Easter Day – Matt 28:1-10 (16/4/17)

What are you afraid of? In the natural world snakes and spiders top the polls for common fears. There are many things we can fear, from claustrophobia to open spaces, from crowds to loneliness, there is a phobia for almost anything. Clowns, bumble bees, storms, heights, the list is endless.

But what really tops our fears are loss of freedom, the unknown, pain, disappointment, misery, loneliness, ridicule, rejection, death and failure. At times it might be more specific – the loss of a particular friend or family member, our own death, the future of our job, the payments on the mortgage.

Fear often drives our behaviour, and not in a positive sense. Peer pressure will force many to engage in activities they think are wrong, for fear of rejection or bullying. A worker will bend the truth at the direction of his boss, for fear of loosing his job. Fear makes us self defensive and protective.

There was no shortage of fear on Good Friday and the days following. The disciples were fearful of what might happen them following Jesus’ death. They faced apparent failure, at least ridicule and rejection, if not outright persecution and death. They were handling deep disappointment, and facing an uncertain future without their teacher and Lord.

Only a small women had the courage to face up to their fear and visit the tomb. They went without hope or expectation. They simply wanted to complete a decent burial which had begun in hamster on Friday afternoon, before the Sabbath stopped them.

Fear continues as the earth trembles and the stone sealing the tomb is moved. The guards begin to fear – for their jobs, or maybe even their lives. Perhaps these dramatic events stirred up even more within them. In fear they flee, and later agree to accept money and support a Concorde story of grace robbery to hide the truth.

The angel speaks to the women and tells them not to fear. Then the risen Jesus says to them, do not be afraid. In wonder and awe they run from the tomb with the message of resurrection.

Our world today is no less fearful than ever before. Terrorist atrocities are occurring frequently, and in more unexpected places. Political and economic instability fuel our fears. Old certainties are eroded, and a new world order is augured in, leaving many fearful and uncertain.

To every situation of fear the risen Jesus speaks, offering hope of overcoming failure, defeat, death. He offers hope of renewal and resurrection where all seems lost. This is not easy hope, and many cannot accept it, or choose not to accept it or believe it.

Carrying and proclaiming the good news of resurrection was not easy for those first disciples. They soon discovered that it led them into living the way of the cross, but they also found that the awe and winder they felt at the truth of the resurrection enabled them to overcome all their fears.

How did 12 peasant fishermen, farmers and tax collectors – 12 humble followers of Jesus multiply to encompass one person in three across the face of the earth? It was through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This was the defining moment where even time itself was divided into BC and AD. No other single event has had such an impact on the world.

It is amazing to think that Jesus never wrote a book, yet there are more books written about him than any other subject in the world. He never composed a song, yet there is more music written about him than any other person in the world. He never painted a picture or carved a sculpture, yet there are more paintings and sculptures of him than of any other human being. He never travelled more than a few miles from his home, yet his followers are to be found in every corner of the globe, in every nation, tribe, country and culture.

All of this happened because the gospel is good news, it brings hope to our fears, it gives us purpose in our lives, it frees us from all that binds us. The stone rolled away from the tomb is symbolic of the stones that Jesus rolls away in our lives, the hurts, the pains, the anger, the bereavement, the sadnesses, and ultimately, the sin. When we trust in Jesus crucified and risen, we find a new purpose in life.

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary who visited the tomb were worn with grief and sorrow. In an instant they were transformed, sent by the angel to proclaim the resurrection and preach to the disciples. As followers of Jesus, it is our joy, our duty and our privilege to go into the world with the good news, saying, I have seen the Lord. Easter is good news for all people – the poor, those in the margins of society, all who are struggling in any sense, all who need to hear good news, because Easter is about God breaking into this world with hope. Sin and death can do their worst, but they cannot contain him. Jesus is alive, and God’s kingdom is coming on earth as in heaven. We are his witnesses in this village, in this community.

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The Easter Vigil – Restored (15/4/17)

Luke 24:35

Growing up in Donegal I had a very dear friend and neighbour, George, who, when he got well into his 80s, decided to stop going to church. He said to me “there’s nothing they can say to me that I haven’t already heard at this stage.” When I read the Scriptures, I often think of George’s words, because I am surprised at how often I encounter a word, a phrase, a detail that I had never noticed before, or never thought of as significant.

The final chapter of Luke’s gospel tells the story of the empty tomb, followed by the glorious story of two disciples on the road to Emmaus on the evening of the first Easter Day. The Emmaus story ends with Cleopas and the other disciple running from their meal with the risen Jesus to return to Jerusalem to the 11, and bursting into their gathering. As soon as they arrive they are greeted with the words, “The Lord has risen indeed and he has appeared to Simon”, a seemingly spontaneous corporate utterance by the disciples. You can almost imagine their excitement and bewilderment at all that had happened.

It probably doesn’t sound too exciting to you this morning. But remember who Simon was. He was Peter, the rock, the one who recognised Jesus as the Messiah, one of the inner circle of closest disciples, Jesus’ trusted lieutenant, the one who tried to defend his Lord in the garden by cutting the ear off the High Priest’s servant, and the one who, under pressure, disowned him. In the temple court, as the trial was going on, the one who denied him three times.

I have a fascination with Simon Peter as we read about him in the scriptures, because I see, in many Christians, both the wonderfully good points, and also the painful flaws, of Peter. As I look at my own life and my own journey with Jesus, I can see those moments of excitement, the impetuous, head-first Peter who jumps in without thinking, I can see the times when I didn’t quite ‘get’ what Jesus was saying, I can see the mistakes, the doubts, the denials, the many times when I could have behaved differently or better than I did. So often we can deny Christ, not necessarily with our words, but with our actions and choices.

I find hope in Simon Peter. After he had denied Jesus three times as his Master was on trial for his life, the risen Jesus still appeared to him and forgave him, and not just appeared to him, but appeared to him on the very first Easter Day, appeared to him without delay, then I have hope. If Simon Peter wasn’t dropped by Jesus, then need I be dropped? Or you? Jesus’ appearance to Simon Peter is hope to every sinful human being, every struggling believer, that Jesus has not abandoned me. There is no wrong that we have done, that we can do, or that we ever will do that will shut us out from the presence of a God, if we are prepared to repent of it.

