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?

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.

The Power of Love (a Palm Sunday sermon on Matthew 21:1-11)

I once heard a story about a city in South America with a fourteen-lane highway running through the middle of it. Scary as it may seem, at the time this story was told there were no traffic lights to regulate this highway. Instead, at various points along the road there were police towers. Policemen would stand in these towers to regulate traffic, and whenever they raised a hand, the traffic would screech to a halt. One day a small boy happened to get up into one of those towers when there was no policeman in it. He raised his hand as he’d seen the policemen do, and sure enough, the traffic screeched to a halt. The drivers were so used to obeying the occupants of those towers that they didn’t stop to check if the boy was legitimate or not!

Imagine the thrill in that small boy’s heart. “All I have to do is raise my hand just so, and look – fourteen lanes of traffic come to a standstill!” We laugh, because it’s funny, but there’s a dark side to this funny story, too. What that small boy was probably feeling was his first taste of an emotion that has caused trouble throughout human history: the love of power.

‘All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’, and we’ve certainly seen plenty of that in the recent past! Some people enter political office already corrupted. Others start out with the best of motives – the desire to do some good, and to serve their fellow human beings. Sooner or later, however, the seduction of power begins to work its evil spell, and it’s a rare person who can resist it. It’s not that politicians are any worse than the rest of us. It’s just that the lure of power is so attractive that we poor sinners find it desperately hard to stand up to it.

Christian churches aren’t immune to this. A clergy friend of mine once said, “There’s a game people play called ‘Church’; it consumes enormous amounts of money and energy, it’s all about power and control, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the Christian Gospel!” I’ve watched people play this game; I’ve even played it myself at times. I too have been corrupted by the love of power, which just goes to show that my heart isn’t yet fully converted to the Way of Jesus.

The Palm Sunday story, which we read today in Matthew 21:1-11, is all about the tension between the way of power and the way of love. Let’s think about this for a few minutes.

Jerusalem in the time of Jesus was ripe for a Messiah to come and set it free. The city was under the thumb of the Roman occupation armies. Powerful people in high places had made their peace with the Roman regime and were now doing quite well by going along with its cruelty and corruption. And all the time, ordinary people – the majority, that is – were living in poverty and oppression. What the city needed was a strong king to raise an army in the name of God, kick out the Romans and the corrupt Jewish leaders, and clean things up by force. This was a role many people wanted Jesus to fulfil.

In the time of Jesus many Jewish people were waiting for their Messiah. They believed he would be a descendant of their greatest King, David, and like David he would be a man after God’s own heart. He would come in the name of God, drive out oppression and corruption, and establish the kingdom of God on earth. And so would come about the perfect society, with peace, prosperity and equality for all.

Jesus lived out his life and ministry against the backdrop of this expectation, and some would say he would have done better to go along with it. If we look closely at the Gospel stories we can see that this idea was already taking root in the minds of some of the people on Jesus’ team. In the chapter before today’s reading the mother of James and John comes to Jesus to ask a favour: “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Matthew 20:21). She believes Jesus is on his way up to Jerusalem to become king by force, and she wants to make sure James and John will be his chief ministers and get the most glorious positions in that kingdom. Like all moms, she wants the best for her children – including getting more recognition than the children of other moms. See how seductive power can be, even in people who are committed to Jesus’ mission.

Jesus chose not to take the route of power; he chose the way of love instead. He was a king, but he chose to be a different kind of king – a servant king. He turned away from the temptation to follow the way of power, and chose instead to follow the way of love.

Matthew structures this Palm Sunday story around an Old Testament prophecy from Zechariah. He quotes from it in verses 4 and 5: ‘This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey”’. In its context in the book of Zechariah, this is a Messianic prophecy with a difference, because the king isn’t coming to lead armies and wipe out the enemies of Israel. Rather, he’s coming to bring peace and justice to all nations on earth.

Kings in the time of Zechariah did in fact ride donkeys at times, and when they did so, it had a specific meaning. A king who rode a war-horse was coming in battle or in victory. But a king who came riding a donkey was coming in peace. Matthew is emphasizing this meaning. The word in the original language that our NRSV Bibles translate as ‘humble’ is the same as ‘blessed are the meek’ in the Beatitudes; my Greek lexicon says it also carries the meaning of ‘gentle’ – the very opposite of a soldier going to war.

So Zechariah foretold the Messianic king coming to Jerusalem to claim his kingdom. In our reading, Jesus seems to be intentionally acting out this prophecy. This is actually the only occasion in his life on which Jesus is recorded as riding a donkey or a horse. Normally he walked everywhere, but now he borrows a donkey and rides into the city. His disciples walk with him, and acclaim him as ‘the Son of David’ – a title for the Messiah. Jesus enters Jerusalem, heads straight to the Temple and drives out the moneychangers and animal sellers. He and his followers then take possession of the Temple courts. His disciples must have thought, “This is it! He’s finally going to do it!” They must have been able to practically smell their places at the new royal court!

