Lectionary Sermon for 11 May 2014 (Easter 4 ) on John 10, 1 – 10

On Being the Sheep or the Gate
How are you on the realities of sheep? Looking back to my Sunday School days, I am not altogether convinced that my well-meaning teachers had the faintest idea what sheep and shepherds were really like, and still less idea of what they might have been like back in New Testament times. And who could blame the teachers? To the modern Westerner, with an increasingly urban, and I guess increasingly domesticated setting, the age old metaphors of Jesus the Good Shepherd, and Jesus as the gate are further and further removed from the farming realities which could only ever have been part of the day to day experiences of those who lived in first century Palestine.

The first lamb I saw close up in church was by courtesy of a rather unorthodox minister who wanted children to have vivid learning experiences in the slot set aside for children in the morning Church service. The Reverend John Watson’s version of emulating the good shepherd was to go out of the Vestry door and come back, acting the part of the caring shepherd in the Sunday School picture, complete with what was supposed to be an actual dear little living lamb enfolded in his arms.

Unfortunately, it was no longer Spring by the time he had got around to organising the demonstration with the help of a nearby farmer, and the lamb had grown somewhat. Neither dear nor little, the highly indignant animal also appeared to have taken the greatest offense to being held in such an undignified position. It bleated piteously and struggled ferociously. It kicked the minister so hard in the stomach he dropped the animal, and then, to the delight of the children, (and I suspect to the consternation of the more pious among the Sunday School teachers) it took off down the aisles with the Reverend John in hot pursuit.

That lamb was neither cuddly, nor easily handled! And the portrayal of the caring good shepherd wasn’t quite what I had anticipated either. However at the very least we should remember the images of Jesus the Good Shepherd caring for his sheep and Jesus the gate were clearly important to the early Christians and as a consequence at least deserve our continued contemplation. Such images might have a little more life breathed into them if we first checked that we who listen to such stories are ourselves familiar with the background.

The first point we might make is that modern sheep farming has virtually nothing in common to the lot of the first century Palestinian shepherds. The stony and sparsely grassed hills of Palestine would not be recognised by modern farmers as farms because there would have been no fences around recognisable paddocks. Because the flocks had to range over vast areas to forage enough food, and in the absence of wire – let alone barbed wire, each small flock was accompanied day and night by a shepherd boy. There were most certainly sheep folds, which were basically large pens with stone walls. But again to the modern farmer something would be missing. Without what to us are the familiar steel hinges, there were no gates, and the custom was for once the sheep were inside, the shepherd would lie across the gap. Those familiar with this practice would be able to relate to Jesus’ chosen image of being the gate. With a shepherd as a gate, no sheep would escape during the night, and any wild animals which included feral dogs, wolves or even the occasional lion would first have to contend with the shepherd. In this context, a good shepherd would be expected to have genuine courage – if not to ward off the predatory animals – at the very least to keep the sheep safe from unscrupulous sheep thieves.

The other point, which is sometimes noted by the commentators, is that sheep with their notoriously poor eyesight and potential vulnerability needed to trust their shepherd. These days a modern shepherd or drover would no doubt keep the sheep in check with his dogs and more often than not would have a farm bike to take the drudgery out of the task. In first century Palestine, the only recognition aid the shepherd could offer his sheep was his voice and since the sheep depended on him to stay close by they would have come to recognise that voice. When several shepherds combined their small flocks in the one pen for the night, the sheep would need to know which voice to respond to respond to so that they followed the right shepherd the next morning.

It may well have been that Jesus was intending his followers to have understood that since there would have been competing voices, it was up to them to keep following his voice or at least his wisdom, to have any chance at all of negotiating the dangers that beset them.
Mind you as with all parables or metaphorical allusions there remains a serious puzzle for today’s Christian.

In first century Palestine, those who had encountered Jesus face to face would have a reasonable chance to listen to his teaching and then to give his words priority in their lives. But even if we assume Jesus was somehow resurrected, the gospels teach that he is now no longer with us in person. Where then is our gate? Where then in the 21st Century is the good shepherd whose voice we must continue to follow?

One unfortunate truth to face is that when we consider the real dangers that have beset some communities over recent decades, for many victims Jesus’ promise appears to have rung hollow. There was no safe sheepfold – metaphorical or otherwise for the victims of the holocaust, no escape for the victims of religious persecution, no Jesus as a living gate to protect our predecessors when the wolves of famine, of armed aggression or of crippling disease were seeking their victims. Where then was the gate Jesus was claiming to be offering?

It is a reasonable question, because although genuine dangers may look very different to those in Jesus time, dangers are still present. In the same way that the sheep now have to contend with very different farm conditions and have a very different relationship with their shepherds, we too have had to come to terms with a different world. If Jesus had been teaching he would continue to be the gate we should be able to look back and find evidence in history that his protecting actions might continue to protect in the changed conditions when needed.

For the lucky ones amongst us, we might happen to have been born into happy circumstances and it may even be that, at least for some of us, there are few immediate clouds on our horizon, yet no doubt even for the lucky, sooner or later problems will come our way. For that reason it seems to me that unless what Jesus was saying has a realistic part to play for the present generation we would find it hard to understand his words as continuing to have integrity .

Perhaps the problem is that traditionally the assumption has been that we are supposed to see ourselves as the equivalent of sheep in danger. Yet sheep seem a poor description for disciples. Don’t sheep follow the flock almost by instinct? Surely this is not what is expected of disciples. Sheep are not exactly a good model for disciples particularly if we see them as helpless victims in the game of life. If on the other hand we see ourselves as following the lead of our wisdom teacher in the person of Jesus, given that he is no longer physically present, perhaps, just perhaps, we are intended to take over where he left off.

If the danger is threatening, those who claim to represent Jesus should be looking to constructive ways of being the gate for those in danger.

In most modern communities the problems for those at risk are likely to be vastly different to those facing the first disciples. Over recent weeks in my home city, one of these dangers is that of the sale of marijuana substitutes to vulnerable young people. I note two or three weeks ago at a local high school there was an incident where some teachers were physically attacked by young teenager addicts. For those seeking to emulate Jesus what should their response to such a contemporary danger?

Another related danger is from those who seek to make money from selling alcohol to minors. If modern disciples are supposed to represent the gate, our mentioning such problems in passing as part of our intercessory prayers seems inadequate when something rather more concrete and direct seems called for. I guess disciples will be amongst those agitating for sensible law change.

For those of us living in the Pacific region, annual disasters in the form of hurricanes are common. Since we are hardly in the position to control the incidence of hurricanes, we can at least organise a prepared response. I happen to know that the New Zealand Methodist Church is currently being asked to contribute to a large scale emergency box and shelter box scheme as part of the precautions they take to protect the vulnerable in their area. For me, this offers the opportunity to show the Church support for the type of wisdom Jesus advocated.