On that first Easter morning there was little hope anywhere among the disciples and followers of Jesus. They’d seen the man they thought to be the Messiah crucified. Would they ever erase the ghastly scene from their minds? And now his grave stood in the garden outside Jerusalem’s city wall as a monument to a disastrous failure. The disciples lay low, what else could they do?

But a small group of women crept out, not to see, but to anoint the beloved body with funeral ointments. Horror hit them however. No corpse was there. They were soon hurrying back to the city with the story of resurrection spoken to them by an angel. Breathlessly they told to Peter and John. Did the men believe the women? Put yourself in their shoes: put yourself in Simon Peter’s shoes. Would you believe their story?

All the same Peter hurried with John to the burial place. Perhaps he reckoned the sight of it might soothe with his sorely scarred soul. Perhaps he thought that, with his mind torn this way and that with shame and perplexity, to be up and doing was preferable to sitting still and brooding. When he reached the tomb however, and looking in saw the linen cloths lying there but no body, what he saw did not speak to him of resurrection. He was too broken, to numb in mind to see anything more than further evidence of failure. Even the body was gone. He went back to his hiding place to brood.

And then it happened. Where it happened we do not know, nor do we know any details of what took place. All we know is that the risen Christ appeared to Simon Peter, all by himself. But the event was so important that the record of it having taken place became part of the basic Christian story.

Not many years later Paul was writing to the Corinthians, listing the facts of the resurrection, and prominent among them was the appearance to Simon Peter. There was no mention of the women’s story, the road to Emmaus, nor the miraculous catch of fish on the Galilean lake after the resurrection. It was not that these events had not taken place, but but they did not compare in importance with the fact that after the resurrection Christ first appeared to Simon Peter, who was the leading apostle, but who had let him down.

The gospel, the good news for sinners is explicit there as no where else. The risen Christ’s first work is to restore the brokenhearted.

When it came to the crunch, Peter denied his master, he disowned the eternal son of God with curses and oaths in a public place. But that same son of God, risen and glorified, restored him to his place in ministry because he genuinely repented. That is the Christian Gospel. “The Lord has risen, he has appeared to Simon.”

The hope of resurrection is for all sinful, fallen humanity. Jesus did not die for the righteous, he died for all of us, that the way into the father’s presence might be open to all without qualification or exception. We can approach the throne of grace with confidence in Jesus, risen, ascended and glorified, interceding to the father for us.

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Good Friday – Forgiven (14/4/17)

“From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani’… At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened.”

As we stand and gaze at the crucifixion, we approach an event so immense, so extraordinary, so awe-inspiring that even creation is startled into a response. The Sun and moon, the planets and stars, the earth itself responds to the death of the eternal Son of God. It is an extraordinary moment, one which is hard to fully comprehend.

After the intensity of his agony and suffering, the physical, emotional and spiritual pain he suffered in the scourging, the crowing with thorns, the mockery, the crucifixion, death comes with a loud shout as Jesus breaths his last and gives up his spirit. It is accomplished, his earthly mission has reached a powerful climax. Jesus has remained obedient to his father through to the end, even through that period of feeling forsaken by God. He takes with him, into the darkness of death, the sin of the world: my sin, your sin, the sin of countless millions, the weight that has hung around the world’s neck and dragged it down to destruction.

And the world itself – the physical, natural world – is the first to respond. Darkness, earthquake, rocks split. The significance of this death is not merely personal, or corporate, it is cosmic, and creation must respond to the death of her creator and maker.

The crucifixion of Jesus takes us back to the very beginning, to Genesis, and to creation, Eden and fall. The story of the Garden of Eden is the story of sin entering the world, the story of man’s rebellion against God. Jesus’ death is God’s response to that story. St John Chrysostom wrote that Christ conquered the devil with the same weapons the devil used against us: a virgin, a tree, and death. These tokens of our demise have become the tokens of our victory. Instead of Eve, there is Mary; instead of the tree of knowledge, there is the wood of the cross; and instead of Adam’s death, there is the death of Christ.

And the effect of this is seen in the temple. The temple is the heart of Jewish worship and religion, but even more than that, the temple is the physical place of God’s presence on earth. In the temple sacrifices were offered daily, morning and evening, for the sins of the people. Devout Jews made a pilgrimage to offer sacrifices for atonement at least once in their lifetime, and more often if they lived closer to Jerusalem. Mary and Joseph came to the temple to offer a sacrifice after the birth of Jesus.

At the heart of the Temple is the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant containing the tablets of stone inscribed with the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai during the exodus. This Ark contained not just the tablets, but was the dwelling place of God, the throne from which he reigned.

The Holy of Holies was separated from the rest of the temple by a curtain, through which only the High Priest could pass, and only once a year, on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, to offer a special sacrifice. We don’t have exact measurements, but the original temple was 30 cubits tall, and this was raised to 40 by Herod, so the curtain was about 60 feet tall, and tradition ways about 4 inches thick. Exodus tells us that it was made of blue, purple and scarlet material and fine twisted linen. At the moment of Jesus death this curtain was rent in two, from top to bottom.

This is more than a symbol, this is the moment which all has been building towards. The curtain is the dividing line between God and man, the sin of the world. All of the sacrifices offered daily in the temple could not dispose of that sin, once and for all. The sacrifice of the eternal Word of God has done what no other sacrifice could do, it has opened a new and living way into God’s presence. Now all people, Jew and Gentile, can enter the Holy of Holies.

Instead of coming to the temple in Jerusalem, the nations will now flock to a different hill, the hill of Calvary. As a sign of what is to come, we see the centurion giving voice to the confession of faith that millions will make in the centuries to come, and we can almost hear in his voice the shocked surprise at the sudden revelation of God’s truth where one would least expect it: “Truly this man was the son of God.” This man was a hardened, professional killer, a witness to thousands of death, and a participant in many, yet moved by the immensity of this one death to recognise in it something completely different.

