Good News about Jesus (a sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Easter on Acts 5.27-32)

I’ve often noticed that when a new baby is born, no one in the family has to be reminded to spread the good news! The parents make the initial announcement and then the word just seems to mysteriously travel. The parents maybe make a few phone calls and then, just when they think they’re finished, one of them says, “Oh, we forgot about Auntie Susan—you know, the one who’s not really related to us, but we always call her ‘Auntie’ anyway!” So they pick up the phone and call Auntie Susan, and she says, “Oh yes, I already heard—your mom called me an hour ago!”

That’s how it happens with good news—no one needs to tell us to spread it. When we’ve had a wonderful experience that enriched our lives, no one has to tell us to share the story. We can’t keep it to ourselves. “The Edmonton Symphony was fantastic last night. Are you a subscriber? Well, you really should be—I know you’d enjoy it!” “We went to that new Indian restaurant the other week and it was fantastic. Have you ever been there? We would really recommend it!” “I just read the new book by J.K. Rowling. You know about her, right? No! Wow! Well, let me tell you…!” And so it goes on. 

We sense that excitement in the Book of Acts. Acts is a collection of stories from the early church, from just after the time of the resurrection of Jesus until about thirty years later, when Paul made it to Rome as a prisoner and began to preach the gospel there. I’ve heard Doug Sanderson describe Acts as the most exciting book in the Bible, and I think there’s a lot to be said for that point of view. What we see there is the overwhelming sense of joy of those first disciples, who had seen the risen Lord after his resurrection. They thought it was all over, but then to their amazement they discovered it was just beginning! Jesus filled them with the Holy Spirit and gave them a deep sense of wonder at his continuing presence with them, and they just couldn’t keep it to themselves.

It’s appropriate that every year in the Easter season our lectionary gives us readings from the Book of Acts. These readings are very significant for us. Like us, the Christians in Acts no longer had access to Jesus as a physical presence in their lives. Like us, many of them hadn’t actually seen him when he walked the earth, and they came to believe the stories of his resurrection on the testimony of others. But also like us, they were given the gift of the Holy Spirit, and they experienced him as a living presence in their lives when they went out to share the gospel with others.

Our Acts reading today is from chapter five, but the lectionary only gives us a snippet of the chapter, so let me set the scene for you. This story probably takes place several months after the Day of Pentecost. The Church’s mission is going strong in Jerusalem: sick people are being healed and the number of new believers is growing rapidly. But the members of the religious establishment are getting jealous. So they have the apostles arrested and throw them in jail overnight, intending to bring them before the ruling council the next day. However, during the night an angel lets them out of the jail and tells them to go back to the Temple and keep spreading the word of the new life in Christ. 

Morning comes and there’s consternation in the ruling council: where are the apostles? Apparently they’re back in the Temple, preaching about Jesus! The council sends guards to bring them in, and when they arrive the High Priest gives them a tongue-lashing: “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to bring this man’s blood on us!” (v.28). 

This context is important. When Peter explains the Gospel in this passage he isn’t speaking like Billy Graham at an evangelistic crusade after months of prayer and hours of careful preparation. He’s on trial, possibly for his life, and he only has a few minutes to make his points. He chooses to use those few minutes, not to save himself, but to summarise the Christian message, the Good News. What does he have to say?

First, he affirms that Jesus is Lord. In verse 31 he says, “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour”. The word translated in the New Revised Standard Version as ‘leader’ often means ‘Prince’ or ‘Ruler’. So the good news Peter proclaims is that Jesus is the true Ruler of the world.

Around the world today many people feel as if they have no control over their own lives. They feel helpless in the face of what are often called ‘forces beyond our control’. They might be workers who’ve lost their jobs because of corporate downsizing, or citizens under a tyrannical government, or small business owners whose businesses are closed down because of ‘the realities of the market’. Many of us know the feeling of being powerless, of having our lives controlled by someone else, maybe someone without a face or a name. 

In the time of Jesus that ‘someone’ had a face and a name: he was the Roman emperor. His armies were all-powerful and his cult was spreading around the Mediterranean world. He claimed the titles of ‘Saviour’ and ‘Lord’: after all, he was the Lord of the known world and could save any who called on him if he chose to do so. His puppets in Judea were the Sadducees: the rich families who had compromised in order to win a share of the power from their Roman overlords. Most of the members of the ruling council—the people who had arrested Peter—were part of that group.

Now, in this context, Peter and the other apostles made this great Gospel announcement: “The world has a new King, Jesus the Messiah, the one who will bring justice and peace for all. He’s seated at the right hand of God, the place of authority. It’s true his rule is hidden at the moment, but don’t be deceived by appearances: he will have the last word! Not Caesar, not the Sanhedrin, not the High Priest, but Jesus! At his name every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus the Messiah is Lord, to the glory of God the Father!”

The true ruler of the universe is Jesus, the Son of God, the one who lives not by the love of power but by the power of love. We Christians have come to believe this message, so we’ve have turned away from our previous allegiances and pledged ourselves to Jesus, the rightful King. That’s what it means to be a baptized Christian. Our baptism is our citizenship ceremony, the moment we placed ourselves under the authority of this new King. Or, for most of us, the moment our parents placed us under his authority—an authority we accepted for ourselves when we were confirmed. 

What does that mean for us? It means no prime minister, no premier, no multinational business, no philosophy or ideology, can have more authority over us than Jesus. Following his teaching, seeking first the Kingdom of God—it’s our joy and delight to make these things the highest value in our lives. That’s what it means to be a baptized Christian.

But we might ask, “How do we know all this? How do we know Jesus is Ruler and Saviour of all?” And the answer is, we know because God raised him from the dead.In verse 30 Peter says, “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” 

Peter was there, of course. He was one of the first to be called to follow Jesus. He’d spent three years following him around the country, getting to know him better, sharing in his mission. He’d come to believe Jesus was the Messiah: the king like David who God had promised to send, the king who would set God’s people free from foreign oppression and establish the earthly kingdom of God. And what would be the sign of this? The sign would be that God would give the Messiah’s armies victory against God’s enemies.

