Saturday, 26 March 2016

When confusion gives way to joy. Easter Sunday 2016

The first consequence of Easter morning was not joy but confusion.

You see we live in a universe that appears to be ruled by death.
We come from dust and we return to dust.
And if the current cosmological theories are right we live in a universe that began in darkness and nothingness and that will end in darkness and death.
And we learn to live with it.

We will live, we will do stuff, stuff will be done to us and then we will die. And that is it.
‘Life’, said Ernest Hemingway, ‘is a dirty trick. A short trip from nothingness to nothingness’.

And as far as the dead are concerned:
We remember them.
There is a great line in the film, ‘Good Night, Mr Tom’. The boy is grieving for his friend who has been killed in the blitz. He can’t get over it. So Mr Tom takes him down to the grave of his wife. ‘Look’, he says, ‘They do not die. They live on. In here. In your heart. In your memory. ‘
Yes, we remember the dead.
And we honour the dead.
This church is littered with memorials that honour the dead.
There is the cenotaph with the words, ‘The Glorious dead’.

We remember the dead, and we honour the dead – but whatever we do, they are still dead.

So the women were coming to honour the dead Jesus.
They were going to anoint his body with spices.
Why? Logically it makes absolutely no sense– it would not stop his body decomposing.
But I guess they want to do what we want to do in the face of death: They want to say that Jesus was special to them; that Jesus mattered.
And in the face of death they wanted to do something.

But the two men who gleam like lightening speak words that shake the lives of these women to the core. They speak words that are going to reshape, to reconfigure our universe. They speak words that can utterly transform our lives.

‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.’

It is hard to take.
The reaction of the women is not joy but confusion.

This was the last thing that they expected.
Yes, they had heard Jesus’ say that he would be handed over to the authorities, that he would be crucified and that he would rise from the dead. But Jesus was Jesus. He said some difficult things – like eating his flesh and drinking his blood, like hating your father and mother, like passing through the eye of a needle, like dying to yourself - and you didn’t always know quite how to take them.
And yes, he had raised some people from the dead. He had raised Lazarus who had been dead for 4 days. But who was going to raise him?
And Jesus could not come back. He had been whipped with a scourge that would have given him wounds from which he would never recover; he had been nailed to a crossbar; and when he was dead, someone had thrust a spear into his side – just to make sure. 

That is why, when the women came to the tomb, and the stone is rolled away, and there is no body, ‘they wonder about this’.
It is why, when the two men speak to them, they are terrified.
It is why, when they go back to the others and tell them all this, the disciples don’t believe it.
 ‘Women!’ they say. (They said it. I didn’t!!)
And it is why when Peter goes to the tomb, and sees the strips of linen that were wrapped around the body of Jesus lying to one side, he goes away ‘wondering to himself what had happened’.

It is not joy. Not yet. It is confusion.

I find this all very reassuring.

There is an authenticity about it.
And the experience of those women on the first Easter morning is a bit like our experience.

Most of us here have not seen the risen Jesus

There are one or two who would claim to have seen Jesus. There is a dear woman here in our parish who has seen him. It happened 12 years ago when she was kneeling at the communion rail at St Peter’s. If you get her to talk about it is as real as if it happened yesterday. She can point to the spot where he stood. And she said it terrified her.
I don’t know why he appeared to her in that way, although a few months after that encounter she lost a child in tragic circumstances – so perhaps it was his way of reassuring her.

And there may be several here who can’t say that they have seen Jesus, but who have had such experiences that they are absolutely convinced that Jesus is alive. Our bishop, Bishop Martin, writes in his Easter letter:
‘So it was a few years later, when I was about 20, I was walking down St Andrew’s Street in Cambridge, and in an intense moment I suddenly realised, without warning, that Jesus, risen from the dead, was as physically real as the man who at that instant was walking towards me. I was not aware that I had been thinking about what the resurrection was like, or in what sense I believed it, but from then on I knew - for me - it was real.’

But I have not seen him, and I suspect that most of us here have not seen him.
Not yet.

But like those women, we have the evidence
-          The tomb was empty
-          We have the words of the prophets that he would suffer, die and rise again. And we have Jesus’ own words.
-          And we have the words of those people who were there at the time and who did see him.

And they challenge us: ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.’

1.      Why do you live as if this world is the only world that there is?

Why do you invest so much time and energy into this world, when there is so much more? Why do you live for the values and treasures of this world?
Why don’t you live for the one who came from eternity and who will live for eternity?
Why don’t you live for the Kingdom of God?
Why don’t you live for the one who is alive, who rose from the dead, and who will come and transform this creation and make it what he meant it to be and who will take you to be with him?
Why do you live in the world as if it is ruled by death, when in fact it is ruled by life?

