Splinters remain (Matthew 28:1-10)

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

Matthew’s account of the resurrection differs somewhat from those recalled in Luke’s and John’s gospels.  When Jesus appears to His disciples in Matthew’s account they instantly know who He is, fall at His feet and offer to Him what should only be offered to God Himself: worship.  In the other gospel accounts, Jesus’ followers aren’t quite so quick on the uptake.

According to Luke’s account the two travellers on the road to Emmaus did not initially recognise their fellow traveller as the risen Jesus.  It was only when He took some bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them that his identity was revealed.  Perhaps a reminder of the Eucharistic practice of the early church?  In the gospel according to John when Mary Magdalene meets the risen Jesus in the garden she doesn’t recognise him and assumes him to be the gardener.  Only when Jesus addresses her by name does Mary turn and see Who is standing before her.

It’s often remarked that although Jesus’s appearance (in Luke and John’s accounts at least) is not as it was before His crucifixion, at least His wounds did endure the resurrection.  In John’s account it is only when the disciple Thomas sees Christ’s wounds that he believes that it is really Him.  Those things we might expect to endure the resurrection, such as physical appearance, may in fact not do so; whereas certain other things – scars, wounds, physical ailments – that we expect to be wiped away in the resurrection for some reason might not be.

One thing I took away from James Alison’s book “Knowing Jesus” was that to think of our Lord only as the risen Lord was too simplistic.  Jesus Christ is the crucified-and-risen Lord.  Crucifixion as much as resurrection is a part of who He is, who He is to us, and who we are called to be for Him.  So, just as even the bleakest moment of the Christian year, Good Friday, is tinged with the future hope of the resurrection, so this highest point of joy, Easter Sunday, still retains a note of sadness.  Yes, the Lord is risen: Alleluia!  But He is not risen without having died in the first place, and through the fault of sinful humanity who could not accept God amongst them.

So much of Christian preaching and spirituality focuses – and rightly so – on our status as Easter people; people living in the Light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and living in hope of our own resurrection at the end of all things.  And I suppose that particular slant is what has come to dominate my personal theology too.

But something feels different this year.  It is Easter Sunday; it feels good and right to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord; it is one of those particularly joyful years when Western and Eastern (Orthodox) Christians celebrate Easter on the same day; and yet I can’t quite forget Good Friday.

I don’t know why in particular things should feel different this year.  I found the experience of venerating the cross for the first time this Good Friday particularly moving.  Kneeling before a large, rough wooden cross; laying my hand on it; laying my head against it; all the while contemplating what took place on a larger, rougher wooden cross two millenia ago; and then gently touching my lips to the wood.  Perhaps that is what it was; I don’t know.  Good Friday is past, but a few splinters of that wood feel as if they remain.

I wish you all a very Happy Easter.  Jesus Christ is risen – Alleluia.  Crucified and risen – Alleluia.

The middle ground

Early on the Sabbath day, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone was covering the entrance to the tomb.  And Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.  They came to the village to which they were going.

When it was evening on that day, the disciples gathered in a house and locked the doors for fear of the Jews.   But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them.

After these things the disciples were gathered together by the Sea of Tiberias: Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others.  Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Well, it could have happened that way…

Three falls

No original reflection from me today – it feels like everything that can be said about Good Friday has already been said.  Instead I’ll share with you three beautiful sonnets from Malcolm Guite’s Stations of the Cross (http://wordpress.com/read/blog/id/4531601/).  The three poems and stations I found particularly moving when I read them are the three times Jesus falls under the weight of the cross.

III Jesus falls the first time

He made the stones that pave the roads of Zion
And well he knows the path we make him tread
He met the devil as a roaring lion
And still refused to turn these stones to bread,
Choosing instead, as Love will always choose,
This darker path into the heart of pain.
And now he falls upon the stones that bruise
The flesh, that break and scrape the tender skin.
He and the earth he made were never closer,
Divinity and dust come face to face.
We flinch back from his via dolorosa,
He sets his face like flint and takes our place,
Staggers beneath the black weight of us all
And falls with us that he might break our fall.

