I was in Israel, in Capernaum, visiting the house where
Peter the apostle had lived. I was not in a
good space emotionally. I was coming to the end of my
training as an ordinand and there was no
place to go to be a full-time curate except Dundee. And none
of my family wanted to move to
Dundee. There were non-stipendiary curacies, but then how
did working as a curate fit into
continuing to be a sign language interpreter? Disorientated,
confused, and wondering what I had
been doing for the past three years. The day before I flew
out to Israel, my Church of Scotland friend
had phoned to say that there was an advert for a Minister
with Deaf People, based in Edinburgh. I
hadn’t thought much about it – it was a different
denomination, I wasn’t a minister, and the
deadline was while I was away.
So I was wandering around in Capernaum on the day of the
deadline for this Church of Scotland job
when my lecturer from New College pointed out a group of
people who were using sign language. I
hadn’t seen them. I went over and got into conversation –
German Deaf people who were on a trip.
And as I walked away I was struck by a strange feeling that
God was shouting at me to apply for this
job. …. And now here I am in what seems like a perfect
combination of paid ministry and non-
When was the last time you had that strange feeling that God
was telling you to do something? Do
we make time to be quiet and just do nothing – to make space
so that God can speak to us?
This week’s story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch really
struck a chord with me.
Philip hears God and does what he is asked to do. And
because of this he is there at the right time
and the right place to be there for the Ethiopian statesman.
If it were me I would imagine that my
first response would be - ‘Lord, you have got to be kidding … the desert road
… really? … ‘tell me why and then I’ll go once I’ve given it
my considered opinion .. .after all, being a
Christian isn’t about blindly doing things without thinking
it all through you know …’ And then I
would probably turn over and go back to sleep.
But Philip gets up and goes there, and once he arrives and
is waiting, he gets another ‘nudge’ –
there, that person over there, the rich, black African…..
Probably not the person he was expecting. A
different person from a very different culture, and yet here
he is reading from the scroll of Isaiah .. .
and wanting help to understand what it’s all about.
I love this story – God’s providence; the way that the
overarching narrative that began with the Old
Testament comes to widen out and encompass all people, Jew
and non-Jew; but especially the fact
that Philip wasn’t running around looking for people to tell
about Jesus. He was just living his life,
and had only to be obedient to God when God called him to a
specific task at a specific time. I have
grown up around Christians who talk a lot about duty and
striving to do God’s will … and who seem
to end up missing out on the joy of life as they feel
they’ve never done enough for God. And to make
it worse often it is their ‘friends’ around them who pile
the pressure on. It’s another one of those
Christian tensions that we live with – to journey alongside
people while not trying to control them.
The Holy Spirit is working in our community. Here this
morning, out by the shops, at Messy Church,
in the nursing home, in the street …. We need to be not so
busy that we don’t have time to feel the
nudges when God decides to act through us. Slowing down our
lives to be mindful of God’s potential
to speak to us in the everyday will make life so much more
vivid and rich. And given the total
inclusiveness of the Kingdom of God, life could get very
Today is Low Sunday, and although
we continue to celebrate the season of Easter there is a feeling of the ‘so
what?’ So God is there. So God loves us. So Jesus died and was raised up by the
Father. So what? I’m tired. Personally, my knees are still aching from Good
Friday. I got caught up in the whole excitement of the story. So what?
Back in New Testament
times, religion was very much a public matter. People were known in the area
where Jesus lived and preached – Jesus of Nazareth, that one. “Can anything
good come from Nazareth?” The early Jewish Christians were very soon thrown out
of the synagogues and were forced to meet separately. So you go from Paul
apparently being able to turn up somewhere new and preach in the local
synagogue, to new communities meeting in local homes. From the Jewish point of
view, why would you allow a developing sect which seemed to attract unwanted
attention from the authorities continue to use your buildings and bring you
into the limelight. Oh no, much better to send them away and deny that you had
anything to do with these ‘troublemakers’. And especially as this new community
was very public. They did strange things. They publically turned their back on
their culture – selling off the ancestral land, declaring that God did not
reside ultimately in the Temple, saying that the Torah had been superseded. Refusing
to acknowledge that Caesar was God. It’s no wonder the Roman authorities kept
on trying to wipe them out through persecution. And yet still they refused to
give up their new-found faith that Jesus was the Messiah they had been waiting
for all these years.