Individual problems are going to call upon very individual responses and there is no way of my telling you from the outside what situations are currently afflicting your community, nor what actions you will need to implement in your response. However, what I do know is that if no-one takes the task of protecting the vulnerable as a personal responsibility, the dangers will take their inevitable toll.

Jesus used the allusion of being the gate for the sheep to signify his willingness to put himself on the line for those at risk. Surely those who currently share that same willingness are his disciples for this generation. Our challenge is to find our own responses to share in such a mission.

The Good Shepherd, the gate, Palestine, legal highs, shelter boxes, sheep, disciples as the gate

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Lectionary Sermon for Easter 3 Year A (May 4, 2014) on Luke 24; 13 -35

Lectionary Sermon for Easter 3 Year A (May 4, 2014) on Luke 24; 13 -35 :
The Emmaus Road: A Parable about Jesus

I have never counted them myself, but I seem to remember reading somewhere that on no fewer than 17 occasions Jesus has cause to reprimand one or more of his disciples for being slow in understanding. And if you wanted evidence for how thick they were, what about today’s story? The Emmaus Road story, if intended as literal truth, would be one of the more confusing in the New Testament. If we assume for the moment that all the post resurrection experiences happened exactly as Luke and the other gospel writers recounted, we ought to be puzzled. Hadn’t Jesus appeared to all the disciples except Thomas in the upper room and when Thomas finally caught up with Jesus, didn’t the account say he too set aside his doubts and was convinced? Didn’t the disciples also encounter Jesus on the lake shore where Jesus invited them to share in a meal of fresh cooked fish? So why then should these slow witted disciples be unable to recognize the familiar figure of their leader in yet another post resurrection appearance?

John Dominic Crossan, who to me is one the more interesting modern scholars of the Bible, reminds us that as well as the parables we remember Jesus telling, there are also parables about Jesus.

One of Crossan’s favorite examples is today’s story from Luke’s Gospel, Luke 24:13-35, about this strange meeting along the Road to Emmaus. Dom Crossan says that: regardless of whether we believe the story as fact or not, there is a way of discovering meaning in this story which makes it a parable.

Remember the scene as Luke tells it. Two people (not well known disciples – but disciples nevertheless) are walking to Emmaus and discussing the recent crucifixion of Jesus. A stranger approaches them and joins in their conversation. The stranger interprets Scripture to them as they walk, explaining to them that they should have expected Jesus to be killed, as had been foretold by the prophets in the Scriptures. When the disciples reach their house the stranger acts as if he is going to continue on, but they ask him in and once inside they offer some food. The stranger breaks the bread and in this action, strongly reminiscent of the last supper, they recognize him as Jesus.

Crossan suggests we might see the parable as follows. In our context today, meeting such a stranger in the unexpected setting means that you don’t know when you will be visited by Jesus. Reading Scripture is only preparatory and only finds meaning when we too are doing the equivalent of encountering a stranger on the road.

If it is history, it is merely curious. If parable, we are reminded it is only when we show kindness to the stranger, that we will recognize who the stranger represents.

So there is much to suggest that the story offers more than history. The experience of the two persons on the road to Emmaus is always going to be more than the story of an event.

By implication there are two things which might also be part of our experience. By all means let us respect the knowledge we can gain from Scripture, but let us remember that perhaps it is only when we go that one step further and do the equivalent of inviting the stranger in to share God’s food with us that we are going to have a chance of recognizing something more in the encounter with the stranger, the real meeting which in effect may be with Jesus.

The offering of food – or if you like – the act of friendly kindness to the stranger is more than an after-thought to the story. We would also have to admit it is not a characteristic of our age. Nor for that matter is it a given that we would be hospitable in practice even after reading this story. Many Churches set aside time for an enactment of the Emmaus walk, yet not all participants automatically become welcoming of strangers.
One of the unfortunate consequences of city living is that we build a deliberate shield around ourselves. It is possible to get through an entire day walking, eating and drinking in cafes, walking in the same direction along the pavement as others, sharing lifts, even park benches without even a single meaningful conversation.

Perhaps you, like me, have seen neighbourhoods where there is a culture of distrusting the stranger. Neighbourhoods where the list of telephone numbers for legal assistance for taking legal action against all manner of neighbours and neighbourhood agencies far exceeds the list of helping agencies. Neighbourhoods where neighbours don’t know one another by name, where they do not help one another, where there are no street parties, and where the elderly remain lonely. I have even encountered Churches that will not offer communion to strangers unless they are already members of the appropriate denomination.

There is a sense in which the community ethos depends on deliberate choices. When I was appointed to the congregations of Epsom and Mt Eden I was warned that the shift to that neighbourhood was unlikely to be a good experience. I was assured by someone who had had one such bad experience that I was likely to encounter snobbish people who insisted on keeping to themselves. In point of fact, the experience turned out to be positive in the extreme. The neighbours in the street had a sheet of telephone numbers of everyone in the street. The residents had a regular street party and seem to know one another by name. They helped look after one another’s properties. My next door neighbour on one side trimmed my hedge, the one on the other side gave us fish and venison. Other neighbours fixed my computer.
I had also noticed that when one neighbour was away another neighbour took his dog for a regular walk. Oh, and one other thing. Did I remember to say that these friendly neighbours were not Church folk? Yet on reflection such a neighbourhood would not exist unless someone first had chosen to visit the neighbours to invite them the share phone numbers, someone had to agree to host the first street party, and there was buy-in to the idea that residents had to welcome the newcomer to the street.

None of these actions depended on rocket science. Yet as a consequence of these simple actions, the benefits of comfort, security and sense of belonging were immense. Theologically, dare I suggest this might even be a glimpse of Christ.

So to return to this story of the road to Emmaus. We can certainly sympathize with Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple. They were clearly missing the one who they had been inspired to follow, yet did you notice that Jesus was in no hurry to make himself known? Some commentators have suggested that because they were walking towards the sunset with the sun in their eyes they found it hard to recognize Jesus, but Jesus in his responses to them suggests that their lack of recognition might have had a more fundamental reason.

Indeed as they talked more with Jesus it became very apparent they did not understand exactly who they had been attempting to follow.

Jesus in the story of the Road to Emmaus, models a helpful way to conduct a conversation about the essentials of religion. Had he simply said –“ I am Jesus and I am back”, the two disciples would have been no further ahead in their understanding. In the same way a street evangelist telling me about Jesus and the meaning of salvation through his death sounds hollow unless I see the one talking to me is transformed by his or her belief.
Many statements and writings about Jesus illustrate misunderstanding in the sense that Jesus is portrayed as one who represents a form of action on our behalf that we are intended to stand back and admire. On the other hand Jesus himself treats his audience as those expected to live his teaching. Certainly such a shift in thinking cannot be hurried. After all Jesus disciples were with him for months and even years before they understood this fundamental distinction and there is no indication he insisted on instant acceptance.

The very last event in the story may also be significant as part of a parable teaching. Remember that just when the two disciples had worked out who the stranger was, he disappeared. Perhaps this might serve as a reminder that we should never expect to have the experience of Jesus in a form where all is absolutely clear.

