Friday, 21 April 2017

Sunday Sermon: John 20.19-31. The disciples in the upper room and Thomas' doubt.

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

When I was at Theological College, at an Easter residential one year, we did an exercise called the ENNEAGRAM, which is a standard personality test. Someone asked how to spell Enneagram and quick as a flash one Anglo-Catholic in the group shouted out in reply, “H E R E S Y!” (Oh how we laughed!)

On this occasion the enneagram had a twist: it had been devised to help us to establish which of the key characters in the Easter story best represented our personality type – and I got Thomas, which absolutely delighted me. Thomas: realist, rationalist, pragmatist and cynic. Indeed! I’ve always felt slightly out on a limb spiritually, particularly with my more Evangelical friends, and now I had not only an explanation but a Biblical role model. I was the only Thomas in that year’s intake. We had Marys and Marthas and Peters and Johns galore. We even had a few Jesus types but I was the only Thomas.

So proud!

Today's Gospel text begins with the disciples locked in a room. Imagine for a moment that you are one of them, locked in through choice because of your fear. We can, perhaps, imagine their anxiety and can even see some occasionally checking the door to ensure that it was really locked. Other disciples might have been looking out of cracks in the shutters, watchful and on guard. How had it come to this?  They were now fugitives fearing that the Roman and religious leaders who had executed Jesus would come after them for being associated with this radical preacher from Galilee. Perhaps they saw themselves as loose ends to be tied up by the victorious and vengeful authorities. All their hopes and expectations had dissolved and they were now in survival mode, beset with shock and confusion and an overwhelming sense of loss and calamity: how had it come to this? What was their future? Did they even have one? Would they escape and survive? Would they be allowed to? Were there patrols scouring the city looking for them? Who could they trust after this appalling turnaround of fortunes? Were there spies and informants working for the authorities who would turn them in for a reward? Yes, hiding was the short-term option but how long could they stay there undiscovered?

But they weren’t all there. Judas had taken the easy way out and killed himself, although it’s not clear whether they knew this yet. Either way, he wouldn’t have been missed. It was all down to him anyway. He’d set this chain of events in motion. Yes, there was a palpable sense of his betrayal hanging in the air: not that when push had come to shove they’d behaved all that well themselves, so there was shame too at their own behaviour. I doubt it was an occasion free from recriminations and half-hearted attempts at self-justification.

And Thomas? Where was he? Had he abandoned them too? Had he made a break for freedom and safety, banking on the fact that he had more of a chance of escape on his own than in a more identifiable group?  Or was he out and about doing a bit of reconnaissance and checking out the public mood and the lay of the land?  And what of the women, presumably freer to come and go without arousing suspicion? What were the remaining disciples making of their story of the empty tomb and Mary’s claim that she had seen Jesus again, seemingly alive and well? As Luke puts it, "These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them."

Fear, confusion, loss, betrayal, recrimination and shame: what an atmosphere!

And into this sense of heightened emotion, John tells us, appeared Jesus. Not, it would seem, by knocking on the door and demanding entry. No. We’re simply, but tantalisingly told that he came and stood amongst them – and the personal Thomas within me is asking how? Give us details!

The first words that Jesus spoke to those disciples who had abandoned him and left him to die is “Peace be with you”, not "How could you have abandoned me?" There are no words of recrimination here, no blame, only words of reassurance. “Peace be with you.” Which, together with his very presence, seemed enough to quell all incredulous demands of “What ….?” “How ……?”

You’ll have worked out by now that I think Thomas gets a poor press from the Gospels and from this Gospel story in particular. I identify with Thomas: I’m not one for blind faith or emotion. I ask questions, I like evidence. I like a good debate. So when Thomas puts in his belated appearance after doing whatever it was that meant he missed Jesus, he’s not happy - and yet actually he does nothing that the others hadn’t already done. Did they instantly acknowledge the resurrection? No. We’re told that it was only when Jesus showed them the marks of the crucifixion that they fully believed. Look at the passage again: “After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” Was Thomas asking for anything more than the others had experienced?