This week I visited someone in
prison. And my faith was yet again challenged. This man will be released this
summer. I don’t want him to come to my community. He doesn’t want to go back to
where everyone knows him. He wants to move far away and be anonymous. And yet,
his best chance of not reoffending is to be where he is accepted but remains
And I read in the papers of people
trying to make sense of people who fight for ISIS. Faith has become such a
private matter that no-one outside a particular faith seems to have any
understanding of what ‘the other’ believes. Whole religions get mushed down to
particular stereotypes that seem to be created to make us feel more safe, and
to know what side of the line we stand on.
And we do that between ourselves,
within the Christian community. The Church as an Institution is when we
privatise our lives and our faith. Then the Church seems to revert back to the
Ten Commandments – ‘Thou shalt not ….’
Where this new community really
works is when our faith is shown in public. As a community we walk alongside
each other and are accountable to each other because people know our history.
This is the Church as a community where there is space to take on board Jesus’
radical teaching that the Ten Commandments have been replaced with just two –
Love the Lord Your God with all your heart, mind, strength, and love your
neighbour as yourself. And that’s the ‘so what’. That’s where we begin to
experience the same radical form of living that the early church did in Acts. We
have fallen so much for the individualism and idea of religion as private that
we in effect force the Church back into the legalism which the first Jewish
Christians found they could escape. And then we say – ah see, the Church is not
for me, see what it says about x, y, and z. I’m just going to go off on my own
and …. And what? How does that show the Kingdom of God?
As 1 John says, the work of the
church is to continue to testify to what we know of God through Jesus. And that
results in fellowship – koinonia – the ‘shalom’ peace that Jesus speaks to his
disciples when he appears to them again. The first glimpses of the Kingdom of
God. And yes, it is about love, but a love that says ‘ok, I will walk alongside
you and be with you in all your frailties and muck ups and happy times … and as
a community we will remember your journey and love you through that, and live
with the resulting tension that comes from accountability, from not brushing
things you’d rather forget under the carpet or changing your history to make it
sound nicer so that you don’t have to change in the future. That’s love in
women are walking to the tomb, carrying spices, prepared for wrapping up the
body of Jesus. Because they knew, as we know that dead bodies decompose, and
the spices were going to be a way of masking the smell of decomposition. The
Jewish people had a two stage process of caring for the bodies of those who had
died. At first the bodies were wrapped in spices and put on a shelf in a tomb
until decomposition had taken place. The bones would then be collected and put
into a bone box. Luke, our narrator, knows this as well, even though he is not
a Jew. He has said at the start of his Gospel that his aim is to write an
orderly report of the events that took place to a man called Theophilus.
careful narrator, this historian/theologian, a second-generation Christian who
knew Paul, who sounds so rational and thoughtful, adds his voice to that of
Mark and the other writers – there is no body! God’s plan didn’t include a dead
Messiah, but one whom He raised back to life! There was no body. There still is
no body. Luke gives us three resurrection stories, as though to prove the point
that the impossible has happened. Here in this first story the reaction of the
women is terror, and when they go back and tell the men what they’ve seen the
reaction is the same as ours – it just doesn’t make sense to them.
Each of the
Gospel writers come from their own background and
perspective. For Luke, a Gentile who has travelled around with Paul (an
ex-Christian persecutor and killer), he wants to show that this unexpected God
intervention means that the old barriers of race are removed. This is a new
community, to which anyone can belong. This is the reassurance he wants to give
to his friend Theophilus.
God raised him back to life. It didn’t make sense to the first disciples. It
still doesn’t for us. But someone changing back from death to life certainly
points to something or someone outside and beyond our immediate experience. We
are not alone.
there is this new community. One without barriers, to which all are welcome.
Today we are
looking at the empty tomb. Astonished. Scratching our heads. Beginning to think
of what we can’t see or understand.
But in the
weeks to come I would challenge you to go further. What happened next? Luke
structured his Gospel in anticipation of its sequel – the book we call Acts.
