Lectionary sermon for 29 May 2016 Year C Pr 4 Luke 7:1-10

The early cowboy films may have been short on camera trickery but at least then they knew how to tell the good guys from the bad. There was a simple code. The good guys wore the white Stetsons. The bad guys were usually in black.

This simplified good/ bad classification may seem naive, yet when you think about the stereotypes humans have traditionally accepted in the past, it is not much sillier than the standard beliefs many communities seem to have held about themselves and others from the dawn of recorded history. Think for example of Athenians versus Spartans, Rome versus Carthage, the English versus the French, the Roundheads versus the Cavaliers, the British, Russians and Americans versus the Germans and Japanese, Communists versus Capitalists. …the list is endless.

And I am afraid that distrust of the other is not new to our community continues to this day. In my own Church after the First World War some foolish trustee purchased a German Piano for our Papakura Methodist Church – there was evidently much horror and disgust expressed but the sale contract was too difficult to get around and the piano remained. After the Second World War there was resistance to accepting Jewish refugees and much prejudice against both the Japanese and Germans. In the sixties it was the Vietnamese and of course these days the community prejudice is directed at anyone wearing a turban or wearing Arabic dress.

Religion is no different. Those like us we see as the white hats. The rest are varying shades of grey or even black. Christianity versus Islam, Catholics versus Protestants, Liberals versus traditionalists, everybody versus the Jews…… and so on and so forth.

A casual reading of the New Testament and some non Roman popular histories of the provide us earlier illustrations. There we get an impression the really bad guys were the Romans, those like Pilate and Pompey who put down the Jewish rebellions with mass crucifixions and imposed crushing taxes on the conquered people. The Romans after all were the ones who actually crucified Jesus. What is more, from the Roman writing of the day we know that even then anti-Semitism was alive and well. The Jews were referred to as a filthy race and accused of all sorts of weird practices in their worship.

For the casual reader of the New Testament, next in the list of bad hats came the Jewish hierarchy. When we think of corrupt Temple practices which culminated in the reports of Jesus clearing the Temple of the money lenders and sacrifice sellers, or reading of Pharisees engaged in ostentatious displays of praying in public or pushing themselves forward to the place of honour at the feasts or at worship – or perhaps the Pharisees walking by on the other side when they encounter the beaten man on the side of the road, we can identify the corrupt simply by their position…or can we?

All societies appear to set up their own sociological structures so that we know who are in and who are out.

Yet today’s passage cuts right across the sort of barriers encountered in virtually every community. In this instance the Roman Centurion is expected to be the heavy handed invader, instead he is the thoughtful, community spirited and caring master. The Jewish leaders are expected to be opposing Jesus yet here they are interceding to Jesus on behalf of the Centurion.

Let’s look at the Centurion a little more closely. No hard hearted arrogant soldier this one. First he cares enough about a mere slave as to invite Jewish elders to seek out Jesus for help. Since slaves to the Roman citizens were regarded as the equivalent of living tools, the slave owners had freedom to use or abuse them in any way they chose. William Barclay cites an example of a Roman document on land management which recommended that each year the estate owner should check his tools and throw away any which were worn or broken. Having done that, the manual goes on to suggest doing exactly the same with the slaves. The old or sick slave was totally dispensable and should be killed with impunity. In that setting, a Centurion seeking a cure for a slave was clearly atypical.

If we try to think ourselves into the position of an army officer in charge of a sizable group of occupation troops in unfriendly territory we can see how easy it might be to play the part of a typical invader treating the locals with suspicion and contempt. There is evidence that this is not a fair description of our centurion. We learn that the reason why the Jewish elders intercede on his behalf is because he has helped the locals build a synagogue.

When I suggest that this is unexpected, remember this is the equivalent of Jews building a Mosque for the Palestinians in Jerusalem, or the Muslim Palestinians building a synagogue for the Jews. And lest I am tempted to think that Christians in my community would be any better in this respect, I am reminded that some time ago when a local Jehovah’s Witness Church sought permission to build a meeting hall in my home City, the local residents in the neighbourhood, many of whom were Church goers in other denominations, lodged protests with the Council.

Finding the potential for good in other faiths is not an automatic given.
I want to suggest that in this story we might learn more from the Centurion than we do from Jesus. Of course before we can learn from the centurion we may have to do some honest self reflection. Have we for example reached the stage of spiritual development where we are comfortable finding truth in other religious settings?

The reason why I think we can learn from the Centurion is that he has place set for him by his title and expected role yet he is engaged in seeking the best possible outcome in a less than ideal situation. If we reflect on our own situation outside the walls of the places of worship it is blindingly obvious that there is an enormous gulf between the Christian ideal and our daily realities. There is unnecessary suffering in many places precisely because a good part of the human race is reluctant to get too heavily involved in ensuring kind treatment, fairness and justice for all.

Because, like the Centurion, we too have to live surrounded by people who will not necessarily share our faith and fortune we always have the choice of passively accepting what life deals us, or like the Centurion, attempting as best we can to make a positive difference.

Before delving too deeply into the story we need to acknowledge that the details are a wee bit fuzzy in that the Matthew version calls the sick man a servant rather than a slave and has Jesus actually going to the Centurion’s house rather than healing by a word. But which account is the most accurate is hardly the point.

The pages of scripture might inspire us to constructive action but the focus should not stay on the words themselves. I am reminded of the … “Emperor Menelik II, the dynamic and resourceful creator of modern Ethiopia, who was in the habit of nibbling a few pages of the Bible whenever he became ill. In December 1913, while recovering from a stroke, he ate the entire Book of Kings and died” (Michael Mayne, A Year Lost and Found London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1987, P17) Consuming or for that matter casually reading the words wont lift us out of our situation.

Nevertheless the Luke account draws us to reflect on some interesting ethical issues. We might also note that at different times in history passages such as this one can and have been misused. During the American civil war for example, the Southern States used this story to support slavery, in that Jesus cures the slave rather than insists that he be freed.

How Jesus affected a cure in this account is well beyond any experience most of us are ever likely to experience for ourselves. Even if it were an accurately reported event, we can only speculate what form of illness was affecting the slave and as a consequence can have no idea what role what we might now claim to be a miracle might have played in his healing. On the other hand we all live in communities where prejudice and inappropriate attitudes can and do poison relationships.

Many supply chains in the garment industry for example still benefit from the equivalent of modern slavery. Our shops sell goods made in third world countries by those working for a pittance. Remember back to the structural collapse of a garment manufacture sweat shop in Bangladesh with the loss of a thousand lives, and similarly the appalling conditions for the Bangladesh ship breaking yards servicing the international shipping lines, should remind us that shutting our eyes to suffering is not intended to be the Christian way. It would be a shame if we too had to wait for some foreigner from some foreign faith to show the way in helping these slaves.

