The Good Shepherd (a sermon on John 10:1-11)

Ever since I was a kid I’ve been a big fan of the Robin Hood stories. As most of you will know, Robin Hood is a legendary figure who is said to have lived in the late twelfth century in England during the time of the Crusades. King Richard the Lion Heart was away leading a crusading army, and his brother Prince John was ruling the kingdom on his behalf; in the Robin Hood stories Prince John is a self-serving tyrant who is taxing the people to death. Robin and his band of merry men live in Sherwood Forest, and they often confront Prince John’s local representative, the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham. Robin and his men have been driven into the outlaw life, and they spend their time robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, in anticipation of the day when King Richard will return to do away with corruption and put everything to rights.

So, at least, goes the legend! However, historians know that this is a very romantic view of Richard the Lionheart; he actually cared very little for the people of England, except as a tax base to support his very expensive foreign crusades. He was king for ten years but spent only a few months of that time in his own country; the rest of it was spent in the Holy Land or journeys there and back. That includes a time when he was kept prisoner in France and his people were taxed to raise an enormous ransom to set him free! So if the people were putting their hope in Richard to set things right, they were going to be disappointed. Like many political leaders, he turned out to be a self-serving adventurer who didn’t have the true welfare of his people at heart.

Of course, we’re no strangers to the political Messiah syndrome in the modern world either. Over and over again we’ve had political leaders using overblown rhetoric to persuade us to vote for them; if they get in they’ll ‘drain the swamp’ and give us ‘change we can believe in’. And over and over again, it’s been ‘welcome to the new boss – the same as the old boss’. It seems to be very hard for weak and sinful human nature to withstand the temptations of greed and self-aggrandizement and the love of power.

Now, you might ask, what does this have to do with the Easter season, and with John chapter 10 and the idea of Jesus as the Good Shepherd? Stay tuned: all will be made clear!

In the message the early Church preached, one of the meanings of the Resurrection is that Jesus is the true Lord of all. On the day of Pentecost Peter preaches to a huge crowd in Jerusalem; here’s one of the things he says to them:

“This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you see and hear” (Acts 2:32-33).

‘The right hand of God’ is the place of authority. So it’s Jesus, and not Herod Antipas or Pontius Pilate or Caesar off in Rome, who has ultimate authority. Jesus, and not some earthly pretender, is the true Lord of all. As Peter goes on to say, “God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). This is what the Resurrection means.

And this is also what John chapter ten means. In biblical times the image of the shepherd was a royal image; the kings and leaders of ancient Israel were thought of as shepherds of God’s people. This idea goes all the way back to King David, the shepherd boy who God chose to be ‘shepherd’ of his people Israel. We see it at the end of Psalm 78:

‘(God) chose his servant David,
and took him from the sheepfolds;
from tending the nursing ewes he brought him
to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
of Israel, his inheritance.
With upright heart he tended them,
and guided them with skillful hand’ (Psalm 78:70-72).

Later on, in Ezekiel chapter 34, the prophet delivers a thundering judgement against the corrupt kings of Israel:

‘Thus says the LORD God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals’ (34:2b-5).

This is what Jesus is talking about in John chapter 10. To claim to be ‘the Good Shepherd’ – not just ‘a’ good shepherd but ‘the’ Good Shepherd – is to claim to be a better king than the self-serving political and religious leaders who were exploiting the people of God instead of caring for them. Jesus was claiming to be the true King of Israel, the Messiah, who would care for the people of God.

And yet, I hear you saying, was Jesus really a king? He didn’t grab political power, he didn’t run a government, and he didn’t lead an army; instead, he proclaimed the coming of God’s kingdom and told people that the way to be greatest in the eyes of God was to be the servant of all. All of that is definitely true, and so we have to go on to say that we can only call Jesus a ‘king’ if we are changing the definition of kingship. To him, it’s more to do with spiritual and moral leadership based on the love the King has for his people, and their commitment to following him.

But many people prefer to follow a worldly political leader. Presidents and prime ministers and dictators can get use their power to things done! They can command budgets of trillions of dollars, they can send powerful armies on crusades to set things right, and they can do practical things to make the lives of people better. Isn’t it better to put our hope in these people to bring lasting change in the world, rather than in a romantic idealist like Jesus?

I can understand the attraction of that line of reasoning. But the problem is that all political leaders turn out to be disappointments in the end; even the best of them are imperfect people, with sins and weaknesses and skeletons in the closet. Even though they talk as if they’re going to build the new Jerusalem, it ends up only being New York! Even those who start out claiming to have the welfare of the people in mind – like the Bolsheviks in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century – often end up being just like the evil tyrants they replaced. And of course, even the best of them retire or die one day, and then a lot depends on those who follow them; will they continue on the same path? And so the psalmist says,

‘Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish’ (Psalm 146:3-4).

Jesus says he is not like these people; he is the Good Shepherd. What makes him so good? Let’s look at today’s gospel reading to get an answer to that question. One thing we’ll notice as we look at these verses is that Jesus is a very unusual shepherd. In fact, all three of the characteristics we’re going to mention are not things we’d usually find in a shepherd at all.

The first thing I want to mention is what he has in mind for his sheep. Look at John 10:9-10.

(Jesus said) “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”.