But this didn’t happen. Jesus showed no interest in military or political power. And when the time of the great confrontation finally arrived, God didn’t deliver him—God abandoned him. At least, that was how everyone saw it. Instead of leading a victorious army in the name of God, Jesus was hanged on the cross, the symbol of Roman oppression. When the apostles saw that, there was only one conclusion they could draw: Jesus was a false Messiah and they’d been wasting their time. 

But then on Sunday morning the reports began to come in. The women went to the tomb and found it empty. Peter and John confirmed it. Later on, Mary Magdalene was the first to see Jesus alive, and she brought the message back to the astonished apostles. That afternoon a couple walking out to the village of Emmaus met Jesus on the road. In the evening ten of the eleven were gathered in the upper room where they’d eaten the last supper, and suddenly there he was among them! They knew he wasn’t a ghost, because they touched him and saw him eating a piece of fish. 

And so the appearances went on for the next seven weeks, and the apostles gradually realized what it meant: God had vindicated Jesus. Jesus was the true King. Jesus was so powerful that even death couldn’t keep him down. And now all who followed him were promised a similar resurrection. So they had no fear of death: why would they? They ignored the threats of the rulers and told everyone they met that Jesus was alive and was Lord of all.

Jesus is alive from the dead. He’s won the victory over the ultimate weapon used by all oppressors to keep people in their place: death itself. God has made him the true Ruler of the world and Lord of all. Now: what does that mean for us? Two things: forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Look at verses 31-32:

“God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

Forgiveness of sins is the central message of the Gospel. It’s what scandalized people about Jesus when he walked the earth: the fact that he wandered around announcing forgiveness to the most unlikely people, the rich and the poor, respectable and outcast, great and small. The message of the Cross is that God loves his enemies and refuses to take revenge on them. All who repent can be forgiven. All they need to do is turn to God and ask.

At first the apostles didn’t realize how wide this was meant to be. Peter talked about Jesus giving ‘repentance to Israel’. But gradually as time went by the apostles became convinced that God had a much wider group in mind. Jews and Gentiles—worshippers of the God of Israel and worshippers of the Greek and Roman gods—the message was meant to go to everyone. God wanted everyone to have the chance to hear this good news and experience the joy of Jesus for themselves. 

Forgiveness of sins is still central. Many people today are burdened by their guilt. It’s like a huge weight on their backs, bearing down on them. Never mind God’s standards: they can’t even measure up to their own standards! “How can God ever love me? How can I be sure God would forgive me?” The Christian answer is clear: Jesus said it, and God confirmed it by raising Jesus from the dead. So you also can be raised from the deathly hand of guilt to the new life of forgiveness and peace with God.

And you can also experience God’s presence in your life today. That’s what the Holy Spirit means. Ancient Israelites may have seen the wind as a sign of God’s presence. And so when they looked for a word to convey their sense of God’s presence with them, they found the Hebrew word ‘ruach’, which means ‘wind’ and ‘breath’. Their scriptures told them that at the moment of creation a wind from God moved over the waters, and when God created humans he breathed into them the breath of life. The Spirit is God’s breath. He lifts us up from spiritual death and breathes God’s new life into us.

Today I want to invite you to take a deep breath! Jesus Christ is the true Ruler of the universe. God has shown this by raising him from the dead. He is alive forever and is longing to pour out the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit to all who will believe in him. Today Brad and Lizelle are going to stand up and profess their trust in God and their desire to live this new life. They want Blake and Sophia to experience it too, which is why they’re bringing them for baptism.

But the promise isn’t just for Blake and Sophia and Brad and Lizelle: it’s for all of us here. Your sins are forgiven! God’s Spirit is the breath of life in you! Jesus is alive forever, and so there’s no need to fear the power of death. We can go boldly from this place, full of joy in our Risen Saviour, full of confidence in his Holy Spirit who lives in us. So take a deep breath, and then go and share this good news with someone who needs to hear it!

Advertisements

‘Death Itself Begins to Work Backwards’ (Following Jesus Through Narnia #7)

Many years ago when you still bought music on circular pieces of vinyl called ‘LP records’, the story went around that some rock bands had started putting secret messages about death and suicide and drugs and that sort of thing on their recordings. The trick was that you had to play the songs backwards to be able to hear the messages. Then someone with a low opinion of country music came up with a joke about this. “What happens if you play a country song backwards?” Answer: “Your wife comes back to you, your farm is rescued from bankruptcy, the kids get free of drug addiction,” and so on, and so on…!

It’s a joke, but I suspect many of us wish we could find a way to do that. We’ve all made foolish choices from time to time, and now we find ourselves living with the consequences of those choices. If only there was some way of playing the record backwards—going back to the place where things started to go wrong and starting all over again!

I’ve called today’s sermon ‘Death Itself Begins to Work Backwards’. This title comes from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia story The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In this story, Aslan the Lion, the Christ-figure of the magical country of Narnia, is explaining to the children what they have just seen. He says:

‘If (the White Witch) could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before time began…she would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start to work backwards.”

What on earth is Aslan talking about? Well, let me tell you the story.

All through Lent, here at St. Margaret’s, we’ve been using C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories as our spiritual guide. We’ve been looking at some of the characters in the stories each week, asking ourselves the question, “What do these characters teach us about following Jesus?” We’ve met Aslan the Lion, the Christ figure of Narnia, who has come to rescue his country from evil. Narnia is under the reign of the tyrannical White Witch, who has put a powerful enchantment on the whole land, so that it’s always winter but never Christmas. One of the ways she enforces her power is by her ability to turn people into stone. Over time, the courtyard of her castle has become filled with statues: people who used to be her enemies.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe starts when four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, are evacuated from London during the blitz. They find themselves at the house of an elderly professor out in the country, and Lucy, the youngest, finds her way into Narnia through an old wardrobe in a spare room.  Eventually her brother Edmund gets into Narnia too. There he happens to meet the White Witch. She knows about the old prophecy, which says that when two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve sit on the four thrones of the castle of Cair Paravel, her reign will be over. So when she hears that Edmund is one of four, she immediately sets out to entice him to her side. She gives him enchanted Turkish Delight to eat, and she goes on to appeal to his pride: she wants a nice boy, she says, who can be king after she is gone. But the king will need servants, so he should bring his brother and sisters back to Narnia and bring them to her house, where he will rule over them.

