A Lectionary Sermon for Easter Sunday 5 April 2015, based on John 20 1-18

Risen in what Sense?         (Edited version of Sermon prepared for Easter Sunday 2012)
One of the marks of the mature Christian is when they get to the point where they start to trust their own thinking and experience. Easter provides a good test of this mark of growth.

In some ways it has never really been a question of how believable or acceptable the resurrection story is to a genuine Christian, it is more a question of why Church members are not uniformly transformed by their knowledge of the resurrection. If we look at typical behaviour of Christians today, we should at least acknowledge that some show by their actions they are uncertain as to what it all means. Celebrating in joyful worship we may well be on Easter Sunday – yet for many of us, the very next day it is back to total normality and on to the Easter sales.

Although most Christians are happy to respond to the Easter Greeting – “Christ is risen!” with “He is risen indeed!”, all is by no means clear.

Today I wish to face what some critics say as squarely and as honestly as possible. You should be assured at the outset that although I am aware of these problems I personally believe there is very important truth in the resurrection that resonates with my experience and one I believe gives a good basis for a life based on faith. Yet I also believe that if a faith is worth having it should be sufficiently robust to survive honest doubts.

It is fine to start simply with the gospel accounts, reading each one separately and using the Church three year cycle of the lectionary almost as an excuse to avoid seeing how the accounts stack up against one another. But as our faith matures, there is also a case for comparing the accounts and then allowing ourselves become open to relevant knowledge from other sources.
So to work….
We start with an observation from Justice Haim Cohn, a prominent contemporary Jewish scholar who draws our attention to some obvious problems in accepting the veracity of the account of Jesus’ evening trial in the house of the High Priest. Justice Cohn claims that the traditional story of Jesus’ trial is inconsistent with custom. First according to Jewish law and custom, the Sanhedrin were not allowed to exercise jurisdiction in the High Priest’s house or for that matter anywhere outside the Courthouse and Temple precinct. No session of the criminal court was permissible after nightfall. Passover or Pesach would not have provided the setting since no criminal trial was permissible on a feast day or the eve of a feast day. In view of the formalistic and rigorous attitude to the law, for which the Pharisees were well known, a conviction must be proceeded by two truthful and reliable witnesses and in fact the charge of blasphemy was inapplicable since it was closely defined as pronouncing the ineffable name of God, the tetragrammaton, which under Jewish law might only be pronounced once a year on the Day of Atonement – and then only by the High Priest in the Kodesh Kodashim, the innermost sanctuary of the Temple.

Next we look more closely at how the gospel accounts stack up against each other. The gospel accounts are fine if read separately – but downright confusing if they are assembled together. The difficulties are now well known and are standard teaching in many theological training institutions. Because by tradition and the three year church lectionary cycle the stories are not usually read on the same day in Church, accordingly the contradictions are less well known by typical church members apart from the more serious Bible scholars among them. For example there are different reportedly eye witness accounts with different last words on the cross. There are different versions of what was encountered at the empty tomb and who the witnesses met there. Right from the outset the gospel writers seem to have struggled to come up with a consistent and clear account of the empty tomb.

Let’s be honest. Given the requirements of news reporters today, the gospels lacked the precision and accuracy now expected of national news reporters and appear closer today with what we might more commonly associate with the tabloids. Matthew, for example has many graves opening and dead people walking around. Matthew 27 verses 52 and 53 says “There was an earthquake, the rocks split and the graves opened, and many of God’s people rose from sleep , and coming out of their graves after his resurrection, they entered the Holy City where many saw them”. Many resurrected? Really? Strangely the other gospel writers appeared to have missed this earth shaking scene altogether and contemporary historians seem oblivious to the extraordinary newsworthy event. Mark as the writer most contemporary with the events, far from supporting Matthew’s account, attempted to close off his account before the resurrection evidence was even mentioned. The last twelve verses of Mark are widely believed by scholars to have been added much later by other authors to bring Mark’s gospel into line with the resurrection details mentioned in the other gospels. The earliest complete manuscripts of Mark’s gospel were missing these verses and the style of writing including letter formation suggests that the missing verses were added at least two hundred years after the original gospel was first composed.

Then we get to the gospel detail. Certainly contradictions in the reported versions have caused much debate about the validity of the gospel accounts of the crucifixion and the resurrection. For example: Jesus’ last words were?
Matt.27:46,50: “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?” that is to say, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” …Jesus, when he cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.”
Or was it: Luke 23:46: “And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, “Father, unto thy hands I commend my spirit:” and having said thus, he gave up the ghost.”
Then in John’s version John 19:30: “When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished:” and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.”

And for that matter who did his followers actually see at the sepulchre?
Mark 16:5 And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted.
Luke 24:4 And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments:
John 20:12 And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.

Next we move to the events immediately after the resurrection.
According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Mary Magdalene was among the group of women who were told by angels at the empty tomb that Jesus had risen “even as he said,” and Luke went as far as to say that when the women heard this, “they remembered his words” (24:9). Such statements as these can be put together with Matthew’s claim that the women encountered Jesus, even held him, and worshipped him as they were running from the tomb to tell the disciples what they had seen, Matt 28:9 This presumably indicates the women were already convinced that Jesus has risen from the dead when they left the tomb. Yet when Mary actually meets Jesus she not only doesn’t recognize him, she tells him that his body is missing from the tomb and she doesn’t know where it has been put.

It is true that some of the minor differences in the accounts eg Was it angels or men in the tomb? How many in the tomb? Who was it who encountered Jesus afterwards? etc may indeed be little more than the typical versions of reporters struggling to remember what they believed they had been told well after the event, but at the very least it would be dishonest to say there was no room for doubt.

Now for the bit requiring clear thought. I said at the outset that despite the problems there was something very significant about the resurrection. This to my way of thinking was no matter how confusing the accounts now seem in retrospect, something was happening soon after Jesus crucifixion to transform some who had been close to Jesus from being frightened, highly dependent frail humans, into disciples prepared to strike out on their own, passing on Jesus’ teaching and being sufficiently inspirational to draw others to his cause. Perhaps we also need to acknowledge that not all showed these signs of life. If we assign this change to “resurrection”, as far as some were concerned, resurrection must have happened for them in some way even if it should be also allowed a metaphorical sense.

Biologically I have no idea what resurrection actually meant. Was Jesus properly dead when taken down off the cross? Was the story exaggerated through the next few decades? Truthfully, although I know what I would like to believe – I have no way of proving what I hope to be true. Yet what is absolutely beyond question is that death did not finish Jesus and his message. What is also true is that some – notice I say some – not all – were brought to a new dimension of life in the process.