But then comes the anticlimax. Jesus doesn’t seize power and begin the violent revolution. Instead, he comes to the Temple each day to teach the people, heal the sick and hold debates with the religious establishment. Then at the end of the week he practically hands himself over to be unjustly tried, flogged and crucified, and he forbids his disciples to resist in the strongest possible terms.

Why did Jesus choose this route? Because he knew that driving out the Romans and the corrupt Jewish leaders wouldn’t solve the real problem. They weren’t the real enemy. The real enemy is our human propensity for messing things up, for breaking things, for breaking people and relationships – in other words, the evil and sin that infects us. This is the enemy that spoils our relationship with God and with other human beings. This is the enemy that must be defeated before injustice and oppression can be broken forever.

The way that Jesus chose to defeat this enemy was the strange way of giving himself to death on the Cross. The Scriptures strain human language to try to describe how the Cross accomplished this. It’s as if Jesus offered himself as a willing sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. Or, it’s as if Jesus took our place, the innocent dying instead of the guilty, so that we could go free. Or again, it’s as if we were slaves to sin and evil, and Jesus’ death was a ransom price paid to set us free. Or again, just as sometimes the sacrifice of some soldiers in battle brings a tremendous victory over the enemy, so Jesus’ death was the decisive victory over the forces of evil.

The reality of what the Cross means is far beyond our human understanding – that’s why the writers of the New Testament struggle so hard to describe it to us. What is certain is that the power of the Cross of Jesus to bring healing and change to our world is cosmic. But note what kind of power it is – the power of love. Rather than using his power to take revenge on those who murdered him, Jesus chose to accept the suffering and death they inflicted on him, and to pray for their forgiveness. And because he did that, we know that we too can be forgiven, and reconciled to God.

When the great victory had been won on the Cross, King Jesus did indeed send his armies out into all the world. But he sent them out with no weapons but the message of the Good News, and the command to love others as they had been loved by him. This was the only force that spread the Christian message, and yet in the book of Acts we read that those Christian missionaries turned the world upside down.

What would it mean for us to truly follow the example Jesus gives? It would mean that we’d start out as God does – by respecting the free will of every human being and refusing to coerce others to do what we want. In the Christian community, it would mean that instead of trying to force our agenda on the church, we would join with our fellow Christians in listening together for God’s will. It would mean that we would always be more willing to accept suffering from others than to inflict it on others. It would mean that we would be continually reaching out to those who have rejected us with the healing love of God in Christ. It would mean that we would take the hard road of sacrificial love instead of the easy road of playing power games.

“That’s a tall order!” Yes, of course it is! Jesus never said that Christianity would be easy. He said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). The way of the cross is always hard – but it’s the only way to spread the Kingdom of God. So let us resolve today that we will follow the example of Jesus. Let’s speak the truth in love as he did, and let’s be willing to walk the hard road of the cross in love for others. As we Christians learn to do that – to walk the way of love, not the way of coercion – I believe we’ll see the power of God’s love unleashed in a new way to transform the world. That can begin today, in the places where we live, as the Holy Spirit works through you and me.

The Practice of Resurrection (a sermon for the 5th Sunday of Lent)

A few years ago one of my favourite spiritual writers, Eugene Peterson, wrote a book called ‘Practice Resurrection’. I want to think about that phrase with you for a few minutes this morning.

It’s a startling phrase, isn’t it? Is resurrection really something we can practice? After all, if resurrection is even possible, surely it’s an act of God, isn’t it? We can’t resurrect ourselves! So what does it mean to ‘practice resurrection’? Is that a helpful phrase?

Today’s readings are all about resurrection, which is a little startling because we’re not in Easter yet – we’re still in Lent! But our gospel readings through Lent have been following the great miracles that Jesus performs in John’s Gospel. John actually calls them ‘signs’, because each one shows us something about Jesus, the one who uses God’s name for himself, ‘Yahweh’ or ‘I am’. ‘I am the Gate for the Sheep’, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’, ‘I am the Light of the World’, ‘I am the Bread of Life’. And today, in the last and greatest of the signs, Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the dead, and then he goes on to say “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26a). The other readings set for today were chosen to fit this resurrection theme – Ezekiel’s story of the valley of dry bones, and Paul’s promise that if the Spirit of the God who raised Jesus from the dead lives in us, then the one who raised Jesus from the dead will also give life to our mortal bodies through his Spirit who lives in us.

What is God saying to us through these scriptures this morning? Let me suggest two things. First, in Jesus, we will pass from death to life – future tense. But also, secondly, in Jesus we are passing from death to life – present tense. As we explore these two statements we’ll find out what it means to ‘practice resurrection’.

