In a post last year about the Tony Anthony testimony debacle, I featured (with permission) a scanned copy of Simon Jenkins’ cartoon strip ‘Born Again Testimonies’ from Ship Of Fools when it was a print magazine in the early 1980s. I now discover, thanks to my friend David Parsons, a retired Baptist minister, that Jenkins turned it into a video and posted it on YouTube. Here it is for your viewing pleasure:
There is an old joke that takes a Bible verse about some people not dying before the Second Coming of Jesus and applying at as a motto for a crèche or other gathering of babies:
“We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed.”
Change. Children change your lives like nothing else. Marriage is a big change, but having children requires far greater adjustment.
In our Bible reading today, we meet two people who are on the verge of major change in their lives – Cornelius the centurion, and Peter the apostle. Both are in a comfortable place in their lives, but things are about to take dramatic twists for both of them as their lives are about to meet.
First, Cornelius. To the readers of Acts, who are probably Roman, Cornelius as a centurion is an all-round good guy. Roman citizens admired their centurions, rather like the way many in our society see our soldiers as heroes. One Roman writer put it this way:
“They wish centurions not so much to be venturesome and daredevil as natural leaders, of a steady and sedate spirit. They do not desire them so much to be men who will initiate attacks and open the battle, but men who will hold their ground when worsted and hard pressed and be ready to die at their posts.” (Polybius, Histories, 6.24.9)
And not only that, Cornelius would have been regarded as a good egg by Jews – at least, as good as a Gentile could be:
He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. (Verse 2)
He hadn’t quite gone all the way to becoming a Jewish convert – that would have required a painful snip for him – but in prayer and giving to the poor he practised two of the three basic disciplines expected of a Jew (the other being fasting).
But we can’t stop there. According to the angel who appears to him, even God has taken a shine to him:
Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. (Verse 4)
It’s all good, isn’t it? Admired in society, respected in the community of faith, and pleasing to God.
Except … God still has an agenda of change for him. That’s why he needs to meet Peter and hear Peter’s message. He believes in God, he does good deeds, and contributes to the well-being of society. Yet God says, ‘Cornelius, you need more. You need change in your life.’
Perhaps we know similar people today. We might be one of them. Good people – after all, the church has no monopoly on goodness. They may pray or even turn up at worship sometimes, but some say, “I don’t need to go to church to be a good Christian.” They may work hard at their job, love their families, and put in extra effort of an evening to do something positive in the local community.
And maybe God says the same today. ‘You need more. You need change.’ Specifically, I think he says something similar to what he effectively says to Cornelius. ‘You need to meet someone who will tell you about Jesus.’ Because that is what Peter would go on to do when they finally met.
Why do we need to meet Jesus when we believe in God, and do good in our community? Well, if we are serious about our belief in God and wanting to do what he likes, then we shall want to be acquainted with the One he sent to bring peace, forgiveness and true purpose of life. That One is Jesus. If God has been quietly working in our lives and we’ve been seeking to respond to him, then when we hear about Jesus we’ll be positive. If on the other hand all our talk about believing in God and being good is a smokescreen to avoid serious commitment, then the mention of Jesus will expose the truth of our hearts.
Happily, Cornelius wasn’t like that. He was truly interested in God and God’s ways. Change would come for him. Dramatic change, but good change.
Second, Peter. In order to get inside Peter’s attitude to life, let me ask you this question: have you ever been concerned with the fear that bad company corrupts good character? Perhaps if you are the father of a daughter and you are bothered what kinds of boyfriends she might have, you will understand this mindset. Can any young man ever possibly be good enough for your princess? What will you want to do to him if he wickedly steps out of line – say, he brings her back from a date five minutes later than promised? Really, you don’t want your angel influenced by such a wayward soul.
Translate that into a religious context and what you’ve got is a guy who has been brought up to believe that you shouldn’t mix with the wrong sort of people or your pure religious faith will be contaminated. And so, as a good Jew, he had believed he should have nothing to do with those who, in religious terms, were ‘unclean’. Cornelius, despite hanging out at the synagogue, was in some sense unclean to him, because he hadn’t become a fully fledged Jew.