2.      Why are you so sceptical?

When the women spoke to the disciples, they simply rubbished them. People will talk of astonishing things happening and we, even we who claim to believe, will often dismiss them as hysteria or hype.
But we live in a world in which a man has risen from the dead. I’m not suggesting that we should be gullible; we need to test all things. But good for Peter, that even though when he first heard what the women said, he dismissed them, he still went to investigate. And if we really believe that he is alive, then we must have a place in our theology and in our faith for the unexpected, what people call "a miracle"

3.      Why do you grieve for those who have died, especially for those who were Christian believers, as if you have no hope?

Of course we grieve for ourselves. We have lost people who are so dear and precious to us, who made us what and who we are.
But we do not need to grieve for them. We will see them again. Not as they were.
I think we’ll all be a little bit shy of each other, a little bit scared of each other, when we see each other there. We will be people who have seen Jesus face to face. We will be transformed, transfigured, radiant and glorious.

4.      Why do you come to church as if you were coming to a mausoleum or a museum, to a place where we remember a dead Jesus?

This is not a place where we simply remember him.
When we come to the Lord’s table we do not come simply to remember him – like we might remember Julius Caesar or Queen Elizabeth or even a dear friend. We come to meet with him.

Why do you look for the living among the dead?

The women and the disciples did not have long before they saw the risen Jesus.
He had a busy day! He appeared to some of the women in the morning, to Peter in the afternoon, and to the disciples gathered together in the evening.

And yes we can meet him here and now. I pray that as I am speaking some of you are hearing him speaking to you, and that you will have the courage to respond: to open your hearts and minds and to say, ‘Yes Lord Jesus; I haven’t seen you but I believe that you rose from the dead; that you are alive. Come and live in me.’
And as we come to the Lord’s table and eat the bread and wine we can meet with him.

And one day – maybe here, maybe there – we will see him: our risen Lord Jesus, who loved us, who died for us and who rose again from the dead - face to face

And then confusion will give way to unspeakable joy. 

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Are we free to speak?

A legal, historical, philosophical and biblical look at the subject of freedom of speech.

Click here

For ​further consideration on the subject, Mike Ovey has written a very helpful article on free speech: Is the Wrath of God Extremist? [Themelios 40.3 (2015): 389–391

The king who comes to bring peace.

Today we remember and we give thanks for that day when the king rode into his city.

He is the King, the Messiah
That is so clear in Mark’s gospel.

This is the first time that I have noticed this, but Mark does not quote Zechariah 9.9.
Zechariah 9.9 is the prophecy that the Messiah, God’s King, will enter Jerusalem riding on the colt of a donkey.

‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
Triumphant and victorious is he,
Humble and riding on a donkey,
On a colt, the foal of a donkey.’

Matthew quotes Zechariah 9.9; John quotes the first part of Zechariah 9.9. But Mark does not.
A Gentile, a non-Jew, as they heard this read, would completely miss the reference to the idea that Jesus was fulfilling prophecy, or that Jesus was coming as a humble king.

What they would hear is something very different: God's King is coming to God's city.

1.       They hear of his followers serving the coming king.

He sends them. ‘Go into the village, and bring me the colt’. And they obey.
Maybe we also see the king who can foresee what will happen, although I rather assume that this was all prearranged. Jesus had a very clear idea of what he was going to do.

2.       They hear of creation itself welcoming the coming king

Jesus rides a colt that has never been ridden before. It has not been broken in, and yet he can sit on it and it accepts the burden.
Creation welcomes the king.

3.       They hear of a people who acclaim the coming king.
‘Hosanna’. God saves!
Jesus is coming in the name of God.

He is the King, the great King, the descendant of King David. The one who God promised that he would send.

This is the king who will, and here I am quoting from other verses in Zechariah 9, end war and ‘who will command peace to the nations’.
He is the king who will set prisoners free, who will save his people.
A different Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, proclaims at his son’s birth: ‘Praise be to the God of our father Abraham, who has not forgotten his promise to set us free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship him in holiness and righteousness all the days of our life’.
And Zechariah 9 finishes with this precious prophecy: 
‘On that day the Lord their God will save them for they are the flock of his people; for like jewels of a crown they shall shine on his land. For what goodness and beauty are his! Grain shall make the young men flourish, and new wine the young women’. (Zechariah 9.16)

Zechariah 9 speaks of one who will rule ‘from the River (the Euphrates) to the ends of the earth’. He is quoting Psalm 72 which also speaks of this king, God’s ruler:
‘He will judge people with righteousness and the poor with justice. Under his rule the mountains will yield prosperity for the people. He will defend the cause of the poor, give deliverance to the needy and crush the oppressor’.