Can you imagine his disappointment at having missed Jesus? “Why didn’t he wait until I was there too?” I don’t doubt he felt hurt and excluded: the others had experienced something significant and he had missed it. “Why me?” Is there a touch of petulance there? “Well, I won’t believe until I see the marks of the nails.” I can’t help wondering though whether the doubt isn’t a doubt about Jesus but Thomas’s own self-doubt. “Was I not good enough?” Who is Thomas doubting? Jesus or his own sense of worthiness? Remember, Thomas has already seen someone come back from the dead: he was there when Jesus raised Lazarus, so he already knows the reality of resurrection. This is not an intellectual issue for him, it’s an emotional one. Has he been deliberately excluded and if so why? Self-doubt is a dangerous thing and a destructive thing. Thomas sees himself as being excluded and so he behaves accordingly and we can, perhaps, imagine a gulf beginning to open up between him and the others. That’s the downside of the Thomas personality type.

But when Jesus returns and Thomas enters into the same experience as the others his reaction is deeper than theirs. The key for Thomas is that he knows the implications of what he has seen. He believes that Jesus is not only alive, but is also God.  The other disciples rejoiced at seeing Jesus alive, but Thomas was the only one who proclaimed "My Lord and my God!"

Anyway, enough of Thomas: there is more to this passage and if we concentrate on Thomas we are in danger of missing what Jesus says and does.

The first thing we’ve already noted: when Jesus appeared he offered his followers peace, but he also gave power.  Verse twenty-two tells us that "when he said this he breathed on them." This is John’s version of Pentecost. It doesn’t appear as it does in the other Gospels but here Jesus gives the disciples the Holy Spirit, the Other Jesus who remains with disciples now as then after the Ascension. Jesus does not leave his followers devoid of guidance and support.

But guidance and support for what?

He gave peace, he gave power and he gave purpose.

This is our purpose. We are to be a mouth to speak for Jesus; feet to run errands for Jesus, hands to do the work of Jesus, and a heart to love Jesus. As my Lutheran friends would say: God's Work, Our Hands. 

That’s the challenge of today’s passage: this group of defeated, confused and frightened men and women were transformed into a driving force that changed others and the world. We are part of that movement.

 Yes us, here, today.

In the same way that the disciples were transformed by their encounter with the risen Jesus, we too have our part to play in the transformation of others and the world around us. Jesus gives us his peace, his power through the Holy Spirit and his purpose in bringing the Kingdom of God closer.

Look at what the early church achieved. Let’s not be paralysed by self-doubt. Let’s take the words of Thomas, “My Lord and my God” and act as if we meant it.



Saturday, 8 April 2017

Sunday Sermon: Palm Sunday. Matthew 21.1-11

Matthew 21.1-11

Matthew 21.1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken though the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and other cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Today is Palm Sunday; churches around the world will celebrate by sharing the gospels’ message of Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem. The week which follows is the most important season in the Christian calendar; it’s the time of year that we celebrate our Saviour’s death, burial and resurrection from the dead and during this week we celebrate the gift of salvation and redemption that God has given us.

But there is important background information that the Gospels don’t give us but which can be discerned from contemporary records and which should help us to understand better the events of this day and the days to come.

It was standard practice for Roman governors to be present in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival: not out of religious sensitivity but to be in the city in case there was trouble – and there often was at Passover, a festival that celebrated the Jewish people's liberation from an earlier empire, the empire of Egypt. Pilate's military presence was a demonstration of both Roman imperial power and Roman imperial theology because according to Roman imperial theology the Emperor was not simply ruler of Rome, but the Son of God.

So, two processions entered Jerusalem on that spring day in the year 30 at the beginning of the week of Passover. One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives. His message was about the Kingdom of God and his followers came from the peasant class. On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate the Roman governor entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. Pilate's procession proclaimed the power of empire. These two processions embodied the central conflict of the week that would lead to Jesus' Crucifixion.

Jesus' procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate's procession embodied the power, glory and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus's procession embodied an alternative vision, the Kingdom of God. The confrontation between these two kingdoms would continue through the last week of Jesus life.