Why not read on – read about this group of Jews and Gentiles, and how they
began to form a whole new community – one that had never been seen before in
history. Ask questions. Look upwards. But also remember – Jesus was dead. God
raised him back to life. The tomb is empty.
Today is ‘Refreshment Sunday’, where the rules of fasting
for Lent are relaxed. In the sixteenth century, when children often left home
to live and work as servants or farm labourers, this fourth Sunday in Lent was
a call for everyone to return to their ‘mother’ Church, and so provided an
annual opportunity for workers to be reunited with their families, including
and maybe especially their mother. It provided a much-needed Sabbath, a time to
put a markers down to measure the distance one had travelled. “My, how you’ve
grown”, “my, how you’ve grown old”, “Who#s not here this year” … a time to
You catch me in a thoughtful mood today. A year ago I was
writing up my dissertation, unclear where I was going to serve as curate, and
having just come back from Israel and Palestine, where I’d experienced one of
the Kairos moments - you know, the
ones where God speaks to you so definitely that it leaves an indelible mark on
you for life.
Those moments of disorientation, as the theologian
Bruggemann would categorise them, those moments where the rug is pulled from
under us. The Bible is full of such moments. Parents who have a son at a time
of intense persecution, when every Hebrew baby boy us under Pharaoh’s sentence
of death. The mother nursing her baby for three months, willing him to be
silent so he is not discovered and killed. And finally the decision that even
to give him away would allow him a better chance of survival than to keep him
It might seem that Mary and joseph’s time of disorientation
was coming to an end. After all, as they enter the Temple they seem like
normal, if poor (because they only have two birds to offer for sacrifice)
But then, just as they seem to be re-orientating themselves,
Simeon pulls the rug out again from under Mary – “and a sword will pierce your
own soul also”. Perhaps she had just convinced herself that it was all a dream
– angels and all that. After all, for some reason Joseph had stood by her –
against all cultural convention – and perhaps it seems as though they could
just get on with being a family – but no.
We all have times of disorientation – losing a job, a
relationship ending, retirement, bereavement, family problems – these are the
big ones, the huge markers in the same, but there are the infinite smaller
events of life that can equally unnerve us – I didn’t make that phone call, I
said that thing, they said that thing and I’m not sure what they meant by it …
the list goes on.
And how does being part of a church help? What difference does
it make to us that we follow Jesus? The people in Colossae were in a period of
huge disorientation. They had heard about Jesus from Epaphras, and now Paul is
writing to them because they are trying to work out how to be Gentile followers
of a Jewish Jesus. Do they need to be circumcised in order to be Christian? Are
there foods they shouldn’t eat? Which rituals should they continue to observe?
This new faith has come out of such a different context to
theirs that it seems as though everything is up for grabs. How can they begin
to re-orientate themselves and make sense of what God has done for them?
For those of us who have Paul pegged as a hard-nosed zealot,
it might come as a surprise that he is gentle with them. He says in chapter two
“let no one condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals,
new moons or Sabbaths”, but there is a right way to behave and that is to
emulate the characteristics of God as seen in Jesus. “compassion, kindness,
humility, meekness and patience”, forgiving each other and living with love,
peace, and thankfulness.
And here’s the hard bit for all of us. Scripture, especially
that of the early church, challenges us that being part of a church community
should change us. We should expect to be disorientated as we meet together, and
learn together, and we should also expect to actively help each other in th
process of re-orientation.
Looking back over the past year I can see the tremendous
change in my physical circumstances, but I also need to ask myself if I am more
compassionate, kind, humble, patient, peaceful, loving and thankful. And for
most of these characteristics to be demonstrated I have to be in community with
I wonder if part of the annual call back to one’s mother
church was accountability? The “my how you’ve grown” might have been followed
up by “wow, what happened to you, I remember you were such an angry young boy”.
These sort of relationships are the most time consuming and demanding, but I
would suggest that they go to the heart of what it means to be a church, a
nurturing community. So whether you are in a period of disorientation, or feel
that your life is pretty much on track, today is an opportunity to take time
out to be refreshed and to put a marker in the sand. The Bible shows characters
reacting to strange and chaotic circumstances, but the same God is with Moses
in the bulrushes, with the holy family, and with us now.