The death of Jesus has changed the world, profoundly and eternally. The effect of his giving of his own life; the example of love, of non-retaliation, the kingdom-way of confronting evil with goodness; Jesus’ taking of the world’s hatred and anger on to himself; and, way beyond all these, the defeat of the powers of evil, the blotting out of the sins of the world, the love of God shining through the dark clouds of wickedness – all of this is now to be seen around the world. It is seen, not only in the millions who worship Jesus, but in the work of healing which flows from it, reconciliation and hope.

Hebrews 10:19 and following: “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great High Priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”

The things of the temple were shadows of things to come, and they all ultimately point us to Jesus Christ. He was the veil to the Holy of Holies, and through his death the faithful now have free access to God. The veil in the temple was a constant reminder that sin renders humanity unfit for the presence of God. Jesus Christ, through his death, has removed the barriers between God and man, and now we may approach him with boldness, forgiven and free through Jesus’ death.

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Maundy Thursday – Love (13/4/17)

Washing someone else’s feet is an extraordinary thing. It is an intimate moment, and a vulnerable moment. It is so simple, yet so profound. Feet are very basic things, neither pretty nor ugly, but simply basic. Washing them is so mundane that we barely think of it, yet intimate when we do it for another.

All of that – the love, the tenderness, the intimacy, the down-to-earthiness – come through in the Upper Room. We may well listen to the story with a sense of confusion, for we are seeing in it both a beginning and an end – the beginning of the long, slow, build-up to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and the end, the climax, the goal, of everything he has done and taught thus far.

John is the master storyteller, and paints the backdrop in verse one. Three details, three quick brush strokes explain all that will unfold.

First, it was Passover. When John mentions a Jewish festival he wants us to understand that Jesus was applying the meaning of the festival to himself. Passover has been, from the start of John’s gospel, the greatest of all festivals. At the very beginning Jesus is introduced as the Lamb of God, the Passover Lamb. He spoke, at Passover, of the temple being destroyed and rebuilt, referring to his own body. He fed the 5,000 at Passover time, and spoke to them of feeding on his own body and blood. Now he is back in Jerusalem for a final Passover. John does not describe the meal itself, he presumes his readers know the story well enough from their regular sharing in the Eucharist. But he goes behind it to explain what the meal is all about, and how it pointed beyond itself to the events of the following day.

Second, Jesus’ time had come. It was time to leave this world and go to the Father. Not simply time to die, though this is part of it. It is time to die, then to rise again to new life, then ultimately to ascend to his father. This gives new depth and meaning to both footwashing and crucifixion. They are the events which form the ladder from this world to the father’s world. They are the acted words the eternal Word must speak. They are the way home that the son of God must take.

Third, and for John still more important, what is done now is done as the action of supreme love. It takes us back to the Good Shepherd who loves his own sheep, and they love him in return. The greatest thing the Shepherd can do is to lay down his life for his sheep. Now, says John, he loves his own right through to the end. Not just with a dogged, see-it-through sort of love, but loved them to the uttermost. There was nothing that love could do for them that he did not do now.

Against this background we see the devil’s whispered suggestion to Judas worked out. At the moment when love is going to the limit, evil creeps in. It is not simply love portrayed, but love betrayed.

John describes Jesus as knowing that he had come from God and was going to God – the very image with which the gospel began, of the Word made flesh. He laid aside the clothes of his glory to wash our feet. This is the full revelation of God, this is what he had to do precisely because he came from God. Both the footwashing itself, and the crucifixion to which it pointed, were Jesus’ way of showing us who God is, his way of revealing the true heart and nature of God. Jesus changes into a towel to wash feet. The next time he has his clothes changed it will be to reveal him as the man, the king, and after that he will be naked on the cross, revealing the father’s heart of love as he gives his life for the world.

After washing their feet, Jesus returns to the table, and tells them plainly and simply that he has given them, and us, a pattern and an example to copy. It is so simple, yet so difficult. It is no surprise that we all falter and fail as we attempt to replicate this pattern. It is so simple, yet demands so much.

The problem is that we are, in essence, proud people. We struggle to quell our own pride, but rather than defeat it, we often simply mask it. There are many who perform the more menial tasks, but with a pride which almost says, look at me, I’m doing what Jesus commands. And humility becomes an inverted pride.

The point is that, for us as for Jesus, we should be looking away from ourselves, and at the world we are supposed to be serving. The footwashing is meant to remind us to be ready to serve, without drawing attention to ourselves. And it points towards the much larger challenge, issued to Peter by Jesus, to follow him all the way to the cross, to lay down life itself in the service of God and the world he came to save.

The question from the Greeks at the feast (in chapter 12) told Jesus that his time had come. The flight of Judas, out into the darkness, brings the tidal wave crashing down. As the door shuts, Jesus draws the eleven closer around him, telling them new things, things he couldn’t say when Judas was there, things he must say quickly and precisely because Judas has gone and time is short.

This is only the second time that Jesus has spoken of the son of man being glorified. Before this he has spoken of God being glorified and the son of man lifted up. Now he puts the two together. This will be the moment of God’s glory, revealing to the world who the true God is, over against the dark forces of the world that have resisted him and trampled upon his worshippers.

He is overwhelmed by the glory about to be revealed, but also by the fact that he is leaving his disciples. There is so much he hasn’t taught them, so much they haven’t understood, so much they haven’t yet grasped.

There are chapters of wonderful teaching, but tonight we begin and end with the simplest, clearest command of all: love one another. It is described as a new commandment, yet of course it is central to the Old Testament. The newness isn’t a matter of never having heard the words before, it’s a matter of the mode of this love, and the depth and type of this love. Love one another in the same way that I have loved you.