Another dimension of the Centurion’s character is the way in which he refuses to take advantage of his position. There is a sense in which the humility of the Centurion marks him out as a special man. I remember once of reading about Frederick the Great visiting a prison. He listened with mounting irritation to prisoner after prisoner protesting their innocence and wrongful imprisonment before the Emperor. Finally at last he encountered a man who simply said. “I am guilty and deserve my punishment.” “Release this man instantly”, said Frederick. “If you allow him to stay repeating this message he will contaminate the other prisoners”. Genuine humility and acknowledgement of personal shortcomings would indeed set a person apart.

The last feature of the Centurion’s character that may well inspire us was his extraordinary faith. His reported acknowledgement of the healing skill of Jesus is not the likely point of difference with ourselves. Rather it was that he was prepared to risk his status and in effect let his heart guide him.

Knowing that Christ’s way can be at the heart of a cure is not necessarily a demonstration of faith. It was only when the Centurion entrusted Jesus with the well-being of his slave that his private beliefs became a public expression of faith. Can it be any different for us as individuals? We may privately think we believe all sorts of things about our relationship with who we believe Jesus to be, with our neighbours, and with those who depend on our goodwill. But believing these things will have no meaning until they start to affect our day-to-day decisions. It is only when we ourselves act on our belief that genuine faith is demonstrated.

So yes, Luke records Jesus being impressed with the Centurion’s faith, but note it was not admiration for a belief system, but rather the Centurion’s actions of trust, care for his slave and demonstration of humility that brought about this response. As far as others are concerned, whatever we claim to be our beliefs will only be elevated to a tested faith when our actions proclaim these thoughts to others. Stay tuned….

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Lectionary Sermon for Trinity Sunday, Year C, 22 May 2016 on John 16: 12 – 15

Although there is good practical sense in Christian living, every now and again we come to something more obscure. Here in today’s passage we encounter something which may at first seem removed from practical reality. Jesus is telling his disciples that when he is gone he will send this thing – this mysterious spirit, which in Greek is called Parakletos, and which approximately translates as the legal expression for advocate.

Perhaps we should remember that the disciples, many of whom would be likely to be dragged before the courts to explain their apparently rebellious faith, would when this happened, feel in need of all the help they could get. But this is not an educated lawyer John reports Jesus as talking about as advocate. This is a helper Spirit – in all likelihood – the Holy Spirit.

Although this is an other-worldly illustration, as it happens, for all his poetic phrases in presenting the gospel John was not into magic or miracles except as signs. His message was essentially simple. John was saying Jesus had brought love into the world. Many had not recognized the love, which is why Jesus had to die. It was now up to those of us left as his followers to take up his mission same message relying on his spirit to carry it through.

Today is Trinity Sunday when a good part of the Christian Church celebrates the three in one nature of God, yet for any thinking Christian, I suspect the Trinity is cause for some unease. It is not so much that we would want to question that there is some mysterious organizing principle behind our dimly understood and vast Universe, nor that Jesus is still a very significant figure, it is just that our attempts to put what we know into words seem so trite and inadequate.

If astronomers and astrophysicists are currently struggling to come to grips with the rapidly developing picture of the distant reaches of space, is it any wonder that even the best informed modern scientists find it hard to know what is meant by creation, let alone describe the creator in terms of an earthly father. And when it comes to the second person of the Trinity, even with the gospels providing biographical details about Jesus, and even with those like Paul helping sort out Jesus’ significance for his followers, we are left with shadowy glimpses that have to be reinterpreted for each generation in a changing world.

People have always had trouble with the word “God”. Traditionally the Jews hadn’t even wanted to commit themselves so much as to write the complete word for God on papyrus or more recently on paper. In the Hebrew Bible “I Am that I Am“, and the “Tetragrammaton” YHVH are often used instead as names of God, while Yahweh, and Jehovah are sometimes used in Christianity as vocalizations of YHVH. I understand the current modern practice for a number of English speaking orthodox Jews is to write the word as G-d to remind themselves that at the heart of that which we call God there is mystery, and ultimately this mystery defies definition. If you are not quite sure what you are trying to say, words alone won’t do it.

As a compromise, as sincere followers have struggled to express where they are at in their thinking, a series of changing metaphors have been used through the centuries to highlight different aspects of intention and basic belief. In this sense metaphors should not be expected to provide physical definitions. In fact the metaphors we choose to own turn out to be more important than definitions because they can transform our thinking and imagery which in turn can influence the way we live and interact with others.

We trivialise our faith if we confuse metaphor with literal understanding. Rabbi Benjamin Sylva once put it this way: “A literalist interpretation of Scripture tells us that God is a rock that sent a bird to cause a virgin to give birth to a loaf of bread. And this is supposed to be an improvement on obtaining a chiselled code of conduct from a flaming shrubbery in a cloud [?] If a literal understanding is all that is required for faith, then I’m a yellow ducky.”

And if we recall some of the metaphors in the scriptures we can see why it would be inappropriate to analyse their literal meaning too far.
For God some of the chosen metaphors in the Old Testament, the Hebrew scriptures, include: a shepherd (the 23rd Psalm), a potter (Isa. 64:8), then in Psalm 18 a rock and fortress . There are the female metaphors. Genesis Ch 3 and Psalm 139 refer to God as a seamstress who “stitches, mends” (Gen. 3:21) and knits (Ps. 139:13,15),

In Deuteronomy Ch 32 (and Exodus Ch 19 ) God is presented as an eagle who teaches her young to fly and carries them on her wings, or is God rather the metaphor of mother (Isaiah 42:14; 66:13), ) a mistress (Psalm 123:2), or a mid-wife (Psalm 22:9-10). Some of the metaphors reappear in the New Testament almost as a way of saying it is the same God acting. The wind and the fire of Pentecost are two standard illustrations to indicate the presence of God or the Spirit in the older scriptures too. Today’s metaphor is the Spirit as Advocate.

Certainly it may make no sense to see Jesus as literally identical with the creation force behind the universe, but there is clear overlap for the Old Testament metaphors of God with the sorts of metaphors chosen by Jesus and others to describe himself in the New Testament. Jesus is the good shepherd, the Lord, the King, the foundation, the mother hen, the True vine, the living bread, the light, the door, the gate, the living water, the morning star and so on.

These metaphors are helpful, not so much because they tell us about the reality of a created universe but because they give us a focus for living our faith. And why not? As William Willimon once pointed out, the aim is not so much to find a perfect description of God, but rather should focus on how we are prepared to let our notions of God affect the way we are prepared to become. Willimon’s evocative phrase was: “Our salvation is not that we know, but that we are prepared to be known”.

Although the Trinity metaphor was a long time in formulation, it is important to remember that it took its present form way back in the fourth century AD. Since then the world has changed. For example, even if thinking of God as the Father once resonated with a patriarchal society, in many nations the shape of modern families is radically changed and women now have very different roles to play.