So, the first Sunday of Lent. The time when we prepare for
Easter, the season in the Office of Daily Prayer of ‘Returning to God’. Last
Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, we remembered that we are fragile human beings … a
fact brought home to me all too clearly by going to the dentist and finding out
I need fillings. We are dust and to dust we will return.
Except that the fact of being human is not something to feel
despondent about. These passages point to something intrinsically human – that
there is something hardwired within us that latches on to signs and symbols.
Our world is full of them …. This ring on my finger is not just a ring, but a
symbol of the promises I made before God to another person. As a wedding ring
it is a statement of fact – that I am married – and also a sign of hope – that
my marriage will continue into the future.
In Genesis the promise made by God to Noah is sealed with a
rainbow. A few chapters later, God’s covenantal relationship with Abram is
marked by the new ritual of circumcision for every Israelite boy. God gives
tangible reminders to frail human beings that there is a promise, a
relationship, here, even when the situation seems to indicate otherwise.
And for a long, long time it does seem to the Jewish people
that they are hanging on to a memory. Each male generation shows that they are
different to the other men, and their circumcision remains a viewable sign of
fact, but increasingly the hope for the future becomes a yearning for a
messiah. From time to time prophets are raised up, who point again to the
heavens and say that God has made a covenant, and God is reliable and can be
trusted, but the situation doesn’t match the expectations. What has gone wrong?
And then into this apparent silence there comes a man – John
the Baptist, who begins to use an old ritual with new significance – baptism, a new sign that
shows repentance and turning back to God. Water has always had a cleansing
property, but now it is used metaphorically to cleanse from sin.
And Mark writes about how Jesus comes along and asks to be
baptized. Jesus – a man whom Mark has introduced in his opening sentence as
‘Son of God’. And he asks to be baptised as a sign of repentance! This sign,
this ritual must be something special.
And then in the story we the reader are given a picture of
the start and the end of the story, all at the same time. The verb in the
original Greek – ‘skizomenous’ – ‘splitting’ links in one word the opening of
the heavens as Jesus comes out of the water with the tearing of the veil in the
temple when Jesus dies on the cross. Here at the start of the journey of Lent
we get the full picture – Mark is saying, ‘Look, God himself is confirming what
I said in the first line of my scroll – this is the Christ!’ The Kingdom of God
has now arrived, and it will be here forever.
It is this finality that the writer of 1 Peter picks up on
when he writes to refugees, scattered and persecuted. ‘Christ died for sinners
once and for all’. The rainbow for Noah, the smoking fire pot and flaming torch
for Abraham has become a human being. Death is not the end because someone went
through death and was raised back to life.
How do we know that it is true? How do we know that this is
the ultimate sign of God’s covenant with us? What do you say when Coptic
Christians are beheaded? When the situation around us seems to say that we are
on our own?
For me, it comes back to communion. When the chalice and host
are lifted up as the body and blood of Jesus we hear again in our heads his
final cry – ‘It is finished!’ This the ultimate sign of the final covenant God
made with His people. It is the sign of the fact, in the same way that my ring
is the sign of my marriage. And it is the sign of hope for the future as well.
And I would suggest that during this journey of Lent, we who
are hardwired to see signs and symbols would notice them and tell each other.
God’s kingdom is breaking through, in ways we don’t understand or expect.
The rabbis of the time just before Jesus had a problem. Jewish people were
told to tithe everything they had – a tenth of their goods and income was to be
given to the Temple. But when did bread become, well, not bread? When was it
too stale or mouldy to be counted as edible and therefore needing to be tithed?
Well, they decided that at the point where the lowest of the low
couldn’t be expected to eat it, that was when it didn’t need to be tithed any
more. And so they decreed that if it was too far gone for even a shepherd to
eat it, then it didn’t need to be tithed. A shepherd. You see, at that time
shepherds were the lowest of the low, the marginalised and outcast. I was
trying to think of an equivalent for our times….
And yet here is Luke – rich, educated Dr Luke - telling a story of the
nativity, where shepherds are some of the central characters. The Scriptures
had said that a Messiah, an anointed one, would come, but the imagery was of
kingship – authority, a throne, a great light, his kingdom established. No one
was expecting the Messiah to be born to an ordinary girl in a backwater of the
And yet after Jesus’ resurrection everything had to be rethought. God
had intervened into history and completed mucked up the laws of physics. Suddenly
the Scriptures did make sense, but not in the way that had been expected. There
was a kingdom, but it didn’t equate to gold or riches. Jesus had pointed to a
God who valued all of humanity equally. The early Church quickly realised that
this act of reconciliation between God and man was open to everyone, not just
those Jews who kept the Law.