First, then, the future tense. In Jesus, we will pass from death to life. That’s not the order we normally think of, is it? The natural order is that we pass from life to death. All living things die eventually; ‘In the midst of life we are in death’, as the Prayer Book says. Our bodies get old, they begin to wear out, we’re subject to frailty and disease and accident and violence, and sooner or later, every one of us comes to the moment of death. As Bruce Cockburn says, ‘Everything that exists in time runs out of time some day’!

And then what happens? Human beings have always been fascinated by this question. Is there life after death? Is it possible for a person to continue to exist after their brain has ceased to function, and if so, how? Do we have some sort of immortal part, a ‘soul’ that lives inside us that can survive the death of our bodies? Is life after death a purely non-physical existence, apart from the body and all the pleasures of bodily living, or does it have some sort of physical component too?

In the time of Jesus, many Greeks believed that physical death was a good thing, because it freed you from the sufferings of this world and launched you into a purely ‘spiritual’ existence – no body means no pain, so that’s good, right? In contrast, no Jewish person really thought death was a good thing. The Old Testament uses the term ‘Sheol’ for the place dead people go to, and no one in the Old Testament ever wants to go there. When Jewish people started believing in life after death in a big way, late in the Old Testament period, it wasn’t about ‘going to a better place after they died’. They thought this earth is a good place! They believed that one day God would rid the world of evil and sin, and then God would raise the righteous dead to life so that they could enjoy this world as God originally intended it.

In our Gospel reading for today Jesus assumes this belief. He uses an interesting term for death. “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep”, he says, “but I am going there to awaken him” (John 11:11). His disciples misunderstood him. ‘“Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right”. Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead…”’ (11:12-14).

The early Christians loved this metaphor of sleep, and they used it constantly; in the rest of the New Testament the writers often describe the Christian dead as having ‘fallen asleep in Jesus’. And of course there are two excellent reasons for using this metaphor. First, death does look a bit like sleep: in both cases the person is lying down with their eyes closed, unconscious! But second, and more importantly, sleep is temporary, and the early Christians believed death was temporary too. Jesus had entrusted himself into the hands of his Father when he died, and the Father had come through for him: he had raised him from the dead. And the same thing is promised to followers of Jesus too. “I am the resurrection and the life”, says Jesus. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11:25).

So as we Christians look forward to life after death, we’re not just looking forward to abandoning this world and going to live somewhere else with God, somewhere we won’t have bodies any more. God is not going to abandon this tired old earth that he took such care in creating. The Bible says he’s going to renew it, heal it from the ravages of evil, and then raise his people from the dead so they can enjoy it forever as he intended. How will that happen? How will we all fit into it? I have no idea of the answer to those questions. All I know is that this is what we’ve been promised. As Paul says again in our reading from Romans, ‘If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you’ (Romans 8:11).

And that’s good news! Don’t you love the smell of freshly brewed coffee, or a freshly mown field? Don’t you love the feel of a warm breeze on your skin, or the touch of a lover? Don’t you love the sound of music or the sight of a beautiful mountain view? Those are all physical pleasures, only possible because God designed us as physical beings, with senses to connect us with the material world. And the good news of resurrection tells us that those physical pleasures will not be lost to us in the life to come. We won’t be just souls floating around in heaven. We’ll be whole people, spiritual bodies, relating to God and to one another in love, using body, mind and spirit. Of course, there will be far more to it than that; the Bible says that the human mind can’t begin to conceive of what God has prepared for those who love him. Our new existence will be more than physical, but it won’t be less than physical. Our bodies are going to be redeemed, not cast away.

So that’s the first statement: in Jesus, we will pass from death to life. As Aslan says in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, ‘death itself will begin to work backwards!’

But there’s more in these scriptures for us today. Resurrection is not just future tense for us followers of Jesus; it’s present tense too. We won’t just pass from death to life in the future; in Jesus, we are passing from death to life – in the present – as well.

One of the most startling metaphors for becoming a Christian in the New Testament is just this: resurrection. In Ephesians chapter 2 we read these words:

‘You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived…But God, who is rich in mercy…made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus’ (Ephesians 2:1, 4, 5-6).

Before you became Christians, Paul is saying, ‘you were dead’.

Now that sounds just a little bit harsh, doesn’t it? Does he mean that all the good things they were doing and enjoying before they became Christians were as stinky as a rotting corpse? What about all the loving acts, the family life, the generosity, the moral virtues of a good pagan? Does all that count for nothing?

To help us understand what Paul is saying here, we need to think about the sort of language lovers use. In the movie Shadowlands, the script writer puts some words into the mouth of C.S. Lewis when he’s talking to the woman he has lately come to love. “I began to live”, he says, “when I started loving you”.