It has been hard for the disciples up to this point even to appreciate what Jesus has been doing on their behalf. Now he’s telling them to copy him. As with the footwashing, they are to look back at his whole life and to find in it a pattern, a shape, an example, a power.

Love is the badge of the Christian community before the watching world. And well we might cringe to think of the ways we, as individuals and as church, have failed. We should feel shame at the ways Christians have treated one another down through the years. We have turned the gospel into a weapon. We have hit each other over the head with it, burnt each other at the stake with it.we have turned ‘one another’ into ‘those who reinforce our own sense of who we are.’ But we have hope. Just like Peter, we can meet the risen Jesus and find restoration for our denial of his love. As love and betrayal mingle this Holy Week, so too do restoration and forgiveness.

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Wednesday of Holy Week – Exalted (12/4/17)

John 18.33-40

The ancient world knew more about kings than we ever will. Where monarchs still exist today, they mostly live and work within a carefully constructed constitutional framework. They are not absolute monarchs, they are constitutional monarchs. They can bring pressure to bear on politicians, and can make their personal preferences known, but the extent of their power is limited.

In the ancient world King’s lived according to their own wishes and whims. They could promote one person and demote another. They were all-powerful. Often the crown passed from father to son, or to a close male relative. But from time to time there would be a revolution, and violence was seen as the way to a crown if your were not born into a royal household. Two hundred years before Jesus, Judas Maccabaeus established himself as king of the Jews through a military revolution to oust the Syrian occupying forces. Thirty years before Jesus was born Herod the Great ousted the Parthians, and out of gratitude the Romans allowed him to be styled King of the Jews.

So when Pilate faces Jesus, with the accusation that he is the king of the Jews, Pilate thinks he knows what is going on. He knows how kings became kings, and it’s his job to stop this sort of thing happening on his patch.

The idea that this man could even think he might be a king was laughable to Pilate. A poor man from the wrong part of the country, with a small band of followers who have deserted him. But maybe he is deluded enough to think he is a king.

Pilate discovers, as many discovered before him and many since, that when you ask Jesus a question the answer is likely to be another question. Where is this suggestion coming from? Who put this idea into your head? Pilate waves it away. Don’t expect me to understand you peculiar Jews and your funny ways. You must have done something or you wouldn’t be here.

Jesus’ answer is both apparently incriminating and deeply revealing. His kingdom is not of this world, many versions translate it. More accurate, perhaps, is his kingdom is not from this world. When Jesus talks of his kingdom he is not talking of something altogether other-worldly, a spiritual or heavenly reality that had nothing to do with the present world at all. Remember, Jesus taught the disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven.

No, the point is that Jesus’ kingdom does not come from this world. Again and again John has shown us that this world is the source of evil and rebellion against God. When Jesus says not of this world, he is talking about the origin of his kingdom, and not its destination. He has come into the world, and will send his followers into the world. His kingdom isn’t from this world, but it is for this world – that is the crucial distinction.

In particular, as he points out, if his kingdom were of the normal type, his followers would fight to stop him being handed over. Jesus is indeed claiming to be a king, but not like Judas Maccabaeus, nor Herod the Great, and even less still like Caesar.

As we stand at the foot of the cross and gaze upwards, we are reminded of Caiaphas’s words (in chapter 11) about one man dying for the people. We remember Jesus’ response to the enquiringly Greeks (in chapter 12) that when he is lifted up from the earth he will draw all people to himself. And we see the words of Pilate, written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin at the top of the cross, Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.

The world stands and stares, not comprehending the true enormity of this scene. The world does not know what it needs, rescue from sin and death. It doesn’t yet comprehend. This is the Messiah, the announced one promised of God, who will rule from sea to sea, from one end of the earth to another, the one to whom all nations will pay homage. And he is being executed as a common criminal. Pilate’s inscription was intended as piece of irony – but it has become a piece of prophecy. Lifted from the earth, he is fulfilling the extraordinary biblical prophecies about the suffering righteous one, in whom the sufferings of Israel would come to their height, and through whose tribulation and death evil would be exhausted and the kingdom of God be born on earth.

Throughout the story of the crucifixion we see the kingdom of God being brought to birth. All that Jesus taught, beginning in the Sermon on the Mount, is now lived out. When he is struck by the soldiers he doesn’t retaliate. They strip has garments and leave him naked and vulnerable. He has often spoken of the light of the world, now he shines from the hill, unable to remain hidden. God’s love, shining into the darkest places of the world, by taking the evil of the world, the hatred, the cruelty, the unthinking mockery and gratuitous violence, the bullying and torture that still defaces the world, and letting it do its worst on him. This should challenge any who write off Christianity as an airy-fairy thing, all about wonderful spiritual experiences and not about the real world. The crucifixion of Jesus takes us to the very heart of Christianity, the anger and bitterness of the world doing its worst against the one who embodies and represents the love of the creator God himself.

Pilate asks, what is truth? Truth isn’t something you get out of a test tube, or a mathematical formula. We don’t have truth in our pockets. Philosophers and judges don’t own it. It is a gift, a strange quality that, like Jesus’ kingdom, comes from elsewhere but is meant to take up residence in this world. Jesus has come to give evidence about this truth. He, himself, is truth.

Pilate can only see things from a this-worldly perspective. Truth, for him, comes out of the barrel of a gun.

Real truth begins with Passover. The truth that says one man dies and the others go free. Barabbas deserves to die. He is a brigand, a revolutionary. Yet Truth stands there in person, taking the death that would otherwise have fallen on the brigand.

Pilate didn’t see it at the time. Even the cunning Caiaphas probably didn’t appreciate the irony. But John wants us to see it. This is what the cross will mean. This is what truth is and does. Truth is what Jesus is; and Jesus is dying for Barabbas, and for Israel, and for the world.

And for you and me.

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Tuesday of Holy Week – Denial (11/4/17)

Matthew 26:69-75

A computer can replicate almost everything the human brain can do. It can remember, process, compute, calculate, think, strategise and much more. But a computer can never replace the human mind, because the computer is lacking in one thing, the ability to feel emotion – both the ecstasy of love and the agony of hurt and anger.