The thing that makes this unusual is that Jesus is entirely devoted to the well being of his sheep – not for what he can get out of them, but just for their own sake. Let’s be honest: most shepherds want healthy sheep, but it’s because of what they can get out of them. Whether they’re keeping sheep for the sake of their wool, or because they want the meat, they aren’t doing it out of the goodness of their hearts; they’re trying to make a living, and that’s what the sheep are for. In other words, most shepherds look after their sheep in order to exploit them.

Some politicians talk the talk about caring for their constituents, but they don’t walk the walk: when we watch their actions, we know that in the end it’s their own well being they’re dedicated to. Jesus is different; he’s committed to the well being of his sheep. His vision for us is that we might have life, and have it abundantly – or, as some translations say, ‘life in all its fullness’. Jesus isn’t interested in taking things away from you unless they are things that ultimately diminish your life. But what he’s really about is adding to your life; he wants to add the joy and peace and sense of purpose that come from knowing God, from having the Spirit living in you, from learning the ways of God. He came to give us life: that’s his vision for his sheep.

The second thing I want to mention is the depth of his commitment to his sheep. A hired worker has no personal investment in the sheep; they’re just working their hours and earning their wages. If some of the sheep get lost or sick or die, it might be a bad reflection on the hired worker but it doesn’t have a personal impact on them.

The shepherd in Jesus’ parable is the owner of the sheep; they belong to him, and he has a huge personal investment in them. This means he’s even willing to sacrifice himself on their behalf; as Jesus says in verse 11: ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’. This perhaps would have strained the credulity of Jesus’ hearers a little; I doubt if they’d known too many shepherds who were willing to die to protect their sheep. All the more reason why Jesus is such a Good Shepherd; his sheep are so important to him that he is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice on their behalf.

In the first letter of John we read: ‘We know love by this, that (Jesus) laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ (1 John 3:16). In the world we live in, it’s easy to get jaded about empty words. Businesses say they really care for their customers, and we’ve heard politicians talking about how their constituents are so important to them, but all too often the actions don’t match the words. But John goes on to say, ‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’ (1 John 3:18). This is what Jesus did; he didn’t just speak words of love, but gave his life on the Cross for us, so that we could be saved.

That’s the value God sets on each one of us. Sometimes we don’t feel as if we’re worth very much; sometimes we might even wonder if God knows we exist at all. If we feel that way, we should look to the Cross, where Jesus died, and say to ourselves, ‘That’s how much God loves me. That’s how far Jesus was willing to go to save me’. He is the good shepherd, and the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.

We’ve seen what he has in mind for his sheep, and the depth of his commitment to his sheep. The third thing I want you to notice is the intimacy of his relationship with each individual sheep. Look at John 10:3-4:

“The gatekeeper opens the gate for (the shepherd), and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice”.

There’s a two-way relationship here: the shepherd knows his sheep by name, and the sheep know their shepherd and the sound of his voice.

I had the privilege a few times to meet Ted Scott (he was Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada from 1971 to 1986). The first time was at a clergy retreat in Saskatoon in the spring of 1980; he was the retreat speaker, and he and I had a conversation on the first evening of the retreat. Our next meeting was five years later, at a clergy conference in the Arctic. On the first evening of the conference I saw him looking at me; the next morning he said to me, “I don’t remember your name, but I’ve met you before, haven’t I?” I was amazed at his memory and I quickly reminded him of my name. I saw him at national meetings several times after that, and he always remembered my name. I found that really impressive; as Primate of Canada he must have met thousands of people every year, and yet somehow he was able to treat each one as an individual and remember their names.

Jesus does not treat us as members of a collective. Jesus is the good shepherd; he knows your name, and he knows my name too. Again, I suspect this is unusual; I don’t think there are many shepherds who know their sheep by name, but Jesus does.

But it works the other way too, and this is perhaps the challenge this reading has for us. Jesus says, “the sheep follow (the shepherd) because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers” (John 10:4-5). The challenge is for us to get to know the voice of our good shepherd – our true King – so that we may be sure it’s really him we’re following and not a stranger who cares nothing for us.

The most important way for us to get to know the voice of Jesus is by hearing what he has to say in the gospels. The gospels give us a vivid and compelling picture of Jesus; it’s not hard for us to form an impression of the sort of person he is and the sort of things he has to say. You know this is true. For instance, if someone were to say to you ‘Jesus told his disciples that if they followed him he would make them rich’, you’d shake your head and think to yourself, ‘That doesn’t sound like something Jesus would say!’ So you see, you’ve already begun to get to know his voice. Keep reading the gospels, keep meditating on what Jesus has to say there, keep doing your best to put it into practice in your life, and you’ll find yourself getting a better and better sense of what his voice sounds like.

So we have a shepherd king with a compelling vision for us: he wants to give us life in all its fullness. We have a shepherd king with an absolute commitment to us: he was willing to lay down his life so that we could be saved. And we have a shepherd king who wants to have a close personal relationship with each of us, a relationship in which he knows us by name and in which we get to know the sound of his voice and learn to follow his leading.

One last thing: many pastors and priests see these words of Jesus as a model for their ministry, and to a certain extent there’s nothing wrong with that. But the trouble is that pastors and priests are only human, and inevitably we fail. If you treat your pastor or priest as the Good Shepherd, you’re going to be disappointed.