Now, it has to be said, Peter isn’t always consistent in his convictions. We learn in this story that ‘He is staying with Simon the tanner’ (verse 6), and that is suspect behaviour for a devout Jew. Why? Because a tanner in his trade deals with the skins of dead animals, and good Jews were not meant to have anything to do with dead bodies. Yet Peter accepts hospitality from such a man. Either he’s compromising his convictions or he’s beginning to change before this incident. I suspect it’s the former.
But here, everything definitely begins to change for him when he gets hungry at lunchtime. As he falls into a trance he sees this strange vision of a huge sharing platter. Some of the items on the menu are foods regarded as unclean by Jews. The call to eat ritually unclean food becomes a metaphor for mixing with people he would normally shun (verses 9-20).
If Peter is to live in the will of God according to the love of God, then he has to make a drastic change to his life. He has to begin hanging out with people who are different from him. He needs to start relating to people whom he would otherwise consider anathema. What’s more, he will have to do all this for the sake of sharing God’s love in Jesus Christ.
You see, up until now, the followers of Jesus were effectively nothing more than a small Jewish sect. Just about everybody who had begun following the way of Jesus had been Jewish. There was the odd exception, like the heretics of Samaria, but the new faith hasn’t burst outside Jewish boundaries. The question of whether it should hasn’t even been raised.
But it is about to be raised, and effectively it’s God who does so. God calls Peter to a radical change that will take his life-transforming love in Jesus beyond the Judaism where it has begun to the rest of the world. Christianity as a world faith is about to begin in this story, especially in next week’s episode.
And you know what? It means something similar for those of us who are church regulars, too. Those who have heard me a lot here won’t be surprised to hear me say this, but it needs repeating, because we must take this on board. It might feel nice and safe to draw most of our friends from the people like us who share our beliefs and values, but really that’s the way to build a spiritual ghetto. We need to make friends with people outside the church if we are going to make a missionary difference today. I hope we will not be known as the kind of religious people who are forever looking down their noses at those whose values we query.
The church is not a social club. It is a worshipping community and a base from which to launch God’s mission of love for all people. If we are to see God’s love spread to more people, then like Peter we may need to embrace a radical change where we don’t wait within the walls of the church building for people to come to us on our terms. Instead, we risk getting dirty in the world showing the love of God to people.
Maybe then we shall meet the Cornelius types. People where God is already on their case and who are reaching out for him. Perhaps we can have the humble privilege of making the introductions.
You know, it could even happen today if people are reaching out for God.
This summer at Knaphill, we return to the Book of Acts two years after spending a previous summer in it. And we return with a bang, starting with this story about the healing of Aeneas and the raising of Dorcas. Just the sort of incidents we encounter every day? Maybe not …
And perhaps that’s both one of the reasons these stories are in Acts and also one of the reasons they can be a problem to us. These are not exactly everyday occurrences. I want to tackle the passage by looking both the specific issue of healing and the general issue of blessing.
Firstly, then, the specifics of healing – and by ‘healing’, I am including the raising of Dorcas alongside the healing of Aeneas.
Perhaps where the place many of us begin is with our experiences. This week we have witnessed someone having a heart attack combined with brain damage, then not coming out of the induced coma, and having the life support machines turned off. I bring the experience of my Mum’s death in February and my Dad’s on-going health troubles. Should I have prayed for Mum to be healed? When she died, should I have prayed that she be raised, like Dorcas?
One of my college friends was confronted with a question like that when he was on a summer placement. A much-loved member of the church died, and somebody told my friend that they should go to the hospital mortuary and pray for this person to come back to life. My friend didn’t know what to do. There are a few biblical stories of people being raised back to this life, but at the same time the final enemy of death has not yet been ultimately defeated, and in those circumstances it seems wise to pray for a ‘good death’.
Certainly that is what we did when we knew my Mum didn’t have long. We prayed that her passing would be quick, peaceful and painless. God answered all those prayers. She declined rapidly in a few days, a community nurse stepped in to manage her pain control when she could no longer swallow tablets, and she slipped away peacefully in the early hours of the morning with a Christian nurse by her side as she took leave of the church militant to join the church triumphant. It wasn’t a raising from the dead, but it was an answer to prayer.
Or what about other experiences that we bring to these miraculous stories of healing and restored life in the Scriptures? How many people have you seen healed in answer to your prayers? To my knowledge, I have only seen one person healed when I have prayed for them.