And Jesus as he rides into Jerusalem gives hope.
Hope to a people crushed by a political occupying force, and who dream of self-autonomy.
Hope to a people struggling with the everyday necessities and conflicts of life.
He gives hope to a people who look back to a glorious history, who hold on to promises of a glorious future, and yet who live grubby, mucky, broken lives in a very grubby, mucky, broken present.

It is no wonder that they come out to cheer him.
Word has crept out about some of the things that he has done. I say crept out, because Jesus often did not wish for the news to spread: a leper healed, a paralysed man who he made walk, a storm calmed, a man possessed by a demon liberated, a dead girl brought back to life, 5000 people fed with a few loaves and fishes, a deaf and dumb man who spoke and a blind man who could see.
This is the king who will set them free.

And it is no wonder that they put out the equivalent of the red carpet for him – the branches. And they throw their cloaks on the road in front of him – the equivalent of laying themselves down before him.

One of the most memorable sermons I heard on this was when John Sentamu preached at the welcome service when he became Bishop of Stepney. He spoke of his bishop’s robes as being like the garments that were thrown over the donkey. ‘I am the donkey’, he said, ‘and I pray that people will not see the donkey, but the king who rides on the donkey’.

They see the King, the Saviour, the deliverer. He has come to fulfil the promise. And they welcome him.

But – as I think that you have been seeing through this series on Mark’s gospel – they see the king, but they miss what he has come to do. They miss the cross.

They are right in believing that this is the King who has come to bring deliverance.
But they do not realise the extent of the deliverance that this king has come to bring.
They do not realise the pit into which he will have to go in order to win that deliverance.

Jesus is the king who has not only come to give us freedom from the prisons and boundaries and limits that others or nature imposes on us. He has come to free us from the prisons that are deep within us.
He has not merely come to change the external circumstances of our lives, the things that are round about us. He has not merely come to change the furniture of our lives. He has come to change our hearts.
He has not come to give us newer stuff or better stuff or more stuff – he has come to set us free from the need for stuff.
He has not come to make us great or famous or powerful – he has come to set us free from the need to strive to be great or famous or powerful. Why? Because we know we are beloved sons and daughters of God.
He did not first come to set us free from the muck out there, but to release us from the muck in here.

I recently reread an article by Isaiah Berlin called Two Concepts of Liberty. In it he asks what sort of freedom is it that we want. And Berlin argues that what we most desire is the freedom of self-autonomy, to be masters and mistresses of our own fate.

It is the dream of William Henley’s poem Invictus:

Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.

That may be the freedom that we think that we crave, but it is unobtainable. It is what the ancients called 'hubris', defiance of God. We are human; we are created. There will always be limits. We can never be the masters or mistresses of our own fate.

But I would argue that there is a deeper freedom that we desire.

We long for the freedom to be at peace. At peace with the God who, deep down, we know exists. At peace with other people; at peace with creation and at peace with ourselves.

Some of you may have watched the dramatization of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. One of the big themes is Count Bezukhov’s search for peace. He looks for it in wild living, in sex and drink, but does not find it. He looks for it in wealth, but he does not find it. He looks for it in free masonry and moral improvement, which one has to say was a great deal better than what came earlier, but he does not find it. He looks for it in a cause – to improve the life of the peasants on his estates, or in the attempt to kill Napoleon – but he does not find it. He does find it, but in a very different place. He is arrested and becomes a prisoner of war. One of the other prisoners is a peasant, Platon Karataev, who shares some bread with him, and tells him to enjoy the moment of eating. The peasant is a man who is at peace. At peace on the outside, in a situation in which he could never claim to be ‘master of his fate’, and at peace on the inside. What the TV series does not show – I suspect deliberately - is what for Tolstoy is key about Karataev. He has a deep and profound faith in Christ.

I take communion to Michael. Some of you may know him. He used to come weekly to the 8am communion at St Mary’s. Michael has motor-neurons. It is working its way up his body and it has got to his shoulders. He is now unable to lift his hands. He jokes that the dog has more power than him. If the dog paws his arm down off the chair, then he is unable to lift it back on. But Michael is amazing. I don’t doubt that he has his very dark moments, but he is astonishingly at peace. He was telling me how, about 30 years ago, when he went into Woolpit church, God met with him. And when he was reading in Micah 5 about the coming king, and the prophet Micah says, ‘He will be our peace’, Michael said, ‘When I read it I suddenly realised what happened 30 years ago. I met the peace of God. And that peace has never left me’. I wonder, whether God in his mercy, gave Michael that gift of peace because He knew what Michael would have to go through.