So don’t do that. Don’t fall into the trap of turning to a human pastor for the shepherding that only the Good Shepherd can give you. Remember the words of David in our psalm for today; he had priests in his life, but he doesn’t say ‘The priest is my shepherd’. He says ‘the Lord is my shepherd’. So pray that the Holy Spirit will fill you and help you get to know the real Good Shepherd, who gave his life for you and who knows you by name. And then give major time and attention to soaking up what the Gospels say about his life and teaching, so you can learn to know his voice and follow his leading. And when you get discouraged, remember his ultimate vision for you: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

Trump and Jesus

Orthodox_icon_of_Jesus_Christ_Pantocrator_24_grande

Donald Trump appears to be leading the world into a time of belligerence, building walls, turning on your neighbours, and picking fights with everyone about every little thing.

People of Jesus, do not follow him in this. Our Lord is about compassion, forgiveness, caring for the poor, welcoming the stranger, loving enemies and praying for those who hate us, sharing the good news of God’s love, and seeking first the Kingdom of God built by love, not the earthly empire built by force and coercion.

Let’s commit ourselves to following Jesus in loving God, our neighbours, and even our enemies.

Faith in the Risen Lord (a sermon on John 20:29-31)

At some time or other, most of us have probably used the phrase ‘Get a life’. If you’re a literal thinker, that’s actually a rather strange thing to say. All the people we say it to are, in fact, already alive: their hearts are beating, the blood is coursing through their veins, and their brains are more or less in working order.

But of course, that’s not what the phrase is all about. We all know instinctively that it’s possible to be biologically alive – ‘alive’ in the medical sense – and yet not to be enjoying everything life has to offer. It’s possible to get so caught up in foolishness and deception that we’re missing out on the most important things. And so we say ‘Get a life’, meaning ‘Smarten up! Don’t sweat the small stuff! Make sure you concentrate on the best things, the most important things’. After all, as my friend Harold Percy says, no one wants to be in the situation where God writes on their tombstone the words ‘Brilliant performance, but she missed the whole point!’

This is what John is talking about in our gospel reading for today:

‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these 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 20:30-31).

John wants us to ‘get a life’, and he says the way to do that is to put your faith in Jesus as the Messiah. If we believe in him and follow him, we will experience life to the full, the way God intended when he created us in the first place.

But there was a problem with ‘believing in Jesus as the Messiah’ for the first followers of Jesus. The word ‘Messiah’ (or ‘Christ’ in Greek) meant ‘the king God promised to send to set his people free’. In popular Jewish belief in the time of Jesus, ‘Messiah’ didn’t mean ‘someone who came to die on a cross so we could be forgiven’. It meant King Arthur, or Aragorn son of Arathorn, or King David – a powerful military leader who would raise an army in the name of God, drive out the forces of evil and set up God’s kingdom on earth by force. If you were the true Messiah, God would help you do this. On the other hand, if you were defeated – if you were killed by your enemies – that was a pretty good sign that you were faking it: you weren’t the true Messiah.

That’s why the Resurrection was so vital to the faith of those early Christians. If Jesus had stayed dead, they would probably have abandoned their belief in him as God’s Messiah. The Christian movement would never have gotten started, and Jesus would have been an interesting character studied by historians, but certainly not worshipped as the Son of God by two billion people around the world today.

But the New Testament witness is that those early Christians saw Jesus again in the flesh, alive and well, after they had seen him die. All four gospels record eyewitness stories. So does Paul in 1 Corinthians. Mary Magdalene saw him. So did Peter. So did the couple who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and the ten disciples in the Upper Room (and probably a few more with them), and Thomas the doubter, and a group of them fishing on the lake of Galilee, and another group of five hundred of them all together at once. These are some of the eyewitness stories recorded, or alluded to, in the New Testament.

One of them especially stands out in the Gospel for today. We all love ‘doubting Thomas’, because he’s so much like us. “I’d like to believe, Lord, but I just can’t! Just let me see with my eyes – let me touch your wounds – then I’ll believe!” He’s so honest; he’s unwilling to pretend he has one ounce more faith than he actually has! And incredibly, Jesus loves him so much that he gives him what he asks for.

‘Jesus came among them and said “Peace be with you”. Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (vv.26b-27).

The story doesn’t record that Thomas actually did that – reached out his hands to touch Jesus. Instead he falls at his feet and exclaims “My Lord and my God!” (v.28). And then Jesus says something tremendously significant:

“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (v.29).

That’s us, you see! Verse 20 says ‘Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord’ – but how can that verse apply to us? We’ve never seen the risen Lord. Like Thomas, we long to see him and touch him. If only he’d appear to us like he did to Paul on the road to Damascus! And so when it comes to faith we think of ourselves as second class Christians. We can’t really share the fullness of joy of those first witnesses; we can’t enjoy ‘life in his name’ in the same way they did.

Not so, says Jesus. The same blessing applies to us as to them; “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”. As St. Paul says in one of his letters, we walk by faith, not by sight.

Which, by the way, is a perfectly reasonable thing to do – and something we all do in certain areas of our lives. For instance, I believe in the existence of a planet called Pluto. I’ve never seen it with my own eyes, and I don’t expect to either. I don’t have the time or money to undertake the astronomical study I’d need to do. But credible astronomers have told me that Pluto exists; I believe their testimony, and so when someone asks me, I say, “Yes, I believe in Pluto”.

I also believe my wife loves me. I can’t see love or quantify it, but she tells me she loves me, and her actions seem to confirm the fact.