This is the sort of language lovers use all the time. Of course it’s highly metaphorical, but does that mean the metaphor is a lie? Lewis’ friends might protest and say, “Look, Jack, before you met Joy you wrote lots of good books and enjoyed good times with your friends, and you became a Christian and you helped other people become Christians too. Surely you’re not saying that you were – well – dead while you were doing all that?” And Lewis might reply, “In a way, yes, and in a way, no”.

A relationship of love can transform a life, can’t it? It can lift us to a whole new level of living, to the point that the life we had before seems drab, dreary and meaningless by comparison. It might have been a good, worthwhile life while we were living it, but looking back on it now, we can see how much we were missing out on. We now know so much more about the joy that’s open to us as humans, so we would never think of voluntarily going back to that life we once lived, before we met this person we’ve come to love so much.

That’s what Paul means. The miracle that Jesus has done, by giving us the gift of the Holy Spirit, is to bring us into a new relationship with the living God. That’s what we were designed for – to have God at the centre of our lives. And when we begin to experience what that can be like – well, then we’re spoiled for everything else. That old life seemed okay while we were living it, but now we can never think of going back to it, because what we’ve received from God is so much better. It really is like moving from death to life.

But this isn’t just something that happens to us in baptism, or when we come to faith in Christ. That decisive moment of spiritual resurrection is important, but it’s not the end of the story. Remember, I used the present tense: in Jesus we are passing from death to life. How does that happen? Well, how were we raised to this new life in the first place? We were raised by being brought into a new relationship with God in Christ. So we practice this as a daily reality – we ‘practice resurrection’, if you like – by seeking each day to deepen our conscious contact with God, so that every day we walk with him and he walks with us.

This is accomplished by the Holy Spirit, the breath of God. In that great Old Testament passage from Ezekiel, the valley of the dry bones, the bones are all joined together by God and become bodies again, but they’re still dead bodies. So then Ezekiel is called to prophesy to the wind – the ruach in Hebrew, which means wind, breath, and spirit. The ruach then comes and breathes into the corpses, and they are resurrected, and they stand up and become an army again!

And this is true in our Christian experience too – the Greek word pneuma also means wind, breath, or spirit. And in our epistle Paul says,

‘If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you’ (Romans 8:11).

This is what it’s all leading up to, this Christian faith. It’s not about the dreary duty of dragging ourselves out of bed on Sunday mornings to go to church when we’d much rather sleep in. It’s not about gritting our teeth to obey commandments that we secretly suspect were designed by God specifically to spoil our fun. It’s not even about filling our head with knowledge about the Bible or Christian doctrine, and leaving it at that.

No – being a Christian means that, for every one of us, God has come to live in us by his Holy Spirit. The Spirit lives in you, and he lives in me, and when we come together, we are a fellowship of the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit living in us makes impossible things possible. The Spirit living within us makes it possible for us to follow Jesus’ teaching and example. He makes it possible for us to love other people with the love of Jesus. He makes it possible for us to see things we would have missed before. He gives us wisdom to make wise choices and grow day by day into the people God calls us to be.

So ‘practising resurrection’ turns out to be all about asking the Holy Spirit each day to fill us with his power and love. In the words of the well known hymn (that we’ll be singing in a few minutes):

Breathe on me, breath of God
Fill me with life anew
That I may love what thou dost love
And do what thou wouldst do.

So let’s have the courage to pray that prayer and really mean it. Pray it every day. Pray it many times a day, if you like! But be ready, because the Holy Spirit is real, and he is powerful, and by his strength, you can practice resurrection – not just after you die, but now, today, right here in this place.

Thirsty for God (a sermon on John 4:5-42)

Ten years ago, in this church, we raised the money to drill three deep water wells for villages in West Africa. In late September of that year Willard Metzger from World Vision visited us and explained to us the significance of those wells. In villages with no wells of their own, the women sometimes spend most of their day walking back and forth between their homes and the nearest supply of fresh water, sometimes a distance of several miles. It isn’t possible in one trip to carry enough water to cook the evening meal; two or three trips might be necessary, just for that one job.

Obviously in a community with no well of its own, all the fresh water for drinking, cooking and washing has to be carried from somewhere else. The scarcity of water has a direct negative impact on health in the community. But what a difference when a local deep water well is drilled! The plentiful supply of fresh water has an immediate positive effect on the physical health of the community, and also on the quality of family life; when people don’t have to spend so much time walking to get water, there’s time for so many other family activities not even imagined before.

Water is essential for life. For people who live in places where it’s scarce, their entire lives become consumed with searching for it and transporting it. Behind every waking moment there’s this nagging worry: “Will we be able to find water?” Not surprisingly, in the lands of the Bible, where water is often scarce, it became a powerful symbol for true spirituality, for the reality of a living relationship with God.