I suggested at the outset that it may not even matter how we come out on the literal or metaphorical interpretation of the story. If the Gospels talk of even the closest disciples being puzzled by the resurrection claims, looking back at the same claims 2000 years later without the disciples’ experiences to ground our interpretation in reality the questions and uncertainties are not going to go away.

On the other hand Luke appears to be using the example of Jesus being found in an everyday encounter and not some esoteric religious experience. If we can accept that intended or not, this story has a parable like teaching, we too might be encouraged to look for experiences of Christ in our day to day encounters.

This particular meeting of the disciples with Jesus in today’s reading has two features which suggest relevance for us today.

The first is that the joy of meeting Jesus is sometimes discovered in the context of shared food. In a typical Sunday service the formal part of the service can easily take a form which precludes a genuine sharing and meeting with one another. Even the perfunctory hand shake at the door, the passing comments about the weather or even the complaints about the length of the sermon don’t exactly assist mutual communication. It is strange that all too often we come inspired by one whose practical ministry saw the shared meal as central to his means of sharing and accepting with others, yet we see the cup of tea after the service almost as an incidental extra.

The ministry of hospitality has a good fit with our claim that caring about our neighbours is a central part of Christ’s ministry.

Secondly there are so many Christian denominations (38,000 at one Wikipedia count) and within those, so many shades of interpretation about the meaning of resurrection, also means that we are unlikely to find statements about resurrection supported by an overwhelming majority. Where however we might find agreement, is to suggest that a tomb is no place to confine the spirit of Jesus.

We might well get our inspiration for action in the liturgy and sermons of our Church service but ultimately it is in the situations of urgent need we are called to feed the hungry, to bring justice to the persecuted, to show hospitality to the lonely – and in short – to live the gospel we claim we find in the place we call church.

And more than that, we have Jesus example and teaching to remind us that others will encounter him when those who seek to follow his words minister in practical flesh and blood situations.

So the question for each one of us….. In our encounters, will others see in us the warmth and welcome of the Love of God? In our encounters, will others find the same attention to the place of hospitality and acceptance that Jesus demonstrated? In our encounters, will others get that tantalizing and puzzling glimpse of the same Spirit that appeared to be so hard to kill – and yet which always seems a little beyond understanding even by his closest disciples?

Resurrection means life and the tomb is a most inappropriate place to contain the spirit of life.

Christ is risen
He is risen indeed!

The Road to Emmaus, John Dominic Crossan, Cleopas, hospitality, parables about Jesus, caring neighbourhood

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Lectionary sermon for 27 April 2014 (Easter 2) on John 20 : 19-31 (also for 7 April 2013)

Those who use the expression “a Doubting Thomas” to heap scorn on those who question some aspect of faith would do well to check out the story of Thomas a little more carefully. Even in the fragmentary glimpses of Thomas in the gospels, we get a hint that Thomas is a man to be reckoned with.

Thomas gets hardly a mention in the four New Testament gospels, but before we get to his famous doubts, we might also remember that earlier (Ch 11) when the disciples are trying to talk Jesus out of visiting Lazarus who was understood to have been very sick, and what’s more a visit in the very area where villagers had previously attempted to stone Jesus, it was Thomas who reportedly said: “Let us also go, that we may die with him”.

He may later have expressed doubts about Jesus coming back to life, but in the Lazarus episode he was showing clear signs of courage. Tradition makes the further claim that Thomas subsequently made his way as a missionary, first to Persia and then onto to South India where he was eventually martyred. This was hardly the mark of someone perpetually paralyzed by doubt.

As John the gospel writer tells the story, we tend to forget that Thomas was entitled to his doubts in that unlike the other disciples he had not already seen the risen Christ.

Certainly sometimes doubts can be corrosive, but Thomas used his doubts in a constructive manner. His challenge to meet with the risen Christ is portrayed by John as a test, and presumably, since we learn Thomas went on to use whatever he had discovered to inspire him to become a missionary, if anything his doubts appeared to lead to a firmer faith. If we put ourselves in Thomas’s place, doubting even seems more like rational thinking than credulity.

The equivalent for us today might be watching a good friend die – then later going to the funeral home to pay our respects, only to be met by a stranger telling us “Sorry, he’s gone. He came back to life and he is out there somewhere.” Be honest. Would you accept that without question? And even more to the point, would Thomas have been wise to accept such an outrageous claim without question.

Remember too that in one sense the claims are still outrageous. Since the Bible is a curious amalgam of patchy history, poetry, culture, inspiration, parable, myth and praise, it is always hard to be certain which narrative parts are being recorded as history and which parts are closer to parable to encourage us in faith. Even if we are of a mind to see faith in terms of a catechism in which the thinking is left to Church leaders who instruct us as to the acceptable answers to all the tricky questions, it seems to me that all the best answers have always come from squarely facing one’s own honest doubts.

Certainly it is true that Thomas’ doubts do not seem to have been remembered with affection by Christians through the centuries, yet we might wonder if this had its root in the gospel writers’ respective theological differences. Thomas, whose gospel was claimed to predate the other New Testament gospels, had Gnostic traditions interwoven with teachings of Jesus which were then used by the other gospel writers. This may help explain why his gospel got voted out of the final collection of books chosen for the New Testament. We might also note in passing that for the most part the gospel attributed to Thomas was mainly of sayings of Jesus and was clearly less mystical and more down to earth than a good part of the Gospel of John. Some scholars have even suggested John’s version of Thomas as a doubter was added later to undermine Thomas’s credentials as a rival gospel author.

For those who find it hard to countenance a Bible where editorial policy has helped shape the narrative, just remember that the four gospels already differ in detail when they report the same events.(See for example my article “Shaping God”). We now know for example some verses were added some years later by an unknown author to flesh out Mark’s version of the death of Jesus at the end of Mark’s gospel. We know from earlier versions these verses were missing and they did not appear till well after the original author had died. Other changes have also been noted in other of the New Testament books, so it is reasonable to at least acknowledge later editing as a possibility.

One set of traditions claim Thomas was not only sometimes known as Didymus = the twin ( ie the Aramaic for Thomas gives us Tau’ma or T’oma also meaning twin) but within the traditions some have gone further and claimed he was no less than the twin of Jesus. If this was actually the case, it goes without saying that this would have serious consequences for anyone insisting on the reality of the story of the Virgin Birth. However the notion of Thomas being the Twin of Jesus is also thought to lend a little credence to the implication in one of the Nag Hammadi texts (the Book of Thomas the Contender), in which Jesus himself is quoted as saying: “Now since it has been said that you are my twin and true companion…….” If there was this family connection, this may even have been why another book “The Infancy Gospel of Jesus” purporting to tell the story of Jesus early childhood is also attributed to Thomas.