Well, that’s self-evident, you might say. To which I reply, not necessarily so. She might just have pretended to love me, and married me so she could get rich! All right, I admit that in our case that’s unlikely – but you can see that in some cases it would be an issue. Does Kate Middleton really love Prince William – or does she just enjoy all the attention she gets as Duchess of Cambridge? You see, evidence can sometimes be read in more than one way. In Shakespeare’s play ‘Othello’ a man is persuaded to believe in the infidelity of his wife by the lies of a false friend. We, the audience, can’t believe he’s falling for it; Desdemona so obviously loves and is faithful to her husband. But Othello is persuaded to read the evidence differently, and the result is a very sad end for them both.

It’s the same with Pluto; apparently the evidence can be read more than one way. I was raised to believe that there were nine planets, but a few years ago astronomers changed their minds – no, Pluto’s not really a planet after all! And then a few years later, some of them said “Well, it depends how you define ‘planet’!” So again, the evidence can be read in more than one way. It might be persuasive, but it’s not conclusive. In the end, we make a choice about things like this.

So why do we modern Christians, who have not seen the Risen Lord with our own eyes, choose to believe he is alive today? Let me suggest some answers to that question.

Some would say, “I believe it because that’s what I was taught when I was growing up”. And that’s undoubtedly very common and very valid. Many of us Christian parents hope that’s what will happen with our kids. Christ is very important to us – the most important part of our lives, many of us would say – and we want our kids to know and love him as well. So we pray for them, and bring them to church, and teach them the Bible story and the Christian way of life.

But lots of kids part company with things their parents teach them; it’s a natural part of growing up. As we get older, we learn to think for ourselves and make our own decisions. As adults, we decide which parts of our parents’ belief systems ring true for us, and which don’t. I’m a Christian today, but my Christian faith is not exactly the same as the faith of my parents. And that’s as it should be; otherwise it wouldn’t be my faith, it would be their faith, one step removed.

And that’s why I don’t think this can be an adequate answer in the long run. If the only reason I continue to believe in the resurrection is because that’s what my parents taught me, I think sooner or later that faith will fail. We have to go through a process of making that faith our own, and inevitably this will involve questioning and rethinking things.

Why do we believe in the resurrection today? Some would say, “I’ve examined the evidence and I find it compelling”. This was the approach of Frank Morison, a British writer who published a well-known book in 1930 called Who Moved the Stone? The first chapter was entitled, ‘The Book that Refused to be Written’. In it he described how he had been sceptical about the resurrection of Jesus and had set out to write a short paper disproving it. However, the more he read and researched and sifted through the evidence, the more he came to believe that the resurrection was well-founded. The book has been reprinted many times since then, and apparently many people have become Christians as a result of reading it.

Again, this can be very valuable, and I have to say I share Morison’s view. How do we explain the empty tomb? How do we explain the eyewitness stories? How do we explain the change in the disciples? I don’t have time to go into it this morning, but suffice it to say that many of us find the weight of evidence to be very firmly on the side of the truth of the resurrection. It’s not conclusive of course – if it was, everyone would believe – but it’s a lot more persuasive than many people think.

So some believe because that’s what their parents taught them, and some believe because they’ve examined the evidence and been convinced by it. Some, however, are impatient with all these logical arguments. They would say, “I believe because I’ve met the risen Jesus myself”. Archbishop Anthony Bloom was one of those people. He was a medical student in Paris during World War Two, and not a believer. One day, however. he went to hear a talk about the gospels given by a priest, and he was surprised and disturbed to find himself attracted by what the man said. This made him angry, but he couldn’t dismiss it. So when he went home, he sat down at his desk to read the gospel of Mark. He had only just begun to read, he said, when he became strongly aware of a presence in the room with him; he couldn’t see anyone, but he was as sure that there was someone there as he was of his own existence, and he knew instinctively that it was the risen Christ. This experience – not logical argument – was powerful enough to turn this agnostic into a Christian.

Some Christians do have experiences like that. Most of us don’t; our sense of the presence of Christ is more subtle. For me, I find that most of the time he’s there quietly in the background; I don’t tend to notice him unless I stop and pay attention, and then I realize he’s been there all the time. And I find that intriguing. Once again, I can choose to ignore him if I want, and the more I do that, the less obvious he is. But if I choose to pay attention to him, over time, my sense of him seems to grow.

But there’s one more reason for faith I’d like to share with you this morning. For me, this is the most powerful one. There’s a scene in John chapter six where disciples start leaving Jesus because they can’t make sense of what he’s saying about eating his flesh and drinking his blood; its offensive and revolting to them.

‘So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God”’ (John 6:67-69).

These verses really ring true for me. I believe in Jesus because I find his life and teaching so compelling. When he says, ‘What good is it to you to gain the whole world and lose your soul?’ my heart is shouting out a big ‘Amen!’ When he says, ‘a person’s life doesn’t consist of the abundance of their possessions’, it’s obvious to me that that’s true. When he says that the most important things in life are to love God and love your neighbour, I think, “Well, duh! Of course! Why can’t everyone see that?”

And it’s not just his words – it’s his life too. The way he reaches out to everyone, rich and poor, men and women, sinners and saints. The way he loves the people no one else loves. The way he includes women and children. The way he refuses to hate people his society tells him he should hate, like enemy soldiers or tax collectors. Hebrews tells us that Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God’, and I believe that to be profoundly true; I just know in my heart that if there is a God, he has to be like Jesus. ‘Like Father, like Son’.

‘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’. Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). To put your faith in Jesus and follow him is to have life, abundant life. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the risen Lord, but we rejoice too, even though we have not seen him with our eyes, because we believe he is alive and we are doing our best to walk with him day by day.