VII Jesus falls the second time

Through all our veils and shrouds of daily pain,
Through our bruised bruises and re-opened scars,
He falls and stumbles with us, hurt again
When we are hurt again. With us he bears
The cruel repetitions of our cruelty;
The beatings of already beaten men,
The second rounds of torture, the futility
Of all unheeded pleading, every scream in vain.
And by this fall he finds the fallen souls
Who passed a first, but failed a second trial,
The souls who thought their faith would hold them whole
And found it only held them for a while.
Be with us when the road is twice as long
As we can bear. By weakness make us strong.

IX Jesus falls the third time

He weeps with you and with you he will stay
When all your staying power has run out
You can’t go on, you go on anyway.
He stumbles just beside you when the doubt
That always haunts you, cuts you down at last
And takes away the hope that drove you on.
This is the third fall and it hurts the worst
This long descent through darkness to depression
From which there seems no rising and no will
To rise, or breathe or bear your own heart beat.
Twice you survived; this third will surely kill,
And you could almost wish for that defeat
Except that in the cold hell where you freeze
You find your God beside you on his knees.

My favourite Bible story (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

‘For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’

A few weeks ago, our Vicar in his sermon challenged us to think about what our favourite Bible story is…and to tell people about it.  Well, here it is, and I’m doing the telling!

Recounted so briefly in St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, this one story has come to define the church over the last two millenia.  It has come to define me.  And this night, Maundy Thursday as we call it, we remember particularly that last supper that Jesus shared with his friends before his cruel death.  That night when he took bread and wine and gave them to his followers as His Body and His Blood, telling us to do likewise.

Jesus Christ, the baby born in a borrowed stable in Bethlehem, God Himself made man and given to us now stands in a borrowed room in Jerusalem and gives of Himself once again.  Inviting us to take our most deeply longed for nourishment from His own substance God takes one more risk for us and His creation.  God held in the palm of our hand, eaten, drunk of, taken up into our bodies, our breaths, our thoughts, our lives: it us up to us what we do with this Body, this Blood, this God made man.

In only a few short hours Jesus would be dead and His broken body laid in a borrowed tomb; the final borrowed resting place.  But for now He keeps his focus on the present, gives thanks for the simple meal He has to share with His friends and hands to them His safety, His dignity, His beauty – given to those of them and us who desert Him in His hour of greatest need, and those who would even betray him to His death.  One more sleepless night in prayer, then what He knows has been coming, what He knows must happen, what He prays would be taken from Him.

Keeping my own sleepy vigil in our church late this evening I asked myself what to say to this God made man, to the One who had invited me to His feast, and who now sits weeping and alone in the silent garden.  What can be said?  There’s a long way yet to go: many miles before we get to Emmaus.   And the hour is now at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.  God in the palm of our hand: it is up to us what we do with Him.

Blogging through Holy Week [6] – The urgent need for Resurrection

Alleluia, alleluia!  Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed!  Alleluia, alleluia!

On Easter Sunday my wife and I celebrated the resurrection of our LORD in Norwich Cathedral. The place was absolutely packed. I know we must never forget that it only takes two or three to be gathered together to worship in the presence of God, but it always feels special to be among a great number worshipping God in word, music and sacrament.  It was truly inspiring and uplifting.

The Easter Sunday liturgy celebrates the resurrection of Jesus on the third day: a specific resurrection on a specific day, yet with eternal consequences. We also look forward to that great day when the dead shall all be raised to new life – the resurrection of the dead (of which Christ is the first fruits) – again, specific resurrection. However, there is another more general sense in which we can talk about resurrection. The Bishop of Norwich talked about this in his sermon on Sunday (but in case you think this is pure plagiarism let me assure you I was thinking of this area for this blog post anyway!).

This resurrection is the sort that is needed in our lives every single day. Some might call it “conversion”, “transformation”, “repentance”, “letting God in”, “committing to Christ”, “being born again” or a whole host of other things, but the word resurrection will do nicely enough. What I mean by this is the act of letting go of old ways of being (dying, bearing your cross, being crucified in Christ), and allowing new growth to spring forth in its place (being born to new life, being resurrected, living in the risen Christ).

