesus came alive – he had risen from the dead.
After a few hours Jesus began to be seen by various groups of people. Mary Magdalene on the first Easter morning. The disciples in the upper room. The disciples out fishing. The disciples walking to the nearby village of Emmaus. All those were as unexpected as was the empty tomb when the woman went there. Gradually it began to sink in that in some way or other Jesus had come alive again, and he was risen from the dead. The resurrection is one of those unexpected events events that happen from time to time. In John’s Gospel account it was Simon Peter who ran to the tomb, went in and believed. I would love to know more about what he believed; believed that Jesus had risen from the dead; believed that Jesus was who he claimed to be – the son of God. We don’t know.
But probably by the end of what is sometimes called Easter Week many of those who had been followers came to accept that Jesus has come alive again. Thomas was one who had a problem with the idea and it was totally unexpected – just like the unexpected comments on a dish in Master Chef which look so elegant and promising but just do not taste very good.
Some find it difficult today to accept that Jesus rose from the dead. That sort of thing does not happen. But then when God is involved all sorts of amazing things do happen. When the angel visited Mary to announce her to be the Mother of God’s son Jesus he reminded her that nothing is impossible with God. (Lk 1:37). We need to be careful in our understanding. God does do unexpected things. It is one of the exciting aspects of Christianity. God surprises us with some of the things he does. And that is the true significance of the resurrection. It is above all the chance to begin to see the power of God at work.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us with an insight into God’s power. And that is no different today as it was 2000 years ago. The problem it seems to me is that we are not prepared for the unexpected and not for unusual things to happen. When we really learn to trust God unexpected things happen. We are invited to put our trust and faith in Jesus, believing him to be God’s Son. It all starts with our learning to trust God. Really trust him. It is something we have to work at. It does not come easily. But if we do God is faithful to his promise.
It might be worth taking a little time today to ask yourself – how committed am I to Jesus and what are the unexpected things that have happened to you because you are a Christian. It is worth taking a little time today to review your lives and ask where and how had God done unexpected things in your life and give thanks to him for them.
I suspect that everyone can find something; well give thanks for it. And the greatest gift of all and the most unexpected one is that Jesus, the Son of God, came to earth, spent time with us learning about human life and then died so that our sins can be forgiven.
And for that I say Alleluia. Amen
‘It is finished.’ (John 19: 30)
‘It is finished.’…
…It well might not have been. Suppose that Jesus had yielded to the Tempter’s suggestion that what the people wanted was food for the belly, while Jesus knew that what they needed was God’s word. Suppose that he had yielded to the Tempter’s suggestion that what the people wanted was fun and excitement, while Jesus knew that what they needed was a life with the quality of eternity. Suppose he had yielded to the Tempter’s suggestion that what the people wanted was force, powerful leadership which would drive the Romans into the sea, while Jesus knew that what they needed was the worship of God worked out in service to their fellow human beings.
Let us suppose for a minute;
That Jesus had headed Peter’s enticing words: ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’
That at the crucial moment there had been no horrified rebuttal: ‘Get behind me Satan.’
That in the garden of Gethsemane Jesus had inverted the prayer and said ‘Not your will but mine be done.’
We should pause and reflect that at the last, as he looked up into the Father’s face, Jesus could not have cried ‘Accomplished! Completed! Finished.’ He would have had an incomplete offering to make to God. Our liturgy could never have contained in the 1662 version, the words ‘A full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.’ In this cry ‘It is finished’ we see the first rays of Easter light. We cannot and must not, separate Good Friday and Easter Day.
Good Friday, (which is a corruption of God’s Friday) would have been the Devils field-day if it had not been for the event of Easter. It would have signalled the final triumph of evil.
Our Christian faith is that at the moment of victory the whole human prospect was changed. At that point in history there was a new creation, the daybreak of the world. And the ratification was the resurrection. In one irreducibly miraculous act, baffling all human explanation, God raised him high and gave him a name above every name. And the early church took up the shout ‘Christ reigns.’
‘It is finished’ is a cry, a rallying cry, which the church needs to hear today. If that cry is heeded, it spells an end to that almost morbid self-denigration and defeatism which has marked some sections of the church for all too long.
Again we should pause and reflect and think that we follow a crucified Christ, we would follow no other. But we follow a Christ who at the moment when men thought they had defeated him, saw that he had defeated the forces of evil and cried ‘Finished!’ Accomplished!’ ‘Consummated!’ ‘Achieved!’ Here is our hope.
We who are baptised into Christ, who have taken up our cross to follow him, are heirs of that hope. True the forces of evil are on the rampage and we are in the midst of the conflict. But their final defeat is guaranteed, for, as we affirm at every Eucharist,
‘Christ has died: Christ is risen: Christ will come again.’
We pause and reflect on these words.
So while our heads are bent over the world’s pain and sickness and sin, and our backs ache in doing our part in alleviating them, our hearts are sustained by the triumph of faith.
‘It is finished!’
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.