Let me close with an invitation; two invitations, in fact.

First, let me to invite you to ask yourself, “Why do I believe in the risen Lord? Is it just because that’s what my parents taught me? Is it because I’ve thought things through, examined the evidence and been convinced by it? Is it because I’ve had an experience of his presence in my life? Is it because I find his life and teaching so compelling? Or is it some other reason?” Probably, for most of us, the answer to that question will include a story of some kind – the story of our faith journey.

Second, let me invite you to make a fresh commitment of faith today. In a few minutes we’re going to join with the parents and godparents of Sloane, Steven and Kai as they make the baptismal covenant with God on behalf of their kids. I will ask them, “Do you believe in God…in Jesus…in the Holy Spirit” and ‘will you commit yourself to the Christian way of life as a member of the Church of Christ?’  Those promises can basically be summed up in the words “Jesus is my Lord, and I will follow him along with my fellow Christians”.

So make that commitment of faith again today. Say the words along with the parents and godparents. And then when we come to communion, dip your fingers in the water of the baptismal font and make the sign of the cross as a symbol of your faith and commitment to Jesus. And then, when our service is over, you can leave this place with joy, knowing that Jesus is alive, that he is Lord of all, and that your life is in his hands.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

He Was Raised and We Can Meet Him (a sermon for Easter Sunday)

This morning we gather together to celebrate an extraordinary, and astonishing, and overwhelming, and totally unexpected event.

It’s hard for us to think ourselves back into the situation of the first disciples of Jesus on that Sunday morning so long ago. We’ve heard the stories of the resurrection so many times that they’ve become commonplace to us. And we’ve seen pictures and movie depictions that make Jesus into some sort of resurrected therapist who comes to his early followers with the perfect bedside manner, speaking to them in hushed tones and telling them ‘Don’t be afraid’. It never seems to occur to us that there was a reason he told them not to be afraid!

Just think for a moment about what it would be like if you met a person you knew to be dead. Imagine this person was your friend, and you had seen him executed in a way that left absolutely no doubt that he was dead, and you had seen the place where he was buried. Imagine you went to visit the grave two days later, and found it empty, and then, on the way back, you met your friend again, obviously alive and perfectly healthy. Would you believe it? Would you think you were going crazy? How would you respond to your friend? Would you touch him, or would you be afraid to touch him? And what would you think it all meant?

This is the situation of the women in our gospel reading for today. These women have a very special place in the New Testament witness to the resurrection of Jesus; they are the very first evangelists – a New Testament word that means ‘those who pass on good news’. The fact that the gospel writers all record that women were the very first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection is quite surprising in the culture of that day. In those days, women were not considered to be reliable witnesses, and their testimony was not admissible in court. If the early Christians had been making up the stories of Jesus’ resurrection and wanting to convince people it had actually happened, they certainly would not have included women as the first witnesses. To me, this is a very strong indicator that their stories are true.

So these very first Christian evangelists are given a commission, first by an angel at the tomb, and then by Jesus himself. Look at verses 5-7:

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”.

And again in verse 10, the risen Jesus says to these same women,

“Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me”.

These commissions contain three things: first, a reassurance – “Do not be afraid” – second, an announcement – “He has been raised…come, see the place where he lay” – and third, an invitation – “Tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me”.

We’ve already talked about the reassurance – ‘Don’t be afraid’. Let’s go on to the announcement: Jesus has been raised from the dead.

This is the reason why the New Testament was written in the first place. It’s the reason why there’s a Christian Church today. A Jesus who had been crucified on Good Friday and stayed dead would never have inspired a joyful and dynamic movement that swept across the ancient world like the early church did. The Messiah was meant to save God’s people from their enemies. He wasn’t meant to be killed by them. To the early disciples, his death would have been conclusive proof that they had been wrong about him: he was not the Messiah after all. Do you think they would have gone on to start a preaching mission to go all over the world and tell everyone they had been wrong, and Jesus wasn’t the Messiah? I don’t think so.

No, it was only the resurrection of Jesus that got the Christian movement started on its amazing journey across the ancient world. It was these incredible eyewitness stories of people who said, over and over again, “We have seen the Lord!”

We have to admit right away that these stories don’t agree on every detail, and some of them are quite confusing to try to fit together. That shouldn’t surprise us; that’s often the way with eyewitness stories, especially stories of an amazing and unprecedented event, written down after the fact. Not surprisingly, some confusion about details creeps in.

But fortunately for us, all four gospel writers agree on the basic outline. They all agree that the burial of Jesus on Friday afternoon was rushed, and that various women agreed to come back to the tomb on Sunday morning to finish the job. All agree that when they arrived, they found the stone rolled away and the body gone. All agree that there was a messenger, or messengers, at the tomb, who told the women that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Matthew and John add the detail that Jesus himself appeared to Mary Magdalene, or to Mary and another woman, on their way back to the upper room, although the chronology is a bit unclear. When the male disciples heard the story, Peter and John went to the tomb to investigate for themselves, and they found it just as the women had said. Other meetings took place in the afternoon: a meeting with Peter, and with two others on the road to Emmaus. Then in the evening there was a meeting in the Upper Room described by Luke and John, at which all the disciples were present (although according to John, Thomas was absent).