So Edmund is deceived and he becomes a traitor. When all four children get into Narnia, Edmund slips away to the White Witch’s castle and tells her where the others are. But to his surprise, he isn’t treated as he expected. Gradually he comes to realise that the Witch is evil; she’s been using him to trap his sisters and brother, and she intends to kill them all.

Aslan’s forces rescue Edmund and restore him to his brother and sisters. However, his troubles are not yet over. The Witch asks for a meeting with Aslan, at which she reminds him of a law put into Narnia at the very beginning by the Emperor: the law that says every traitor belongs to her, and for every act of treachery she has a right to a kill. So Aslan sends the others away and talks privately with the Witch. Eventually he announces to everyone that he’s settled the matter, and the Witch has renounced her claim on Edmund’s blood. The Witch then leaves Aslan’s camp.

But Susan and Lucy notice that Aslan seems sad and distracted. His army moves camp, and later on that night he sneaks away by himself. Susan and Lucy see him and follow him. He goes to a place where there is a great stone table. There we see the Witch and all her evil followers waiting for him. Aslan allows himself to be tied up, and the Witch’s servants shave off his magnificent mane and drag him up onto the Stone Table. There the Witch kills Aslan with a terrible stone knife. She and her followers then leave to attack Aslan’s army.

Susan and Lucy come out of hiding and throw themselves on the body of Aslan, crying bitterly until they have no tears left. They spend the night keeping vigil at the Stone Table. When dawn comes they both feel very cold, so they get up and walk around. Suddenly, when the first ray of sunrise comes over the horizon, they hear a great cracking sound. They turn and see that the Stone Table is cracked and the body of Aslan is gone.

      “Who’s done it?” cried Susan. “What does it mean? Is it more magic?”

      “Yes,” said a great voice behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked around. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane… stood Aslan himself.

It doesn’t take long for Aslan to convince the girls that he’s alive, and they have a wonderful romp around the Stone Table together. But eventually, after giving an earth-shaking roar, Aslan tells the girls to climb onto his back. He then races across Narnia to the castle of the White Witch. She and all her armies are gone, and Aslan jumps the wall and lands in the courtyard, which is full of the statues of people she has turned into stone. As the girls watch, Aslan runs around the courtyard and begins breathing on the statues. Gradually, by the breath of Aslan, the whole courtyard comes alive again. Aslan’s breath creates colour, where before there was only the deadly grey of the stone. Where there was only silence, now Aslan’s breath sets voices free: “happy roarings, brayings, yelpings… shouts, hurrahs, songs and laughter.” Aslan’s words are coming true: death itself is working backwards.

I won’t tell you the rest of the story; if you’ve already read it, you don’t need me to remind you of it, and if you haven’t—well, what are you waiting for? But you may be asking “What’s this got to do with us today, on Easter Sunday at St. Margaret’s?”

Today we’ve heard once again the story of the resurrection of Jesus, which was as much of a surprise to his followers as the resurrection of Aslan was to Susan and Lucy. The first disciples of Jesus were hiding behind locked doors on the evening of Easter Sunday, for fear they would be arrested and crucified in their turn. They were terrified that Jesus’ death would lead to their own deaths. They didn’t dare hope that in fact Jesus’ resurrection would one day lead to their own resurrections.

But this is in fact what the New Testament tells us. Let me quote again to you the words of Aslan with which I began this sermon:

“If (the White Witch) could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before time began…she would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start to work backwards.”

This is exactly what the death and resurrection of Jesus mean for us today. You and I are Edmund—we have believed the lies of evil and so we’ve turned away from our true King and become traitors to him. But our acts of treachery have been laid on Jesus. Out of love for us, God sent his Son into the world to take our place and die our death, so we could go free.

But death was not the end for Jesus. I once heard a story of a spider spinning a magnificent web across the mouth of a railway tunnel in an attempt to derail a train. That spider was suffering from a case of hubris, wouldn’t you think? And in the same way, for Herod and Pilate to think they could derail the love of God in Jesus turned out to be a similar case of hubris. “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree,” says Peter, “but God raised him on the third day.” (Acts 10:39-40)

This is wonderful enough, because it means the Saviour of the world is not dead but alive, and he can still act in the lives of men and women today. But this isn’t the end of the story. The New Testament doesn’t see the resurrection of Jesus as an isolated event. Rather, Jesus has started a resurrection movement. Here’s how Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 15, as translated by Eugene Peterson in The Message:

But the truth is that Christ has been raised up, the first in a long legacy of those who are going to leave the cemeteries. There is a nice symmetry in this: Death initially came by a man, and resurrection from death came by a man. Everybody dies in Adam; everybody comes alive in Christ. But we have to wait our turn: Christ is first, then those with him at his Coming. (1 Corinthians 15:20-24)

Imagine being a participant on the most incredible Caribbean cruise, on the most wonderful luxury liner afloat. Imagine on the first night out, as you sit in the dining room, hearing the captain describe all the pleasures that are in store for you—beautiful islands, warm weather, swimming, luxury dining and entertainment and so on. But then imagine the chill that would fall on the room if the captain then said, “But of course, it’s not going to end well. We know that before the cruise ends the ship is going to be involved in a collision and all of us are going to drown. So, let’s do our best to have a good time while we can.” I think that would cast a pall over the proceedings, don’t you?