I guess many of you would have heard of the resurrection plant. One of the most dramatic of these – (because there are several different plants given the same colloquial name) is the Jericho rose. When it runs out of water as it can do in the desert, it pulls up its roots and looks as if it has shriveled up and died. But it is only hibernating. And according to one reference I read, the Jericho Rose can exist in the desiccated form for up to fifty years. It allows the wind to blow it along in its shriveled state until it somehow senses water. (You’ll have to ask my wife the Latin name for the plant – and ask Prince Charles what to say to one when you see one being blown along the road! He talks to plants. ) Finally having sensed water the resurrection plant puts down its roots and starts growing again.

You might well focus on the state of Jesus from crucifixion to resurrection and believe it is important to believe the detail. For what it is worth I happen to think it is far more important to individually offer the sort of environment to allow Jesus to take root in our life. Simply stopping and celebrating the detail of that first resurrection is not sufficient for me because knowing about it wouldn’t necessarily change me. In fact I know people who have passed exams in that sort of detail without allowing what Jesus stood for to take root in their lives. One of the gospel accounts has the disciples saying in summary that they had heard the women had told them Jesus was no longer in the tomb but they had a dinner appointment at Emmaus so they were heading to Emmaus instead of following up the story.

Should we seek Jesus in the empty tomb? That leaves it at history and confusing history at that. Luke’s account has Jesus asking “why do you seek him among the dead”. If he is not perceived amongst the living – among people like us – then why would resurrection matter? In other words simply hearing about it won’t necessarily make a difference.
Metaphorically speaking, I think it is only when I allow the resurrection to come alive for me that I will be able to actually show love for my fellows. Maybe then the resurrection plant can teach us something.

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Lectionary Sermon for Good Friday, 3 April 2015 Year B (selected verses from John 18:1- 19:42)

(Amended from sermon Good Friday 2012)
Good Friday attracts us to safe familiar paths. Each year there we find the call to the in-group of religious spectators and church-goers to rehearse once more the familiar sufferings endured by Jesus, to listen again to the reminder that in some way these sufferings were for our sins, and to hear those familiar words that Jesus died that we might be saved.

Yet I wonder if the story has become too familiar and even too remote to matter in the way we currently live and order our lives. It’s not that the standard formula, that Jesus died for our sins that we might be saved, is intentionally shallow or dishonest, but today’s attitudes mean we should be cautious before rushing too quickly to the familiar religious phrases without first checking we have grasped their relevance and found meaning there for lives now set in a very different world.

It is true that Jesus is the centre piece of the Good Friday story yet he acts almost as if his suffering is inevitable. According to the gospel accounts, although he makes it abundantly clear he would like to avoid the cross, Jesus certainly makes no attempt to run from his impending fate.

Nor does he make an attempt to find a safer path. The clearing of the Temple had been brave – but in terms of his personal safety, some would have called it foolhardy. He appeared to have permitted Judas to betray him to the authorities, and when the soldiers arrived to arrest him, he prevented Peter from defending him with his sword. He made no recorded plea for mercy and nor as far as we can tell did he curse his enemies. Even on the cross he was concerned for others, praying for the forgiveness of his enemies, concerned for his mother – and even reportedly concerned for others crucified with him.

That he was able to do so in the knowledge he was abandoned by virtually all his followers – and that he could remain true to his cause when under extreme duress – gives his message of uncompromising love a genuine authenticity.

However I want to stress Jesus’ suffering is only one aspect of Good Friday. Listing his sufferings and presenting the collection as the way he died as our deputy to save us from our sins may be good theatre but claiming this is guarantee that Jesus will deal to our problems is hardly encouraging us to step out to face whatever life sends our way.

There is even a question of whether we are facing reality if we talk about Jesus dying as the ultimate answer to all our problems. I have no issue with the claim that Jesus died so that the victims of suicide bombers, the child prostitutes from the hill tribes of South East Asia, and the war refugees fleeing for their lives might have life ………but surely life for victims comes in part through the potential actions of Jesus’ followers??? I guess my concern is that our focus on what happened to Jesus might take our attention from the suffering that continues to be.

Knowing what we have been saved from has always seems less interesting than the implied underlying question – not from what – but for what have we been saved?

The answer to that second question may be somewhat less demanding of our skill with theology than we think. Surely if we are saved, what we have been saved for should include continuing the mission established by the one we follow.

Time after time Jesus reminded his followers in a variety of ways that they were simply being called to do what is just, what is right and what is humane. The message about loving one’s neighbour as oneself was nothing more than a challenge to change priorities – to put others ahead of self. I see no reason for assuming that this challenge is any different for us today.

Lest there was any confusion, on Maundy Thursday – the day before his execution, Jesus not only gave the commandment: Love one another as I have loved you, but in case his hearers might have mistaken this for a platitude, by the act of foot washing he demonstrated the humility called for.

In retrospect the disciples seemed extraordinarily slow on the uptake. For those of us anxious to get as clear as possible a view of Jesus through the gospel record, it is salutary to remember that the disciples who could not have had a closer contact with Jesus in the flesh appeared to have been no better than modern Church folk in understanding and accepting their discipleship responsibilities. The disciples’ conviction when faced by the antagonism of the Pharisees and Roman authorities simply evaporated. Perhaps they were expecting some miracle so that Jesus could thereby avoid his death.
Whatever the case, following through John’s record suggests a variety of degrees of faith and betrayal.

From what we now know about psychology perhaps we should not be surprised the Pharisees were numbered amongst his enemies. It certainly seems plausible that Pharisees should find it easy to condemn the one who alerted them to embarrassing issues of conscience.

Jesus is betrayed by Judas, perhaps because Jesus fails to take the zealot’s preferred option of violent overthrow of the Roman invaders. Most of Jesus’ male disciples appeared not so much to betray as to make themselves scarce when the chips were down. It is interesting that John appears to give more space to Peter’s actions and words than to those of Jesus in the events of that final evening. Peter famously betrays Jesus by declaring he does not know the one he early identified as the Messiah.

Yet according to John’s record there were some who remained loyal. A few women- and the unnamed disciple referred only as the beloved disciple – were there at the foot of the cross. We should always honour those who are not afraid to support that which they know to be right. Knowing our own reluctance to speak up when it might draw unwelcome attention, we should also be hesitant about condemning those who were not staying to be counted.

Make no mistake about it. The confusion and inability to stay on course when faced with suffering and death is almost a universal condition rather than simply a weakness which afflicted those weak disciples. Like Peter, we too are tempted to surrender to a loss of nerve and are even alienated when presented with a Love-centred vision for those dimensions of life where love is conveniently absent. Knowing that those who followed Jesus failed him, or even that some who welcomed him with Palm branches may have been among those who a few short days later were prepared to shout “crucify” is now somewhat academic. To admit that we too have these same tendencies to turn from the vision and possibilities of a Love centred life places us back within the Easter scene.