So began a series of encounters that lasted for about six weeks, some in Galilee and some in Jerusalem. Some of them happened to individuals and some to groups. Paul tells us that at one time Jesus appeared to a group of five hundred of his followers at once, most of whom were still alive when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians twenty years later. Some of the encounters were short, and some were long.

It’s worth noting that none of the early Christians claimed to have actually seen the moment of resurrection. In some of the fictional accounts that were written later, they did, but the four canonical gospels don’t make this claim. What they do claim is that they knew Jesus was alive, because they had met him. And these were not just meetings with a ghost; some of the gospels mention that they touched his body, and that they watched him eat a piece of broiled fish.

And this leads us to the final part of this commission that was given to the first evangelists, the women at the tomb. They not only passed on the announcement that Jesus had been raised from the dead; they also passed on an invitation: they told the other disciples where they could go to meet with Jesus. The angel said to them:

“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’” (v.7).

And Jesus repeated this message:

“Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (v.10).

Do you sometimes feel a little twinge of envy here? I know I do! Wouldn’t it have been amazing if we could have been part of that little group of first century Christians who actually went to Galilee and met the risen Lord there? Surely that would answer all our doubts, wouldn’t it?

Well, maybe, although I note that later in this chapter, when the disciples met the risen Lord in Galilee, even though they were staring right at him it still says that ‘some doubted’ (Matthew 28:17). So seeing doesn’t necessarily make believing easier – sometimes you hardly dare to trust your eyes!

But it’s also clear that the people who wrote the New Testament didn’t think later generations of Christians would be under any disadvantage. They didn’t think Jesus was just a historical character; they thought he was alive, and had sent the Holy Spirit to fill his people, and that through the work of the Spirit we could continue to live in fellowship with him, even today, two thousand years later.

Those early women evangelists told the first disciples where they should go to meet the risen Lord. What if I stand with them this morning, as an evangelist, and tell you where you can meet him?

I need to be careful about this. Jesus isn’t like a slot-machine god: slot in the right prayer, and out comes Jesus! He’s totally in control, and it’s entirely up to him how he wants to make himself known to us. Sometimes people have dramatic experiences of his presence and his power; at other times, our Christian lives seem more mundane. We need to leave that up to Jesus, trusting that he knows best.

Nevertheless, down through the centuries, Christian people have testified that there are some places, or some situations, where Jesus does tend to make himself known. Let me list a few for you.

Let me invite you to meet him in the place of faith and commitment. When I was thirteen years old, I sat down on my bed in my room and prayed a simple prayer giving my life to Jesus. I can’t say that anything dramatic happened that night; Jesus didn’t appear to me, or anything like that. But looking back now, I know that simple prayer was the beginning of a whole new life with Christ for me. I’ve spent my life since then learning to know Jesus better and to follow him more closely. But it all began with a moment of decision: was I going to keep my life for myself, or was I going to give it to Jesus, the Lord of all, trusting that he loved me and wanted the best for me? That was my first real moment of faith and commitment.

Have you had a moment of faith and commitment – or more than one of them? Have you had a time when you’ve sensed that Jesus is real and you want to give yourself to him? Don’t be afraid; don’t hang back. Just tell him that you love him and you want to put your life in his hands, and ask him to help you know God. Sometimes that’s all it takes to spark a whole new relationship with the living God.

Let me also invite you to meet him in his sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion. Jesus tells us that baptism is the way we become disciples of Jesus, and Paul tells us that in baptism the Holy Spirit joins us to the Body of Christ. Luke tells us that when two of Jesus disciples met Jesus on the road to Emmaus on the afternoon of Easter Sunday, they didn’t recognize him until he ate with them, and then their eyes were opened and they realized it was Jesus. They went back to tell the others how the Lord had been made known to them in the breaking of bread. And we too experience this, when we gather around the Lord’s table together, and the bread is broken and the wine poured out. As we receive the bread and wine, we feed on him in our hearts by faith, and he draws us closer to himself.

If you haven’t been baptized and you’d like to be, come and talk to me. Or if you’ve been baptized and would like to renew your commitment, we can talk about confirmation. And if you are a baptized believer in Jesus, don’t hold back from this Holy Table. Prepare your heart to receive him and then come forward, holding your hands out in faith. We don’t know exactly how it happens, but we have been promised that it does happen: Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in him!’

So we can meet him in the place of faith and commitment, and we can meet him in his sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. Finally, let me invite you to meet him in the scriptures and in prayer.

Imagine this: your tasks are all done for the night. You’re starting to feel like it might be time to head for bed. But there’s still some time, and you have this hunger inside to get close to God.

So you make yourself a cup of tea, you find your Bible and you go off by yourself to some part of the house where you can shut the door for a few minutes. You sit down and take a sip of tea. You still yourself and take a minute of silence, closing your eyes and focusing your mind and heart on God. You intentionally turn away from all the concerns of the day. “God, I want to meet with you. Jesus, come and be with me. Holy Spirit, fill me with God’s love”.

After a minute you open your Bible to the place you left off the day before. You read a passage – a few verses, or perhaps a chapter. All the time you’re listening: ‘What does God want to say to me?’ Maybe you have some questions up your sleeve. What’s this passage telling me about God, about Jesus, about the Holy Spirit, about the world, about what’s important and what’s not important? Is there a promise in it for me? A warning of some kind? Is there a command for me to obey, and if there is, what would it look like if I put it into practice? Is there a good example for me to follow, or a bad one to avoid? Is there a person in this story I identify with? Why?