At the same time, these traditions are still important. There is absolutely no doubt that a Thomas , who by all accounts appears to be the apostle Thomas, was a major figure in starting the Church of South India. The Catholic Church also highly values the Thomas traditions and one of their major teachings, the assumption of Mary to heaven, lists Thomas as the only witness to this event.

It is hard to be certain of how much the record of readings attributed to Thomas or for that matter miracles later attributed to Thomas in India, are based on fanciful recollections by his later admirers.

My personal favourite Thomas story is one which has Thomas as architect and builder in South India getting the commission to build King Gundaphorus (sp?) a lavish palace. Thomas allegedly decided to teach the King a lesson by giving the large sum of money for the project away to the poor. According to the story, when the outraged King got wind of this trick, Thomas’s defence was that he was building the king a Palace in heaven with this act of charity. My own cynicism has me wondering if in fact Thomas would have been able to avoid death if he had actually tried that on any autocratic ruler of the age in that part of the world, but I still like the story.

In an even more improbable example in the Infancy Gospel of Jesus, there is the story of a five year old Jesus carving some sparrows out of wood on the Sabbath, only have them then come to life and fly away. This would be miracle indeed, but clearly quite different in type to the miracles in New Testament gospels.

Please don’t hear me saying that my doubts about the literal truth of some of the events and stories attributed to Thomas therefore mean the stories have no value. All significant figures in history have a degree of accompanying mythology and, like Jesus’ parables, the values that emerge from the stories are where their real worth may lie.

I guess I am also implying that some dimensions of faith require a healthy skepticism, but in the same way that Thomas could express his doubts in an open and honest way without abandoning his faith altogether, I suspect that ultimately we must be free to ask our questions and do our own thinking before we settle on the main directions for our lives.

There are some forms of doubts which lead to progress. I would like to suggest that the natural skepticism towards current scientific understanding shown by most of the now famous scientists was actually the key to their progress. Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science used to say that it is only when you try to disprove an accepted theory that science moves forward.

I suspect that has been the same for the prophets and theologians through the centuries. The first believers in primitive Judaism were satisfied that their limited tribal notions of a localized and partisan God were quite sufficient and it took first the prophets and finally Jesus himself to show why this notion of faith deserved to be doubted.

And historically this process did not stop with Jesus. Christian ethics have been continually doubted, questioned and reshaped to deal with the needs of a changing society. Slavery and blind nationalism, at one time cornerstones of tribal society, have gradually given way to understanding that neighbours do not have to share one’s own religion or status level in the community. The assumption that all disease and disaster had religious cause has been modified as science has informed us about the causes of disease. In the same way our growing understanding about the universe and the laws of nature has caused us to question previous superstitions about the night skies.

Since conditions for the World’s communities have continued to change we now have a whole raft of new problems to face. Now we can produce more food by mass food production techniques a whole series of issues relating to the fair distribution of this food are currently being debated.

We need those who can express their doubts about traditional trade practice and resource management regardless of what may have worked in the past. Love your neighbour needs new expression in changed circumstances.

In an age where physical strength was valued, it made sense to have a male dominated society. In a modern society where education rather than physical strength is the basis of leadership, it makes sense to re-evaluate the respective roles of males and females. To doubt the aspects of faith designed to retain the old values of male domination is not automatically anti-Christian. Since biblical statements about role were designed for a now out-dated culture, the ethics that came from that culture also need rewriting (women priests for the Catholic Church perhaps??)

Advances in medicine mean we now have the problem of euthanasia to consider for those being kept artificially alive long past the expected life span. Advances in weapons research mean we now have to reassess when war is morally acceptable.

There are those who object to all advances of thinking on the grounds that today’s understandings confront us with ideas incompatible with what the forefathers in religion used to believe. And a flat earth society still exists! Remember it was the orthodox Church who took Galileo to task for questioning that the Earth was the centre of the universe, just as their predecessors had done earlier when “heretics” had first suggested that the Earth was not flat nor supported on pillars as the Psalmist had asserted. It was the Bible literalists who objected to the science of geology casting doubts on a six thousand year old Earth, and no doubt there will always be those who dare not question lest they find that their comfortable certainties are threatened.

Because we are blessed with those who continue to use their doubts to help sort out their thinking and those who insist that apparently unreasonable assumptions are tested, we can be certain that transforming knowledge will continue to grow. Whether or not we are brave enough to do our own testing, and allow it to extend the horizons of our own faith is a question for our own individual life story.

Postscript: Regular followers of my site will have noted that this is the same sermon I offered for Easter 2 last year where the same text from the gospel of John is in the lectionary. My only excuse is that this is an exceptionally busy week!

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Easter Sunday Sermon for 2014 (Year A)

Easter Sunday, globally by far the most important festival in the Christian year, has also become the most variable, with a profusion of religious customs and impressive occasions, most of which represent sincere attempts to demonstrate and celebrate the significance of Jesus’ empty tomb. For most denominations, an Easter Sunday service shape gradually emerges such that the regular church goers find predictable familiarity – both in the words of the oft told stories, and in the expected responses to the message.

I would imagine for example that when Pope Francis concluded his Easter message last year with the words: “may the risen Christ guide all of you and the whole of humanity on the paths of justice, love and peace” that Protestants and Catholics alike would have almost expected those sentiments and would have been more than happy to say Amen.

But whether such sentiments came from a Pope or a Protestant Archbishop, that could never be the last word on the subject. Our real challenge comes when we ask ourselves the next question: “Now, how is that going to happen?”

With some trepidation I would like to suggest that, no matter how entrenched our Easter Day celebrations have become, and no matter how well prepared and competently led our services might be, this in no way excuses us from working out our personal response to the Easter message.

Please note this is not insisting we reconsider the evidence either for or against a literal resurrection. Certainly that is an issue on which, sooner or later, we will probably reach our own conclusions and there are plenty of accessible books and articles summarising the main arguments for and against. Yet regardless of how literally we are expected to take the story of the resurrection, the real issue is whether or not we intend to do anything with the story at a personal and practical level.

I will try to explain by reworking a point made by the current Archbishop of Canterbury in an Easter sermon when he referred to a recent survey in the then recent news in which it was reported “that only 40% of churchgoers are convinced that the new Archbishop of Canterbury can resolve the problems of the Church of England,”. Despite his obvious gifts, Justin Welby spotted the futility of the tested proposition and we should particularly note his comment in response. I quote:

I do hope that means the other 60% thought the idea so barking mad that they did not answer the question.”

I suspect if the survey question had been reframed to read: “Do you believe that Jesus of the first Easter could resolve the current problems that beset his church and his world today?” regardless of how strongly we believe (or disbelieve) in resurrection we should probably admit if the Archbishop of Canterbury were consistent, he would have a perfect right to label this question also as “barking mad”.