Similarly the role of a mysterious Spirit somehow controlling life is reshaped by discoveries in science and medicine. Since religion includes social and cultural purposes and since social and cultural settings have radically changed, old trusted metaphors may need revision. Because the problems have shifted history tells us we can’t pretend that the old metaphors still inspire us to the appropriate action. Perhaps we need to update the Trinity with metaphors drawing attention to such current priorities as the care of nature – what about God the Gardener or God the Ecologist?….or to meet the urgent needs for conflict resolution …..Jesus the Peacemaker?… to looking at the numerous irreconcilable faith options ….perhaps: the Spirit of Unity and Compassion?

As long as we believe religion offers a present help for our current dangers and opportunities, there is a sense in which we have to step back and consider what it that we are trying to achieve.

In the past, an unwise emphasis on inappropriate metaphors has provided an excuse for actions with tragic consequences. For example those who have believed God is the avenging figure, or for that matter, a God who only has interests in a chosen people, have sometimes used these images to treat foreign neighbours in appalling ways.

If we are merely using our faith to prop up the way we currently prefer to live and act, we may in effect select out images or metaphors that create God in our own image. There is also the temptation to stick exclusively with the early images of faith from Sunday school days, and miss noticing our world is no longer the world of the shepherd boy or subservient women. I suspect if we are truly objective we would acknowledge past beliefs and actions have not always proved to be the best to deal with all the recent and current realities.

I would stress that for me the answer would never be to ignore the old metaphors. My only reservation with the Trinity is in what history says we have done as a people. The creeds we recite have claimed this image from the fourth century but for many all too often it has been an image to be acknowledged in passing rather than known through lives in which the gospel is lived.

If I am to know that the God I follow is known through the Father image and I do not accept the Father image as pointing me to behaviour that would help those who depend on me, what possible use would that be to me – or to those who come in contact with me? If I know the God I follow is represented in human terms by the teachings and actions of Jesus yet others find no traces of such attitudes and actions in the way I live, for me and those I meet it is an irrelevant metaphor. If I claim the Spirit of God is alive in his followers, and yet this Spirit is demonstrably absent in those like me who claim to follow, then surely I need to question if I am any further ahead than anyone pretending a faith they do not follow.

Bishop Willimon’s phrase should give us pause for thought. May I repeat it? “Our salvation is not that we know, but that we are prepared to be known”.

When John refers to Jesus talking about the spirit, the advocate, it is sometimes forgotten that he was not talking about a Spirit to be experienced primarily in worship. He was talking about his followers discovering this advocate as a resource when facing genuine trials and genuine risks.

Here’s a thought. If we don’t take risks for our faith, why would we need the Spirit, the advocate?

While it is true that places like Church are where we have the luxury of coming aside from the problems of the everyday world to think about what is said in the scriptures, the real test is how our faith measures up in the real life dilemmas that come our way as a result of attempting to live out our mission. Surely no matter how comfortable we are with the familiar image of the Trinity, and the familiar words of Jesus, we still need to face the challenge of what will happen when we speak and act on the essence of his teaching. In Bishop Willimon’s terminology, when the occasion arises we need to be prepared to be known. Talking about the Trinity can have no meaning for others unless we are at the same time letting others see the extent to which Trinity is allowed to live within our own lives.

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Lectionary Sermon for May 19, 2016, Pentecost Sunday, Year C, on Acts 2: 1-21

Two questions for you about Pentecost.  The first question.   Is the story a factual account? – and the second:  Does it set us up for our journey as followers of Christ?   Perhaps only one of these questions matters.

If we were honest, many of us might admit that, assuming the version of Pentecost in Acts is intended to be factually accurate, there are some parts of the story line that don’t quite add up.

As the drama unfolds we meet a series of events totally unlike anything we would ever expect to see in real life. Along with the rushing wind (and here we are talking about wind inside, not outside), we read those present saw divided tongues of fire, accompanied, not by the incoherent babbling of a modern Pentecostal-type service, but by the miraculous sudden ability to talk coherently in foreign languages.

For what it is worth, confusing real fire with metaphorical fire may not be wise.

In the 16th Century, one member of Florence’s famous Medici family, Lorenzo de Medici, fancied himself as a bit of a showman. Since as far as Lorenzo was concerned, real flames were part of the original Whitsun occasion, he felt the Church congregation was entitled to get a feel for what the experience would be like.

The congregation in the historic Florence Church he chose for his re-enactment of the Pentecost gathering were treated to a spectacular roar of flames from the ceiling. And it was memorable. The actors’ clothes caught fire, the furniture caught fire, the walls of the Church – not to mention some nearby buildings were destroyed. History does not record if he was invited to give a repeat performance the following year, but I suspect we already know the answer.

But let’s admit Luke confronts us with talk of flames, and even more remarkable magic, as humble followers of Jesus are transformed in an instant into expert linguists.

Next we have Peter the fisherman giving an eloquent un-fisherman-like explanation which does not even relate to the described scene as experienced by those present. He said in effect that they were witnessing the beginning of the end. His quote from the bit we may wish he hadn’t said included: “I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood” !!?

Well sorry, the Sun is still there, and last time I looked the moon looked pretty much the same as the one visited by the astronauts. No, Peter’s interpretation on this occasion was not what the rest of the book of Acts described – and nor, well at least not in the almost two thousand years since, were these to be the literal experiences for the followers of Christ.

Pentecost may be the official birthday of the Christian church, but attempting to portray the original version as a simple factual record to be read in the comfortable setting of a modern church service hardly does it justice. On the one hand, conservative Christians insist that must be how it happened.  Yet by modern standards, the story itself is seriously weird so we find modern critics such as the members of the Jesus Seminar suggesting this appears to be more Luke, the author of Acts, trying to explain the main features of the birth of the Christian Church in a way that builds confidence and teaching key understandings rather than by trying to give a simple factual account. Regardless of how you may feel about the accuracy of Luke’s reporting, the real test, as with all scripture, is to see if there may be truths here that help us in our own faith journey.

Pentecost itself is a borrowed festival – and was one of three significant pilgrimage festivals of the Jewish religious year. The word – derived from a word meaning fifty – is supposed to happen fifty days after the festival of Passover. Because to the Jews, Pentecost celebrates Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, in other words, God forming a Covenant with the Jews, Pentecost comes to have additional meaning as the birthday of the Christian Church because in the Acts version, a New Covenant is set up as the Spirit comes upon these early Church followers. As Peter explains it, these phenomena are like the last days when: “it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”

Although in the story we encounter seriously strange events, these occurrences, namely the wind, the tongues of fire, and the different languages are all better understood if we think of their special religious significance and meaning.