That’s a bit like our human situation. We may try hard to keep our bodies fit, but they’re still going to die one day. We work hard to earn money, but we’re going to leave it all behind one day. We can try to make good marriages and raise good families, but death will still separate us from them. We humans might prefer to forget this, but it’s the indisputable fact that lies behind our entire existence.

And then Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” (John 11:25) He’s talking about our being raised from the dead, with new physical bodies like his resurrection body, no longer subject to illness or decay or death, but living forever with him. Just like Aslan breathing on the statues in the White Witch’s castle, Jesus is going to breathe new life into us one day, and we will share in his resurrection.

This hope affects every moment of our present lives. If you know you’re going to live forever with God, if you know that when you read about Jesus’ resurrection body you are reading about what you are going to be like some day—well, that changes everything. You’re going to live forever, so it makes sense to ask God to help you be the best possible person you can be—forever! You can do things and say things now that will have an eternal effect. Nothing will be lost, nothing will be wasted, every good deed will be remembered as significant.

So you see, it’s not just our future that’s transformed by Jesus’ resurrection—it’s our present too. You know how we sometimes say to people, “Get a life!” Most of the people we say this to are, in fact, biologically alive! But we know instinctively that there’s more to life than biology. It’s possible to be biologically alive and yet still be missing out on life in all its fulness.

The way to discover life in its fulness is to live by faith in Jesus. The author of John’s Gospel explains to us why he wrote his book: “…these (things) are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31) According to John, the way to ‘get a life’ is to bet your life on Jesus, to trust him enough to be willing to gather up your life in your hands, give it to him, and live as his follower for the rest of your days.

That’s the invitation Easter is giving us. Jesus has been raised, so death itself has started to work backwards, and this changes everything. Don’t waste your time on stuff that’s not going to last forever. Put your trust in Jesus, put your life in his hands, and ask him to breathe new life into you. And don’t put it off—take the next step today.

‘Sent to Serve’ (a sermon for Maundy Thursday on John 13.34-35)

A Rule of Life is a tool some Christians use to become more intentional about their plans for following Jesus in a practical way. Some rules are large and detailed, like the one St. Benedict developed for his monks in the sixth century, which is still used in Benedictine monasteries today. It dots every ‘i’ and crosses every ‘t’ and doesn’t leave a lot of room for interpretation and adaptation. Other rules are more like general principles and guidelines, giving a lot of leeway for individual Christians to figure out how to apply them in their daily lives.

Last year in the Diocese of Liverpool in England, Bishop Paul Bayes introduced a Rule of Life like that. He challenged all Christians in his diocese to take it and think about how they would live it out in their own lives. This is a bare bones Rule that asks for a lot of thought and prayer on the part of those who use it. It’s simply this: ‘Called to pray, read, and learn. Sent to tell, serve, and give’.

I like this Rule because it gives lots of leeway for everyone using it to try out different ways of applying it, ways that work for them. We can easily see that praying, reading and learning are three avenues of receiving strength and wisdom from God—that’s the ‘input’ side. And we can easily see that telling the good news, serving others, and giving generously are integral parts of active discipleship—that’s the ‘output’ side. But each of us needs to decide for ourselves exactly what that looks like in our daily lives.

Now you may be thinking, this is all very well, but what’s it got to do with the Maundy Thursday story?

Simply this: When Bishop Paul first proposed this Rule for Liverpool diocese, some people criticized him because the word ‘love’ doesn’t appear in it anywhere. Surely love is the centre of the Christian life, isn’t it? Shouldn’t we name it, then? Shouldn’t we specifically mention ‘love’ as one of the ways we’re called to follow Jesus? After all, in our gospel for tonight we heard Jesus say,

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13.34-35).

This is it, says Jesus! This is the essential sign of true Christian faith—loving one another as he has loved us. And if this is so important, why wouldn’t we name it as a central part of our practical, daily discipleship?

In principle I agree with this, but nonetheless I’m going to support Bishop Paul here. My reason is that ‘love’ is an English word, and the Gospel of John wasn’t written in English. It was written in Greek. And one thing linguists will tell you is that no word in one language is ever the exact equivalent of a word in another language. The donor word will have additional shades of meaning that can’t be captured by any single word in the receptor language, and vice versa.

In modern English the word ‘love’ is used in all kinds of ways. Some people love hip hop music and listen to it all the time, to the great annoyance of their friends! Some people love curry. Some people love the poor and demonstrate it by volunteering in soup kitchens. Some people love elderly relatives and give hours each week to serving them. Some people love their spouses or romantic partners. Some people love their old jeans. Some people love their favourite political party.

Are we using exactly the same concept here? Of course not. None of the situations I described above is exactly equivalent. Some of them are vastly different from each other. And yet we use the same English word for them.

But one thing many of them have in common is an emotional component. Love is a something we feel. We may do something active because of our love, but our love itself isn’t an action. It’s not a verb. It’s an emotion, often located in our ‘hearts’.

Greek has a word like that: eros. Eros is desire for something wonderful. You can feel eros for a beautiful person, or a sumptuous meal, or even for God. But eros isn’t about helping or serving. It’s desire for an experience of participation. Today we use ‘eros’ primarily to describe sex. In the ancient world it was a wider word, but the basic principle is still true.

But when the New Testament writers talked about love, they used the word ‘agapé’. Agapé means love in action. It’s something you do, not something you feel. When you visit elderly relatives, clean up for them, drive them to medical appointments and so on, what you’re doing is agapé. Agapé isn’t what you’re feeling (there’s another Greek word for family affection!)—it’s what you’re doing. Likewise when you hammer nails at a Habitat for Humanity building site, or give to World Vision, or stick with a friend who’s struggling with addictions even when they’re a nuisance. No matter what you feel, you are living agapé.

Jesus is the prime example of agapé for us. In our Gospel he says “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another”. How does he love us?