Despite the best efforts of dictators and power hungry leaders of all persuasions, history teaches that humans are not automatons, to remain totally controlled as puppets. Among most who have attempted to follow the teachings of Christ through the centuries there has been a real mix of saints and sinners, and I suspect that most of us remain a complex mixture of the two. Indeed if we were automatons there would have been no point in Jesus inviting us to consider moral principles, since as puppets we could have been controlled by a resurrected Jesus playing us as if we were some kind of global or even cosmic computer game.

It is not up to Jesus to direct our responses to the very human problems that beset the Church any more than the Pope can produce world peace with a word or Archbishop Justin Welby can solve the current dilemmas of the Anglican Church without corresponding buy-in from their respective followers. What however I suggest we should do as a minimum, is decide how our current actions reflect the essence of what we believe Jesus was really about.

As I remember basic high school science, I recall that one of the seven basic signs of life is movement. When we talk about Jesus being alive for us, this is very different from signing up to a Church where there is no discernible movement of ideas and where the customs and beliefs are rigid and ossified in a pattern designed for a previous generation and different circumstances.

Even at the time of the first Easter, there were few certainties to fall back on. Given that Jesus’ early disciples would have been hurt and even confused by his crucifixion, and given that there was no formal or timely evidence gathering following the crucifixion we can hardly be surprised that by the time the varying versions of the story were recorded, uncertainty remained. With only four of something approaching 30 Gospels surviving the final selection of books in the New Testament, we only see some of the options that those first disciples were offered. A further complication is that of some very obvious editing of the Easter story. For example the last nine verses of Mark were added years after the original was written and the oldest copies of that gospel show the earlier ending.

The best of modern commentators are probably no more of a single mind than the first disciples on the scene. There is a vast difference between those like Bishop Tom (N.T.) Wright who might be seen as representing mainstream evangelical teaching which gives credence to the physical resurrection of Jesus and that of Professor Emeritus Lloyd Geering who makes a persuasive case for Jesus only being resurrected in a metaphorical sense. Although I would class myself amongst the progressive camp in my personal interpretation, and while I cannot be certain what the resurrection means in terms of physical life, the characteristics of the early Church showed a Spirit very much alive as those first Christians sorted out their beliefs and tried to adapt to a rapidly changing geopolitical situation.

Like the earlier Jewish prophets who railed against a faith designed for a previous generation, the early Church leaders had to fashion their set of beliefs to fit with their experience and recent memories. There was movement alright and some of it most uncomfortable. Look at the history of those very first Christians as they tried to come to terms with a society that neither welcomed nor even recognised their insights. There was constant movement as the creeds were fashioned and refashioned, and as difficult philosophic concepts like the Trinity were explained and re-explained.

Some of the refashioning probably came about as the Gospel writers looked back and came up with their individual views of Jesus. In the book The God We Never Knew, Marcus J. Borg writes:

How do we reconcile the two different images of Jesus, the historical figure that did once live and walk and preach and died a horrible death and the Christ the God incarnate and saviour?

He suggests that we divide our view of Jesus into two. The first is the pre-Easter Jesus, the historical Jesus of blood and flesh, a wisdom teacher who walked Galilee and who was crucified by the Romans for being a potential rebel leader who was a threat to the local community’s traditional faith, and to Roman notions of law and order. The other the post-Easter Jesus is what Jesus became after his death. The post-Easter Jesus is the Jesus of Christian tradition and experience.

Many of us grew up hearing of Jesus mainly as the post-Easter figure: walking on water, feeding the multitude with a few loaves and fishes, Jesus as God incarnate, the Son of God, raising Lazarus from the dead, and himself raised again as a resurrected spirit body.

Is it heresy to suggest our task is to follow and respond to the wisdom he taught rather than stand transfixed in awe at what he has become?

Not everyone welcomes such scholarship and continual questioning as a sign of life. Just as some of the Jewish leaders voiced strong objection when Jesus assumed a prophetic voice to show how the old faith had become too rigid to deal with the changes being experienced by occupied Palestine, others would later protest each change and each sign of questioning or reform in the early Christian Church. Later persecution of those who questioned rigid assertions, the burning or torture of Church reformers, the martyrdom of the first Bible translators and a strong reluctance to have Jesus’ principles of forgiveness and love of neighbour accepted as a blueprint for action showed not all wanted to recognise openness to change as a sign of life.

The previous Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once claimed that we make a genuine mistake if we assume that change can only be associated with the early church in the sense of those first Christians. Each generation faces its own new situations and challenges and in at least one sense, Jesus is not alive unless we allow him to be alive for us in our adaption to change. In the sense that we all come to the faith for the first time, and that we all have to struggle to find meaning for that faith in a changing society, Rowan Williams suggests we should all see ourselves as early Christians.

I suggested earlier that prominent scholars outline very different possibilities for what happened to Jesus after his body was removed from the cross. Just as the first disciples had different experiences and different witnesses to interview, if we are true to the notion of awakening to a living faith, I want to go further and suggest it doesn’t matter if we come to different conclusions, providing we never get to the point where we assume we now know all there is to know about what might yet turn out to be unknowable. More to the point, rather than argue the toss about whose image of Jesus is best, why not start with our current image and start to live accordingly.

In the last analysis, the unquestioning acceptance of a series of belief statements risks being not so much faith as a cop-out living on the assumption that others should do our thinking for us. Faith, if it is honest, must be tested against our realities. Remember that the early church is simply a way of describing those who were prepared to explore and develop their faith for their highly individual changing situations. Will we in our response to the first Easter be recognised as having the best characteristics of the early Christians?

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Lectionary Sermon for Good Friday Year A (18 April 2014) on selected passages from John Chs18 -19

Good Friday Sermon, Year A

Have you noticed the irony in where Jesus was crucified? Jesus had spent much of his mission identifying and breaking down the walls between people, and there he was, being crucified at Golgotha just outside the physical walls of the city where he had been rejected.

Jesus appeared to have cared very much about removing the non –physical walls. There were the metaphorical walls between the Samaritans and Jews, between Pharisees and the people, and the metaphorical walls keeping the lepers, the tax collectors, the women, the prostitutes, the lowly shepherds and fishermen in their place.

So Jesus told his parables, touched the lepers, ate with the prostitute and incorporated the fishermen, the tax collector and the zealot in his band of followers. In a very real sense this helped shift the walls. Yet there were also those who insisted on keeping him at a distance with the walls they erected around themselves and their institutions.

The zealots hoped for a Messiah who would lead them to military victory over those who threatened their politics and faith. Jesus, with his gospel of forgiveness, did not meet their expectations, we cannot know for certain but some scholars suggest Judas his betrayer remained a zealot.

The High Priest and the ruling Sanhedrin did not accept Jesus’ right to give fresh interpretations of the law, or accept his healing and teaching ministry was valid. Their walls may have been self-imagined walls of self protection, but in good part, it was the threat to those walls that apparently cost Jesus his life.