The Gospels make it absolutely clear that the ruling Jewish authorities worked through the approval of the Roman authorities and were therefore collaborators. The local people were oppressed not just by the Romans and their taxes but by the puppet authorities - which included the Temple Authorities whose primary obligation to Rome was loyalty - and their taxes.

This was the Jerusalem Jesus entered on Palm Sunday. His message was deeply critical of the temple and the role it had come to play as a tool of empire and Jesus pronounces forgiveness apart from temple sacrifice. Jesus' message and activity put him in conflict with the temple authorities from the moment he arrived in Jerusalem.

As we consider Palm Sunday we need to be clear that the conflict which led to Jesus' crucifixion was not Jesus against Judaism. Jesus was part of Judaism not apart from it. Jesus' is a Jewish voice arguing about what loyalty to the God of Judaism meant. He was arguing against a religious system fatally compromised by collaboration with Rome.

We need also to remember that the long hoped for Messiah was generally expected to be a warrior King who would drive out any occupying force. The Jews loved Passover because of the hope it offered. It was a national day of Jewish pride. At Passover the Jews remembered the freedom of God’s people from the Egyptians. It also looked forward to the future freedom of the Jews. The people of God had been oppressed for hundreds of years. Under the Assyrians, under the Babylonians, under The Persians, under Alexander the Great and the Greeks, under corrupt Jewish leaders and now under the harsh rule of the Romans.

It was this expectation of military might that Jesus subverted in his humble arrival: an arrival which those who knew their scriptures might recognise as a fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy, “Be full of joy, O people of Zion! Call out in a loud voice, O people of Jerusalem! See, your King is coming to you. He is fair and good and has the power to save. He is not proud and sits on a donkey, on the son of a female donkey.”  

No self-respecting king would ride a donkey. If you wanted to make an impact, you would come in on a white war-horse surrounded by soldiers, but that wasn’t the way of Jesus, nor of the Kingdom he sought to usher in.

What, we might ask ourselves, does it feel like to have less than a week to live?

That’s the situation in which Jesus finds himself when he makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The crowds don’t know what’s coming. The disciples have been given hints and overt predictions from Jesus that the Son of Man will be betrayed into the hands of sinners and killed, but they haven’t fully understood the implications.

To the disciples and the crowds, this is a moment of incredible potential and excitement. Those who travelled with him have seen the miracles Jesus is capable of – and word has spread of his approach, so who knew what that power might do if they could convince him to turn it against Rome?

What a lonely moment this must be for Jesus, to be surrounded by screaming supporters but burdened by the knowledge that this is the point of no return. By entering Jerusalem on a colt with the crowds laying down their cloaks before him and shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” he has triggered one prophetic tripwire too many. The Roman rulers and the Jewish religious authorities can no longer pretend that he is insignificant, that he is not dangerous. Jesus was deliberately provoking the crisis that would end with him on the cross.

And our immersion in these scriptures this week, moving from the palm procession to the Passion, is deliberately designed to provoke a crisis within ourselves. The transition in Jesus’ fortunes in less than a week from adulation and joyful allegiance to rage-filled demands for him to be crucified; the disciples moving from proudly walking at his side through the streets of Jerusalem to slinking away in stomach-clenching fear, insisting they don’t know who he is, should give us pause for thought because it reflects, in brief, our own lifelong journeys with Jesus.

Holy Week, which begins today, is our opportunity to immerse ourselves in this move from the false joy of Palm Sunday, a joy that is centred around expectations of power and reward, through the pain of finding that our faith is often so weak when Jesus needs us the most, finally to the deep and profound joy of the day of Resurrection, the day of forgiveness and new life. We have the opportunity to walk with Jesus in real time as the hourglass runs out, as he struggles with the knowledge that he has less than a week to live.

Today we make a choice. We can choose to be present with Jesus as his disciples throughout this week, confronting the ways in which we betray him and loving him as we see him struggle for the courage to endure his death or we can let the meaning of these events pass us by.

The only tools we need to be present with him are the scriptures and open hearts to make this journey with Jesus.

Two processions entered Jerusalem that day. Which procession are we in? Which do we yearn to be in? This is the question of Palm Sunday and of the week that is about to unfold. Let’s spend that week with Jesus.