Unfortunately, the latter does not come without the former. One of my favourite hymns is “Take up thy Cross, the Saviour said”, and the penultimate verse expresses this sentiment beautifully:

Take up thy cross and follow Christ,
Nor think til death to lay it down;
For only those who bear the cross
May hope to wear the glorious crown.

It is such an upside down way of thinking, but it is absolutely central to Jesus’ teaching throughout his earthly ministry – dying so that we might live, losing our lives so that we could find true life, giving up all we have to find the Kingdom of God.  The well-known metaphor Jesus uses in John’s gospel is that of a grain of wheat, which if it does not fall to earth and “die” remains a single grain of wheat; but if it falls to earth and dies bears much fruit.  This is the offer, and challenge, that Christ extends to all who would follow Him.

This sort of resurrection is urgently needed: in our own lives, and in the lives of our communities and churches.  Many may feel that the seeds have been planted, they have fallen to the earth and been swallowed up, yet no green shoots have been seen.  Others will feel that all they have seen is death: of projects, of plans, of friends, of friendships; and now they anxiously, urgently, and desperately await the resurrection.  But where is it?

We may not know the time, we may not know the hour of its coming, but we do know that the tomb is open, Christ is not there, HE IS RISEN and that in the end Love wins (thank you Rob Bell!)!  The desperately awaited Resurrection may look nothing like we expect it to, so if it is possible we must expect (and welcome) the unexpected, the unusual, the unorthodox.  The risen Christ was not instantly recognisable to those who encountered Him.  He bore the scars of His passion, but in His glory he was somehow changed, somehow unrecognisable.  In the same way, resurrection in our own lives will surprise us – we will bear the scars of our own trials yet be somehow changed, somehow unrecognisable.  CHRIST IS RISEN.  ALLELUIA!  ALLELUIA!

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

Blogging through Holy Week [5] – What happened that day?

What happened that first Good Friday? Well, the biblical account of the Passion is quite simple – Jesus was handed over to the Romans from the High Priests who then whipped up a crowd to call for his death. Pilate eventually gives in to the pressure and gives him over to be crucified until he is dead.

But what happened? Was sin forgiven? Was the sin of the world undone so that the world could be reconciled to God? Was some sort of price or debt paid? Was an ancient rite (passover or atonement) truly fulfilled?

I think before we can make any theological conclusions about Jesus’ death we have to be quite straightforward about what happened that day – MURDER. Human beings took God’s own Son, God Himself incarnate upon the earth and they killed Him in a most brutal fashion. God came amongst us, and we couldn’t handle what He said and did, so we did what came most naturally to us – we did away with Him.

And what is Jesus’ response to this? Well, we read (in other gospel accounts) that He forgave those who had tortured and killed Him. This wasn’t forgiveness before He was killed, or after He was killed, but right in the middle of the long, slow death of crucifixion.

Even if we draw no more theological conclusions from the crucifixion, this is frankly STUNNING. God comes to dwell amongst us in human form, we abandon, deny, betray and reject him and we murder him on a cross. And He forgives us for doing it!

This is who God really is: the God who dies for us, indeed is killed by us, but Who forgives us even as we’re doing it.

Blogging through Holy Week [4] – Betrayed

Shortish post today (and skipping out the rather important institution of the Lord’s Supper, but I’ll hope I’ll be forgiven that! I’m also one post behind…)

Did Judas need to betray Jesus? We hear of the betrayal in Matthew 26: 47-56. As Jesus Himself said “Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me”. The ‘authorities’ could have seized Jesus at any time, it didn’t need to be in secret in the garden, and they probably didn’t need someone to betray His location. Jesus is not in hiding, he is being quite open, and indeed by now His eyes are fixed firmly on the cross.

So was Judas’s betrayal of Jesus necessary? Almost certainly not. So there must be some significance to the fact that Jesus was betrayed, and not just arrested. I guess for me the chief lesson of this part of the Passion story is that you can be very close to the Lord and still be very vulnerable to the influence of evil. Judas was both physically close to Jesus, and was one of the trusted twelve. The lesson for us now must be that even those “close to the Lord”: ministers of religion, those committed to the faith, those dedicated to Christian service; all these are just as vulnerable to the influence of evil (Satan). And that can lead us to betray our Lord: if not necessarily in words then certainly in actions.