The Bible – and I should add that this works in both the Greek and the Hebrew – uses the same word for the wind and breath it does for the Spirit. The wind then tells us that this is a standard metaphor for Spirit, the presence of God. The other metaphor, fire, is another code for the presence of God. Remember God speaking through the burning bush, remember the pillar of fire guiding through the wilderness, and remember God igniting the wet wood for Elijah.

For me the Acts version part referring to speaking in tongues is also intended to have an underlying meaning.

Those of you who have travelled will know that different languages can be something of a mixed blessing. In foreign lands, on hearing your own language spoken, there is relief – and on hearing an unfamiliar tongue, there can be confusion and a feeling of somehow being excluded. The Bible writers agree. Remember the Old Testament story of the tower of Babel which presents the mixture of languages as a total breakdown in communication, but here with the story of Pentecost, the variety of languages are the setting for total communication.

As anyone who has ever tried to learn a language will know, there is a quantum jump from having a school foreign vocabulary lesson to genuine communication in a foreign language. Successful crossing of language barriers means recognising different cultural patterns, understanding different figures of speech and even recognising and using appropriate non-verbal cues. Saying then that the tongues of fire gave the ability to communicate is talking then of the ability, not just of vocabulary recognition, but something closer to forming bonds of empathy.

Again this is a spiritual idea and follows from the tongues of fire representing the essence of the Holy Spirit. Luke seems to be saying that using the Spirit allows us to get close enough to allow true communication to take place.
But what then is the significance of the setting?

Luke’s version of Pentecost talks of the disciples and other followers meeting together in a house, or did he perhaps mean hiding together? Given the circumstances we may well suspect that, regardless of the form of the story, he was identifying with those first disciples who were likely to be timorous and frightened followers of Jesus hiding nervously away from the genuine dangers of an unwelcoming community. In the first few months and years this must have happened on a number of occasions. In all probability they had cause to be extremely worried.

Although we understand that by this stage there would have been stories circulating about Jesus resurrection, assuming people were subject to the same sorts of doubts as they are in this day and age, it is unlikely that the stories would have been universally believed. If the authorities had been prepared to crucify Jesus, his followers must have expected similar treatment for spreading the same gospel. By the time Luke began his record, stoning and beatings for those in the early Church were becoming more frequent.

If this was the case, with the wisdom of hindsight, we know that the concerns of such early followers were totally justified.

The Romans made no secret of the fact that any talk of a single Son of God was unacceptable unless people were talking of the Emperor. By the time the book of Acts was written, the author, now widely understood to be Luke, would have witnessed the fall of Jerusalem and consequently understood that the Romans would not tolerate any movement considered a threat.

The Jewish religious leadership had already decided that Jesus did not qualify as the Messiah. Since the expected Messiah was thought to be recognised among other things for his powerful military leadership, with his first immediate task to get rid of the foreign Roman control of the Holy city of Jerusalem, there was no way this Jesus with his message of non violence and forgiveness seemed to fit their expectations. The Pentecost gathering must have been only too aware that the Jewish hierarchy now at the point of desperation was intolerant of their new movement. We can only presume that they would not have been surprised to learn that the orthodox leadership would shortly be using those like Saul to suppress any move to support any identified as false claimants for the Messiah-ship.

The visiting of the Holy Spirit is recorded then to give the followers the confidence to come out from their place of hiding, to be the gospel in the world, confident that the presence of the Holy Spirit will bring them close enough to communicate.

As already mentioned, the most unexpected part of the story is the part where those present start to use the tongues of fire as a means of speaking in other languages – and notice it says that those who came from different nations and different foreign communities were all hearing voices that spoke to them in their own language.

For those of us comfortable in our own Church community, there is a special message here. The Rev Jim Burklo, a coordinator of the Jesus Seminar, in an interview reported by Rex Hunt, suggested that typically religious beliefs fall into three separate categories.

The first is exclusivism which is the idea that our own religion is the only one that is right and the rest are either wrong or even evil. Confining church activity essentially to what happens inside the Church would be one mark of an exclusive Church.

The second is inclusivism which is another way of saying that although my faith is the only truly correct faith, we can allow that yours is not without interest and accordingly we should tolerate one another’s religion, looking for ways to cooperate and communicate. Can you hear the echo of inter-church dialogue in this one?

Then of course we have the notion of pluralism, the idea that my religion is good for me and by the same token your religion may turn out to be as good for you as mine is for me.

To me, this last category of pluralism is what Pentecost demonstrates in the speaking of tongues. Pluralism is at the heart of true communication in religion, for to truly understand the other’s voice we must not only hear the words in form, but also understand their spirit.

So how should we best remember Pentecost? I suppose we could always try Lorenzo de Medici’s showmanship of trying to recreate flames. However with the amount of paperwork and dealings with awkward insurance companies afterwards this would not be the best option. Perhaps we could try working ourselves into a trance making the sorts of sounds we imagine were heard at that first gathering. Some congregations opt for that choice.

But surely the whole point of Luke recording this event for the Church was so that the Christians might know they would find sufficient power in the Holy Spirit to get out there in the world and start being the Church.

Maybe it calls for our honest inward reflection. Is our Church a shelter of withdrawal from the part of the world that threatens? Or do we accept that there is sufficient power of what we can only call the Holy Spirit, to take the principles taught by Jesus and live them in the community and world? Ultimately our lives will tell others which choice we have made.

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Lectionary sermon for May 8, 2016 (Easter 7 C)on John 17:20-26

(Note for those looking instead for a Mothers’ Day sermon you might try Lectionary sermon for 13 May 2012 Easter 6 Year b (and Mothers day) on John 15:9-17) For the Gospel reading laid down for the lectionary for today – read on.)

Has John got this right? Jesus is reported here as praying a prayer which apparently remained unanswered.

The writer of John’s gospel has been criticised by many Bible scholars both for contradicting some key detail about Jesus in the other gospels (usually referred to as the synoptic gospels), and for his enthusiasm for oblique mysticism. *

Certainly a first reading of John gives an initial impression that he, or perhaps the apostle he used as his primary source, had been with Jesus for his mission – and he reinforces this impression by attributing the gospel detail to “the beloved disciple”, yet there are inescapable problems. For example he implies a two and possibly three year ministry for Jesus and records Jesus at three separate Passovers. The other gospels present a one year ministry and only mention one Passover. The Synoptic gospels highlight the baptism of Jesus, John has Jesus meeting John the Baptist but not being baptised by John. The others report Jesus’ parables and miracles as for helping people, John has no parables and sees only signs in the miracles.

John also gets some of the contemporary history quite wrong – or at least out of step with the work of other writers of the day. For example for the apostles and for the first few years of the Christian Church, Christianity was understood to be a sect of Judaism, yet for John, Jesus is portrayed as setting up a faith in opposition to traditional Judaism. Furthermore, the other great work officially attributed to John, namely the Book of Revelation, is written in a different style of Greek. And we could continue laying out why this gospel is widely accepted as a much later work, written we are told, by an unknown first century writer working from second hand sources.