We cannot avoid the prospect of death – either for ourselves or for others who matter to us. The flickering TV images of starving children, news stories of children caught up in prostitution and modern slavery, the destruction of local livelihoods in the name of progress, those who suffer through accident of birth and those deliberately blind to their suffering are unfortunately all common knowledge – we can hardly protest we know nothing of these. Our test comes when we have to decide how we react to the suffering which comes our way. The suffering may well have gained new focus when Jesus was taken to die, but the words of Psalm 22 used by Jesus on the Cross still ring out today.

If Jesus’ suffering is representative then surely it is representative of the suffering that is still part of the human condition. Honoring Jesus and his suffering by coming to worship on Friday is then only the first part. What would give integrity to our intention to give honor is to allow ourselves to first notice and care about the suffering of our community and and world – and then to respond to that suffering: supporting and standing with those prepared to become involved. It may appear a blunt challenge, yet since we can no longer stand literally at the foot of the Cross, if we claim his suffering is important to us, surely we should at least consider putting our money where our mouth is, allowing ourselves to risk position and security, and above all making time available for those swept up in chaos, pain and suffering.

For most of us the challenge is plainly not to die as Jesus died. Despite the sincerity and enthusiasm with which we may sing that Good Friday hymn, we were simply NOT there when they crucified my Lord…On the other hand in today’s world where the issues are changed, the same Love that Jesus used to confront issues of Justice, hypocrisy, misfortune and unkindness is still in need of a voice. The cross of Jesus is not a repeatable event, yet in facing that Cross, Jesus was modeling an attitude of love that can continue to find creative ways to confront suffering, pain and need…. if we will but look.

There is finality in suffering leading to death and the gospels do not allow us to escape the detail. Strangely John’s account never quite leaves us with the feeling that we are looking at one who will be left a corpse of Jesus. John may not have been a particularly good historian in that he leaves us with puzzles and even contradictions when his account is stacked up against those of the synoptic gospels. Nevertheless he is a better poet and theologian. In his account of the crucifixion and subsequent account of the burial we see, again and again, not the finality of a corpse – but rather the evocative “body of Christ”.

As the poetry of our communion reminds us – we too can become part of this body. Whether or not we accept we do so at a meaningful level remains the open question.

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A PALM SUNDAY STORY FOR THE YOUNG (AND/OR THE STILL AWAKE)

A Palm Sunday Story for Young People: Copying the Famous

         by Bill Peddie

When we think of famous people we sometimes forget about the way they got started in life. This morning ( because it is Palm Sunday) I thought it might be interesting to choose someone who was talented and famous whose life was changed by a donkey.

This fellow was called Francis Chantrey and I believe some of his mates called him Frank. He lived quite a long time ago in the country in England and when he was growing up he found it was quite tough. His father worked on a farm – and I guess Frank started off thinking he was going to be a farmer, but when he was twelve, his father died and his mother couldn’t afford to stay on at the farm. Frank left school and got a job working for a grocer. One of his jobs was delivering milk with a donkey cart. It was a bit boring but at least he got out and saw the countryside

The thing that made Frank different was that he really noticed things and was quite good at painting because he noticed things that other people didn’t see..

One day when he was delivering milk with the donkey cart down in the village he saw some wooden carvings in a shop window. The shop was owned by a man who did wooden carvings for churches and fancy houses. Because Frank had actually tried carving by using his pocket knife to turn a piece of wood into a rather cheeky version of his school master’s head, he got quite excited about these carvings in the shop and decided he would ask if he could change jobs and start working for the carver as an apprentice.

He found he was good at this. He actually invented his own way of doing carvings of people. What he would do is make two paintings of a person’s head – one from the front and one from the side, then make a clay model – and from there a carving. The shop owner was most impressed and started to show the carvings and painting to his friends.

One of these mates was an important artist from London and he was so impressed with Frank’s pictures he told Frank he should go to London and get a place in the Royal Academy – which was the top art school in the whole of England.

Once Frank was at the Royal Academy there was no stopping him. His pictures of people were so good that important people would pay for him to do their portraits. From there he started to make wonderful statues – even one of the King (King George IV).

Well, from then on, he got as much work as he wanted and very many portraits and statues were made. Later when he was given a knighthood and became Sir Francis Chantrey, I heard someone asked him what was the secret to his success.

“Nothing really” he said. “I simply copied the great”. And what is more Francis Chantrey wasn’t just in it for himself. Perhaps remembering his own humble beginnings, he set up a trust to help young artists and sculptors get started.

When you stop to think about it this may be an important idea. When the Black Caps left to go to Melbourne to play Australia in the final game for the championship there were lots of people to clap and cheer them on their way at the airport. However, the serious club cricketers would be doing something more. They would have been studying all the games on TV and checking the way the Black Caps play – the way they hit the ball, the way they field or bowl – and the serious cricketers will be not just cheering but actually copying the great. I wonder if the serious ones will also notice the newspaper photo that shows Grant Elliot helping one of his opponents off the ground. The truly great have great values as well as great ability.

When someone important – like Jesus – came riding into town on a donkey – I guess there were some there saying to themselves: here comes Jesus – let’s shout and clap for him. I think the ones who are serious about following him would be saying something different – maybe: “Well there comes Jesus – what makes him the way he is? How can we copy him?”

The secret to Francis Chantrey was that he copied the great. Perhaps we might do the same with Jesus.

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Lectionary sermon for Palm Sunday 29 March 2015 on Mark 11:1-11 (or John 12:12 – 16)

Palm Sunday – If we are honest, we should admit the shouting, palm waving crowd when Jesus came to town riding on an ass or a donkey is a bit hard for modern Westerners to understand. Perhaps it is just as well to remember that even in Jesus’ day there is every reason to suspect that the original crowd lining the road was apparently equally confused. They were shouting all right but who they thought they were shouting for is by no means clear.

Palm Sunday as recorded by Mark is a story overlaid with confusion about Jesus, plenty of prophetic symbolism and from Jesus a strange mix of humility and in-your-face political challenge.

You may well already be aware that Jesus entry to Jerusalem is suggested by a number of historians to be only one of two parades into Jerusalem that day – and if the scholars like Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan have it right, the two parades could not have been more unlike.

The first was the official parade – that of the show of Roman might as the Roman governor Pilate, Governor of Idumea, Judea and Samaria returned from his preferred residence on the coast at Caesarea Maritima to make his obligatory appearance for the religious festival in Jerusalem. Because he was making a political point, it would have been a parade with full military pomp and circumstance. This parade would have course been the big event of the day. The Romans did such occasions well, and the spectacle of the parade would have underlined for the crowd that here was the reminder of substantial power that would brook no challenge.