Today’s Gospel reading is the story of the woman at the well. Jesus met her in Sychar in Samaria. Samaria was in central Palestine, between Judea in the south and Galilee in the north. Historically this was the heart of the old kingdom of Israel. When that kingdom was destroyed in the eighth century B.C., the King of Assyria deported many of the local inhabitants and brought in foreigners to take their place. These foreigners married into the local population, and the result was the Samaritans. Their religion was a blend of Old Testament Judaism with pagan beliefs and practices. The Jews of Jerusalem looked down on them as half-breeds who didn’t follow the pure religion of Moses, and there was a lot of bad blood between them.

It seems such a simple thing, for Jesus to sit down and have a conversation with this Samaritan woman, but in fact he had to cross at least three barriers in order for it to happen.  The first was the one we’ve already mentioned, between Jews and Samaritans. The second was a male/female barrier: in those days a man and a woman who were not married to each other just didn’t speak to each other in public; it was very questionable behaviour. But as Jesus is sitting down by the well in the heat of the day, a woman comes up with a water jar on her head, and Jesus starts a conversation with her.

The audience who first heard this story would have been suspicious about that woman right away. Why was she coming for water at noon? Respectable people were all off having their siestas at that time of day! Water jars were filled in the morning and evening; why wasn’t she coming at the usual time? Was she being ostracized or something? The original audience wouldn’t have been surprised at all to find out that the woman’s sexual life was in disarray – married five times, and now living common-law with someone. So this is a third barrier Jesus is crossing: he, a respectable rabbi, a ‘holy man’ if you like, is chatting with someone who was looked down on as a sinner.

But despite all these barriers, Jesus initiates a conversation with the woman about what he calls ‘living’ water. That was a figure of speech; it meant water bubbling up from a spring, in contrast to stagnant water of the sort you might find in a cistern. That old stuff isn’t much good, Jesus says to the woman: you can drink it if you want, but you’ll soon want another drink! But the living water – ah, now, that’s a different story! “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give them will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (13-14). Obviously he’s talking in metaphors here – but metaphors for what?

I think that when Jesus came to live among us as one of us, the last thing he had in mind was to create another religious system. ‘Religion’ often deteriorates into a control mechanism to try to domesticate a relationship with the living God. ‘Religion’ is all about holy places, holy people, and holy rituals. ‘Religion’ said that Jesus and the Samaritan woman should not be speaking, because she was a Samaritan and he was a Jew, and because she was a woman and he was a man, and because she was a sinner and he was a rabbi. ‘Religion’ said it was a really important issue whether you worshipped God on Mount Gerazim, as the Samaritans said, or in Jerusalem on Mount Zion, as the Jews said.

‘Religion’ still does the same kind of thing today. It assumes that some places are holier than others, so churches are houses of God and if you want to meet God you need to go there. In religion, you can’t meet God in the middle of your ordinary life; you have to go off somewhere different to find him.

Religion also assumes that some people are holier than others. Priests and pastors have the inside track, and bishops and archbishops are even better! So instead of praying for ourselves, let’s get the professional religionist to speak to God on our behalf, because God’s more likely to listen to him or her than to me.

‘Religion’ assumes that some people start at a disadvantage – in our gospel for today, the Samaritans, the women, and the particularly sinful. So religion can’t understand someone like Jesus who hangs around with all the wrong people, like tax collectors and prostitutes. Doesn’t he understand how dangerous that is? They’re going to drag him down to their level!

Jesus didn’t come to make us more religious; he came to break down the barriers between religion and ordinary life, so that the living water of true spirituality could flow out into every part of our lives. He came so that every human being could have within them ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ (v.14) – so that every human being, wherever they worshipped God, could do so ‘in spirit and truth’ (v.24).

What is this ‘spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ that Jesus wants to give to everyone who comes to him? A few chapters later in John, we read these words:

‘On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’”. Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive’ (7:37-39a).

Connecting these two passages together, we can find an answer to our question: the spring of water is the Holy Spirit, who comes to live in each of us.

In the traditional religious approach to God, if you wanted to meet God you had to go to a temple, because temples were the places where God lived. But Jesus turns the whole thing around. Jesus doesn’t send you to a temple – Jesus makes you into a temple yourself! God doesn’t live in houses made by human hands; no, God’s Holy Spirit comes to live in human beings, so that each of us becomes a temple, a place where God lives.

We see this in the story of the Day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2. One hundred and twenty ordinary followers of Jesus were filled with the Holy Spirit in a dramatic explosion of praise and testimony. This was the thing that bystanders found so astonishing about the early church; ‘Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed’ (Acts 4:13). Early Christianity was a lay-people’s movement: it didn’t depend on religious organization or ritual, but on the powerful experience of the Holy Spirit which each ordinary believer had received and continued to receive.