Perhaps you have seen more healings than me when you have prayed. Or maybe in your disappointment you have lapsed back into tacking the words ‘If it be your will’ onto the end of your prayers as a catch-all clause that protects you from feeling let down when what you want to happen doesn’t occur.
And it is true that not everyone is healed in answer to prayer. We are dealing with the fact that the kingdom of God has come, but it has not come fully yet. In God’s kingdom there will be no more suffering or pain, and so we can expect healed bodies. Sometimes that does indeed happen in this life when we pray – as well as what the God-given skill of medical professionals achieves. But on other occasions, we see no healing. The kingdom of God has not yet come in completeness, and thus some suffer and struggle with chronic illness.
Against all that, let me set the testimony of one man whose approach to the healing ministry affected the Christian church for good in the late twentieth century. I refer to the American pastor John Wimber. He became famous for healings and for other ‘signs and wonders’ when he preached, and amongst the Christian denomination he founded, the Vineyard Churches. Back in 1984 I was one of thousands who crammed into Westminster Central Hall to hear him preach and lead prayer ministry for those present.
But it wasn’t always a smooth ride for John Wimber, either before his ministry became so popular or later, when he was diagnosed with cancer and died at the age of just 63 in 1997. Wimber’s healing ministry started with frustration, discouragement, and – dare I say – a spoonful or two of unbelief.
What happened was this: Wimber was converted from a life of drinking, smoking and drug-taking as a rock musician. (He had been the pianist for the Righteous Brothers.) When he found Christ, he heard the Bible stories about Jesus performing great miracles, and innocently asked at church, “When do we get to do this?”
Upon being told that they didn’t go in for such things at church and only held Sunday services, Wimber replied, “You mean I gave up drugs for that?”
Sometime later, he felt challenged by God to preach about healing from Luke’s Gospel. So he did. And faithfully every week, not only did he preach on the subject, he offered prayer ministry to anyone who had a need, especially those who were sick.
And nothing happened. Nobody was healed. If anything, some people got worse.
Wimber argued with God in prayer about this. God challenged him: “Are you going to preach your experiences or my Word?” So he kept on preaching the stories of the healing miracles. He continued to offer prayer ministry for anyone in need after the services. And then it all changed. Healings began to happen. The trickle became a stream became a river.
Might it be, then, that for all our disappointments, it is the right and worthwhile thing to do to keep praying for people to be healed, even if we don’t see those answers to prayer? When people told John Wimber that they were afraid to pray for people to be healed in case it didn’t happen, he had a wise response. “What’s the worst thing that could happen to someone who is prayed for? The very worst,” he said, “is that they will get blessed!”
Let us continue, then, to pray for people to be healed, and to believe that God will do what is blessed. At least we can ensure that people are blessed.
Secondly, having mentioned blessing, I want to talk about the generalities of blessing. As I said, the least that can happen when we pray in faith, even if we don’t see our desired outcome, is that people will be blessed.
And this gives us a way of finding stories like this one relevant when we don’t have the relevant spiritual gifts. Yes, we should pray and ask for people to be healed, but we also know that not everyone has the spiritual gift of healing. What about those of us who fall into that category?
Well, it seems to me that our lack of an appropriate spiritual gift should not stop us praying for people and blessing people. “I don’t have the gift of healing” should never be a cop-out clause. Every single Christian has the ability to bless people. Why? Because we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we have the divine resources with which to affect people for the better.
If I am unable to bring about God’s healing through my prayers, then although I do not have that specific gift to offer, I do have the general gift of blessing. People can experience love – God’s love – through me. Do you believe that? What does it look like?
Well, it is unconditional. There is no hint in our story that Aeneas had to do anything in order to receive God’s blessing (of healing) through Peter. The apostle turns up, finds the paralysed man, and speaks God’s word to him. The miracle happens. There is no sense of Aeneas doing something to deserve this. He doesn’t receive healing because he is a good man. He is blessed simply because God loves him, and God’s servant shows that.