Having said all of that, many scholars would insist that this gospel provides the most compelling theological presentation of all the gospels, and that includes those that did not make the final cut into the canon of the New Testament. John’s work, sometimes described as an extended essay on the centrality of love, is rightly praised in selecting phrases and metaphors which get to the heart of Jesus’ teaching. One of my friends calls John a portrait painter rather than a biographer and I can see what he means.

Today’s gospel lesson seizes on one of these critical ideas which have profound implications for current challenges to the current members of the divided Christian Church and a deeply divided world community. This is of course Jesus’ extended prayer for Unity amongst all who would follow his teaching.

As a prayer to produce a guaranteed result, thus far it appears at first hearing something of a failure. But when Jesus says he is praying that there shall be unity, it is a prayer of the sort where some very human responders, including Christians of our generation hold the key to the answer. Nor should we think of Jesus calling for something he was able to accomplish easily with his own disciples. In his own mission, Jesus encountered James and John competing to see who was worthy to sit beside Jesus in heaven – and another time, disciples who argued who among them was the greatest. Remember also Matthew the publican who had a collaborator record of working alongside the Romans as a tax collector, becoming a member of the same band of followers that included a zealot who was committed to getting rid of those like Matthew. Don’t forget too, according to the gospels, Judas was prepared to betray his master despite many months of being on the road with Jesus. Nor as it turned out, were things better after the events of that first Easter. Paul, as a new comer to the faith, was still to have his falling out with Peter and James.

However in Jesus’ prayer He was not simply focusing on his fractious and divided disciples. In verse 21, we find him praying for the disciples, He then prayed for all believers. And as self-claimed followers of Jesus we don’t need to look far before we encounter reason for embarrassment. Clearly, Jesus’ followers are still divided, just as they have been through the centuries, sometimes bitterly so. Can we not see and then begin to own this lack of unity?

Here I am not, as you might suppose, talking of joining the denominations into one unwieldy conglomerate. My concern is more for the lack of identification with others, an absence of identified unity offered to those who don’t share a common background. Jesus himself had modelled an acceptance of difference. He did not choose disciples for uniform background and nor did he accept traditional exclusions. Touching lepers, talking to the rejected of society, noticing the good in traditional enemies of Judaism; these things showed he was open to a unity of spirit and not a unity of re-jigged Church superstructure.

I remember some years ago putting some Teachers’ College students through an exercise whereby those not in the know were pressured by students in a set up situation, to agree with statements that were demonstrably untrue. For example I would draw two lines on the board and tell the class who were already present that they should pick the longest line as being the shortest when late comers came into the room. I would then wait for an unfortunate latecomer to arrive and ask the class to vote on the shortest line. Almost invariably, the latecomer on seeing the show of hands would uncomfortably agree with the nonsense option.

Imagine the nonsense of claiming to follow Jesus yet pretending not to see the governmental non-forgiving option when it comes to foreign policy. Imagine the nonsense of remembering a communion meal at which Judas was a guest, by celebrating the Eucharist in a form that could not be shared with some guests because they were not of exactly the local version of faith. Imagine celebrating a man who told the story of the Good Samaritan by pretending not to see the worth of the Red Crescent (the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross). Or bringing it closer to home, imagine coming this Sunday to celebrate one who prayed for unity in his followers and following this with total lack of interest in serious attempts both to seek unity of spirit and also a lack of interest in finding good in those who dress and worship differently.

It is a poor excuse to say in this we are no different to others. I suspect the meek acceptance of bad majority opinions continues to confine and shape thinking which a moment’s reflection might reveal as nonsense.

Ralph Milton tells an oft quoted story about how John Henry Fabre, a French naturalist did an experiment with some Processionary Caterpillars.

In Milton’s words:
These poor little beasties will follow the next caterpillar ahead of
them, no matter where that caterpillar happens to be going. Fabre
arranged a bunch of his fuzzy friends in a neat circle, each one
touching the one just ahead. Faithful to their DNA, each one
followed the next one. In the middle of the circle Fabre put some
of the caterpillars’ favourite food.

Would they stop following, even for a moment, just for a bite of
lunch?

Not on your life. The food was there within inches, but they just
kept on following each other in circles until they collapsed and
died from hunger.

In the traditional Church, there is evidence that even now, processionary caterpillar thinking can dominate.

Jesus’ teaching is clear enough. There we find Jesus’ prescription for living in his way, his call for unity for his followers, his wish for total and generous forgiveness of enemies, compassion offered to neighbours ( even those who differ in belief), not building up treasures on earth and so on – all clear directions to those who might listen. Yet because we are bound by group traditions, we lose sight of the real food on offer. Time after time, woolly group thinking trumps our independent judgement about how we are progressing towards these goals.

If we felt free to choose from first principles, I suspect we would know to choose more helpful paths. Surely a society built on principles of unity, compassion and love would not only be true to Jesus’ prayer as recounted by John, but it would make more sense than the divided realities we are taught by our institutions to preserve.

When John defined God as Love, I believe this was a moment of great insight. When he records Jesus as saying 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” He is also putting us in touch with a method to act on his call for unity.

Whoever first coined the expression “Human Beings” was perceptive. I have heard it suggested that there are really two types: be-ers and doers. The be-ers are simply content to let things the way they are and trust that everything will turn out alright in the end. “Beings” certainly conjures up this common way of thinking. The do-ers take an active part in working towards what they believe to be the best form of action. I wonder if it follows that if “human being” is a helpful expression, we should, as some have suggested, call the other a “human doing”? But whatever the case, I suspect that this two-form classification is at best an over-simplification. Many of us are capable of being a continually changing mixture of the two. However, if you asked me which form I saw dominating, I would have to admit the evidence is clear that the Human being dominates, and our lack of unity is the consequence.

The Dalai Lama once suggested: “the whole purpose of religion is to facilitate love and compassion, patience, tolerance, humility, and forgiveness”.

Although I find this persuasive as an ideal, I do not entirely agree that this is necessarily how religion turns out in practice. Like the consequent ideal of unity, achieving the Dalai Lama’s purpose of religion assumes that the human do-ers will overcome the inertia of the be-ers. The resulting outcome is as likely or unlikely as those with faults or frailties like us are prepared to make it become.

To focus on the expression of love would seem an extraordinarily persuasive way of bringing about unity. When an individual or a group is kind to us we automatically warm to them. Conversely when they ignore us or worse appear to be waving a big stick in our direction it is probably human nature to respond with antagonism and suspicion. Time after time, it is the socially isolated who become anti social in response, as many of the killing rampages in the US have demonstrated. Even internationally, nations like North Korea or Iran only threaten those who have threatened them in the past. That should suggest to us a way of encouraging trust in others.