This weekend gives us two examples of the way he loves us. The most dramatic way is by going to the Cross and dying for us. Jesus’ love is absolute and complete. There’s nothing he won’t sacrifice for us, even his own life. He loves not only his friends, but also his enemies. When his enemies whip him and spit at him and nail him to the Cross, he refuses to fight back or retaliate. He will die himself rather than act out of hatred or revenge.

You and I may be called to do that. Certainly around the world today there are Christians who are called to do that. They live in places where it’s dangerous to be identified as a Christian. But they do it willingly, and many of them give their lives, sometimes in very painful ways.

Of course, there are other ways of giving your life than dying. Some people leave lucrative careers to give themselves in Christian service in poorly paid jobs in obscure parts of the world. I think of people with Ph.D.s in linguistics who are spending their lives in the jungles of South America working for Wycliffe Bible Translators, translating the scriptures into languages spoken by only a few hundred people. I think of colleagues of mine with seven years of university and master’s degrees under their belts, who’ve moved away from family and friends to the far north to serve in the most isolated and poorly paying churches in the Anglican Church of Canada.

These are dramatic examples of taking up your Cross and following Jesus. We Christians are challenged to be ready to do that if we sense God is calling us to it. But most of us probably won’t be called to do it.

All of us, however, are called to follow the other example Jesus gives us: foot washing. This was not a spectacular job. It wasn’t anything romantic. It was a practical necessity. People wore open sandals, roads were dusty and muddy. They then came in for the evening meal. It wasn’t served at tables like ours with people sitting upright in chairs. Michelangelo’s ‘Last Supper’ gets it all wrong! There would be a central table with the food on it, and then people would recline in angled couches all around that table. They would recline on one elbow and use their other hand to help themselves to food. And when they did that, their feet would be in very close proximity to their neighbours’ noses!

That’s what footwashing was all about. Usually the servants or slaves did it when people came in for the meal. But on that night, for some reason, no one had done it. Maybe there was no slave or servant. We don’t know. But we do know that eventually Jesus got down, removed his outer garment, took a basin and went around washing the feet of his disciples.

What does he say next?

“Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13.12-17).

And this is where we come full circle to Bishop Paul’s Rule of Life. “Servants are not greater than their master,” says Jesus. Agapé is about serving. It’s not about emotions but actions. Bishop Paul’s Rule of Life says we are ‘sent to serve’. That’s where agapé fits in. I would argue that ‘serve’ is actually a better word than ‘love’, because in modern English ‘love’ is such an emotionally loaded word. ‘Serve’ makes it clear we’re talking about actions.

And this is something we’re all called to do in very down to earth ways. The danger of a footwashing service is that we can sometimes forget this. Footwashing isn’t a normal part of our daily lives. But dishwashing is. Clothes washing is. House cleaning is. Shovelling snow from an elderly person’s walk is. Volunteering at a soup kitchen is.

Tonight we serve one another symbolically by washing each other’s feet and hands. But let’s not forget that we have to make the symbol a reality in our daily lives. We do that by looking for practical ways we can serve one another, and then doing it willingly.

And let’s not forget that we need to be willing to receive service as well. So often in the Christian community we’re cheated out of the opportunity to serve because our fellow Christians won’t admit they need help. We need to be willing to be vulnerable, to admit we can’t do everything. We need to be willing to ask for help when we need it. And then, as a community, we need to be faithful to Jesus’ call to serve one another as he serves us. That’s what it means to love. And that’s how people will know we’re Jesus’ disciples.

Edmund: He died that We Might Live (‘Following Jesus through Narnia #6)

All through this Lent we’ve been focusing on C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories—not just The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but the other six books as well. We’ve been thinking each week about some of the characters and what they can teach us about following Jesus. This week, on Palm Sunday, we come to the heart of the matter. This week we remember that before we can think about following Jesus, first of all there’s something Jesus has to do for us. Or rather, there’s something Jesus has done for us that we need to acknowledge. There’s a gift he’s given that we need to receive.

So let’s think today about Edmund Pevensie. Let remind you briefly of the story. Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are four children evacuated from London during the blitz. They find themselves at the house of an elderly professor out in the country, and it’s Lucy, the youngest, who first finds her way into the magical country of Narnia through an old wardrobe in a spare room. There she meets a faun, Tumnus, who tells her about the tragedy of life in Narnia: it’s ruled by the evil and tyrannical White Witch, and she’s put an enchantment on the country, making it always winter but never Christmas. Of course, when Lucy gets back into our world no one believes her tale of this magical country.

However, eventually her brother Edmund finds his way into Narnia too. There he happens to meet the White Witch. She is well aware of an old prophecy that says that when two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve sit on the four thrones of the castle of Cair Paravel, her reign will be over. So when she hears Edmund is one of four she immediately sets out to seduce him to her side. She does this by appealing to his self-indulgence and pride. She invites him to sit with her and gives him Turkish Delight to eat. Lewis tells us this was ‘enchanted Turkish Delight and anyone who tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.’ The Witch then goes on to appeal to his pride. She wants a nice boy, she says, who can be a prince and can be king after she is gone. But the prince will need servants, so he should bring his brother and sisters back to Narnia and bring them to her house. There he will rule over them, and they will have to obey him.

Edmund gives in to her temptations. He’s decided where his loyalty lies: with her. He goes back to our world and doesn’t tell anyone what’s happened to him. Even when Lucy warns him about the White Witch and her evil ways he chooses not to believe her, because of the wonderful memory of the Turkish Delight and the Witch’s promise that he will be a prince.

Eventually all four children find their way into Narnia. The time comes, in the house of the beavers, when for the first time they hear about Aslan, the great Lion, the Son of the Emperor over Sea—the true ruler of Narnia. For Peter, Susan, and Lucy, the name brings them excitement and joy. But Edmund feels ‘a sensation of mysterious horror’. He’s chosen to side with evil by giving his allegiance to the Witch, so true goodness has begun to scare and repel him. Even though he’s never met Aslan, in fact he’s already rejected him.And this decision affects his relationships with his siblings. Lewis says: ‘He kept on thinking that the others were taking no notice of him and trying to give him the cold shoulder. They weren’t, but he imagined it’.