Those early Christians didn’t feel like they had to gather in holy places to meet God either; instead, they were conscious that the Holy Spirit was joining them together into a holy community, so that any place they met became a holy place. That’s why the question of where we worship God is irrelevant. As Jesus says in verses 23-24, “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth”. To worship God in truth is to worship him as he truly is, as he has been revealed to us in Jesus. And to worship him in spirit, or in the Spirit, means to have that well of living water bubbling up inside us – God the Holy Spirit living in us, guiding our words and actions in worship, so that the worship we offer is pleasing to the Father.

This sort of thing is contagious. Toward the end of our gospel, we read that the Samaritan woman went into Sychar and told a whole crowd of people about Jesus; “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (v.29) The people were intrigued by this story and came out to see Jesus for themselves, and so he stayed in their city for a couple of days. What was the result? ‘And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world”’ (vv.41-42).

 

In other words, the Samaritans had moved on from having a second-hand faith to having a faith that was based on their own experience. Their ideas about God and Jesus were no longer based on hearsay, but on their own personal experience, and that experience led them to say, “He’s the Saviour of the world”. This is the promise of God to every one of us: we won’t just know him by hearsay, but by our own personal experience.

So let me conclude by urging you not to be satisfied with that old stagnant water. Jesus did not come to make us more religious; he came to fill us with the Holy Spirit. And as he reminded us in last week’s gospel, the Holy Spirit is not under our control; he’s like the wind, blowing where he wants to blow. All we can do is make up our minds to be satisfied with nothing less than his presence in our hearts, and then come to God in prayer and ask for the Spirit to be poured out among us.

Sometimes we have to wait for a while for that prayer to be answered. For some reason, the infilling of the Holy Spirit seems to be a blessing we have to persist in prayer for. Jesus told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem after his ascension until they were clothed with the power from on high. They waited ten days, meeting constantly and praying together, until the Day of Pentecost when the blessing was given at last. Since then, many ordinary Christians have talked about having to keep on praying, waiting patiently, until at last they sensed the touch of the Holy Spirit. I have no idea why this is so. Perhaps God wants to know how serious we really are; perhaps he wants us to experience the desperation of spiritual thirst to the full, before we experience the living water of the Spirit.

I know from my own experience that while we’re waiting, there’s a tendency to settle for less – a tendency to pretend we have received what we asked for, and to go away with lowered expectations. There’s a tendency to take that empty place in us where the Spirit will live, and fill it with the stagnant water of religion. There’s a tendency to give up; ‘God obviously hasn’t noticed my prayer; there’s obviously no blessing of the Holy Spirit waiting for me’.

Don’t give up. Jesus encourages us in several places in the gospels to persist in prayer and not to get discouraged. And in Luke’s gospel he tells us that if we human beings, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Luke 11:13). So let us ask, and keep on asking, and not give up, until we experience the quenching of our thirst, as Jesus gives us ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ (John 4:14).

Born Again (a sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Lent)

Last week I mentioned that the church has a communication problem when it comes to the words ‘temptation’ and ‘sin’; modern people don’t hear those words in anything like the way people did in Bible times. So we trivialize them, or laugh at them, or deny any implication that they might describe us. How dare you suggest we’re sinners! We’re just as good as anyone else!

We’ve got a communication problem this week, too. Our Gospel reading for today is from the third chapter of John, and in the traditional translation, it includes that dreaded phrase, ‘born again’. Whatever was in John’s mind when he first wrote that phrase – or whatever was in the mind of Jesus when he first used it – we can be sure that’s not the first thing people think of today. Today, when we hear ‘born again Christian’, we think ‘Oh yes – those are the people who voted for Donald Trump!’ And while I’m sure that there’s a variety of political opinion in St. Margaret’s, I’m also pretty sure that the majority of us are shaking our heads over Mr. Trump! So if born again Christians like him, how can it be good to be a born again Christian?

But in our gospel, Jesus doesn’t appear to think that being a ‘born again Christian’ is a bad thing. I mentioned this once to a woman who told me that she ‘didn’t like born again Christians’. I pointed out to her that, according to Jesus, there is no other kind of Christian. All Christians are, by definition, ‘born again’ – or, as our NRSV translates it, ‘born from above’ (the Greek word, ‘anothen’, can be translated either way). In John 3:3 Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above”, and he adds in verse 5, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit”.

So there’s a process we have to go through in order to enter the Kingdom of God. And remember, ‘The kingdom of God’ doesn’t mean Christians dying and going to heaven; it’s about the love and power of God healing and transforming this world so that it becomes the place God meant it to be when he created it in the first place, completely free of evil and sin. “Thy kingdom come” means “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. Do you want to be part of that? I know I do! Well then, says Jesus, you need to be born again, born from above, born of water but also of the Holy Spirit.