The gospel writers paint a word picture of the traditionalists among the Jews becoming concerned at his threat to their extensive habits of custom and tradition. The story of Jesus clearing the Temple of those who were trying to make large profits from their religion, the account of Jesus telling parables about the potential goodness of the hated Samaritans, the challenge to ancient customs of avoiding contact with lepers and the challenge to those who used religion to personal advantage combined to make Jesus’ teaching a perceived embarrassment.

Given the strength of feeling against Jesus – particularly from those who represented the establishment, are we surprised that even Peter the leader of the disciples would be described as having his courage desert him at the vital moment?

Perhaps it was inevitable that they should crucify him outside the physical wall of the city.

Sometimes we need to take the familiar and look at it in a new way.

When we hear of the death of someone significant to the nation or community, it is one thing to acknowledge that the death matters, it is quite another to acknowledge that our personal attitudes might somehow have something to do with the cause of death.

I guess at least some present today have heard the anecdote I am about to share, which as far as I know first had its origin in the events surrounding the Allied landings in France during the Second World War. Even if you do know the story, this time I would like you to revisit it, this time seeing it as a parable. I am uncertain where I first encountered the story but I acknowledge this account is remembered rather than copied.

It seems that the fighting in one forest area in France was bitter and among those who died of his wounds was an American soldier whose fellow squad members were determined that they would not simply abandon his body where it fell. With considerable difficulty they started to carry the body until they came across the walls of a Church cemetery. This, they felt, was the most appropriate place to bury their friend. They went inside, and there they met a priest. He knew enough English to understand what they were asking. He was sympathetic but there was one important issue that needed to be settled first.

“This graveyard is consecrated for Church members”, said the priest. “Was this man a Catholic?”

“Not specifically”, said one of his friends. “But as far as we know he was a Christian and we need to have him buried in an appropriate place. To know that we found a Church cemetery as a place to bury him would be at least a little comfort to his family”

“Well”, said the priest, ” I am really sorry. But I have rules that I have to follow. He is not a Catholic. He cannot be buried in a cemetery for Catholics”.

The men protested. The priest remained adamant.
“OK,” said one soldier. “Well at the very least may we bury him just next to the stone wall, just outside?”

The priest was understandably embarrassed, but he too thought that this might be the best compromise, so gave his permission.

After burying their friend as best they could, the soldiers left. After some discussion over night they decided they would return the next day with some flowers for the grave. They found the walls of the graveyard with no difficulty, yet there was a puzzle. When they went to the part of the wall where they had dug the grave – there was absolutely no sign of disturbed earth. Thinking that perhaps they had mistaken the place they walked further – then went back in the other direction – but all they found was undisturbed earth.

They sought out the priest.

“I can explain,” said the priest. “I was concerned that despite the rules stopping you burying your friend inside the cemetery, it didn’t seem to me to be Christian to ask you to bury him outside the walls. I started to worry about this. I couldn’t sleep, so in the end I went to the part of the wall where he was buried – and shifted the wall so that he is now inside, where he should have been in the first place.”

Now I suggested that we take this story as a parable – because I guess, like the Jewish leaders dealing with Jesus 2000 years ago, our lives are governed by the notional walls we set up to show who we accept and who we exclude. If our faith is to make a difference to our inclinations, maybe we too may have to see if there is a possibility that the walls can be shifted.

Understanding what happened on the first Good Friday has a great deal to do with the walls that the folk in Jesus day choose to make important. Finding the relevance of Good Friday at least in part, is to recognize that even we too have our often unspoken rules about who is to remain outside our protective customs. When we identify with those who are kept out by our customs it maybe like the priest in today’s more modern story, we may have to face admitting something may need to be done, for as long as the walls remain we cannot pretend God is in his heaven and all is automatically right with the world.

Like the priest administering the rules and customs of the Church we too might feel constrained by what our customs have become, but the real Good Friday test is to see if like Jesus staying with his mission, and like that priest in today’s story, we are prepared to do something about it.

Good Friday is a good day to remember that in war, as in peace, there are always those who can be persuaded to do the non-loving act. Of course there is the temptation to rush past Good Friday and on to the resurrection. But if the resurrection is to have meaning, then those who claim they recognize its meaning can hardly carry on to pretend that there are no human contributions to the continuing and very real suffering of Church and non Church people alike. Our institutions may serve the majority well, but can we find amongst us, those who are marginalised by their background?

Our communities – and even our nation has its own way of keeping those beyond our physical borders at arm’s length. When we consider the plight of the flood of war refugees in the Middle East and in Africa, and those simply searching for food, we can hardly claim that institutional violence died on the Cross with Jesus.

Nor can we simplify and pretend that whole classes of people other than us are singly and exclusively responsible for the evil that happened back then to Jesus and continues to happen today.

Despite John’s passing implication that the Jews as a total class were responsible for Jesus death, in reality it was some in the crowd, it was some of the leadership, and the failure of nerve of some of his followers which found Jesus on one side of the wall and, those that might have helped, found on the other.

Certainly sacrifice was part of Jesus’ story. As any responsible parent or community leader must know, sacrifices can make a positive difference. But the transformation which can occur in lives is not some magic wrought by some religious act 2000 years ago. Telling the child prostitute that Jesus loves them without helping them remove the walls that imprison them, or telling the refugee carrying meagre possessions on their back as they face another day without sufficient food or water that Jesus has saved them by dying on the cross, simply won’t do it.

At one level, Jesus’ sacrifice was refusing to give up caring despite the metaphorical walls erected to his face, and this despite the weight of rules and custom. We are most unlikely to have to face anything like the physical threat of the cross, but its lesson is plain enough. Our challenge is to ask if we too care enough to take Jesus’ example and use it to reshape our lives and shift our walls to encompass more of those we do not currently treat as God’s people.

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Lectionary sermon for Palm Sunday (Year A) April 13, 2014 on Matthew 21:1-11

When you stop to think about it, Palm Sunday is a rather strange Christian festival. Getting into the spirit of Palm Sunday has always seemed to me to be rather artificial and even forced, because welcoming anyone – let alone Jesus – with waving Palm branches and cries of “Hosanna to the Son of David” as he rides in on a donkey, is very far removed from what we are used to doing in everyday life.

We also have the distinct disadvantage that we know what comes next. It is hard to get quite into the palm waving spirit of the occasion with the crucifixion starting to cast its shadow. Even in the midst of the celebration event, we find it difficult to forget that, no matter how many admirers were on hand for this particular parade, a few short days later Jesus is taken, humiliated and subject to a particularly nasty form of execution. When it comes to the original Palm Sunday crowd, no matter how enthusiastic they might have appeared in Matthew’s account, it is hard to believe that they were totally genuine in their support, particularly when a few days later, they appear either to have turned on Jesus, or at the very least quietly withdrawn to allow the authorities to carry out their version of summary justice.

It also seems to me that rushing to the rather overblown theology of Jesus being welcomed as the King of Heaven, this Jesus about to be sacrificed for our sins, and this lamb of God somehow saving us in the process, risks missing the main points of the story.