As Matthew, Mark and Luke recount the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus, each records how he went outside and wept bitterly, or in a more blunt translation, cried like a baby.

After the last supper Jesus spoke to his disciples about his impending death. He told them that all of them would desert him, and it was the blustering Peter who jumped straight in to say, “though all become deserters… I will never desert you.” Jesus responded “truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” I can hear in Jesus’ words a note of tenderness and gentleness, but also a note of sadness. Peter again blusters in with his answer “even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” I don’t have the slightest doubt that Peter meant it, with heart and soul. These were no mere words, this was sincere. He loved Jesus deeply, and he would do anything for him. That’s what makes the denial all the more painful, and the tears all the more bitter.

Much earlier Peter tried to walk on water, but failed. He confessed Jesus as the Christ, yet within a breath Jesus turned round and called him a Satan, a stumbling block. He had done his best in the garden of Gethsemane, as he promised, yet three times Jesus found him asleep, overcome with exhaustion which was both physical, mental and spiritual. And perhaps he had a sense that he had let Jesus down by not defending him in the garden, but not fighting more violently to stop him being arrested.

After all this, he is still there, doggedly determined, in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house. He’s tired, frightened, short on sleep, trying to do the right thing – following Jesus – for the wrong reason, his wounded pride. Or perhaps he is doing the wrong thing – walking into a trap – for the right reason, his dogged loyalty.

His muddled motives and mixed emotions were no match for the three little questions from a couple of serving girls and a courtier with an ear for a northern accent. Those three little questions were like pins, stuck into a large balloon, and Peter’s world exploded.

Peter’s tears at the end of the story matter, they are profoundly important. They are what distinguish him from Judas. There is all the difference in the world between genuine repentance and mere remorse, as Paul wryly notes in one of his letters to the Corinthians. One leads to life, the other to death. Peter’s tears, shaming, humiliating and devastating though they were, were a sign of life.

We know, thankfully, that this is not the end of Peter’s story. This charcoal fire will soon be replaced by another. Perhaps the smell of the burning charcoal would be enough to unlock that door in his memory, and draw him from one scene to the other, and back again. After the resurrection he will stand on the beach with Jesus. Jesus has cooked fish over a charcoal fire, and then talks to Peter. Three times he asks him, do you love me? And three times he commands him to feed his flock. With a striking simplicity and grace, each denial is dealt with, as only Jesus can.

Place yourself in Peter’s shoes, if you will, for a few moments. Loyalty has taken him thus far, but tiredness has already overcome him in Gethsemane, and as the night wears on that tiredness is sapping his resolve further. It’s a familiar problem which can strike us too in the middle of the night, or maybe more often in the middle of life, or the middle of any great endeavour or project. We sign on to follow Jesus, and we really mean it. We are passionate about our commitment to him, and we start working on our vocation with every intention of accomplishing it. Beginnings are always exciting and fun, even if a little daunting. But the heat of the midday sun, or the weariness of the midnight hours, can drain away our intentions, our energies, our enthusiasms. Who amongst us can look down on Peter and despise him, because we know, in our hearts, that that is what it is like. We have trod through that valley of shame and despair, and know too well the pain of his tears. Perhaps it’s only when we have been there that, like Peter, we can start to live and work in a new way, no longer out of our own energy, but out of a fresh, and humbling, call of God.

Denying Jesus is such a sad thing to do, and yet, we all do it. Despite the differences in culture and situation, we can notice parallels between where Peter was that night, and where we are in our lives. Perhaps it is the full frontal question of a friend or a colleague, where we shrug off our faith as something insignificant, something unimportant, something that we could take or leave, that doesn’t really matter, when we know deep down that following Jesus is a matter of life or death. Or perhaps it is less extreme, the small actions or words which deny Jesus through failing to seize an opportunity to stand up and speak out for honesty and truth. It is relatively easy to follow Jesus inside these four walls, but it can be a different proposition outside in the world. Yet by failing to speak or act we are, in essence, joining Peter in saying, “I don’t know him.”

The story of faith is a story of people who start off with great ideals, and who run out of steam part way through, who loose their fire, their zeal, their first love for God. And on the other hand it is the story of those, that countless and often unknown multitude, who are faithful through death. The greatest witness I can think of to the truth of the gospel is the multitude of Christians, 2,000 years ago and today, who would rather face torture and death than deny the Jesus they love.

We may be standing beside that charcoal fire today, tomorrow, next week or next year. How will we respond when the world asks us if we follow this Jesus?

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Monday of Holy Week – Betrayal (10/4/17)

John 13:18-30

Betrayal hurts, it stings. There are the minor betrayals, of trust, of confidence. There are the major betrayals, of love. Every betrayal is a wound. But none are comparable to Judas. Thirty pieces of silver, almost nothing for the life of his rabbi, his teacher his leader, his friend. The authorities would probably have paid more, much more, they regarded Jesus as such a dangerous threat.

But let us step back, for a moment, from the end of the story, to the beginning. Jesus chose Judas to be a member of the twelve, a member of his inner circle. His name, Ish Kerioth, might indicate that he hailed from Kerioth, to the east of the Jordan river, and so possibly an outsider amongst the other disciples. Had he some special gift, something which attracted Jesus? He became treasurer of the apostolic band, he was trusted with money. Jesus did not choose a traitor, he became a traitor. He lived with Jesus, like the rest of the twelve; he ate with him and drank with him, he listened to his preaching and marvelled at his miracles. He must have seen, in Jesus, a leader of amazing potential.

It was only in the final week that his disaffection began to emerge. At supper in the house of Simon the leper in Bethany, he expressed his disgust for the money Mary wasted on the ointment with which she anointed Jesus’ feet. Perhaps his real annoyance was the defeatism with which Jesus embraced his coming death and accepted the anointing as preparation for burial. We can never be sure.

Whether this was the moment Judas wrote Jesus off or not, soon after he made his way to the priests in council. He could see clearly where Jesus’ real enemies were, and bargained with them. 39 pieces of silver in return for information and arrest. The next question was how to deliver up his master?