Can we look around and say, I may not have the gift of healing, but who needs a blessing? We are not to worry whether they deserve the favour of God – after all, none of us does! We look not at the earning of God’s favour, but simply on the need. Sometimes those who need a blessing will be those who straightforwardly evoke our compassion because of their desperate situation – as doubtless Aeneas did with Peter. But on other occasions, they will be difficult people, prickly people, the awkward squad, the annoying types. But they have a need, and the answer is the blessing of God’s love. We have a calling to offer unconditional blessing. It’s the way of Jesus. He scandalised the religious leaders of his day by blessing the undeserving, and it is our call today also to risk upsetting the pious by pouring out God’s love not on those who deserve it but on those who need it. A scandal! But it’s what Jesus would have done. You don’t need a WWJD bracelet to know that.
And not only do we ask, ‘Who do we bless?’, we also ask, ‘Where do we bless?’ Dorcas (or Tabitha) may be the greater miracle – a raising from the dead, not ‘merely’ the healing of paralysis, but it happens within the family of the church. According to verse 36, she is a disciple. Her miraculous blessing comes rather in the way we pray for one another in the church. Aeneas? Well, he may be part of the church, too, given that Peter encounters him when he comes to Lydda ‘to visit the Lord’s people’ (verse 32). This healing stuff is challenging enough as it is, so let’s keep it within church structures! We’ll pray, we’ll have a prayer list for our intercessions, and we might put on the odd healing service (although we might feel rather awkward if someone from outside the church turns up – what will do or believe then?). But let’s keep it there.
The trouble is, the news gets out in both cases, which must mean that the disciples of Jesus at Lydda were well connected with their wider society. They cannot have been like many modern Christians whose only friends are other church members. They are plugged into the wider world, and when people get blessed – healed, or raised from the dead, even – their society gets to know that in both cases, Luke tells us that many people ‘turned to the Lord’ (verse 35) or ‘believed in the Lord’ (verse 42).
Isn’t it the case that too often we settle for some kind of soft life as Christians, a set of easy options where we enjoy one another’s company and do good things for each other, but make nothing like as much effort to bless the world as we do to bless one another? Yet if we were to give the sort of priority to blessing people in the world that we do to socialising with fellow Christians, or arguing about church politics, or rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic (which is what a lot of church structures and hierarchies want to do), then I do believe we would see a change in the public perception of the Christian faith. Ultimately we would see a softening of people’s hearts to Jesus Christ, and our willingness to let blessing leak out from the church to the world might just begin a spiritual transformation in our society.
You know, it’s quite common before a service in the vestry for a church steward to pray a prayer with the preacher that asks for the service to bring a word that will connect with what people will do in serving God on a Monday morning as well as on a Sunday. Well, the way in which the astonishing news of Aeneas’ healing and Dorcas’ raising break out beyond the community of Jesus’ disciples in this story gives us such a word with which to climax this sermon. Whether we have the gift of healing or not, will we go out into the world this week and ask this simple question: who is God calling me to bless, regardless of whether they deserve it, and only giving regard to whether they need it?
If the Christian church did that consistently, I truly believe things would begin to change in the long term.
Knaphill Methodist Church is exploring John chapters 14 to 16 between Easter and Pentecost. These chapters contain teaching by Jesus about the transition from his time with his disciples on earth to the era after his ascension when the Spirit has come. This weekend I get to preach on the first half of chapter 15, the famous ‘I Am’ saying about the vine.
On the morning that Mum died in February, my sister and I offered to contact all the people who needed to know quickly. We discovered that Mum and Dad had kept two different address books. One seemed to be more current than the other. How did they stay in touch with old friends when they had moved house? Letter-writing and phone calls.
One reason Debbie and I use a service like Facebook is also stay connected with friends when we move from one circuit to another. We know it isn’t the same as seeing people face to face, but then letters and phone calls don’t give you that, either. But at least we can remain in contact. Lately it has involved keeping up to date with news about the ill health of friends’ children, and the speed of the Internet enables us to keep up to date and pray in an informed way.
All of this, then, is about that basic question: how do you keep in touch with someone after you part from them? We know the promises to write to people we met on holiday that rarely last, but when we’re dealing with people we’ve known for a considerable time, or people who have been a major influence upon us, then usually we are motivated to keep in communication with them.