There seems to be some debate over whether Judas had any freedom in his actions – was this all part of God’s plan, or did Judas choose to betray Christ, who would probably have been arrested anyway? Hmm, not sure, but generally I would plump for free will over any notion of rigid predestination. In fact there seems to be a huge amount of debate over the authenticity of Judas’s part in the story at all – this story is missing from the “Q” source, believed to be an early document drawn on by the three synoptic Gospels. (All this debate about authenticity aside, this story of Scripture can still speak to us today)

A final point I would make is that Judas is not the only one of Jesus’ disciples who betrays or abandons him, although he appears to be the only one who betrays him to his death. In the Garden of Gethsemane Peter, James and John fall asleep despite Jesus asking them to stay awake with him for just one hour. In this moment of His deepest desperation his friends nod off! Then, of course, Peter’s denial of Jesus three times, even while Jesus is being interrogated by the High Priests. We should probably understand Peter “swearing an oath” as he denied Jesus for the third time as denying Jesus using 4 letter words. I think it is a great comfort to anyone involved in church leadership now to be reminded just how flawed and human Peter, the very first church leader, really was.

Jesus: betrayed, abandoned and denied by his friends and followers; in captivity, interrogated and probably tortured. This is all leading somewhere.

Blogging through Holy Week [3] – The anointing

It might seem like a strange thing to do to skip the best part of 5 chapters of teaching (Matthew 22 to 25), but this series of blog posts are really about the events of Holy Week. In any case, there is no necessity to believe that the block of teaching Matthew 22 to 25 actually took place between the entry into Jerusalem and the Anointing at Bethany. Why should there be?! (Of more interest is that Matthew organises Jesus’ teachings into five main blocks. I hope I don’t need to spell out too clearly why teaching organised into five blocks would have had particular significance to Matthew’s 1st Century Jewish readers.)

So, on to the Anointing at Bethany (Matthew 26 6-13). In this story, Jesus’ disciples chastise a woman who anoints Jesus’ head with costly ointment or perfume, which could have been sold and the money used to care for the poor. In John’s account of the same story the woman is identified as Lazarus’s sister Mary (also of Mary and Martha fame).

You almost feel sorry for the disciples here as they did seem to have a good idea, didn’t they? After all, they’d heard Jesus teaching the rich young ruler to give away all his possessions to the poor. Why shouldn’t this woman be encouraged to do likewise to benefit the greater good?

Well, Jesus replies with that often-quoted line “For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me” This is certainly not an excuse, as some have considered it to be, to avoid caring for the world’s poor. After all, if Jesus said the poor would always be with us why should we act to bring them out of their poverty? Whoops – kind of misses the point…

I think firstly Jesus is using this opportunity to remind his disciples that He will not be with them for much longer: they fail to grasp hold of this properly at almost every turn. So Jesus goes on to say that his body is now prepared for burial, i.e. wake up my disciples, I really am going to die! Had the woman grasped this, just as the disciples had failed to?

There are also the obvious allusions to Jesus’ Messiahship in this act of anointing. Messiah literally means “anointed one”. So this is yet another pointer to Jesus’ true status and identity even in those last few days before his death. Perhaps we can even say that this anointing in the final few days points to the fact that it is in His death that Christ’s true identity, purpose and Love for the world was most perfectly revealed. Anointing for death…anointing for Messianic kingship – the same thing here.

Finally, there is the act of giving by this woman. We are told in some of the other Gospel accounts that this perfume cost more than a year’s wages for a labourer. That is a huge sum of money! Even for someone earning minimum wage in the UK, that would be many thousands of pounds! And of course most of this priceless perfume would simply have flowed from Jesus’ head onto the dust of the floor. Wasted.

Wasted? Well, no. This was a gift of great value, given without care for the giver’s own welfare – could this have bankrupted the woman or got her into serious trouble with her family? It was given with no expectation of reciprocation, given purely out of love. Of course this is the sort of giving that Jesus is going to commend, because it is exactly this sort of giving that He extends to us.