Jesus made arrangements himself for the upper room. The disciples were keep in ignorance of its location. Was this the perfect location. Not just Jesus, but his whole inner circle contained within one room. But he had to find his moment. It must has seemed interminable, waiting, listening. As they reclined at the table Jesus astonished them all, or at least 11 of them, but announcing that one of them would betray him. In their shock and horror, Peter leaned over the Jesus and asked him who? And Jesus replied, the man to whom I give this piece of bread after I have dipped it in the dish, a traditional way of acknowledging an honoured guest. It was Judas’ last chance to recover his loyalty, but he didn’t grasp it. Jesus gave him the bread and told him to do quickly, what you have to do. The others did not understand. Judas took the bread from Jesus’ hand, left the table and went out into the night.

That small detail is so significant. John’s gospel is the story of light and darkness, the Word made flesh who is the light of the world, mankind who prefers darkness. From the moment of most radiant light Judas runs into the darkness. You can see him stumbling through the streets of Jerusalem, panting, catching his breath. His scheme was working. Jesus hadn’t announced it to all of them at table. The other eleven would have overpowered him, they had swords, they would have been angry.

Judas met Jesus only once more, at the head of a crowd with swords and clubs sent from the chief priests to the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest him. And Judas betrayed him with the sign of love, a kiss. So often love and betrayal sit on a knife edge.

The gospels do not, perhaps surprisingly, dwell on Judas. Reproaches are not heaped up on his head, nor is he held up as an example of evil worthy of the direst fate. St Matthew briefly records his repentance, the return of his dirty money to the chief priests, and his suicide. Acts has a short note about a field in Jerusalem said to have been purchased with the proceeds of his betrayal. There is no speculation about Judas or his destiny. Jesus dominates all, and Judas only appears as much as is necessary to explain what happened.

We could quickly become sidetracked into these thoughts, considering predestination and free will, but not tonight. Instead let me draw you to an aspect of the crucifixion which Judas highlights. The physical agonies of Jesus are beyond our imagining they are so horrible. But there is another suffering which we may be able to imagine if we have experienced something of it, the suffering of betrayal. Too often we suffer that pain as we are let down by someone close to us, someone we have trusted and loved. Psalm 41 speaks of this pain: “all mine enemies whisper together against me, even against me do they imagine this evil. Yea, even mine own familiar friend whom I trusted, who did eat of my bread, has laid wait for me.” Did those words, and their deep inherent pain, seer through Jesus’ mind as Judas led that crowd into the Garden, kissed him and called him Master. How deep the pain of betrayal by one so dear.

We can never comprehend the awfulness and the horror of crucifixion, but we can enter a little into that pain of betrayal when we experience betrayal ourselves. And when we do, we can be sure that Christ hears our cries. The familiar words of Isaiah 53 must strike home: “surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows… he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities… with his stripes we are healed.”

Love and betrayal stand so close together for Jesus, and for us, the intimacy and the agony. We would do well to reflect, this Holy Week, on our betrayals of Jesus. There is a Judas lurking within each one of us. Do we always love as deeply as we ought?

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The Easter Vigil

Last night we laid many stones at the foot of the cross. Tonight I want to think again about another stone. Sometimes in the gospels, there is a single detail that tells the whole story. In the Easter story it seems to me that the detail is that the stone was rolled away. The Resurrection of Jesus means that the huge stone that separated the human race from God, the stone that stood like a wall between humanity and God, the stone of human sin was rolled away and now Jesus Christ, the way to the father is once more wide open.

Through the Resurrection of Jesus, God’s own life floods back into the world. Now, eternal life and eternal happiness are possible for all of us. Since the Garden of Eden we struggled with this stone, seeking the presence and the blessing of God. As Jesus on the cross breathed his last, the curtain in the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. This was the curtain which symbolised the division between man and God – and it was destroyed, rent asunder. And not by man, not beginning at the bottom and going up – it came from God down to us.

But there is a doubt that darkens Easter. It is not a doubt that Jesus rose from the dead because there is a mountain of evidence in the life of the disciples and of the early Church that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead. We see the disciples changed, walking in newness of life as a new creation, filled with the Holy Spirit. For me, the single most convincing proof is that these disciples, who deserted, forsook and denied Jesus, were all willing now to die for their faith rather than deny Jesus again.

The doubt that casts its shadow over Easter is the doubt that you and I can really walk in newness of life, that we can become a new creation, that we can be changed and be filled with the Holy Spirit. We might feel that the stone in our life is too massive, too huge to put aside. Can the God of Genesis, who separated darkness from light, who brought this entire world into being from nothing, can this God make us a new creation and give us new life? The answer is a resounding “yes”. The Resurrection says “yes”. If God created the universe, he can surely re-create us. Can the God of Exodus who delivered the Hebrew people from slavery and bondage deliver us from the bondage of sin? The answer is once again a resounding “yes”. The Resurrection of Jesus says “yes”. Because of the Resurrection of Jesus we can experience the power of Genesis in our life. We can experience an Exodus from the bondage of sin in our lives. The stone in our lives can be rolled away.

We all come to Easter with our separate histories of failings and sins. The Resurrection of Jesus assures us that we can have a different future. The Risen Christ can bring to each and every one of us the grace that we need for the future. Jesus created the Church to be the place where he will always be found in Word and Sacrament. Here, Jesus dwells in his majestic Easter presence. No longer confined to Palestine, Jesus is in countless places and in countless lives. We will discover him where generations of Christians have encountered him, in the Church’s rituals, the Church’s preaching and in the Church’s life.

Easter is the time to discover, or perhaps for some to re-discover, a personal relationship with the risen Jesus within the life of the Church. It is a relationship that no one can ever take away from us. We will come to see that all the promises of Jesus and all the parables of Jesus are for us and about us.