And so that same message of reconciliation comes to us. God who
intervened so decisively in human history is the same today as then. The laws
of physics, which we feel so bound by are the finest thread for God. We are
part of that journey of discovery, guided by the Scriptures, which point
towards a renewal of life in this world and something beyond death. And I am
sure that like those who lived two thousand years ago, we will discover that
Scripture will be fulfilled, but not in the way we have expected.
But for today, today is the time to celebrate. Because we can look back
with Luke and know that this baby is special. This is God incarnate, the
splendour and majesty and power of God, willingly constrained within a
dependent, fragile baby. The laws of physics broken yet again. This is our God.
God’s heartbeat echoes through the world and throughout history. It can
be found in the ordinary and the extraordinary. So for example, when I stand up
here to preach, I see the sign hanging at the back of the church –
‘unconditional love’. That for me is one of the signs of God’s heartbeat, a
constant truth that sometimes we catch a glimpse of, but is always there,
whether we see it at the time or not.
These three passages are also pointers to God’s heartbeat.
The promised land, ruled over by Kings David and Solomon, had been torn
apart to form Israel and Judah. Religion had become a dirty word for the people
when the prophets came to speak to both nations. The feeling in Judah was of
disillusionment and disappointment. Micah picks up and magnifies God’s heartbeat,
announcing that God has promised to bring in a new kind of ruler so that the
people will have a new kind of relationship with their God.
And then travelling right to the end of the Bible, at the end of
Revelation John again points to God’s heartbeat. The first verses are listing
one Old Testament promise after another, so for example “I saw a new heaven and
a new earth” comes from Isaiah 65. What God has promised will happen. We can
trust this heartbeat, it won’t fail.
By the time of Luke’s Gospel, the Romans have destroyed the Temple in
Jerusalem. Again, the people need to be called back to focus on the heartbeat
of God. For Zechariah and Elizabeth, it was just not possible to have a baby at
their age, and yet here in Zechariah’s prophecy we see again that God is
faithful to his promises. The heartbeat is getting louder, the time is coming
when all those promises from the Hebrew Bible are going to be fulfilled. Not
yet … this isn’t even advent yet … but the birth of John who prepares the way
for Jesus and his ministry.
We as a church are called to listen for God’s heartbeat in the world,
and at specific times to magnify it and call others to hear it too. It is in
the everyday, as we read each morning Zechariah’s prophecy in the Benedictus, in
the words of the weekly eucharist, and then we celebrate it triumphantly at the
festivals. And at times it is so
difficult for us, because of our individual circumstances, or what’s in the
world, to lift our eyes or strain to hear. And that is why we are a church, a gathering
of people, working together. Between now and Christmas we wait, hearing the
heartbeat getting gradually louder, knowing that God is the same God who was
working through Micah, and John, and Luke. The same God whose heartbeat of love
never ends and whose promises will be and have been fulfilled in Jesus.
The Pharisees weren’t bad people.
They were acutely aware of their history, and of being the group of people whom
God had revealed Himself to, had lead out of slavery and said that He would be
their God. They knew the Hebrew Scriptures inside out. They were aware of God’s
awesome majesty, of the story of Moses hiding in the cleft of a rock because to
see God’s holiness would be death. Their Temple worship was set up on the
knowledge that only the priest could enter the holy of holies once a year. The
Jewish people had to uphold the covenant which God had made with them, and this
included keeping their group pure. No inter-marrying, no false idols, and
adherence to the Law as laid out in the Torah. And to cap it all, here they
were living as aliens in a foreign land, a land under occupation by the Romans.
They were feeling pressure on them from all sides.
And then along comes Jesus. A born
troublemaker, but a Jew, one of them, he starts to speak obliquely about the
fact that Yahweh, the God of the Jews, is somehow the God of all humankind.