How can we make sense of this today?

Let’s try to make sense of it by going back to our Old Testament reading. Let’s think about Abram – or, as he’s better known, Abraham. In later years Abraham was looked on as the father of the nation of Israel, but he didn’t start out living in what we now called Israel. His origins were further east, in a place Genesis calls ‘Ur of the Chaldees’, which most modern scholars think was in what is now southern Iraq, about two hundred miles southeast of Babylon. However, at some point in his adult life Abram and his family – including his father, his brothers, and their wives and children – left Ur. They had meant to move to Canaan – what is now Palestine or Israel – but for some reason they stopped in a city called Haran on what is now the southeastern border of Turkey, and lived there for a few years.

But when Abram was seventy-five, somehow (we don’t know exactly how), the God who created the universe spoke to him.

This is an amazing thing and we shouldn’t rush over it. I don’t know very much about the religion of Ur or Haran, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that it was very similar to the religion of Babylon. Like most people in the ancient near east, the Babylonians worshipped many different gods; Abram would have been surrounded by their temples and idols as he went about his daily life. The civic life of Ur and Haran would have included community sacrifices to the gods, and everyone would have known about the things they should and shouldn’t do if they wanted to avoid offending them.

But in the Hebrew text, Genesis is very specific about who was speaking to Abram; it doesn’t just say ‘God’ in general, or one of the gods of Babylonian religion. It uses the name by which the Israelites later came to know the one God, the creator of heaven and earth: ‘Yahweh’.

‘Now Yahweh said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you…So Abram went, as Yahweh had told him…’ (Genesis 12:1, 4a).

Abram had none of the things we use to deepen our spiritual lives today. He didn’t have the Bible. He didn’t have the sacraments. He didn’t have the teaching of Jesus. He didn’t have a community of like-minded believers. He didn’t have multiple generations of spiritual ancestors whose wisdom he could draw on. He was surrounded by people who worshipped the ancient gods of Babylon, and yet somehow he heard the one creator God speaking to him. “Leave all this behind, and go to the land I will show you”. Leave everything you know, leave your safety and security. “Where to, God?” “Never mind that; I’ll show you on the way there!”

We know that Abram kept herds and flocks. I can imagine him scratching his head in confusion: “But God, I need to know where I’m going to find pasture and water for my livestock. I need a plan. I can’t just walk by faith; if I get it wrong, the animals will die and I’ll be ruined”. We don’t know whether or not Abram prayed that sort of questioning prayer, but we know from later stories about him that he was exactly the kind of guy who would have asked those questions!

In our gospel reading, Nicodemus misunderstands what Jesus means when he talks about being born again, or born from above; he asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4). But here in Genesis we have an example of of an old man being born again. In the ancient world, seventy-five would have been a very great age indeed. Abram probably had his retirement plan figured out. I’m sure he thought he was long past the time of life when he would be going on adventures. But now he’s supposed to leave all his security behind, and follow by faith the God who had spoken to him. Leaving the security of the womb, out into the dark and dangerous and unknown world. It was like being born. Or born again.

So what does the story of Abram teach us about what a new birth is all about?

New birth is obviously a metaphor for a decisive change in a person’s life – a break with the past and a new beginning, walking by faith in the God who calls us. It reminds me of what Paul says in Philippians 3:13:

‘But this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus’.

‘Forgetting what lies behind’. Abram was called to make a real break with the past, and with the beliefs and practices of the vast majority of the people around him. He would have stood out like a sore thumb in the world he was living in. “What do you mean, you don’t worship the gods? What are you going to do when your crops fail? What are you going to do when someone in your family gets sick? And if you stop worshipping them, they’ll get mad at the whole community and bad things will happen to us”. I can just imagine the sort of pressure Abram would have been under, in his old home of Haran and in the new land he moved to in Canaan. In those days it would be taken for granted that if you moved to a new country you learned to worship the gods of that country. But everywhere Abram went in Canaan he built an altar to his God, the Creator, the one who had called him.

In the Book of Acts, we read about how Paul planted a new congregation in the Greek city of Thessalonica, and three weeks later he had to leave in a hurry because of persecution. A while later he wrote a letter to the tiny congregation in Thessalonica. He reminded them of their conversion – their ‘new birth’, if you like. He says,

‘For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming’ (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

So that’s part of what it means to be ‘born again’ – we turn away from the idols everyone worships around us and turn to the true God who has revealed himself to us in Jesus. Nowadays, of course, those idols aren’t pagan gods like Ishtar and Marduk, or Zeus or Apollo. They’re more likely to be the idols of money and the things that it can buy, or popularity, or youth and beauty, or national security. Jesus himself refers to money as an idol when he says ‘You can’t serve both God and Mammon’. In the context, ‘mammon’ obviously means worldly wealth, but when you personalize a thing like that, giving it a name, you treat it like a false god, an idol. And money is obviously treated as an idol today. When they have a lot of money in the bank, people feel secure; they have confidence that bad things can’t do so much harm to them. They also have a sense that their life has a meaning or purpose; the grand narrative of our lives today is that increasing wealth means success, so if I’m getting wealthier, I’m obviously successful.