Something like that is happening in John chapter 15, and indeed in chapters 14 to 16 generally. Jesus will be going to the Father, not only in his death but later in his ascension. This is about how Jesus and his disciples stay in active fellowship with each other after he has gone. However, rather than come up with an elaborate mechanism for communication – be it the Royal Mail, the telephone, or the Internet – Jesus instead deploys an extended metaphor. It’s a metaphor that would resonate with his Jewish followers. For hundreds of years, the prophets had compared Israel to a vineyard, and Jesus deploys that image, adding his own twists to it, in order to show what a healthy relationship between God and the people of his Messiah would look like after that same Messiah had returned to heaven.
The metaphor runs in three parts, depicting Jesus, his Father, and the disciples.
Firstly, Jesus is the Vine. From Isaiah 5 and other texts, the vine was a prophetic image of Israel. God’s people were his vine. He longed to make beautiful wine from them, but tragically the prophets often used this image to make the point that Israel did not live up to her calling as the holy people of God.
Now, Jesus claims, by calling himself ‘the true vine’ (verse 1), to be the true Israel, the true model of the people of God. It isn’t something that is solely claimed in this New Testament verse: it is something that is implied elsewhere in the Gospels. It comes in that common title for Jesus of ‘Son of God’. Although we use that much of the time to designate his divinity (and we use ‘Son of Man’ to stress his humanity), these two titles actually belong the other way round. ‘Son of God’ is an Old Testament title that was originally used of Israel – it’s a way of marking out the special identity of God’s people. ‘Son of Man’ was in places such as Daniel 7 a divine title.
So if Jesus is ‘the true vine’ (or, elsewhere, the ‘Son of God’), he is claiming to be the true people of God. God’s people Israel had failed him persistently over the centuries, and even when Jesus instituted the church, that failure would continue in many shameful and pathetic ways. Effectively, Jesus says, if you want a model for how to be the people of God, then remember me. Imitate me. Look out for my example, and seek to copy it. I show you what the people of God are truly meant to look like.
Or, to put it another way, although the branches are not themselves the vine, the branches are to imitate the vine. There is an ancient doctrine in Christianity that true holiness is found in imitating Christ. Some say it goes back to great teachers of the Church such as Thomas à Kempis six hundred years ago, but its basis comes from the Jewish rabbis. When they selected bright young men to be their disciples, they encouraged their followers to imitate every part of their lives. And I do mean every part.
So when Jesus acts like a rabbi and calls young men to be his disciples with the famous words, “Follow me,” he is not just urging them to follow him geographically wherever he travels. He is calling them to imitate his whole way of life.
And that, implicitly, is the challenge here. If Jesus is the true vine, then he is showing truly how the people of God are meant to be. We are called to be his disciples, his imitators.
Wait a minute, though – that’s daunting, if not impossible, isn’t it? Which one of us can imitate the life of Christ? Not me, for a start. Can any of you? Anyone at all?
If this is our reaction, then there is good news, and it comes in the second part of the metaphor, when Jesus says, ‘my Father is the gardener’ (verse 1). The imitation of Christ is not something we are left to do on our own. In our own power we cannot achieve it. God knows this, and does not leave us alone to attain the impossible.
Rather, God is at work in us. He is the gardener who cuts off the fruitless branches (those who are not staying in vital connection with Christ) and prunes the fruitful branches to make them more fruitful in the future (verse 2).
Put like that, it all sounds rather painful. Who wants to be pruned? Our modern pruning shears can be quite vicious implements: imagine what the equivalent first century tools were like, then.
But, again, hold on. The matter is illuminated by knowing the name of God. And God’s name is … George.
I’m being irreverent, aren’t I, to say that God’s name is George? Actually, I am being half-serious. Only half-serious, I should add. The word translated ‘gardener’ (or ‘farmer’ in some translations) is the Greek word from which we get the name ‘George’, namely georgos. And what does Georgos do to make his cherished vine grow? He goes in for a spot of kathairo, which is the word translated ‘to prune’ here.
Except it can also mean ‘to clean’. So which is it here, pruning or cleaning? The context tells us in the next verse:
You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. (Verse 3)
God cleans us up by the word of Jesus. God knows we are dirty, and that we look nothing like Jesus. Few people would mistake us for him, sadly. So he cleans us up in a number of ways, as he speaks to us through the gospel message of Jesus.