Giving of Himself at great price. Giving though it is totally undeserved. Giving with no expectation of reciprocation. Giving purely out of Love.

Not perfume, but Life itself.

Blogging through Holy Week [2] – Christ in the temple

This will be a short post today – 15 minutes until our screen curfew at 2200! (Periodically necessary to ensure we actually go to bed…)

Immediately after the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (the heart of Israel), Matthew’s narrative takes us to the Temple (the heart of Jerusalem). The focus is coming, and things are hotting up.

The image is familiar: Jesus brandishing a handful of cords whipping the money-changers, traders, and those selling sacrificial animals out of the temple courts. Is this really the same Jesus as we know from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5? The great tension – the Man of words vs. the Man of action. “Blessed are the peacemakers” vs. a physical show of revulsion at what the centre of Israel’s worship has become. Of course, it is only Who Christ is that allows this tension to be realised without any tension (if that makes any sense)!

So why does Jesus do what he does? Yes, the temple had been polluted by a sense of commerce and profit – special temple money was needed to buy the animals which were necessary for the sacrifices which “put you right” with God. You can bet that every transaction took place with a tidy profit for the money changer / trader.

But I think this dramatic action is more than a protest against profit being made in a house of worship. Jesus disrupting the flow of sacrificial animals announces that the Temple’s purpose is redundant – “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” [ref?]. The sacrificial system starts to be shown up for what it actually is – ritualised murder – to that we shall certainly return. The Temple (in particular the Holy of Holies) is not the true dwelling place of the LORD on earth…

Begs the question, doesn’t it, where is the dwelling place? how will this all end?

Blogging through Holy Week [1] – Palm Sunday

I’m not a great blogger to be honest – extremely irregular! So I thought as a final piece of Lenten discipline I might try to blog each day through Holy Week. (I say “try” because we’re away from Good Friday until after Easter Sunday, so there may be more than one day updated in one go…)

Anyway, it seems fitting to start with Palm Sunday, the traditional beginning of Holy Week when we remember Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey (or a colt, or both). The Gospel reading we had at church this morning was Matthew 21:1-11, what the NRSV terms “Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem”. There are so many things to talk about in this very well known story, but what I started thinking about this morning during the sermon was the role of the “very large crowd”. (This was not the subject of the sermon: get me for my attentiveness!)

Verses 8 and 9 of this passage say that “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’”

Who was in this crowd? Where had they come from? Had they been following Jesus for some time, or were these brand new followers come Palm Sunday? We don’t know any of this from the biblical record, so thinking about this is all a bit speculative. I think it is safe to say, though, that we do know how crowds/mobs behave nowadays, and crowds then and now are probably not so different.

So, how much did the very large crowd know about the One they were welcoming into Jerusalem. Did they really know who they were greeting, or were they just swept along? And does that even matter? If you’re welcoming or serving the LORD, and don’t know Who you’re greeting, or in Whose Name you are serving, does that matter? “Classical” Christianity would say it probably does matter, but I’m not so sure.

The most intriguing question that struck me this morning was where were those very large crowds by the time Good Friday came? There’s no indication that Christ in his last hours was surrounded by those same crowds trying to protect him from a terrible death, by force of arms if necessary – indeed I don’t think the LORD I worship would have wanted that.

Then there was that other crowd, that other mob which called for Christ’s death. Who were they? Were they so very different from the crowd who welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday? Were any of the Palm Sunday crowd there in Jerusalem later on in the week, no longer crying “Hosanna” but “Crucify”? Again, we don’t have any definite answers, but I’m tempted to say there probably were.

Why would I think that? Well, I think unfortunately because I could see exactly the same sort of thing happening if Christ came today – people are quick to follow a new thing (The New Thing in fact), but ultimately they’re easily swayed by other voices – don’t you think life would be easier if you didn’t follow Him? isn’t He a bit dangerous? if we follow Him, might we lose our freedom, our friends, our power, our privilege, our safe little position in society?

So, what would we say? Hosanna or Crucify? Or, being honest, both?