What is this going to do for the purity of the Jewish people? What will this do
to the covenant that has lasted so long? How will an angry God react to an
unfaithful people? How can this idea of accessibility relate to such a holy
God, whose holiness radiates out like blinding light?
And they were right to be afraid.
Because for us standing here today, we can flip further through our Bibles and
read one of Paul’s earliest letters, one of the oldest Christian documents we
have today – to the Christian community in Thessolonica, one of the major
cities in the Roman Empire. Paul, along with Silas and Timothy, Jews, writes to
this group of Gentiles using a mixture of Greek expressions – such as the word
‘ekklesia’ for church, which originally had the sense of a civic assembly of
citizens – and then takes expressions from the Hebrew Scriptures and uses them
to describe this new Christian community – “he has chosen you”. How
right the Pharisees were to want to get rid of Jesus the troublemaker. Look
what’s happened now! These converts they are writing to have left worshipping
their own idols, and now “serve a living and true God”. The genie is out of the
bottle. Something has happened and now this gospel, this good news, is
spreading throughout the Empire “in power and in the Holy Spirit”. Those
strange stories that Jesus went around telling have become true. The Law has
been supplanted by two new commandments- to love God with all your heart, and
your neighbour as yourself.
The Pharisees didn’t’ want to stop
Jesus just because he was a troublemaker. They genuinely feared the
consequences of allowing a false message to be spread. Relationship with God
was all important.
You know, I wish I were like Jesus
as he is portrayed in this gospel story. He was painted into a corner and
managed to leap out over their heads with what seems like a quick come-back.
You know that feeling? When someone finds out you’re a Christian … so, what’s
your opinion on – gay marriage …. salvation through other faiths … home
schooling ….. abuses carried out in the name of the Church …. Eh?
And I buy into it. It becomes so
easy to disparage other Christians who have different views on secondary issues
to me. Take the issue of women being ordained. It was hard to see the pain in
some of my friends’ eyes when I told them I was going to train for ordination. But
a starting point for me has been the realisation that like the Pharisees, they
didn’t want to risk the loss of salvation. Their aim is that none should perish
but all should be saved. And that is a good thing, but also painful to live
with. The God of the Old Testament is the same God today, and we should
remember the holiness that is so bright we can’t look.
And that challenges me to live in
the tension. Because I can also blur the boundaries between what are essential
issues of faith and what are not. And yet in the end we need now more than ever
to show others that we have been called into a new family, … that like the
Thessalonians, others can see our faith acted out in the way we treat each
other – because it is through the Church that God’s holiness, God’s mercy, love
and grace, will be revealed to the world.
I’m finding the news hard going at the moment. Iraq … Syria … Gaza …
remembering last week the members of our own congregation who were killed or
died as prisoners during the First World War. It can be hard to bring a
Christian perspective into our thoughts and reactions to what we see and hear
each day. Where is the Kingdom of Heaven coming on earth, now that salvation
has come to us?
Considering the story of Jesus walking on the water both Mark and then
Matthew set this story alongside the death of John the Baptist. Jesus has twice
gone away to pray on his own. The first time the crowds follow him, and he ends
up ministering to them – healing the sick and then making sure everyone has
enough to eat! How hard must it have been for him to do all this while mourning
the death of one of his relatives?
The disciples are in trouble. Despite rowing hard against the storm it
is now early morning and they are no further back to land. They are tired and
exhausted, probably scared, and then to their horror they see Jesus coming
towards them, walking on water.
The image of water/seas/waves in Jewish literature was linked to the
idea of chaos. It’s not just that the disciples are in a boat in a middle of a
storm, but that this is at the same time a metaphor for chaos. Stepping out of
the boat in the story is a knock-out metaphor for faith. Peter trusts Jesus
enough to step out of the boat.
Only Matthew has this story of Peter’s response. Often Peter is a
representative of all the disciples, and for me he is the one with whom I can
most easily identify. Passionate, impulsive, messes it up, but ultimately comes
to such a strong faith that he becomes the bedrock for the whole church.