The Roman parade was a not too subtle way of telling people that there was no point in struggling against power or economic exploitation, and even carried the subliminal message that Roman values and even Roman religion was now the only game in town. With a well advertised event, soldiers and weapons like spears and swords on display, foot soldiers with their leather armour, golden eagles on poles and the horse drawn chariots, amongst those watching that parade there would be many spectators who presumably could not help but be impressed.

There is always some ambiguity about military parades. I read some Palm Sunday sermons written at about the time of the US entry to Baghdad in their occupation of Iraq. A surprising number claimed to have found similarity between that triumphant entry and Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem. Initially that might have even seemed to be the case. However the devastation wrought to enable that Baghdad parade and the widespread violence which was subsequently unleashed through the country might now suggest that whatever the intended message of the victory parade, we musn’t confuse it with that of Jesus. Now with the 20:20 vision of hindsight, I would like to suggest that the similarity of the Baghdad victory parade was more in keeping with Pilate’s entry, and about as effective in the long term.

The other parade, in which we understand Jesus entered the city from the other side in the East, through the Mount of Olives would have been much more low-key. It is true that Mark describes a crowd that recognized in Jesus someone to cheer but the scholars are probably correct in guessing that it was not a vast crowd. Nor is it even clear whether or not the cries of “Hosanna” – literally “Save us” might even have included an exaggerated attempt on the part of some in the crowd to highlight the contrast with the entry of the Roman governor. Alternately it would be interesting to discover to what extent it was really the heartfelt cry of those desperate for a saviour.

As Mark records it, although blind Bartimaeus had called Jesus the son of David (10:46-52), the crowd did not use those words but rather talked of the kingdom of David. Nor if we are exact, did they even say that with Jesus the kingdom had arrived – but rather shouted of the coming kingdom. According to the scholar A. Schweitzer there may even be a case for saying that if Jesus was thought to be heralding the kingdom then perhaps the crowd thought that Jesus was Elijah – the expected forerunner of the Messiah, and not the Messiah himself.

Although some present may have considered Jesus coming in on a donkey almost as a deliberate humble and even mocking contrast with Pilate’s military show, there may have been others who wondered if indeed this might have even been the sign that the ancient prophecy was being fulfilled. Because the Saviour was expected by many to be the return of David, this mode of entry might even have caused confusion.

David, you may remember, had his own style of entering a city in triumph. When for example he defeated the Caananites who had taunted him before the battle, he entered the city with his soldiers and promptly ordered the killing of all the men in the city, including the cripples. In this respect at least Jesus was no David.

The donkey or colt was not just a symbol of humility. According to custom, a great leader wishing to show war-like intent would enter a city on a horse in full armour – but a king coming in peace would sometimes show this intent by riding a colt or a donkey. For those aware of this custom, Jesus’ action might also be interpreted as accepting the title of king – and therefore his coming might even be interpreted as a challenge to the established Church and to Rome.

The prophet Zechariah in Chapter 9 verse 9 of his book does his own prediction.

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout daughter of Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The gospel accounts almost seem to be recording the event in such a way as to highlight the way in which Jesus meets Zechariah’s prophecy.
The cries of “Hosanna” … “Save us” ….and the carpeting of the road with the Palm branches certainly sounds like the welcome of the awaited one. But a closer reading suggests a deep misunderstanding.

The words which John records the crowd using to greet Jesus are a direct quotation from Psalm 118: 25 and 26 – as it happens, the last Psalm from the group called Hallel (Psalms 113 – 118). As part of the ritual of the Passover feast, worshippers carried bundles made of palm, willow and myrtle branches, and waved them as they marched chanting these same verses from this psalm. The association in the people’s minds with the Messiah as a conqueror is underlined if we remember for example that this same psalm was also sung when Simon Maccabaeus had overcome the Syrian forces and conquered Accra one hundred years previously.

This means just as Jesus was signalling the type of mission he represented with his entry on the colt, the crowd were signalling in their words and actions that the anointed one they were expecting was to be their mighty leader who could lead to victory over Rome and beyond.

But did you also notice that the crowd did not continue to behave as those certain that Jesus was the promised one.. If the crowd was sufficiently convinced that here at last was the expected Messiah they would hardly have left Jesus free to quietly withdraw from Jerusalem at the end of the day, with only his regular disciples as company as Mark tells us happened.

Perhaps one of the problems was that for many, following this Jesus who comes in peace is all very well in theory, but sooner or later there is an inevitable clash of values. Just as Jesus’ parade was a contrast with that of Pilate, fairly quickly we start to reason that those values Pilate was demonstrating – that power talks, that exploitation is fine if you have strong enough support – and even that religion must fit with those values of hierarchy – are awfully close to those values that drive our society even today.

To notice that Jesus can and does value those who society can uncaringly reject, showing by example the lowly paid are valued as much as the wealthy, that those typically rejected deserve our time and attention – these may remind us that there is a choice to be made. It is not a challenge to wave and cheer at the one in the parade, that would simply leave us as spectators. It is more the challenge to accept his message and values as our own. Two parades and if there is a choice of which one to follow which one will ultimately gain our loyalty?

Perhaps most worrying for our modern world is that Jesus, when confronted with the option of force deliberately went with the non-violent option. In terms of assuming the inevitability of the industrial military complex that legitimises much of what the people of most nations appear to believe today this may yet be the hardest aspect of Jesus teaching for us to accept as a value that we genuinely wish to follow. Saying Jesus is right, presumably means that those who advocate force to maintain control and global position are wrong.

There is a counter intuitive aspect to Christianity but this does not mean it is necessarily impractical. Over the last few years we have seen several dramatic examples where common sense fails and the Christ alternative apparently has more to offer. However, punishing terrorism with military might, as common sense appears to dictate, actually seems to increase the incidence of terrorism…whereas the Jesus alternative of forgiving and even showing love to our enemies remains the largely untried option. Capital punishment and relaxed gun laws may provide a feeling of personal security, but in reality the statistics of the location of serious crime rates and high imprisonment rates do not match the intentions of the extreme solutions.

Again the creation of wealth may seem common sense, but where this is done the gap between the rich and the poor appears to widen. Jesus’ example of caring for the underprivileged is the option which is yet to attract real support. To stay with Jesus’ parade is not in the final analysis a question of whether or not we too can sing our Hosannas.

To become part of the parade is to understand that we too must accept Jesus’ values and allow them to become part of our lives. As long as we watch from the sidelines like those original spectators for Jesus’ original Palm Sunday parade, the ambiguity and confusion as to who Jesus is will remain. The man on the donkey awaits our response.

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Lectionary Sermon for 22 March 2015 Lent 5 Year B (On John 12: 20 -33)

A few weeks back, at a street market in Papakura, I heard a loud fundamentalist preacher shouting about what he called the evil religion of the Muslims and declaiming that followers of false Christianity (which I think included most mainstream Christians) were doomed to burn in hell. Prejudice about those with different backgrounds and religion is not a new phenomenon.