If we choose not to participate in the worship of mammon, we’ll look just as weird in the world today as Abraham did when he stopped worshipping the gods of his ancestors, or as the early Christians did when they refused to participate in civic sacrifices to the Greek and Roman gods, or to the emperor as a god. But that’s part of what it means to be born again. What’s the true god of our life, the thing we value more than anything else, the thing we rely on when the going gets tough, the thing that gives us a sense of security and purpose and meaning? Being ‘born again’ means to take the terrifying risk of dethroning that idol, and learning to seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.

And that leads to the next thing: being ‘born again’ also means making a decision to adopt the priorities of God’s Kingdom. That’s why Jesus associates the two: ‘No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above’ (John 3:3). Jesus has told us what the values of the Kingdom are: we love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and we love our neighbour as ourselves. And we dedicate ourselves to living and sharing God’s love with the people around us. I love the way God describes that call to Abram in our first reading:

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2, 3b).

The kingdom of the world says it’s everyone for himself; it’s all about you as an individual, your rights, your success, your happiness. You are the king and god of all you see! But God’s kingdom says, “No! It’s about living each day with the intent of being a blessing to the people around you, a channel into their lives for God’s love and joy and stubborn hope.

So being born again means dethroning our favourite false gods, and committing ourselves to the Kingdom of God as our priority. A third thing we can say about it is that it’s two steps forward and one step back. A new birth is a beginning, but it’s not all plain sailing from that day forward. It wasn’t in Bible times and it isn’t today.

Abraham didn’t get it right all the time. When you read his story in Genesis chapters 12 to 25, it’s very honest about his doubts and weaknesses and failures. He has a hard time believing God’s impossible promise that he and his wife will have a son in their old age. He’s afraid of the people around him, and he tells lies to save his own skin. He lets himself be manipulated, especially by his wife. He’s not a superhero; he’s a real human being, just like us.

Last week we talked about our ‘human propensity to mess things up’. We break things, and people, and relationships. We’re given the freedom to make real decisions, but we seem to have an extraordinary talent for making bad decisions. I do it. You do it. We all do it. And this doesn’t instantly change when we become followers of Jesus. The day after we choose to follow Jesus, we’ve had exactly twenty-four hours’ training in the kingdom of God, and many years’ of training in the kingdom of the worship of money and success and selfishness! It’s going to be a long, gradual process, growing and learning and being trained as disciples of Jesus. A new birth is just that: a birth. After the birth comes the growing and learning. So we have to be patient with ourselves, and patient with others.

And we have to trust the Holy Spirit. That’s the last thing I want to say about being born again. It’s not something we can do to ourselves. We can’t make it happen. There’s no formula, no ceremony, nothing we can do to command the Holy Spirit to act. He’s like the wind: he’s not under anyone’s control.

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

We humans tend to go through what we refer to as ‘phases’ in our lives. I went through my Star Trek phase, and my Bruce Cockburn phase, and my social activist phase, and when I look back on them now I shake my head a bit and think “Well, those were good things, but I probably went a bit overboard”.

But being a Christian, if it’s real, isn’t just a phase. When I was thirteen my Dad gave me a gentle challenge: “You’ve never given your life to Jesus, have you?” I went away that night, sat down on my bed in the privacy of my room, and prayed a simple prayer in exactly those terms: “Jesus, I give my life to you”. It wasn’t a dramatic experience; I didn’t see visions or really feel overwhelmed by the love of God. But when I look back on it now, I see it was one of the most important moments of my life. The Holy Spirit must have been at work; that’s the only thing I can say. That day I began a journey of learning to pray and listen to God’s Word in the Bible, learning to be a member of the Body of Christ, learning to do God’s will in the world. That journey has continued to this day. And I’m convinced that the Holy Spirit brought me to that moment. I have no other explanation for it.

And we can trust the Holy Spirit; he is God, and God is love. So don’t be afraid of this ‘born again’ talk. And don’t be afraid of what it means: dethroning your favourite idols, seeking first God’s Kingdom, moving slowly ahead in a ‘two steps forward, one step back sort of way’, all under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit won’t lead you astray. He will lead you into the centre of God’s loving will for you, and that may be hard, but it will always be good.