But the time comes when even Edmund comes to see the truth. He goes to the White Witch’s castle and tells her he’s brought his three siblings very close, to the beavers’ house. We read that ‘Edmund…expected that the witch would start being nice to him… But she said nothing at all. And when at last Edmund plucked up his courage to say, “Please, your Majesty, could I have some Turkish Delight? You—you—said”, she answered, “Silence, fool!”’ Edmund finally wakes up to the truth: the Witch isn’t kind at all. She’s evil, and all her promises to him are lies.

This story of the temptation and fall of Edmund is an illustration of our human condition. The four Pevensie children are destined to be kings and queens, caring for Narnia in the name of Aslan. In the same way, the Bible tells us we’ve been created by God in his image to be stewards of his creation. But the forces of evil are well aware of the potential for good if human beings accept this role, so throughout our history we’ve been seduced by the power of evil.

Two of the most common temptations are self-indulgence and pride. For us it probably won’t be Turkish Delight. But it might be the desire for more and more luxuries. You know how it works: you see something advertised on TV or online, and you think, “That’s it! If I had that, I’d be really happy!” So you buy it, and you are really happy—for half an hour. But then a vague sense of unease begins to set in. It’s actually just a thing, and it hasn’t given you the deep inner satisfaction you’re looking for. It’s like enchanted Turkish Delight—no matter how much of it you eat, you want more and more, even if it kills you.

It might be the desire for possessions; it might be the desire for excitement and thrills or illicit sexual pleasure. Whatever form it takes, self-indulgence is a powerful temptation to seduce us from the side of the one true King.

The other temptation is pride. Edmund wasn’t content to be just one of the four Pevensie children. He wanted to be noticed above all the others, to be recognized, to be the prince over his brother and sisters. In Robert Bolt’s play ‘A Man for All Seasons’, young Richard Rich asks Sir Thomas More to find him a place at the court of King Henry VIII. More refuses and advises him to be a teacher: ‘You would make a good teacher’, he says. Rich replies, ‘And if I did, who would know?’ That’s the allure of pride: I want everyone to know what an amazing individual I am!

But the promises of evil are false. Trying to find ultimate satisfaction by following the lies of the devil is like trying to quench your thirst by drinking salt water: the more you drink, the thirstier you get. The White Witch doesn’t deliver on her promises. She doesn’t intend to make Edmund a prince at all. She intends to use him to trap his three siblings and then kill them all.

But her plan doesn’t work out. Some of Aslan’s soldiers rescue Edmund, and he’s restored to his brothers and sisters. There’s great rejoicing in Aslan’s camp, and the four children think Edmund’s problems have all been solved. However, this is not the case. The Witch has an ace up her sleeve.

The Witch asks for a meeting with Aslan, at which she reminds him of a law put into Narnia at the very beginning by the Emperor: the law that says every traitor belongs to her. For every act of treachery, she has a right to a kill. This is called the ‘Deep Magic’. Susan says, ‘“Oh Aslan… can’t we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn’t there something you can work against it?’ ‘Work against the Emperor’s Magic?’ said Aslan, turning to her with something like a frown on his face. And nobody ever made that suggestion to him again’.

It becomes clear that there’s a law of right and wrong in Narnia, and Aslan has no intention of challenging it. Treachery is evil, and evil can’t be indulged. So Aslan sends the others away and talks privately with the Witch. Eventually he announces to everyone that he has settled the matter, and the Witch has renounced her claim on Edmund’s blood. Of course, there’s great rejoicing all round.

But Aslan isn’t rejoicing. Susan and Lucy notice that he seems sad and distracted. His army moves camp, and later on that night he sneaks away by himself. Susan and Lucy see him, and they follow him. He allows them to walk with him, even asking them to touch him and put their hands in his mane so that he can feel the comfort of their presence. Eventually he tells them to hide themselves, and he goes on alone to a place where there is a great stone table—obviously a sacrificial altar. There we see the Witch and all her evil followers waiting for him. Aslan allows himself to be tied up, and the Witch’s servants shave off his magnificent mane and drag him up onto the Stone Table. There the Witch taunts him: Aslan may die in the place of Edmund as they agreed, she says, but once he is out of the way, what’s to stop her from killing Edmund and the others anyway? Then all of Narnia will be hers forever. ‘In that knowledge’, she says to him, ‘despair and die’, and she kills him with a terrible stone knife.

But that’s not the end of Aslan. The Witch’s knowledge reaches only to the dawn of time. She wasn’t there before the dawn of time, and so she didn’t know about the Deeper Magic. This magic goes further than justice; it allows for forgiveness and redemption as well. Aslan explains it later to the two girls: apparently it says that, ‘When a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards’. So it’s not the end of Aslan.

But for today, let’s stay with the idea of Aslan’s death. Very obviously, Lewis is giving us a picture of the death of Jesus and what it means for us. He’s trying to do a very daring thing. Christian theologians have tried for two thousand years to explain exactly how the Cross saves us from our sins. Every one of their explanations works well as an illustration, but when we start trying to apply all the details, we run into trouble.

What Lewis is giving us in this story is sometimes called the ‘substitution’ idea of the Cross of Jesus. The idea is that we human beings are the guilty ones, but God in his great love for us comes among us in Jesus and takes our place, the innocent in the place of the guilty, so that we can be freed and forgiven. The idea has strong biblical roots, perhaps most strongly in the book of Isaiah, chapter 53 – a passage that we read every year on Good Friday:

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)

Edmund’s act of treachery has been laid on Aslan. Edmund was the guilty one; Aslan had done no wrong. But out of love for Edmund and respect for the principles of justice on which Narnia was founded, Aslan took Edmund’s place and died for him, so that he could go free. The story is teaching us that this is the incredible gift that God has given us in Jesus.