So some Greeks – who of course would have been Gentiles as far as Jesus’ Jewish disciples were concerned, came with a request – “Sir we would like to see Jesus”

Philip sounds suspiciously like most of us in the Church today. Well, it’s not for me to introduce a stranger to Jesus….you can almost hear him thinking… So I’ll find someone, someone who can act as an agent on my behalf. In this case, Andrew. After all it was Andrew who has invited others to meet Jesus…. If we had been in Philip’s place today might we have referred the foreign strangers to the minister or Parish Steward?
We shouldn’t be too surprised at Philip’s reaction. After all, from what we know of churches today would a group of mainline Protestants be in a hurry to invite a Muslim, a Jehovah’s witness, a Russian Orthodox or even a Catholic into their inner circle? Maybe if they took the words from the example of Jesus they should – but would they – or more to the point would we?

As it happens, I’m guessing it might have struck the disciples as being strange or even a bit bizarre that the Greeks should even be there. Gentiles were not part of the inner circle, so why were they there? One commentator J H Bernard notes that since the account of Jesus clearing the Temple reminds us that event would have occurred in the Gentiles courtyard, and he speculates that perhaps these particular Greeks may have even witnessed this event and been sufficiently intrigued to seek out the man responsible for this daring act.

In this reading we are reminded that is as if we are being reminded that with Lent almost behind us Jesus can now be lifted up now that the dawn of the time has arrived….. when in Jesus’ words , “I can draw everyone to myself” . If Jesus can make himself open to the Greeks, perhaps we too should be wondering how we can make the strangers feel as though they belong. We might note also in passing that he seems to be treating them as if they were already disciples. Jesus certainly doesn’t make allowances for the Greeks as foreigners or waste time on conversational niceties.

So do we see Jesus making it easy for these newcomers? As that TV character used to say, “I should cocoa!”

Jesus too, leaves his would be disciples with the same difficult, costly and potentially damaging choice he offers his followers. What he says in effect, whether it be to the fishermen disciples at their nets, the rich young ruler, those he challenged to pick up their cross – or in this case the casual enquirers who were Greeks…. this is not merely a half hearted choice which allows you to keep to your old way of life. “Whoever serves me must follow me.”

I guess this has always been the challenge. Our own declarations count for little. We can announce we are Methodists or Presbyterians or Catholics – but whether we are new to the faith, even would be followers like the Greeks, or for many of us, members of a particular Church with many years of membership behind us… it is not our status that counts but whether or not we are following the way that Jesus set out in front of his disciples.

By using his allusion of the seed that has to separate itself from its parent plant – in effect to die to its old self before it can set off its new life, he confronts them with an uncompromising alternative. Soren Kierkegaard would probably identify it as the key feature of existentialism – the leap of faith.
………..the leap that no one can do for you.

I suspect that Jesus’ message is typically down–played and treated with caution by modern society and even by much of the corporate Church.

Modern society is based on the concept of success and the achievement of status through the accumulation of wealth and possessions. To set these aside is to reject what is commonly accepted as the only sensible way to live. Even in the corporate Church, the notion of individual response without someone to organise it on our behalf is just not how we operate.

While this no doubt gives us the assurance we are not acting alone, there is a conservatism, and frequently an inertia, particularly when there is an assumption that we require the Church to act as broker before we can respond to how our conscience appears to lead.

Robert Funk sees typical religion as unfortunately something brokered by a whole raft of people on our behalf. The Archbishop or Church president selects and ordains the senior leaders, the senior church folk (often Bishops) ordain the clergy – and the clergy act as an intermediary between the congregation and the divine. And just in case we are expecting action on the issues that concern us, there is usually a ponderous committee structure to navigate. While we have clearly become more democratic in our processes, we should be honest enough to see the end result is that the Church no longer typically gives clear lead on issues of conscience.

I guess that is not new.
In the Second World War for example, in Germany it was only the individuals acting alone who could bring themselves to stand against Hitler. Those individuals were not waiting for their actions to be mediated for them. Less than 10% of the Lutheran Church clergy spoke out and the Roman Catholic Church is continuing to defend itself on a frequently expressed charge that if anything they supported the Nazis. On the world scene, the traditional Church denominations were also initially reluctant to speak against slavery, more recently the mainline Churches were painfully slow in that the biggest Churches still appear reluctant to see women in significant leadership roles. Today they continue to say little about the arms trade. Peace makers may be blessed in the sermon on the Mount, but in reality they have not always been visible as part of Church leadership in some of the nastier conflicts. An army chaplain, blessing the mission to drop an atomic bomb on a Japanese city may not represent one of the Church’s finer moments. In this country, despite the record growing gap between the rich and the poor, the Church response has been reactive rather than proactive and if anything muted and restrained.

Individually however we do see within our Churches a small number of determined brave individuals anxious to move forward even without official backing, prepared to follow where their conscience leads. Since we should never forget that in the last analysis the Church is us, we can and should be inspired that we have amongst us those unafraid to question government policy, those prepared to speak up for refugees and minorities, those unafraid to work with the gangs, the addicts and the homeless. We continue to be inspired by those prepared to volunteer in disaster zones, those who insist on supporting Christian World service and those of our Church folk prepared to go into War zones as aid workers.

When we look at the way Jesus interacted with those he met we notice he continually pushed them to take personal responsibility. It is also my impression he tended not to insist those healed that God had done it for them – or that he had interceded on their behalf. Rather instead he acknowledged their personal faith, or actions in seeking his help. It was as if he represented a non brokered faith … a faith in which the shouldering of a personal cross is the test of an individual response.

The seed analogy is vivid and helpful. A seed still attached to the parent plant can only whither and decay. The seed freed to germinate and take root can give rise to new life. Certainly the parent plant – in our case even the parent Church has an essential part of our life cycle. Yet even there the parent Church should be continually allowing and even encouraging the seed to break free to give rise to genuine new life.

Jesus talks of the confrontation as one he in particular must face for himself. He sees the paradox of finding life through death, release through suffering, in effect the dawn after the night. Some of the terminology he uses strongly suggests his premonition of the dark despair he is understood to have faced in the garden of Gethsemane. As always with John it is hard to disentangle the theology from the factual record.

Some of the allusions are easy to grasp. When Jesus talks of he (and she?!) who loves his (or her?!) life will lose it Jesus is not of course talking of a sense of the worth of life – but rather the attractions of a shallow pursuit of that which comes easy… yet there is still mystery. The notion of hating your life to win eternal life is a difficult thought-provoking paradox and perhaps related to the historical fact that by the death of the martyrs the Church itself apparently grew. Yet in what sense the life continues is much harder to put into words. Modern cosmology has in effect put paid to notions of heaven being up there and hell down there as places, and the certainty with which some describe the hereafter (particularly at funerals) is hard to justify since many of the descriptions are contradictory and mutually exclusive.