So you use your mind to meditate on Scripture, and maybe at the end of that time you’ve got one thought you want to take with you, to ‘sleep on’, as they say. Finally, you take a few minutes in prayer. You thank God for the good things you’ve received that day. You remember the times you failed God and other people and you ask God to forgive you. You pray for people you love who need God’s help, and for the needs of the world at large, and your own needs too. You worship God and praise God for his goodness and love. Maybe you finish off by saying the Lord’s Prayer quietly.

As you finish your prayer time you probably haven’t felt anything spectacular; you haven’t had any amazing mystical experiences. But I’ll be surprised if you don’t notice that you’re calmer somehow; you have a sense of peace you didn’t have when you started out. And you can go to bed and sleep easier because of it.

I’ve assumed that this time of prayer is taking place last thing at night. Actually, it never does for me, because I’m a morning person! So I get up in the morning, make my tea and have my time of prayer. The time doesn’t matter; what matters is the invitation to meet the living God and his Son, our Risen Lord Jesus Christ.

So to us, just like those first disciples, the evangelists come with good news.

Their good news includes reassurance. Don’t be afraid. God is in control. God is working his purpose out in ways you never expected.

Their good news includes an amazing announcement: Jesus is alive and he always will be. He is Lord of all, and all authority has been given to him.

And their good news includes an invitation: come and meet him. Meet him as the place of faith and commitment. Meet him together with his other disciples in his sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion. Meet him day by day in the scriptures and in prayer.

Don’t be afraid. He’s alive and he’s calling you to come and meet him. Are you ready to accept his invitation?

This Joyful Eastertide

This is my favourite Easter hymn. A joyful Easter, everyone! Christ is Risen!

This joyful Eastertide,
away with sin and sorrow!
My Love, the Crucified,
hath sprung to life this morrow.
Had Christ, that once was slain,
ne’er burst his three-day prison,
our faith had been in vain;
but now hath Christ arisen,
arisen, arisen, arisen.

My flesh in hope shall rest,
and for a season slumber,
till trump from east to west
shall wake the dead in number.
Had Christ, that once was slain,
ne’er burst his three-day prison,
our faith had been in vain;
but now hath Christ arisen,
arisen, arisen, arisen.

Death’s flood hath lost its chill,
since Jesus crossed the river:
Lover of souls, from ill
my passing soul deliver.
Had Christ, that once was slain,
ne’er burst his three-day prison,
our faith had been in vain;
but now hath Christ arisen,
arisen, arisen, arisen.

Words: George R. Woodward (1848-1934), 1894

Music: Vruechten (This Joyful Eastertide) (Dutch melody from David’s Psalmen, Amsterdam, 1685, arranged Charles Wood, 1866-1926)

The Cycle of Violence Ends Here (a sermon for Good Friday)

We come together today to remember how our Lord Jesus Christ was arrested, flogged, tortured and brutally executed in one of the most painful ways imaginable. And surely, as we think about the Good Friday story, we can have a real sense that on that day, God was truly one of us. God came among us and shared the experience that so many people go through in our world today – the experience of being a victim of oppression, violence and unjust death.

I prepared this sermon at the end of last week, a week in which we saw the gas attacks on Syrian civilians – including children – followed by the so-called U.S. ‘retaliation’, in which fifty-nine cruise missiles were used to destroy the Syrian airfield from which the attacks were launched. This is of course just the latest round in the long tale of violence and brutality in the story of Syria. Government and various rebel factions have been at odds for years, and the process of strike and counterstrike has been going on day by day, causing hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. And it’s set in the midst of a bigger picture: the tensions between Russia and the West, and the long history of western interventions in the Middle East, which don’t exactly have a good track record of achieving long term peace and stability.

It’s not my intention this morning to preach a political sermon. I simply want to point out that this is the world we live in, and it was the world Jesus lived in too. In our world (to use a slightly older example), Israeli gunships destroy a Hamas hideout and kill twelve people; the response is a suicide bombing in which fifty people are killed. You wipe out my village; I’ll respond by wiping out your city. In the world of international realpolitik, this is assumed to be the only safe and wise thing to do. People need to know that if they hit us, we’re going to hit them back, only harder. They kill our innocent people, we’re going to respond by killing innocent people on their side – except, we’ll kill twice as many. The response is more suicide bombings, more innocent people being killed, and so the cycle of violence goes on. Killing leads to more killing; retaliation leads to more retaliation.

Just occasionally, though, we get a glimpse of a different way.

In November 2005 a twelve-year old Palestinian boy, Ahmad Al Khatib, was mistakenly shot in the head by Israeli forces at a distance of 130 metres; it was later shown that he was carrying a toy gun that looked very realistic. His family, rather than crying for revenge, donated his organs to three Israeli children who were waiting for transplants. His father said that their decision was rooted in memories of Ahmad’s uncle, who had died at the age of 24 while waiting for a liver transplant, and that they hoped the donation would send a message of peace to both Israelis and Palestinians.

And so the unbelievable happened. Ahmad died of his wounds on Saturday November 5th 2005. On Sunday November 6th, three children underwent surgery to receive his lungs, heart, and liver. The father of 12-year-old Samah Gadban, who had been waiting five years for a heart, called the donation a “gesture of love.”

Ahmad’s father said he hoped to meet the recipients of his son’s organs. “The most important thing is that I see the person who received the organs, to see him alive”, he said. And so Samah Gadban’s father invited Khatib and his family to a party for Samah when she left the hospital. “I wanted to thank him and his family”, he said. “With their gift, I would like for them to think that my daughter is their daughter”.