First of all there was something quite deliberate about this parade, which, even if it didn’t quite exactly happen as recorded, gave adequate reason for the authorities to kill Jesus.

Pax Romana, which for Israel meant the enforced peace of the Romans in their conquered territory, was never any better than uneasy temporary calm.

Although the military might was clearly in the Romans’ favour, the Jews were most reluctant hosts and there had been a number of aborted attempted efforts to stage a revolution. Each time a revolt was planned, let alone staged, the Romans would exact terrible revenge as a clear warning to any other potential trouble makers. This did not mean that the Jews were entirely cowed into submission. As far as the Jews were concerned, it was not so much that the Romans were exacting large taxes, but more that they threatened the free expression of the very religion the Jews held so dear.

Because the Jews were very clear that their Lord, their God, was entitled to their total and absolute loyalty, the sticking point was always that the Romans expected the Jews to demonstrate first loyalty to the Roman Emperor. The position of the Roman Emperor was highly symbolic but it went far beyond that of a mere ruler. Since the time of Caesar Augustus, the Emperor was presented as a God, and his numerous titles included that of Son of God. The Romans expected all their subjects to recognise the unique God-like status of their emperor, and demanded that even while their conquered subjects might be permitted to follow their own religion, this must take second place to the acknowledgement of the Emperor. Conversely, the Jews were taught from their scriptures that their salvation would come with some sort of reincarnation of King David, and this mighty one alone would be their saviour.

The well known scripture from the words of the prophet (Zechariah 9:9), made the prediction which Matthew quotes as “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.” Perhaps in the interests of accuracy we might acknowledge in passing that Matthew, unlike the other gospel writers, has been a little careless with his use of the inserted word “and”, which then has Jesus mounted on two animals, the donkey and at the same time, the colt, which when we think about it, might have taken some doing in practice. This however is a relatively minor point and we do at least get the sense that what Jesus was reported as doing in this parade was deliberate enactment of the prophecy.

While it is true this was only one of the signs the people had been eagerly awaiting, some of the contemporary writing of the time portrayed this Messiah more as a mighty warrior king than a man of peace, no doubt coming to drive their enemies into the sea. There were those in the crowd reportedly confirming that here was the predicted prophet – perhaps recognising the Zechariah allusion. As a consequence we learn of shouting crowds, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” To the crowd then there seemed at least some who showed their delight as those looking for their deliverer. However it is very likely that some present would have had serious reservations.

Some would have been concerned no doubt that the expected one didn’t match the expectations of a warrior king. There is even ambiguity about Jesus in the New Testament. The parables and teaching of Jesus and our Palm Sunday image of Jesus riding peacefully into Jerusalem on the ass-colt of a nursing donkey, has been re-imaged many times in subsequent history. For example the book of Revelation Chapter 19 has Jesus on a white battle horse out to do physical battle with his foes:

I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war…..I saw the beast and the kings of the Earth with their armies to make war against the rider on his horse….And the rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh. (Rev 19: 11,19,21)

Being human we should admit there is always a tension between what we hope we are following and what our baser instincts encourage us to follow.

Any discussion of Palm Sunday is further informed by the insightful book by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan (The Last Week) where they remind us that about the same reported time of the peaceful and joyous entry by Jesus on one side of Jerusalem, there may well have been a much larger and impressive Imperial military parade coming in from the direction of the coast with Pilate entering the city accompanied by his troops who normally were stationed on the coast in Caesarea Maritima. As Borg and Crossan phrased it:

Pilate’s procession displayed not only imperial power, but also Roman imperial theology. According to this theology, the emperor was not simply ruler of Rome, but the Son of God. (Borg and Crossan, The Last Week, p. 3).

Given the current fascination with Video War games, not to mention the ever popular war films, action heroes and war documentaries, even today we might suspect such a military parade might gain more followers than the low key arrival of a humble Prince of Peace. Whether or not we are brave enough to insist that following the message of the Prince of Peace should always take precedence over the periodic calls to arms that characterises the recent history of most nations is another way of asking us which of the two parades we would have preferred to associate ourselves.

If we try to imagine ourselves actually present at Jesus’ parade it is interesting to speculate on the effect of this parade on the authorities.

When they got to hear about it, the implication that here was a potential Messiah would not have pleased the Romans. Since the Romans expected the first loyalty of the conquered people to be directed to their Emperor, the thought that Jesus might be competing with the Emperor would not have been welcome news.

The Temple authorities would have had it drummed into them by the Roman overlords that further rebellion would not be tolerated. The Jewish leaders’ continued existence in positions of control in the Temple depended on their ability to keep the peace for their foreign masters.

Finding, from that point of view, that here again was a potential leader who may well serve as a rallying point for trouble, would have created consternation.

We always have the safe option of watching from the side-lines while others, like Jesus himself, identify by word and action with what they believe to be important. It is relatively easy to applaud from the kerb, and it may be tempting to treat even our acts of worship in that sense. Singing “Ride on, ride on in majesty!” is good poetry and acknowledges Jesus’ journey. Where it does fall short, is in acknowledging that his message only finds meaning in our willingness to make his parade our parade. However to identify with Jesus is to identify with his proscription for change, and symbolically this means stepping off the kerb to join the parade.

I also need to confess that I am not confident that I will always support the man on the donkey when he is rejected.

Earlier today, downtown in suburban South Auckland, I witnessed a large and very belligerent father smack his pre-school daughter in the head and follow it with a string of obscene curses. I stepped forward to remonstrate with him but under his furious glare – suddenly words failed me. I am sufficiently unhappy with my response to wonder what others would have done under the same circumstances. Given my timid capitulation, it seems curiously appropriate that I should now find myself contemplating those who failed to risk their lives defending Jesus when it became clear that the parade they had appeared to support was over and the danger mounting.

However I am equally sure that what we make of the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee becomes potentially life changing when we realise that it should continue to matter which parade we choose to follow, and ultimately, whether or not we are still prepared to follow when the shouts of adulation die away.

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Lectionary Sermon for April 6 2014 (Lent 5 A) on John 11:1-45

If I had my time again as a teacher I would like to think I would encourage all serious science and history students to read Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road not taken” The poem concerns a traveller walking through the wood, encountering a point at which the paths diverged. One path was well worn and the other scarcely trodden. Our traveller decides to take the less worn path. The poem finishes:
…..Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference

The assumption that heading in the direction everyone else is going is the safest may well be partly true, if only in terms of public approval, but in terms of breaking new ground to see things in new ways, whether it be in science, religion – or even whatever really matters in our personal lives, sometimes we may have to risk making our journey along paths that others would spurn.

Certainly echoing what everyone else says is unlikely to bring about enlightenment. In fact I would go further and suggest a casual affirmation of whatever a large group of people are saying or doing can draw us into patterns of behaviour and belief that sometimes work against the very principles we say are important.