And the only way for the King to give us this peace, to set us free from the prisons inside us, from the walls that we build around us as we pursue status or significance or self-autonomy, from the muck that is in us, from sin and from death – was for him to take all of that into himself and to deal with it.
And this week, on Good Friday, we remember when he did that.
The one who was perfect became sin for us. The one who was and who can be the only one who really is the master of his fate, gave up his life to suffer and die for us. He was separated from God his Father, and he paid the price that we deserve to pay.

And the price has been paid. All that is left to us is to trust him; to receive his peace, his love, his forgiveness, the new identity he gives us as beloved sons and daughters of heaven, his presence to come and live in us and change us, and the hope that one day we will see him as he is and become like him.

So today we give thanks that it is the king who is coming to his royal city, to Jerusalem. This is the king who we worship and who we serve, the king before whom we lay our lives down; and we also give thanks that this is the king who came to lay down his life so that we might have peace. 

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Who is your true mother?

Paul writes, ‘The other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free and she is our mother’ (Galatians 4.26)

It is strange language. Why not ‘home’? It would make more sense
But when Paul talks about ‘our mother’, he is speaking of our origins.

Our understanding of our origins is vitally important. It shapes our self-understanding, and our understanding of other people.
That is why programmes like ‘Who do you think you are?’ are so fascinating.
It is why many people research their family histories.

In our society we usually look for our origins through the paternal side.
But for the Jew, origins are traced through the maternal side. I am a Jew not if my father is a Jew, but if my mother is a Jew.

So when Paul wants to remind Christians that we are not children of this world, but children of that world; that we are not children of biological necessity, but children of the promise of God, he asks us to think through the question, ‘Who is your true mother?’

Is our mother Hagar? I don’t really have time here to go into the story. You can read it in Genesis 16 and following. Abraham had been promised a child by God through his wife Sarah. But as time went on and as Sarah got older, he decided to take things into his own hands. He had a child by Hagar, Sarah’s slave girl. They did that sort of thing in those days. But God said, ‘No. That is not the child that I promised you’. And at the right time, although way beyond the age when she could have given birth, Sarah gave birth to Isaac.

So we have on one side, the child of Hagar, the child of human wisdom, the child of the flesh.
And on the other, the child of Sarah, the child of impossibility, the child of the promise.

Who is your true mother?
Is your origin your mother’s womb?
Because if we simply trace our origins back in our family tree to some great great etc great grandparent, or back further to an ape, or some proto-plasma floating about in a primeval soup; if we consider that our origins lie within this universe, this world of space and time – then we can never be free.

We are subject to law. 
We crave significance and value. We want to matter, and we need to prove somehow that we do matter.
And the only way that we can do that is by following rules or breaking rules.
We try to please God, or whatever is ‘god’ to us, by living a good life – by showing that we are a truly worthy human being.
We try to prove ourselves to our parents by making them proud of us and doing what they want – or we try and prove ourselves to ourselves by breaking their rules and rebelling against them.
We try and please our friends, or those we consider significant, by doing what we think they want us to do.
It is the principle, the law of, and I am using a theological term here, ‘justication by works’. We try to justify ourselves by what we do.

And if our origin is from this world, from something that was created out of nothing (Hebrews  11.3), then we are nothing and our future is nothing. Our origin is nothingness, and our destiny is death.

But says Paul, our origin is not to be found in this world.
Yes, we do come from the womb of our earthly mother; our physical biological origin lies in this created world. But that is not our ultimate origin.
Our true mother is the heavenly Jerusalem. We are children of the heavenly Jerusalem. We are children of the promise of God.

And so we are free.

We do not need to keep the law to prove that we are significant, that we matter.
We are set free from the need to prove ourselves to others – whether that is to our parents, or our friends, or to the people who we consider significant.
 ‘Before the creation of the world’, God says, ‘I loved you and chose you’ (Ephesians 1.4). So we freely choose to live for God, not in order to make ourselves acceptable to him, but because we delight to delight the One who delights in us.

And because our true origin does not lie in the physical, but is rooted in the promise of God, our true home is not really here, but there.
And our destiny is not the fate of the flesh. Someone told me yesterday that the ambulances which take dead people to the mortuary in Ireland used to be called ‘meat waggons’.
Our destiny is the same as the destiny of the word of God, the promise of God. It will never fail. And he has said that he will never leave us or abandon us.

Where do you come from?
The womb of your mother? Is that all?
If that is the case then, ‘from dust you came and to dust you will return’

Or are you someone who lives by faith in the reality that there is something, SomeOne much bigger – that your true origin comes from the God who created you, who gave you life, who loves you – because then you are free.

Free from the law of the need to justify your existence by what you do, and free from death