My friend Rob Heath wrote a song about this incident; it includes these words:

His Dad said ‘If you want peace, somewhere it has to start.
With this my son has entered every Israeli heart’.
The army said they’re sorry, then braced for violence;
This time, unlike the others, there would be no revenge.

And the chorus goes,

Some people say with just one life
you can change the world.
What if they’re right?

What Ahmad al Khatib’s father was saying was “Somewhere the violence has to stop. If we want peace, someone at some point has to make the decision not to retaliate. I’m going to make that decision. The violence stops here”.

I believe that this is a central part of the meaning of the Good Friday story. Listen to these words of Paul from 2 Corinthians (I’m reading from the Common English Bible).

‘All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).

Notice that little phrase, ‘not counting people’s sins against them’. In the conflicts going on around the world today, people are constantly counting one another’s sins against them, meeting violence with further violence again and again. Many of them believe that this is what God wants them to do. But it’s going on in families too. Someone does something despicable that hurts another member of the family; that person retaliates in word or deed, and so the conflict escalates. “Forgive? I can’t possibly forgive him! You just don’t understand how much he hurt me!” And so each party continues to hold the other party’s sins against them, and families are ripped apart, in some cases for generations.

Paul is telling us that this is not the way of the Christian gospel. The Christian gospel tells us that God longs for reconciliation with us, but God knows that there is only one way for that reconciliation to happen: at some point, someone has to choose not to retaliate. And so, in Christ, God chose not to retaliate; he didn’t count our sins against us, but chose to forgive instead.

We see this in Luke’s story of the crucifixion of Jesus. Luke wants to teach us that the cross of Jesus is the means by which we receive forgiveness of our sins, and so Luke tells the story in this way:

‘When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”’.

A few verses later we read these words:

‘One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong”. Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise”’ (Luke 23:32-33, 39-43).

Earlier in his life, Jesus had said these words to his disciples:

“But I say to you that listen: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you… If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them… But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:27-28, 32, 35-36).

Now Jesus had an opportunity to put his own teaching into practice. In the garden of Gethsemane, when he was arrested, Peter took out a sword and used it to defend Jesus, cutting off the ear of a servant of the high priest, but Jesus rebuked him and said, “Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). He then allowed himself to be arrested and taken to the house of the high priest, where he was condemned to die. When the Roman soldiers drove the spikes through his wrists and hauled him up, nailed to the crossbar of the cross, he didn’t respond with curses and abuse, but prayed that they would be forgiven. And when one of the insurrectionists who were crucified with him turned to him in faith, Jesus assured him of eternal life as they hung on their crosses together.

Like the father of young Ahmad al Khatib, Jesus was saying, “No more! The hatred stops here!” And so he loved his enemies, did good to those who hated him, and blessed those who cursed him. He imitated his heavenly Father, who pours out his sun and rain on the good and bad alike; Jesus was merciful, just as his Father in heaven is merciful.

But there’s more to it than that. Paul tells us that ‘God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them’ (2 Corinthians 5:19). Christians believe that Jesus is not just a good man or a great religious teacher; we believe he is the Son of God, and so God has come to live among us in him. What is the nature of this God? Surely the cross tells us he is a God who loves his enemies. The Jewish people who handed him over to death – Pontius Pilate who allowed an injustice to be done to him rather than standing up for what was right – the Roman soldiers who crucified him – they stand for all of us. God himself came to live among us, full of love and truth, but we found his love to be too much of a nuisance and a challenge, and so we rejected him and nailed him to a cross. But the Good News is that God rejected our rejection. God didn’t respond to our outrageous murder of his Son by blasting us all to hell with thunderbolts, or by sending twelve legions of angels to rescue Jesus and kill his murderers. What God said to us, in effect, was “You can kill me, but the one thing you can never kill is my love for you”.

What is our response to this amazing gift of love and forgiveness?

Some people, like the first man who died with Jesus, continue to reject him. They can’t accept that this man is anything more than a failed prophet. They can’t believe that this way of accepting death on a cross is a victory over evil; it looks far more like a defeat to them. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, ‘The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing’, and ‘we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23). But he goes on to say, ‘God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’ (25); ‘to us who are being saved’, he says, ‘(the cross) is the power of God’ (18b).

And so, like the second man who died with Jesus, we turn to him in faith, we admit that we have sinned, and we ask for forgiveness and assurance of eternal life. Luke tells us that if we do this, Jesus will gladly give us what we ask for; “Today, you will be with me in paradise”. God offers forgiveness freely to everyone; however, we have to accept that forgiveness – we have to personally appropriate it – because God will not force himself on anyone.

And one more thing: we also are called to walk in the way of the Cross, loving those who hate us, doing good to those who persecute us. As has been done for us, so we must do for others. Towards the end of his life, Peter wrote these words:

‘For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth”. When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls’ (1 Peter 2:21-25).

In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us. The Cross of Jesus is like a great cosmic black hole, sucking up all the anger and rage and rejection and violence that we have ever hurled at God, and letting nothing return – nothing but love. So let’s thank God for the gift Jesus has given us on that Cross. And let’s also pray for the strength to follow the way of the Cross ourselves, which is the path he has set before us.

Smite a Rock

Good Friday
Christina Rossetti

Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?

Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;

Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon –
I, only I.

Yet give not o’er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.