What we can however be sure of is that a sense of what Jesus stood for has continued to have a lasting significance and regardless of the manner of his execution his message and the Spirit of what he stood for lives on, but not in the ether. Rather it is in the responses and deeds of those who win the right to be called followers by how they respond to the way of Jesus. Will that include those like us?

By contrast perhaps we might finish with an historical anecdote.
There are several versions of the story about the King Xerxes about to invade Greece. One version says that before they crossed the Hellespont River he had his mighty Persian army drawn up so that he might review them. He smiled in great satisfaction at their magnificence – then his officers noticed suddenly he had tears in his eyes. “What troubles you?” they asked.

“I was just thinking that in one hundred years not a single one of these fine soldiers will be alive. Nothing will remain”.

Xerxes’ words should remind us that each of us have a relatively brief time in which we can respond to the gospel. And dont forget that when it comes to following Christ each generation needs to ensure the mission is handed on to the next generation. We can’t depend on what previous disciples did in the past – glorying only in the deeds of a previous generation of Christians.  Newcomers or old-hands, the test is always the challenge of living the faith.

The essence of Christianity was not necessarily finished when Jesus was lifted up on his cross.  It continues to live if we make it live, but finding meaning in his message with our own seed is the chapter still to be written.

Feel free to use as much of this material as you choose for your own purposes (but not for profit).To avoid subsequent copyright problems some acknowledgment would be appreciated. Although these sermons appear to be visited regularly, because the purpose of this site is to encourage thought, it would be helpful to others if you were to leave comments, suggestions of alternative illustrations, or corrections.

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Lectionary Sermon for March 15 2015 Lent 4 Year B on John 3: 14-21

Truth by Night
The gospel excerpt today leaves out the verses giving its setting. Yet that setting reminds us that that for each of us truth only begins to take shape when we go out of our way to seek the truth. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night – and we are given to understand that this would have been in secret since Jesus would hardly have been accepted by the orthodox group that Nicodemus represents. Nicodemus comes seeking the truth about Jesus.

The Greek word for truth means “making obvious the unknown”. But there is something else which is often overlooked. Truth in practice is uncovered a little (often a very little) at a time.

This I believe is true in both science and religion. Think about it. In science the Greek philosopher Democritus postulated many years ago that matter might be made of small discrete particles called atoms. There has been a long and uncertain path of discovery ever since with many blind alleyways, twists, and turns before the scientists could actually photograph shadows of these atoms and gradually work out the complex ways in which they are assembled. And what wonders of energy and creation have been uncovered in the process, a process which was marked by famous experiments such as those of Lord Rutherford and still continues with the Large Hadron Collider and a host of experimental breakthroughs.
Think what we may have missed if the scientists had said:
Democritus has told us all we need to know about atoms”.

In religion we see a similar tortuous and gradual uncovering of truth…whether it be the truth about God, or specifically to Christians: the truth about Jesus and the truth about what it means to believe and follow Jesus. Think what we would have missed if we ever said:

“I know a verse in the Bible that already tells me all that I need to know about Jesus”.

The notion of God may have started in human understanding as a virtual tribal token, one of many Gods, and yet through the centuries our perception has gradually changed and grown from what was first thought to be a local, unpredictable and at times vindictive Spirit to the beginnings of understanding of something more mysterious with shadowy glimpses to what might lie beyond and as part of a vast creation. In the course of our quest for truth about such matters, we have also encountered a love principle which promises meaning to human existence. This morning’s reading contains that wonderful poetic verse (John 3:16) that introduces us to one dimension of the Love principle which the King James version renders as: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

This is of course a huge step forward from the Old Testament God portrayed in places like Genesis and the Psalms – yet history teaches us that even this famous verse has not proved to be the final arrival point – at least not one which always enables us to live at peace with our neighbours and be at one with creation. In fact, let’s be frank, this particular verse, John 3: 16 taken in its most superficial meaning has probably been more responsible for violence and unkindness perpetrated in the name of Jesus than any other verse of the Bible.

Whosoever believes in him shall not perish. A casual encounter with this part of the verse allows us to think….. Aha …..therefore anyone will perish if they don’t believe, therefore with that much at stake let us force them to belief…. and of course by belief, we mean our sort of belief!

History teaches for example that this verse has provided an excuse for saying since the Muslims and Jews won’t believe in Jesus and are dangerous to salvation because they are not teaching the Christian truth – very well then, let us make life difficult for them until they are forced to believe. !? This provided the excuse for the Crusades where the Muslim unbelievers were put to the sword by the thousand. This is also partly why for centuries there were pogroms against the Jews right through Europe – massacres, house burnings, removing their legal rights … and indeed it is even thought the lack of sympathy for the Jews was why it took so long to mobilize action against the Nazi concentration death camps.

A few years ago on our trip to Europe, Shirley and I visited one massacre site where, towards the end of the second world war, several hundred from the local Jewish ghetto had been tied together in pairs and pushed into the river to drown. We were shown the spot on the bank of the Danube in the so called Christian city of Budapest, and the Jewish guide asked: “Where were all the good people?” Given the high attendance rate in the Churches in Budapest, it was a fair question.

Then there were those a few hundred years ago who said the Catholics won’t believe in Jesus the same way as we as Protestants do. Destroy their Churches as protestants did in England, murder the Catholics as was done by Huguenot soldiers in France until the Huguenots in their turn were massacred on the orders of the King of France in 1572 (with, I might add, the king leaning out the window of the Louvre and firing casual pot shots at any Huguenot in the streets below with his arquebus).

As we move closer to the present the pattern seems little different. Fight the Catholics on the streets as the Protestants did in Northern Ireland, chant rude songs about children who went to Catholic schools in Christchurch as I was taught to do as a child…( although perhaps I might just confess as an aside we rather enjoyed the cone fight we had all those years ago in the pine forest when the Catholic Sunday school turned up to the same beach reserve as our Durham Street Methodist Sunday school for their annual picnic).

More seriously, this assumption that only verbal agreement with one’s own version of faith gives eternal life becomes a serious distortion in the hands of the missionaries who historically have often assumed that any culture, other than their own, needs to be destroyed as quickly as possible. Nor should we assume that such thinking is a thing of the past. In the last few years I have heard evangelical missionaries talk about the evil of Hinduism, and of Islam and even of Buddhism. I have also taught in New Britain where some of the missionaries insisted on introducing a Western culture as well as a Victorian religion.