Human beings we may well be. The question is: are we satisfied to leave it there?

*For an introductory overview of the criticisms see for example the Wikipedia entry on the Gospel of John.

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Lectionary Sermon for Easter 6 C May 1 2016 on John 14: 23 – 29

The Second Coming? – (R Open minded): Parental guidance required.
Like health warnings on food and tobacco, it could be that sometimes even sermons should require a warning to flag potential discomfort on the part of the consumer.

Because this sermon is bound to upset those who hold to inerrancy and infallibility of the scriptures, it may be more comfortable for readers or listeners who share that view simply to switch off and stop following the sermon at this point. On the other hand, if you like to think your way through key issues, might I suggest you first consider and evaluate the argument of this address, then if you think it appropriate, contribute to the debate by adding an honest reaction.

We start with the lectionary text.

John 14:23-29
23Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
25”I have said these things to you while I am still with you.26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
28You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.29And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

When I read Jesus’ words encouraging his disciples for what lies ahead, I sometimes wonder if a good proportion of today’s believers have really thought through what we are expected to do with Jesus’ recorded teaching on the second coming.

Having heard a number of street evangelists on the topic, and in particular, some of the more conservative evangelists, I do understand that a reasonable proportion of those who see themselves as Christian, take the imagery of the Book of Revelation together with selected words from Jesus as literal prediction.

As a consequence many appear confident that soon, perhaps even any day now, Jesus will appear from the clouds to gather up the faithful and whisk them up to heaven to enjoy their rightful reward. Because what these followers are asserting is totally outside human experience, I acknowledge there is no certainty they are wrong, (or right for that matter!) and bluntly – no obvious way of testing what they claim. However in today’s reading at least, Jesus seems to be talking about a more accessible idea. There is still the underlying idea that “In my Father’s house there are many mansions” , but here, the dwelling places are strictly human.

Perhaps we should start by looking closely at the words from the start of today’s gospel.

23Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them…..

This seems to be saying that in effect Jesus and or God or the Holy Spirit will be taking up residence in the person – or at least “the heart” of the one who takes Jesus seriously enough to follow his teaching. Whatever this is, it is not a one time, and for the whole world event. There are disciples in every generation and given that we sometimes sense in such people the emergence of warmth of nature and signs of essence of compassion, it may not be a second coming miracle in the conventional expected sense of the word, yet in another sense it may even be consistent with Jesus’ fulfilled prophecy. If these people have taken on the characteristic central to Jesus teaching, is this not Jesus entering their heart?

Not everyone would see this as being the second coming. In fact although there is plenty of evidence that the gospel writers and then St Paul and some of the other New Testament writers talked and wrote as if Jesus was coming physically at the end time – and specifically within a very short time frame, today’s reading give us a totally different slant.
But there is something we need to face squarely. Even if Jesus and the New Testament writers had intended to say that his disciples were going to experience all that Jesus was interpreted as saying about the second coming in a literal sense and in their lifetime, events proved otherwise. Despite predictions of most dramatic happenings within the lifetime of the readers and hearers of the contemporary audience of the day, there is no indication that these second coming events ever happened for that audience.

For example, if we contrast today’s measured description with the Luke version of the Armageddon which SHOULD have occurred for the generation of first witnesses in Luke 21:25-33, we see predictions which failed to materialize.

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.” ……..Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Luke 21:25-33 NAB)

Well if it happened that way, it wasn’t just the disciples who missed it. By all accounts, the stars have remained apparently twinkling in the heavens, the seas did not roar and nor as far as we know, did those of Jesus’ generation, die in fright at those signs.

Even if the New Testament writers themselves got the second coming wrong, should that really surprise us? Like some of our contemporaries, they too were on a faith journey and faith has blind paths, as well as moments of insight. So what if Paul insisted end times were upon his contemporaries? And he did. And why not? He had never heard Jesus speaking in the flesh and was only repeating what others had told him. So for example:

In Philippians 4:5 Paul thought that the end was near and that Jesus would return soon after he wrote those words.

In Hebrews 1:2 Paul ( and remember this is two thousand years ago) Paul says he believes he is living in the “last days.”

In 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 Paul stated: “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: And the dead Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air: And so shall we ever be with the Lord.”

Paul was in good company. James (James 5: 8) thought that Jesus would return soon.
Peter too believed that he was living in the “last times” and that “the end of all things is at hand.” 1 Peter 1:20 & 4:7
Yet if they did get it wrong on this score let us also admit they did us a huge service in other places. Thus the sublime writing of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 helps us ground a concept like love in day to day practicalities.

In his account of true religion, James had a practical focus to faith that is just as relevant today as it was then. If the same Peter who led the disciples wrote first Peter, his continued leadership is evident no matter how he may have misinterpreted the end times.

This is not to say that the second coming should therefore be ignored. If for example the picture language was chosen to get our attention and encourage us to deal with some realities, then it starts to make sense.
For example Revelation was written at a time when the Roman Empire had declared itself on collision course with the Christians who were insisting on acknowledging one God – thereby challenging the Roman Emperor’s right to title himself a God. We might note for example that the author of the letter of John thought he was living in end times because he could see so many anti-Christs about (1 John 2:18). John also says the anti-Christ was present at the very time he was writing (1 John 4:3). If we see the Anti-Christ as any major leader who acts against the principles of Christ this then becomes poetic rather than literal, yet it still teaches an important truth.

As persecution increased the Christians needed encouragement and if this might be codified with signs helping those in the know to see the Beast of Revelation as the Roman Emperor – the leader of the current persecution, so much the better. That the Book of Revelation also talks of the eventual triumph of Christianity would have been extremely encouraging to those facing genuine danger.

We can see, if only from the four gospel accounts, in some cases, the same words of Jesus are given different contexts and in some include differences in detail. This establishes that editing was taking place and it is not unreasonable to suspect that in some cases the words being edited were not actually words of Jesus, but rather words written in the mouth of Jesus to support current truths that the gospel writers felt needed sharing.

I also happen to believe that if we were to find that the second coming literature was intended as poetry to draw our attention to key truth, I for one would still find this of value.

If, as mentioned previously, the second coming is at least partly a coming into ourselves as a human dwelling place, this is particularly helpful as we check where we are in our own walk of faith.

For example, notice that to qualify as a human dwelling place, popular labels like born again or Christian become less relevant. As far as Jesus appears to be concerned it follows that calling yourself Christian, a born-again – or even for that matter an atheist is not where it is at. He makes his precondition abundantly clear. “Those who love me will keep my word…..”

Can I suggest taking moment of reflection to consider if we have begun to attempt to follow the principles Jesus enunciates. I believe this would be time well spent. If we follow John’s text for today, it is only when we keep Jesus’ word that our love will be evident. In that sense Jesus may already have come for the lives of others. And perhaps his second coming was always meant to be interpreted that way. Our challenge might then be to consider if, for us, he has already come and is continuing to be found in our own life’s witness.