It is true that many followers of Christ have done much to help their communities. Unfortunately it is also true that history is full of examples of bad behaviour excused by public acceptance in the name of religion. Just to take one brief instance. When King Richard the first was about to set out on the crusades in 1190 a wave of anti-Semitic sentiment swept through a number of cities in the North of England. In one case, the Jewish population of York, estimated at the time to be of the order of 150 men, women, and children, took refuge in the Keep at the royal castle. Terrified by sounds of the mob outside, baying for blood, a good number of the Jews committed suicide. Those who didn’t were burnt to death.

With countless examples: of centuries of religious persecution, of slavery justified by Church leaders, of the selling of indulgences to frightened and illiterate peasants, of the storing of treasures on earth by a powerful Church, and the turning of a blind eye to serious injustices, sometimes even on a global scale, we might well wonder why more of those familiar with the obvious themes of the gospels were not brave enough to step back to cry “enough!” in the face of what the majority condoned.

We might pretend that such callous disregard for inhuman behaviour would not happen today. During the Second World War, the Jews, whose people suffered persecution while ordinary citizens in occupied countries looked the other way, might suggest otherwise. So too might those who continue to suffer because there are those who currently prefer turn a blind eye to today’s child poverty and for that matter, the present grossly unequal distribution of the world’s resources.

A superficial reading of today’s gospel story may let you conclude the raising of Lazarus offers nothing to such themes, or if it comes to that, seems almost irrelevant to any practical situation we are likely to encounter in the modern world. At the very least it would be unexpected in the extreme to encounter contemporary examples of people encouraged to rise from the dead and actually doing so.

Before considering the Lazarus story, pause for a moment on the following item that apparently made the US National News back in 1992.

A letter was quoted as reportedly sent to a deceased person by The Department of Social Services in Indiana. It read as follows:

“Your food stamps will be stopped, effective March 1992
because we received notice that you passed away.
May God bless you. You may reapply if there is a
change in your circumstances”.

But at least be honest. If you think that letter was silly, then perhaps you too think the bringing back to life of a person who has been dead for some time is very unlikely as an outcome.

Some less conservative Christians would argue that if the events surrounding the raising up of Lazarus are intended to be taken literally, if there was any truth in the account, perhaps he was not truly dead in the first place.

There’s an old tale that Pat fell from the scaffolding on a construction job and was knocked unconscious. Mike ran for the doctor. The doctor came. He took one look at Pat and said, “He’s dead.” Just then Pat came to and heard what the doctor was saying. Bleary-eyed and still groggy he said, “I ain’t dead.” “Lay down, Pat,” said Mike. “Lay down. The doctor knows best.”

In the case of Lazarus, since resuscitation of the dead is rare enough, especially for one apparently dead for four days, sceptics might even be inclined to the naturalistic explanation and say: in those days lots of mistakes would have been made. It is hard enough today without the best of medical equipment to be certain someone is dead – so presumably it would not be beyond the realms of possibility to have someone apparently resuscitated by calling their name.

Alternately those insisting on a literalistic faith might simply say: well in the case of Lazarus, Jesus was the Son of God and could therefore do such wonders anyway.

I have certainly heard both well travelled possibilities suggested. Well I don’t know about you, but there is a much less well travelled path that is there for those who choose to look.

Let’s look at some of the features of the story. Jesus called the man by name. The name happened to be Lazarus …and just from that particular name we might begin to guess the story is intended to teach at another level. Lazarus was a name used in other scriptures, but almost always the meaning of the name reminds us that there is a parable dimension intended. We might for example remember that there was a parable about another Lazarus who dies and is saved by God…..(the poor man at the rich man’s gate). Lazarus is more or less the Greek form of the Hebrew word which is derived from the Hebrew אלעזר, Elʿāzār (Eleazar) meaning “God has helped“.[ I don’t know if the name was intended to be significant yet Matthew’s first hearers of his Gospel may well have thought so.

You see it was not just in the gospels. Some rabbinic tales feature El’ leazar (Greek Lazaros) walking in disguise on the earth and reporting back to Abraham on how his children are observing the Torah’s proscriptions regarding the treatment of the widow, the orphan, and the poor. A friend of mine calls this, “being the mystery shopper”!
I wonder what the mystery shopper would report about our society.

The next point we may have noted is that although John claims Jesus raised Lazarus, it most certainly was not in the sense of a resurrection to eternal life. True, John records Jesus as saying Jesus to Martha ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone believing in me, even if they die, will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die’ (11:25-26). However a closer reading of this miracle (or perhaps parable?) shows the eternal bit was not intended to apply to the revival of Lazarus in a literal sense. Lazarus may have come walking from the tomb, yet there is no suggestion that he was now eternal in that he was now going to live forever. As far as we know, even if apparently brought back to life, in due course he would once more be dead.

The alternative is that Jesus was referring to some lasting quality rather than quantity of life, a quality so important that it could be attributed the term eternal. If this were intended, we might guess Jesus was using “life” in a metaphorical sense to imply that those who adopted the way of life he was advocating would thereby open themselves to living in a totally new way…perhaps even one in which death was irrelevant.

To see the story as a case of a dead man literally brought back to life is to stay with the limited understanding of Mary and Martha. We ought to be able to do better than that, because with the extra detail supplied by John there is good reason to think Jesus was talking about life at a deeper level.

I implied earlier that there were aspects of the less travelled path that might make it less likely to be popular. In this case, the popular view seems to be that Jesus performed the miraculous result by himself. This is comforting because it then makes minimal demands on us.

Most sermons and commentaries I have encountered relating to this story focus on Jesus’ actions, so it is easy to overlook a tiny, yet I would suggest an important detail intended for John’s readers.

Remember when Lazarus emerges, festooned with the wrapping bandages and cloths intended for the wrapping of the dead body, Jesus asks those present to remove the bandages that Lazarus can be freed to move. If this too is part parable, perhaps he is saying that we shouldn’t look to Jesus to do it all for us. Just as Lazarus needed others help before he was free to display signs of life, the suggestion is that before what Jesus referred to can take effect others too have a part to play.

We are not all called to moments of high drama, but the notion of helping free those we encounter from the difficulties that stop them living life to the full is at the heart of practical Christianity.

Just as Christ met people as they were, blind, leprous, rejected or as in Lazarus’ case, dead to the possibilities of life, the call into fullness of life is also a call to interaction with those whose claim to full life is tested by encounter.

When that thoughtful and embarrassingly honest Anglican priest, Richard MacKenna, was trying to put his faith into words in his book God for Nothing, he wrote (P183)

Ask me why I am a Christian and I say, “I don’t know” What called me into the cloud of unknowing, the dark wood? Because I want to find out who I am? Because I want to know how to love? All I know is that the quest is risky and painful…and yet there is something there…light at the end of the wood.”

In his book questioning standard Church thinking, I believe Richard MacKenna was walking the equivalent of Robert Frost’s road less travelled. I suspect at the end, he too would be able to say “…that has made all the difference”.

As for me, my autobiography is yet to be written. And what will yours conclude?

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