We shouldn’t take it any further than that. I know some people have taken it further, and they’ve been bothered by it. “If Aslan is Jesus and the White Witch is the devil”, they ask, “does that mean that God and the devil have an agreement, and every time someone sins, the devil acts as God’s executioner?” That’s the problem with an illustration. Most good illustrations work well as long as you stick to the main point, but start to unravel when you try to make every little detail fit. Of course there was no bargain or agreement between God and the devil. The forces of evil are usurpers with no place in God’s ultimate plan. The Cross was the great victory over evil, not some sort of accommodation with it.

Still, it’s a powerful story. I’m Edmund, and so are you. We’ve given into temptation, believed the lies of evil, and found in it not the good life it promised, but a sentence of death. But God in his great love for us has come among us in Jesus and taken that sentence of death on himself. He died that we might live.

On Thursday night we’re going to hear again the story of how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. When he came to Peter, Peter protested: “You shall never wash my feet.” Peter understood that Jesus was his master. It wasn’t the master’s place to wash the servants’ feet.

But Peter didn’t understand that before he could do anything for Jesus, Jesus had to do something for him. And the same is true for us. Long before we did anything for Jesus, Jesus did something incredible for us. The Christian life starts when we acknowledge what he has done, thank him for it, and accept the gift he’s given to us through his death on the Cross. The rather quaint words of an old chorus express it well:

There’s a way back to God from the dark paths of sin;
There’s a door that is open that you may go in.
At Calvary’s cross is where you begin,
When you come as a sinner to Jesus.

Lucy: Childlike Devotion (Following Jesus through Narnia #5)

In 2005 Walt Disney studios brought out a lavish film production of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,using human actors rather than animation. Many of you have seen it and I’m guessing you’ll agree with me that young Georgie Henley, who plays Lucy Pevensie, just steals the show. I will never forget the incredible expression of wonder on her face when she comes through the wardrobe and catches her first glimpse of the snow-covered magic of Narnia. Throughout the movie she does a wonderful job of portraying Lucy’s sense of humour, her love of fun, and her childlike innocence. She’s a very gifted actor and gives us a wonderful depiction of one of C.S. Lewis’ most loveable characters.

Most of you know we’ve been using Lewis’ ‘Narnia’ stories as our spiritual guide this Lent. We started out by thinking about Aslan the Lion, the Christ-figure, to discover what he can teach us about Jesus. We found that Jesus is not tame or safe, but he’s good, and we should approach him with absolute confidence in his love for us, and absolute obedience to his authority. We went on to consider Eustace, a boy whose selfishness turned him into a dragon. From him we discovered that only the power of Jesus can deliver us from selfishness and transform us into the people he wants us to be. In the third week we thought about Bree, Hwin, and Aravis. From them we discovered that we need to turn from pride, whether it takes the form of trying to impress others, or of thinking only of ourselves and not the interests of others. Then last week we thought about Puddleglum the Marsh Wiggle; he taught us to trust and obey our good Lord Jesus.

This week we’re thinking about Lucy, and I’ve called this talk ‘childlike devotion’. In the Gospels we discover that Jesus has a very high opinion of children.

He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:2-4).

So in Jesus’ view, the Kingdom of God belongsto children—it’s their native country. If we adults want to enter it, we have to learn from children what it’s all about. Lucy Pevensie can help us there.

Let me very quickly remind you that in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobethe four Pevensie children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, are magically transported to the land of Narnia. They discover that Narnia is under the tyrannical rule of the evil White Witch who has made it always winter and never Christmas. But they also discover that the son of the great Emperor-over-Sea, Aslan the Great Lion, has returned, and is going to set the world to rights again. He needs their help to do it, however, because of an old prophecy about two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve sitting on the four thrones of the castle of Cair Paravel.

One of the most moving stories in the whole book—and a story that we’re going to focus in on next week—is the story of how Aslan willingly gives his life in the place of Edmund, who has become a traitor. Aslan slips out of the camp at night to give himself up to the White Witch, but the two girls, Susan and Lucy, see him and go along with him. He’s sad and lonely and even asks them to touch him and put their hands in his mane so that he can feel the comfort of their presence. Later they watch as the White Witch kills Aslan with a terrible stone knife, and then her armies rush away to attack his army. The girls are left with his body, and all night long they keep vigil, crying until they have no tears left to cry.

But when morning comes, the stone table cracks in two because of ‘deeper magic from before the dawn of time’, and the girls see Aslan alive again. “Aren’t you dead, then, dear Aslan?” asks Lucy. “Not now,” he replies. “Oh, you’re real, you’re real! Oh, Aslan!” cries Lucy, and both girls fling themselves on the great Lion and cover him with kisses. A few moments later they go for a thrilling ride on his back to the White Witch’s castle, where they watch as he frees the captives she has turned into stone.

I get the sense that their presence with Aslan on this awful night forges a special bond between the two girls and the great Lion. But Susan later forsakes this special relationship. The reason is clear: she’s too interested in acting like a grown-up. And what’s the result? In the last Narnia story Peter explains to King Tirian, “My sister Susan…is no longer a friend of Narnia,” and Jill Pole adds, “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.” Later Eustace clarifies what Jill means. He says that when the children are talking about their adventures in Narnia Susan comments, “Fancy you still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.”

Susan knows they weren’t games. She was there when Aslan died. She touched him with her own hands and saw Narnia with her own eyes. But for some reason it’s no longer real or important to her, or at least, not as important as being thought of as a sophisticated, grown-up girl. So she loses her childlike devotion to Aslan. It’s a sad story, and a warning to us all.

But Lucy never loses her deep love for Aslan, and because of that, she’s able to see what others can’t see and love when others can’t love. She often calls the Lion ‘Dear Aslan,’ and he returns her love, calling her ‘Dear Heart’ and ‘Dear One.’ Let me point out to you three consequences of Lucy’s childlike devotion to Aslan.