(Given the above may not represent consensus thinking, reactions would be most welcome. If you happen to think these predictions are for a yet unrealized prophecy I suspect you also need to make up your mind about the significance of 2000 years of failed prophecies: see my post End Times – this time it’s serious… again.)

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Lectionary Sermon for 24 April 2016 (Easter 5 ) on John 13: 31-35

Saying warm familiar words in the context of a Church service can indeed lift the soul. Unfortunately when those familiar words are a call to action in the outside world and when no action eventuates, those same well-loved words risk becoming trite and vacuous.

The scene here is the last supper. Judas has departed to do his work and the shadows are gathering. Jesus finds words of commission. “So you are to love one another, as I have loved you.” Perhaps Hollywood is partly to blame for us missing the hard edge to this most familiar text. Love, Hollywood style, is full of warm fuzzy happy ever after feelings. By contrast, love Jesus style is action born of compassion….and what is more action in the midst of life’s gritty realities.

Perhaps we need to get real and admit we should be uncomfortable both with the word “as” and with the tag Jesus has added. …. Does he really want us to do as he did when he added that bit about…. “as I have loved you“?

If we think of how Jesus showed love, it was anything but warm and fuzzy.

Where authority was showing lack of compassion, Jesus challenged that authority…and at every level. Whether or not we would be comfortable joining him in such a challenge is not so clear. Going in to bat on behalf of those who can’t cope is not a certain path to popularity. Where Scribes and Pharisees were using religion as a means of self advancement to parade their status and advance their social position, Jesus did not shrink from the confrontation. Challenging Church or government leadership may not get us crucified today but nor would it bring us public approval. Notice too, that where culture and tradition were used to exclude, Jesus stepped forward. The lepers were touched. He made time for the Samaritan woman, the tax collector and the prostitute. Today’s equivalent might be something like helping those with social diseases like AIDS, or speaking up on behalf of those belonging to unpopular racial or religious groups any one of which carries its own stigma.

As an outside observer and one at a distance I would have to say my current impression is that one major political party in the US (via the election positions of their candidates) and a considerable portion of the Bible belt (as portrayed in our media) leave me the impression that at least in the United States there is widespread rejection of this particular challenge by Jesus.

When Jesus dealt with those society rejected we may note his lack of condemnation. Remember the woman caught in adultery, the tax collector up the tree, the lepers…. Whether or not we can find the same lack of condemnation in our own words and actions today may not be so clear. Locally, I hear plenty of Church based condemnation of homosexual marriage and street prostitution. While I have often heard the catch cry, “we love the sinner but we hate the sin”, I can’t honestly say I have seen those identified by the Church as sinners congregating in Church in large numbers in response to the stated love. To refuse to get close enough to know the name or personal situation of the street prostitute, or to prefer to present a petition against homosexual marriage rather than become friends with a gay, these actions do not tell the prostitute or homosexual that anyone cares about their situation.

The contrast with quiet organ music or a civilised cup of tea with respectable friends at the end of a Church service could hardly be greater. This is not to say love does away with the need for the cup of tea and sharing time, but it strongly suggests we must never think that is all that is needed.

When it came to his disciples, Jesus took those he loved well out of their comfort zone. When the disciples entreated him not to return to an area where the crowd had been angry, he disregarded the disciples’ desire for safety. When they counselled against continuing towards Jerusalem, Jesus simply kept walking.

Doing what is best for people, does not always mean leaving them comfortable and unchallenged. Nor is the vision to which we are called the equivalent of a series of neatly predetermined GPS locations.

At best the analogy would be that of an occasionally glimpsed compass needle. We set up our course according to a general direction but the voyage itself is largely into uncharted territory.

Jesus left those he loved with genuine challenges. He had modelled attitudes of valuing justice, forgiveness and compassion – and wanted his followers to do the same. When Peter’s nerve failed him –according to the gospel, Jesus simply set him further tasks. “Feed my sheep” he said….At this safe distance in time we can think of it in terms of offering warm support to newcomers in faith, but when John was writing his gospel, Israel was in crisis and the wolves were eying the sheep. The new Christians were going to need support in their acts of witness and those identified as leaders of the new movement would be attracting anger and genuine danger.

Love, for Jesus, was never just a feeling. It was proactive and highly visible. “By this all will know you are my disciples”. And we can understand this point. If someone is hungry and lonely, knowing that a group from a well fed and comfortable congregation have said a passing Amen to a worship leader’s prayer of intercession mentioning the hungry and the lonely would never convince the lonely and hungry anyone cares. But someone prepared to make friends –to offer food and give the hungry and lonely the time of day …. now that would start to mean something.

We are very likely to fall short when the going gets tough, and nor I suspect could it be otherwise. Even the saints of history had their failings. Yet without the emphasis on acts of love the Church becomes an irrelevant social club. A moment’s thought reminds us that in some situations we are all atheists. By this I mean that with so many versions of God on offer, there will always be some we reject. The evangelists can preach all they like but unless what they are preaching is given integrity by lived lives why would we want to listen? As an Archbishop of Canterbury once put it : “We make our version of God believable to the extent we are the people we are”.

We can hardly relegate this instruction on how to love to an incidental requirement of the disciples because this verse appears 13 times in similar form in the New Testament. In today’s reading it was the also last wish of the farewell discourse to the Disciples at the last supper. It occurs several times in the Gospel of John, and the need to love one another is reiterated several times in John’s first and second Epistle with the theme of doing so in imitation of Christ, while Paul says in Romans 13:8 “He who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the law”.

The primacy of love as an ideal is easy to find in the New Testament teachings. “… The greatest of these is love”, said Paul in chapter 13 of first Corinthians, and elsewhere in Colossians 3:14, “above all clothe your-selves with love”. A great ideal, but if believe we appear so clothed, perhaps we might give passing thought to why those known to be prostitutes, drug addicts or habitual drunks rarely seem to seek out traditional Church congregations for acceptance. I suspect that it is at least partly the suspicion that in a church they are more likely to encounter judgement than understanding. I have heard it suggested that sometimes Christians confuse their ability to desire the best for themselves and reject the worst – with their tendency to judge others on the basis of their behaviour.

Even if we are non judgemental ourselves, (which from personal experience I would admit is far easier said than lived), the frequent publicity generated by some of the more vocal Church moralists as they lead their crusades against parole for serious criminals, against those who offend traditional religious mores and against those whose sins are visible to the community is its own advertisement.

No wonder the pariahs of society don’t automatically seek out the church as their first choice for solace or care. In practice the drop-outs and the unloved turn to the gang houses, the pimps and the mates at the pub – where at least there may be a degree of understanding and sympathy. And where they do turn to the Church, is it surprising that they turn first to those who set up the night shelters and those who help by providing showers and a change of clothes? If we fail to first find the unsurpassable worth in those to whom we wish to minister, how can our intended love be expressed with integrity?