On Maundy Thursday, as the book was flung to the ground, we experienced in a powerful and dramatic way the intensity of Jesus’ agony at the disciples’ betrayal. Yet we know that is not the end of the story for the 11. What happened to the first disciples who experienced a re-creation and came to know new life powered by the Holy Spirit, can happen to each one of us. Because of the Resurrection of Jesus, Easter is the Sunday, the season, when the stone in our life will roll away. Christ’s victory at Easter breaks all the chains of sin that we have ever made for ourselves.

Easter calls us to celebrate the fact that the light of Christ has come into the darkness of our world providing us with hope for a future greater than we dare believe. We light the Easter candle, reminding us of the Advent wreath which we light each year symbolising the light which came into the world in the manger of Bethlehem – that same light now shines forth once more, burning even brighter, even more clearly. It challenges us to share a kind of living that goes beyond the expectation of this earth. To reverse our sinful ways by rising above the things that keep us entombed and imprisoned and so become people of the resurrection.

The good news is that in all the dark and despairing moments of life, as we struggle with our crosses, the possibility of resurrection exists because no defeat is final and no life is written off as hopeless. We are the builders or destroyers of our own destiny. The choice is ours. The message of Easter is that despite our sin, we continue to hope, to remain a hope-filled people, because with Jesus’ Resurrection, we have the offer of eternal life – have you accepted that offer yet?

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Easter Day – John 20:1-18

On Friday night we thought about how John prepares his readers, throughout his gospel, to understand the significance of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. But John’s story does not end there. Mark’s Gospel has one account of the empty tomb and nothing more. Matthew and Luke each include this with another encounter with the risen Jesus which proves his resurrection, and in Matthew there is a final meeting, encouragement and commission.

John has several accounts of meeting the risen Jesus. The empty tomb is followed by the meeting with Mary Magdalene, then the appearance in the upper room to all of the disciples except Thomas; a week later Jesus appears again this time to Thomas with the other disciples; then there was the night the disciples were fishing but didn’t catch anything when Jesus told them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and that touching scene where, after breakfast, Peter is recommissioned for his ministry.

John goes to great lengths to ensure that we are aware of the impact and significance of the fact that Jesus is risen from the dead, that he does appear to his nearest and dearest followers, and then sends them to proclaim the good news and to care for his sheep.

John points out to us several key features in his resurrection stories. First, the tomb really was empty. In the other gospels the evidence offered for the emptiness of the tomb is that the angels say so. In John’s account, Mary, Peter and the beloved disciple all witness to the tomb being empty. It is stressed that this is a new tomb in which no-one had been laid before. To us this might appear to be insignificant, but in fact the opposite is true. It is crucial to Johns that we understand that there were no other bodies in the tomb. Mary sees the stone rolled away and both the beloved disciple and Peter see that his body has gone. This much is the negative evidence that John offers for Jesus’ resurrection. He then moves on to the positive evidence and presents two accounts of meetings with the risen Jesus. Both of these events – the encounters with Mary Magdalene and with Thomas – are rightly very popular stories. They resonate easily, since the major focus is the recognition of who Jesus is and what difference this makes to them.

Mary’s recognition of Jesus comes from him calling her name. It is a rather beautifully worked example of Jesus’ own comments on being the Good Shepherd, the one who calls his own sheep by name. It is not seeing Jesus that causes Mary to recognise him, nor even talking to him, it is when she is called by name. The speaking of her name by the person she has called ‘Rabbouni’ for so long is what transforms her and enables her to see for herself but the person she is speaking to is not a stranger but her beloved teacher and friend.

Speaking to Mary Jesus says to her: ‘do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my father and your father, to my God and your God.’ Mary’s attempt to physically touch and hold on to Jesus has appealed to the imagination of many painters and sculptors. The crucial word spoken by Jesus is ‘yet’. The implication is that the time will come when it will be appropriate to hold him.

At the Last Supper Jesus promised his permanent presence to his followers, a joy that no one can take away from them. Mary is mistaking the appearance of the risen Jesus for his permanent presence. In telling her not to touch him, Jesus indicates that this presence is not by way of appearance, but through the gift of the Spirit, which comes only after he has ascended to the Father. Instead of trying to hold on to Jesus she is commanded to go and prepare his disciples.

Mary is commanded to ‘go to my brothers and say to them that I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ Jesus has come to take us into the same relationship with the heavenly Father that he enjoys. His Father has become our Father, his God has become a God; we are his brothers and sisters in a new family constituted by the Holy Spirit.

It is a scene of moving intimacy, Jesus speaking so lovingly and so tenderly to Mary, calling her by name, and her joyful recognition. The Lord, the creator of heaven and earth, of time and eternity, speaks to her as a beloved friend. That same God is the one who addresses us personally. Earlier John has told us that the sheep hear his voice and he calls by name those who belong to him. God addresses us a by name in the deep places of our heart, calling us to keep close to him through all the ups and downs of human existence.

In the manger of Bethlehem we saw Immanuel, God with us. On the Hill of Calvary we saw the veil of the temple torn in two from top to bottom, all that separates us from God rent asunder. At the garden tomb, God speaks to us, friend to friend. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the creator of all that is, the Lord of the universe, of time and eternity, has not only walked amongst us, but counted us his friends. Through his Holy Spirit he stands amongst us today, and calls us, individually, by name.

Like Mary, his call is to both love and service. To love him as master, teacher, Rabbi, shepherd. To proclaim him to the world. As Mary was sent with news of the Resurrection to those first frightened disciples, we are sent to a world of fear, doubt, pain, despair, hopelessness, with the good news of a God who loves us, who has walked amongst us, who has defeated the power of death, and opened to us the gate of everlasting life. His gift to you is life, your response to him is to bring others to share in that life.

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Good Friday – The Passion according to John

Each of the four Gospels tells the story of Jesus’ death and crucifixion, but in each different themes come to the fore. Four themes are key to John’s telling of the story.