I have also witnessed the callous indifference to the physical plight of people by some of these same missionaries who acted as if, since only eternal salvation matters for the heathen, we can therefore ignore less important things like hunger, disease and injustice.

Yet even although the verse says: whosoever believes in Jesus will have eternal life, it is only at the most superficial level that this belief could be thought of as a creedal statement. Announcing that one is saved is hardly the same as living as a believer. Jesus elsewhere makes it very clear what it means to believe in him. “ In so far as you do it to the least of your neighbours you do it unto me”. Surely this means that to believe in Jesus means adopting and following his ways.

Jesus was accused of eating with prostitutes and tax collectors. Very well then, presumably believing in him means caring about those in society who are different to us. Jesus also taught that those not recognized as having the right religious credentials can be the ones living in accordance with his teachings. If this can be applied to Samaritans – then surely it equally applies to Hindus or Muslims. This time of Lent, traditionally a time of self examination is a good time to ask ourselves honestly if we can see evidence that we are taking his words seriously by the way we are living.

A superficial reading of John 3: 16 also causes us to overlook how the verse starts. For God so loved the world – not if we read it more carefully, the Western protestant world – nor even only the human part of the world.

Believing in Jesus, who for us personifies this love for the world, may then mean we have to genuinely start caring about those of other races and other creeds. If the world is more than just the human race – then perhaps belief also means we should be insisting on caring for creation with its precarious ecosystems and millions of interacting life forms.

It is clear that Jesus only gets part of his message across to Nicodemus. A few verses earlier Jesus talks about being born again and Nicodemus makes it clear he has not understood. As Jesus says in reply : if I have spoken to you about earthly things and you do not believe me, how will you believe me if I speak to you about heavenly things. He has a point. If we cannot get the basics of Jesus’ teaching, with his down to earth message about how we should be interacting with one another and further if we don’t have the vital experience of living this life in practice, there is little point to rushing to pretend esoteric intellectual certainties about theological implications of salvation. Berating unbelievers with dimly understood theological words instead of offering genuine friendship and compassion is hardly demonstrating belief in his way.

So Nicodemus didn’t quite get it. However make no mistake about it, Nicodemus may not have understood all in Jesus’ message, but he is at least partly on the way. As John tells it Nicodemus stays in the background but as a secret disciple serious enough about being a follower to be one who brings a scented resin to tend to Jesus’ body after the crucifixion.

Perhaps there is something of Nicodemus in all of us. Just as Nicodemus came in the shadow of darkness, not all parts of our thinking and deeds are always brought into the light. Light is not always welcome, particularly in areas where the conscience is not entirely clear. Light can be disturbing and some only notice the shadows it brings. Perhaps this is why some good people seem to produce a reaction of anger in others as their light shows other people as they really are. We all have blind spots about ourselves and others which cause us to rush to premature judgement and miss the potential in ourselves and others.
William Barclay in his Daily Bible on today’s gospel, uses the story of a man visiting and art gallery to look at the Old Masters hanging there. After a guided tour with an attendant of some of these works of genius the man announced to his guide. “Well I don’t think much of your old paintings”

The attendant’s quiet reply… “Sir, I would remind you that these pictures are no longer on trial, but those who look at them are.”
Verses such as John 3:16 are indeed masterpieces – but our assessment of their meaning and potential may uncover new layers of truth if we will but look.  AMEN
Feel free to use as much of this material as you choose for your own purposes (but not for profit).To avoid subsequent copyright problems some acknowledgment would be appreciated. Although these sermons appear to be visited regularly, because the purpose of this site is to encourage thought, it would be helpful to others if you were to leave comments, suggestions of alternative illustrations, or corrections.

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Lectionary Sermon for March 8, 2015 Lent 3 B (on John Ch 2 : 13-22 Clearing the Temple)

STRIPPING OUR TRAPPINGS
How much of our religion really matters and how much are what the philosopher A.N. Whitehead dismissed as trappings?

Perhaps we could reflect on his list: Whitehead said and I quote: “Collective enthusiasms, revivals, institutions, churches, rituals, Bibles, codes of behaviour are the trappings of religion, in passing forms.”

I guess I would like to suggest a few more. How about denominationalism, Church hierarchies, vestments, archaic superstitions, formalized ceremonies and heresy hunts?

Notice that none of these has to be particularly harmful by itself if kept in strict moderation and indeed we might even argue that the trappings help us gain a degree of perspective and focus on our faith. Where however there may be a problem is when these trappings take over to the extent they cause us to forget what the gospel is supposed to be about.

One of the key turning points of the gospels is Jesus’ attack on one aspect of these trappings, the event of the clearing of the Temple.

Because the Lectionary cycle tend to focus a little more on the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke it almost comes as a surprise that John places the clearing of the Temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – whereas Matthew Mark and Luke see this as towards the end during Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem. There is good argument for both. In John’s record of the significant events in Jesus’ ministry, by placing it at the start of his mission, it underlines his uncompromising honesty and courage and sets the scene for his eventual collision course with the establishment. For Matthew Mark and Luke it is no less significant yet is presented as an important part of the climax of his ministry and as with John, explains perfectly why the temple leadership would have been unable to tolerate his challenge.

Some say the apparent contradiction in the record is because it must have happened twice, once at the beginning of his ministry and once at the end. For what it’s worth I don’t find this plausible because in my view it would extremely unlikely that Jesus might have got away with clearing the temple twice, in that the first time such a dramatic event happened would have identified Jesus as a trouble maker who should not be allowed anywhere near the Temple after such an act. From that point he would have been a marked man.

I can also well believe that as such a story is handed down over the years it is more than likely that details such as the date might easily become secondary to the story itself.
Of far more importance is why Jesus might have come into conflict with the temple authorities in the first place. I suggested at the start Jesus had taken offense at what had become an obsession with a particular aspect of the trappings of religion. In this case it was what had happened to the custom of sacrifice and specifically what was occurring in the Temple courtyard in the area reserved as the closest a gentile might enter the Temple grounds.
Remember the Temple was constructed to reflect the Jews cultural pecking order. In the centre was a small room – the Holy of Holies. God was in that space. Even the High Priest was only allowed to enter the Holy of Holies only once a year.

Next came the courtyard of the priests.

Outside that was the courtyard for male adult Jews….

Then outside that the courtyard for Jewish women….

then finally the courtyard for the gentiles. It was in this courtyard that the money changers and animal traders were to be found.