First, she can often see him when others can’t see him. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Edmund is explaining to Eustace about Aslan, and he says, “Lucy sees him most often.” There’s an outstanding example of this in the book Prince Caspian. The children are trying to find their way to Prince Caspian’s camp, and they come to the edge of a deep gorge. The way ahead isn’t clear, but then Lucy cries out, “Look! Look! Look!” “Where? What?” everyone asks. “The Lion” Lucy says. “Aslan himself. Didn’t you see?” But no one else can see Aslan, and the majority vote to go the other way. Eventually they run into a party of enemy troops, and they have to retrace their steps back the way they came. That night, once again, Aslan appears to Lucy, and once again she has to try to persuade the others to follow her as she follows Aslan. “Will the others see you too?” she asks him. “Certainly not at first,” he replies. “Later on, it depends.”

So Lucy does as she’s told, and she’s able to convince the others to follow her, and gradually, one by one, they are able to see Aslan. We often say “Seeing is believing,” but Lucy teaches us that in the Christian life it’s often the other way around—believing is seeing. Well, that’s not quite right either: what Lucy teaches us is that ‘Believing and loving is seeing.’ Lucy can see Aslan because she loves him; that’s her secret.

And we need to learn that secret too. If you wait for conclusive proof of love before you marry someone, you’ll never get married. If you wait for conclusive proof before you choose to believe in Jesus, you’ll never believe in him. There are things we can only understand from the inside. They make no sense at all when we’re on the outside looking in.

Many years ago, when I was a student, I went with some friends one Sunday evening to a healing service. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember that there were some remarkable healings in answer to prayer that night. One of my fellow-students had brought a friend with him, a man who wasn’t a Christian and was extremely skeptical. He spent the entire journey home after the service pointing out to us the obvious rational explanations for the things we had seen. He didn’t believe and he didn’t love God; therefore he couldn’t see. How very grown-up!

Because Lucy loves Aslan, she can see him when others can’t. Also, because Lucy loves Aslan, she’s quick to accept correction from him. Aslan isn’t a tame lion, remember, and so even though Lucy is his dear one he doesn’t shrink from correcting her. On the first Sunday of Lent, when we were talking about Aslan, I mentioned the story we were thinking about a moment ago—the story of the time Lucy tried to lead the others after Aslan when only she could see him, but they wouldn’t follow. When he appears to her again that night, this is what happens:

      ‘Yes, wasn’t it a shame?’ said Lucy. ‘saw you all right. They wouldn’t believe me. They’re all so…’

      From somewhere deep inside Aslan’s body there came the faintest suggestion of a growl.

      ‘I’m sorry’, said Lucy, who understood some of his moods. ‘I didn’t mean to start slanging the others. But it wasn’t my fault anyway, was it?’

      The Lion looked straight into her eyes.

      ‘Oh, Aslan’, said Lucy. ‘You don’t mean it was? How could I – I couldn’t have left the others and come up to you alone, how could I? Don’t look at me like that… oh well, I suppose I could. Yes, and it wouldn’t have been alone, I know, not if I was with you…’

In the Gospels Jesus makes a very clear link between love and obedience: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). In my experience this is a sort of ‘chicken and egg’ type of affair. If we want to grow in our love for Jesus, one of the best ways is to do our best to follow his teaching. If we want to grow more conscientious in following his teaching, one of the best ways is to deepen our conscious contact with him, to get to know him better and to love him more, so our obedience isn’t a dreary and dutiful thing but the childlike obedience that Lucy gives to the Aslan she loves so much.

Because Lucy loves Aslan with a deep and tender love, she can see him when others can’t, and she is quick to accept correction from him. Likewise, if we love Jesus our ‘good Lord’, we will be able to experience his presence and we will be quick to accept his correction.

One more thing: because Lucy loves Aslan, she also has a tender heart toward others. Of all the characters in the Narnia stories, she’s probably the one who’s most patient with the failings of others. She’s always ready to reach out to people others find hard to love. For instance, in the second week we heard the story of how Eustace became a dragon because of his greed and selfishness. When he went to sleep on the dragon hoard he put a gold armband on his arm; when he woke up a dragon, his arm had gotten a lot thicker and the armband caused him terrible pain. Lucy was the one who noticed this: “Oh, look,” she said, “there’s something wrong with its leg.” And she tried to help the dragon by using some of her magical cordial to ease its pain. Earlier in the story, she was the one who tried to help Eustace when all he could think of was himself. And at the end of the series, The Last Battle—which is sort of like the ‘Book of Revelation’ of Narnia, in which Aslan brings an end to the world he created so long ago— it’s Lucy who weeps for the world she’d come to love so much, until she realises that all that was good in Narnia now lives on in Aslan’s country.

The apostle John points out to us that if we don’t love our sisters and brothers who we have seen, how can we love God whom we haven’t seen? And the reverse is also true—genuine, childlike love for Jesus will always soften our hearts to the sufferings of others, even others who aren’t easy to get along with.

Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God belongs to children. We adults have to learn to be childlike to enter it. Lucy’s childlike devotion to Aslan teaches us about this. She loves him with a deep and tender love, and so she can see him when other can’t. She’s ready to accept correction from him. And she’s ready to love others with the same love she learned from him.

At the end of John’s Gospel Jesus meets Simon Peter for the first time since Peter denied him three times in the courtyard of the high priest’s house. I’m sure Peter expects some word of reproof, but instead Jesus asks him a single question, in slightly different form, three times over: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” (John 21:16). The first question Peter is asked by the Risen Jesus isn’t about his failures or his expertise or his successes. It’s about his heart’s devotion.

I suspect the same will be true for us one day. I suspect that when we see the Son of God face to face, his first concern won’t be our Bible knowledge or our successes or any of that stuff. I suspect that his first concern will be, “Do you love me?” Learning to love Jesus like a little child is apparently a high priority in the Kingdom of God. Lucy Pevensie can teach us how to do it. Let’s pray that the Holy Spirit will help us to follow her example.