First is Jesus the Lamb of God. In chapter 1 John the Baptist proclaims Jesus to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. This is never explicitly mentioned again. However, in John, Jesus’ death takes place at the same time as the Passover lambs were being slaughtered. It is clear that we are intended to make the connection – Jesus the true Passover lamb dies at the same time as all the other Passover lambs.

A second theme is Jesus’ glory. Expectation is built throughout the gospel that Jesus’ glory will be revealed at his crucifixion. This is first indicated at the wedding at Cana and is picked up in Jesus’ farewell prayer where Jesus prays that his disciples will see his glory.

A third theme is the reference to Jesus being lifted up. This occurs three times. In ch 3 the parallel is drawn with Moses lifting up the snake in the wilderness; in ch 8 Jesus tells the Jews that once they have lifted him up they will realise that Jesus is ‘he’; and in ch 12 Jesus says that when he is lifted up he will draw people to himself. Unusually, John explicitly connects this with Jesus’ death. It appears that this is so important a point that he is unwilling to allow it to pass unnoticed.

The fourth, and final example is Caiphas’ iconic and ironic statement about Jesus, that it is better for one man to die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed. Again, there is no reference to this by the time we reach Jesus’ death itself, but the foundation has been laid to indicate that we are to read Jesus’ death as vicarious, on behalf of the whole nation.

Read together, these show us that the passion in John really runs from the very beginning of the whole gospel. From the beginning of his gospel foundations are being laid, a scene is being set, to prepare us to recognise what is going on in Jesus’ death.

One of the key elements that John set up is that of paradox. Jesus’ death is profoundly paradoxical: his time of terrible suffering becomes his hour of glory. He is handed over to death by several different people. The passive lamb is passed from pillar to post by Judas, the Jewish leaders, and Pilate, but he remains in absolute control throughout his trial and death. He wrong-foots Pilate in their discussion of power and truth, And ultimately, when the moment comes for him to die, he hands over his own spirit.

John does not dwell on the gory details of the crucifixion, but his first readers would have had no trouble imagining every detail.

An inscription is written above Jesus’ head, in three languages, so the point will be lost on no one in Jerusalem: the King of the Jews – a mockery, a final nail in the spirit, an embarrassment and humiliation, a king dying the death of a common criminal. The soldiers take his clothes and divide them. A handful of brave disciples, his mother among them, remain at the foot of the cross. A few final thirsty words end the drama – and then there is cold, dark death.

On Good Friday the church asks us to take a good, hard look at the violence and meanness of the world, at the bloodiness of the cross, and God on the cross. The account of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion is commonly referred to as his passion. Often we think of the passion as the suffering and death of our Lord.  And indeed in this passion we see the cross in the heart of God, the suffering God who is in Jesus Christ has become captive and brokenhearted: God’s heart torn between the folly of human sin and frailty, and God’s unquenchable desire for his creation.

Good Friday is a story of individual sin, betrayal and abandonment: by the priests, by Pilate, the soldiers, the bloodthirsty crowds, by Peter, Judas, the other disciples, by you and me.

But Good Friday is bigger than the individual character of sin. It is the story of God’s unending love for God’s broken world, a world full of senseless evil and violence, a world where the good die young and the old grow lonely, a world of wars and cancer, of corruption of pollution, a world where so often there is little reason to hope or dream.

The word passion is usually thought of in terms of God’s suffering. But there is another way to think of passion, another use of the word that is connected to God’s love. God’s love is patient and kind and passionate. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, to the end. Love does not go gently into that good night. On Good Friday God’s heart is torn between the passion of sin-induced suffering and the passion of grace-filled love.

On the cross Jesus refuses to give in to the meanness and arrogance that surround him. In the face of evil and despair the passion of his loving remains. To the cries for blood from the crowd he doesn’t respond. Against the clubs and whips that beat him he refuses to fight back. To Peter he utters the command to lay down the sword. To the soldiers who have torn his body to shreds he offers forgiveness.  To the thief he whispers the hope of paradise. To the grieving disciples and his brokenhearted mother he offers a few words of comfort. On the cross the passion of Jesus’ suffering is surpassed only by the passion of his love. Only the tenacity of God’s loving is greater than the tenacity of humanity’s sin. In the heart of God there is a cross, and on that cross God shows the fire of his love, a fire that the cold darkness of sin and death will never overcome.

Just before he bows his head and gives up his spirit, Jesus offers two final words: I thirst. In these words, we see the whole gospel of John. In John, Jesus is the one for whom we thirst. He is the one who turns water into wine at the wedding of Cana. He is the one who becomes the water of life for the Samaritan woman at the well. He heals the blind man by washing him in the pool at Jerusalem. He offers his very blood to quench the thirst of his disciples at the last supper. He is the living water that will never run out. And now, in his dying words, Jesus says, I thirst.

Throughout the gospel the implication is that we are thirsty for him. In his final words, Jesus turns the story around, and says that he is thirsty for us. In these two words, God is saying to those at the foot of the cross, to those same disciples in their grief and faithfulness, to the soldiers executing the torture of the state, to the chief priests protecting their political interests, to Pilate saving face, to you and to me, to the whole of creation, I thirst for you.

At the beginning of the Gospel Jesus turns water into wine, suggesting that he is the good wine that will never run out. Now, at the end, the soldiers offer him sour wine as an act of mercy as water and blood mingle down his body. He drinks, yet Jesus’ thirst is not for wine. His thirst is to do the will of the one who sent him, and that will is love. On the cross Jesus is the thirsty, unquenchable, passionate love of God for all of us.

This is the faithful one who lays down his life for his friends, the good Shepherd who will never stop searching for the lost sheep, the living water of our baptism, and the one who will carry us through the stormy waters and deliver us to the far banks of the Jordan. Through the sweat and blood, the thorns and nails, the mockery and humiliation, the burning fire of God’s love in Christ Jesus remains.

After tasting the sour wine, he says, it is finished. All goes black, and darkness covers the whole earth. On Good Friday Jesus goes on ahead of us, into the dark and the cold of death, and there he makes a fire, a fire of Easter light, and he’ll be there, waiting for us.

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