Because we are not alone in the Church, it is also interesting to wonder how we might come across collectively. Because we are groups with commonality of purpose claiming the same teaching for inspiration, it is interesting to reflect on what we do as a group. Are we set up for others or ourselves? At the 2012 annual Church Conference, the New Zealand Methodist Church set up a ten year commitment to a new programme entitled Let the Children Live. This programme was intended first to draw attention to the growing percentage of children in the country whose future is blighted by poverty and associated problems, then to commit to action to address the problems.

There are already some hopeful signs, with individual congregations educating themselves and becoming involved with helping programmes at a local and national level. If I am honest, I would also have to say that thus far some congregations have continued exactly as before.

The call to love as Jesus first loved others, does not assume a positive response. When Jesus left the call to love with his disciples, each of them had to work out their own response in the days and years to come. Should we expect it to be different with ourselves. The call has to be a continuing challenge – and what’s more a challenge which promises genuine difficulties if we choose to accept. It is also a challenge of the sort that needs frequent revisiting, for yesterday’s journey is now behind us. Today and the weeks ahead have the potential to bring new possibilities. How we choose to respond, and whether or not we can find room for the actions of compassion, these cannot be done for us. It is, and always has to be, our response, because it is our journey.

Jesus said to his disciples – and I guess also says to us: “love one another …. as I have loved you” Now it is our move.

 

(A Note from Bill:   At present I am updating my year C sermons, but I suspect some of them need a radical rewrite.  I am putting out a plea to my regular readers to feed in comments suggesting new ways of developing some of the themes and grounding them in current situations. I also need reminding where my scholarship is incomplete or where I have overlooked important implications of the lectionary readings.   Remember your views are just as likely to be important to the readers of this site as mine are likely to be.)

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The Resurrection – Real or Wishful Thinking?

Although I have encountered many opinions and claims about the evidence for and against the resurrection of Jesus it occurs to me that it might be interesting to assemble some of the key ideas in a brief review to see if it stimulates thought. I am aware that some of the readers of the review may already have feelings of strong commitment either for or against the belief in resurrection but it would be helpful if readers were to consider ideas they don’t already share with a degree of courtesy if only to encourage other readers to offer questions or to express honestly held alternative views.

First a quick preliminary review:
The New Testament Gospel record describes the crucifixion in enough detail for the readers to conclude Jesus died on the cross. We know crucifixion was a Roman punishment and although it was reserved as a highly visible public warning to show what happened to those considered a threat to public order or those who challenged Roman authority, it was used commonly and liberally – and on occasion there would be hundreds of victims.

A series of post resurrection appearances of Jesus in which he is portrayed as meeting and interacting with a number of his followers and disciples is also described by the Gospel writers. Some of these described appearances suggested a normal bodily appearance – eg Jesus eating with his disciples – other appearances eg not at first recognized, appearing in a locked room, suddenly disappearing or for Paul a disembodied voice or sensation of light suggested more perhaps hallucination.

Whatever happened still served to set the basis for a good proportion of Jesus’ followers to agree to spread the story that Jesus was resurrected. The fact that a good number of these followers died as martyrs suggests a strong commitment to their beliefs. We also know that some like St Paul placed a very high priority on a belief in the resurrection although Paul’s own experience on the Road to Damascus was clearly different to the earlier descriptions of post resurrection experiences of the disciples.

Some other aspects of the post resurrection accounts should at least give cause for reflection. First although there are only minor differences between the gospel accounts in the New Testament, the other gospels which were eventually largely rejected by those assembling the final collection of books we now call the New Testament contain versions of the resurrection which are clearly at variance with those finally chosen after years of debate. This particularly applies to the so called “Gnostic Gospels”.

There is also a remarkable absence of post resurrection stories in contemporary histories of the time. Just to take one strange omission if the Biblical record is to be trusted – when Matthew describes other graves opening and hundreds of dead walking around (in an early version of some Zombie apocalypse? some verses normally overlooked for reading in Church around Easter time!!) that if intended as literal truth, to think this particular event would not have been noticed by others seems beyond the bounds of probability.

A more serious objection is that while Matthew, Mark and Luke had roughly similar versions of the post resurrection appearances there is strong evidence for substantial editing. Mark, the first gospel, had no detail of the post resurrection appearances – and the scholars appear to agree that this was added years later. Eg the last nine verses were not present in the early version and were added in a different form of Greek to finish the Gospel. Similarly the whole of Chapter 21 of the Gospel of John was added much later and is clearly different in style from virtually all the rest of this book.

As someone who has spent much of his life involved with science I also need to say that although science cannot make definitive statements about what might or might not have happened to Jesus after death upon the cross, the balance of probability leaves me strongly suspecting there was no bodily resurrection in any conventional biological sense.

The standard argument that the early followers of Christ would not have been martyred unless they were convinced of the resurrection is certainly persuasive, yet on reflection, since there is no detail from contemporary historians about why they were martyred, their execution might simply have been because they were following the teaching of Jesus at a time when communities were under pressure to support one another with common beliefs and actions. Remember the early martyrs (some of whom would have been following other non-mainstream religious leaders) would have been contemporary with the fall of Jerusalem.

While I acknowledge that a strong belief in the resurrection would be seen by many as worth dying for, since many have gone willingly to their deaths for much less, accepting martyrdom cannot be seen as a proof of belief in bodily resurrection. Killing happens because of the views of those who decree it should happen. We do know that some of the Christian martyrs were offered the choice of acknowledging the Emperor as Lord – and they refused to do so because they wanted to hold to a pre-eminent belief in God and/ or Jesus.

We actually have no way of knowing what they thought this belief meant. We might reflect that though history some martyrs have gone to their deaths because they simply had the wrong slant on some denominational beliefs and martyrs have included those who had the wrong haircut, those who had the temerity to translate the Bible into languages other than Latin and those who insisted on following a different Church leader.

Rather than sit on the fence on the issue I wish to explain that I have gradually changed my view on the resurrection and come to state I cannot honestly say I know what happened after the crucifixion. I do however greatly admire what I see as the essence of Jesus teaching. I note that others who admire Jesus’ teaching sometimes have quite different responses and some are prepared to step right outside what most of us would be thinking of as a comfort zone. To hold to a Jesus inspired pacifist stance when the nation goes to war, to insist that the underprivileged have a just share of wealth, to identify and speak out against injustice and work for peace are just some of the possible responses to a living Christ. However I do know that since it is quite possible for whole communities to live outside a Christian influence that if I am to make Jesus come alive for others I can only do so in the way I respond to his teaching.

What have I got right? What have I left out? What also needs to be said?

(Since the Bible has a great deal to say on the subject it would be helpful not to fill up the comments section with screeds of quotations!)

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