As with the way modern Muslims require sheep to be killed, the custom of sacrifice had been laid down in the ancient scriptures and had gradually become formalized and ritualized until it was almost an obsession. That there were money changers in the Temple was hardly surprising. Because travelers and pilgrims would come from afar for the Passover festival, it would have been most impractical for all of them to carry their own animals for sacrifice. Accordingly the temple officials would supply a number of the animals for sacrifice but there was a catch. Because the animals had been chosen for sacrifice, the custom had developed that ordinary non Jewish money was considered too base for the purchase of the animals for religious purpose. Accordingly, the pilgrims were required to exchange their non Jewish money for the required coins to pay for the sacrifice. If they were paying at the standard rate of half a shekel per person as laid down by the Talmud, this was expensive enough since half a shekel was the equivalent of two days wage.

There was even a bit of a problem even exchanging shekels for half shekels because the money changers were expected to take some profit. Where the real problem came was when non Jewish coins were brought to exchange for the Jewish shekels. The exorbitant exchange rate had grown over the years until it had become open profiteering.

The other way in which corruption had taken over was that only perfect animals could be sacrificed. For those choosing to bring their own animals for sacrifice, there were special inspectors called mumcheh, who for an appropriate amount would inspect your animal – but alas the custom had changed over the years so that virtually no animal from the outside would pass this inspection and the pilgrim would be required to buy a temple animal for sacrifice. Are you surprised this turned out to be expensive? A pair of doves sold at the Temple cost the equivalent of 24 days work.

That the Temple had become excessively wealthy through this sacrifice money and money exchange was not in dispute. Even some years previously when Crassus captured Jerusalem in 54 BC the historians said that he took the equivalent of something like 5 million dollars in today’s money from the Temple without anywhere near exhausting the wealth.

Jesus’ fury at what was before him probably had several causes.

Exploiting the poor was of course an extreme and glaring injustice, and to do it in the name of God must have seemed particularly upsetting.
Jesus may too have shared the revulsion of a number of the prophets who had pointed out time after time that it wasn’t sacrifices but rather changed hearts which were required. To give two of many possible examples: Isaiah with his: To what purpose are your numerous sacrifices to me? Said the Lord …..bring no more your vain oblations. (Isaiah 1: 11-17) or They sacrifice flesh for offerings and eat it: but the Lord does not accept. Hosea 8: 13.

The version of this story in the gospel of Mark includes an intriguing phrase “My house shall be called of all nations, the house of prayer”. The all nations part suggests Jesus may have been referring to the gentiles’ position in the Temple. Gentiles were allowed and even expected to get as close as possible to the Temple to offer their prayer – but it was in the gentiles’ courtyard that the cacophony of sound, with the bleating of sheep – bellowing of frightened calves – the shouts of the bargainers and no doubt the raised voices of those disputing their treatment at the hands of the money lenders would all combine. This in effect made a mockery of any attempt of the gentiles to offer prayer. Given Jesus’ reported sympathies for gentiles, this may have given further reason for his indignation.

I am reminded of the old story about the man who died and went to the gates of heaven. There he met St Peter and asked to be shown around. St Peter showed him the many courtyards. “This one he said is for the good Buddhists, this one is for the Muslims, over there is the courtyard for the Hindus” – and so on.
“What about that very high walled courtyard over there where I can hear singing and organ music coming from?”, the man asked. “Well that’s where the Christians are,” said St Peter – “but I wonder if I might ask you to be very quiet outside their wall. You see they think they are the only ones here”.
To know with certainty about heaven is beyond my pay grade yet I suspect that story fairly describes many people’s attitude not only towards Christianity, and even towards their particular version of Christian faith. At the last high school where I taught I once had some exclusive Brethren pupils whose parents would not allow them to eat lunch with the other children. I might have been able to feel superior towards them for their prejudice except that at primary school I can remember chanting a rhyme aimed at the Catholic children required to go to a separate Catholic school.

If we keep the story of Jesus driving the money lenders from the Gentiles’ courtyard at a comfortable distance by forgetting what our modern equivalents might be we might miss part of the significance of this incident. It is true that in most versions of Christianity sacrifice at the temple has no place. However if we are honest with ourselves we can allow other trappings of religion to grow in significance until they make a mockery of our faith.

Take the trapping of religious art. Placing the occasional icon – or even stained glass window in a place of worship as a focus for thoughtful religious response is another way of reminding ourselves that events remembered in the history of the faith matter significantly. To continue to collect such items until the place of worship is groaning with opulence is bordering on the obscene particularly when the Church acts as if it is blind to poverty in the community and in the world. I remember being shown a small section of the Vatican museum in Rome by a guide and being told that if a visitor was to spend ten seconds in front of each priceless work of art it would take something like ten years to see all the works of art owned by the Vatican.
Perhaps by some mental gymnastics this can be reconciled with Jesus injunction to take no thought for the morrow – and the bit about not storing up treasures on Earth … but we might ask ourselves if Jesus would really have been pleased at such a display of opulence.

Religious clothing for Church leaders is another area which might cause us to stumble. I certainly can follow that there is significance in the stole, a simple strip of material intended as the mark of ordination and intended as the symbolic version of the yoke of servant hood. Somehow however this has morphed through the centuries. The stole has become more elegantly embroidered and the simple gown into gowns of jeweled and brocaded splendor to the point where the notion of the humble servant somehow becomes lost in the visual trappings of power and significance.
It is odd isn’t it that it is hard to imagine Jesus arrayed like an archbishop in a Cathedral.

Dare I suggest that even Church ceremonies like communion need a time of re-evaluation. This simple shared meal by which Jesus disciples were ask to remember him so often can become formalized so that the leaders become the star turn. For some churches only the initiated may partake and so the simple act of remembrance evolves to a highly formalized and stylized marathon of liturgy where the notion of a shared meal is submerged with high sounding religious jargon. More to the point, if we think of communion as a stand-alone ceremony yet never get round to offering hospitality to strangers, have we really grasped what Jesus was on about? Remember that Jesus was often accused of eating with the undesirables. If we truly want to be reminded of what he stood for, can we act as if some are not worthy to share real meals?

I don’t think for one moment that there was a particular instant when the Jews in their efforts to please God would have been aware that their customs had gone too far. The Temple ceremonies became corrupt gradually over a period of some hundreds of years. In the same way, oh so gradually, an obsession with buildings and with the minutiae of Church administration can take over our meetings until the day perhaps we finally realize that mission and issues of justice and Christian responsibility have become tacked on the end of our agenda merely as a token, and it is then that there comes a need to clear our own temple.

Lent is the traditional time for self-examination. Today on this third Sunday of Lent we might do well to pause to wonder if we too are in danger of losing our sense of focus. Perhaps, even here, there is a need to check the practices of what for us passes as today’s Temple. AMEN

 Feel free to use as much of this material as you choose for your own purposes (but not for profit).
To avoid subsequent copyright problems some acknowledgment would be appreciated. Although these sermons appear to be visited regularly, because the purpose of this site is to encourage thought, it would be helpful to others if you were to leave comments, suggestions of alternative illustrations, or corrections.

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