The writer of Matthew emphasises to his initial readership that Jesus,
this man, was also God. A scandalous idea to peddle to Jewish people. But we
have seen over the weeks Jesus giving short pictures, glimpses of God’s
intention for His people. The Kingdom of Heaven is like …. a pearl of great
price, like a field full of wheat and weeds …. In chapter 13 he asks the
disciples, “Have you understood all this?” and they say, ‘Yes’!! And now here
at the end of the story they seem to have moved on a step in their
understanding when they worship him and say, “Truly you are the Son of God”.
But from where we stand we know that they had still not got it.
Paul, as ever, points out in stark terms that this offer from Jesus to
step out in faith has now been extended to everyone, both Jew and non-Jew. As
followers of Jesus in the present day, we still struggle to understand and step
out in faith.
Some of us this week went to a talk about ‘What Makes a Good Society?’
Essentially it’s the same idea as the Jewish concept of the Kingdom of Heaven.
But just as the disciples were 2,000 years ago, we say we understand when we
just haven’t grasped what God is offering. Back then the people were looking
for a liberator, one who would free them from living in an occupied country, a
place where God’s rule of peace and justice would prevail and there would be
Today in our Western society we often feel that our faith is something
essentially private, to be packed away leaving a vacuum in which the government
struggles to define what it means by ‘British values’.
If we want to see the Kingdom of Heaven come, or the creation of a Good
Society, we need to have a faith that is not just brought out on Sundays, but
which pervades our whole life. When we see events happening around us, it
doesn’t matter that we don’t understand how or why – just as it was for the
disciples – but it does matter that we have faith in God the Father through
Jesus, that we step out of the boat and walk towards him.
It’s scary, but as Peter discovered, it can change your whole life.
When we leave
TISEC, the initial training body for the Scottish Episcopal Church, each person
is given a holding cross. .. This is mine.
I know that it is
used as a way of feeling closer to God. Of remembering Jesus. Until this week I
always thought it strange that it was so smooth, so clean, when the cross of
Jesus was rough, had splinters, nails and blood.
Today is Holy
Cross Day. On Good Friday we recall Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross,
but today focuses on the cross as the instrument of our salvation.
It is easy to see
the cross in the same way we might view an electric chair or gallows. After
all, it has gained significance only because that was the way Romans killed criminals
at that time. It was a humiliating death, and it took many years for the
followers of Jesus to begin to acknowledge and talk about the cross, because it
was such a shameful way to die.
Sometimes it is
easy for us, as children of the Enlightenment, to stay on this side of the
cross, to see it only as an instrument of death.
But that is not
the whole story.
This week I have
attended a funeral and have also had to plan one out. The funeral I went to on
Tuesday was of a lady who did not profess any faith in her lifetime, and the
funeral was presented as an opportunity for us to say goodbye to her.
And yet, it was
run through with a mythology of eternal life.
“She is now with
her husband” ….
We sang ‘Who’s
Gonna Drive You Home Tonight’, but then followed it up with ‘How Great Thou Art’.
It was almost as
though there was a faint memory of the gospel narrative, a hope that there was
something there beyond what we can see and touch. But it was all mixed up, chaotic.
And then last
Tuesday one of the members of Albany Deaf Church died.
And as someone who
has known relatively few deaths, I was confronted with the hope that we have
because of the cross. The words of the committal were brought home to me.
Instead of being
the marker for the end of life, the cross is the gateway to being with God
As a (relatively!)
younger person it is easy to focus on how faith in Jesus affects our life in
the here and now. How the Kingdom of God is shown on earth.
It is easy to
accept the idea that belief in eternal life is simply ‘pie in the sky when you
die’, the ‘opium of the masses’.
But as that
funeral on Tuesday showed, when you grow up without any church influence and
live your life without reference to God, there is still something in us as human
beings that knows that this is not all there is. We may call ourselves a
secular society, but when it matters people are still searching for deeper
meaning than that which only science can provide.
And when we view
the cross only as the place where Jesus ended his life, we totally miss the
whole point. Death is not the end. The cross is a doorway to God.
But we are challenged
…. in a world of confused
narratives and myths, who is going to give the bigger picture? Not to say that
we understand everything – there is still the mystery of what happened on the
cross. But if we are honest, how much are we influenced by the idea of cross as
final ending, not by the cross as a gateway? And if we really embraced that truth,
how would it change our views on death and dying?
For God so loved
the world that he sent his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not
perish, but have everlasting life. Amen.