It begins with the word of forgiveness. God’s word, promising the forgiveness of our sins through the Cross of Christ, sets us free from condemnation and cleans us with the knowledge that God’s grace accepts us in Christ.
Then it is Christ’s word, calling us to follow him, that empowers us to walk in his ways. We do not seek to do this alone, but in response to him and dependent upon his power through the Holy Spirit. Slowly, the family likeness develops. We begin to show signs of imitating Christ, as we know we are loved, forgiven and empowered – all of them gifts of God.
This, then, is the good news: Jesus says, ‘Be my disciple, and therefore imitate me,’ but we cannot. Yet there is grace in the word of forgiveness and the word of transforming power. What Christ calls us to do, the Father by the Spirit enables us to do.
But what does imitating Christ with the help and power of God look like? Some of you have heard me tell a story how when our son Mark was born, one of the worshippers in the church where Debbie based herself said to me, “Don’t you ever take out a paternity suit against Debbie over Mark, because the judge will take one look at him, then one look at you, and laugh the lawsuit out of court!” You cannot mistake that Mark and I are son and father. He may not have the glasses yet, but I didn’t until I was eleven, and even the red hair comes from my own Dad’s family. He has inherited his love of Maths from me. There are similarities in our temperaments.
There are, then, certain specific ways in which Mark takes after me. And the third part of the metaphor, ‘You are the branches’, looks at some particular ways in which Jesus calls us to imitate him.
From the outset, before Jesus gives the examples, he continues to emphasise that this isn’t something we can do on our own. He calls us to remain in him (verses 4, 5). It requires a vital relationship with Christ so that we can hear his word and receive his power in order to do his will. Any professing Christian who sets out to do great things for the kingdom of God while putting all the emphasis on their deeds and none on the devotional life of prayer, Scripture, fellowship, the sacraments, worship and so on is as deluded as the car driver who thinks it’s unimportant to fill up with petrol, all you need to do is drive.
So that remains the foundation. The very specific things we are called to do are all based on what we receive from God. And to receive the word and power of God, we need to take some responsibility for putting ourselves in a place where we can receive, which means nurturing our relationship with Christ.
But what are the specific examples? Well, Jesus seems to circle around, gradually getting closer. Having talked about his and the Father’s love for his followers, Jesus calls them to remain in his love by obeying his commands (verse 10). What commands? Ah, now comes the specific:
My command is this: love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (Verses 12-13)
You want to imitate Jesus? It’s simple. Love. You have received love, now give love. If we want the world to see living, breathing imitations of Jesus, then the church needs to be a community of love. The Methodist Church is stressing something like that in a national campaign at present. It’s called ‘A Generous Life’. It dwells on just how unbelievably generous God has been to all of us. How can we not respond generously in all areas of our lives? Yes, it’s about generosity with our money. But it’s also about being generous with our time, generous to God in our worship, generous in evangelism and outreach, and so on. This is what God’s gracious word, deed and power enables us to do.
Let’s return to where we began, and answer our original question: how do we keep in touch with the risen and ascended Lord? We imitate him, especially his love. We can do that, because God speaks forgiveness to us and empowers us by the Spirit. We access that by maintaining the lines of communication with God. And we live it out.
So – no more poison comments against other members of the church. No more cliques. No more judgmentalism. No more superiority complexes. Just love. Jesus-shaped love.
As Thomas à Kempis, who I mentioned earlier, put it in his classic book The Imitation Of Christ,
At the Day of Judgement we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done.
No new sermon this week on the Lectionary Gospel passage about the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:13-35), so here are links to some past sermons I have preached on that reading:
I hope one or more of these ‘oldies’ will be helpful to you.
Today I preach at one of the churches in our circuit that isn’t in my pastoral charge. It gives me an opportunity in the sermon to use one or two favourite pieces of material when it comes to today’s Lectionary Gospel reading, and to make the odd point that will be familiar to long-term friends or readers. Still, whether you recognise some of the content or not, I hope you enjoy this sermon.
A friend of mine had a book of cartoons about the different approaches Christians have to sharing The Peace at Holy Communion. In one of the cartoons, a worshipper approaches another man, only to be rebuffed from sharing The Peace with the words, “No thank you, I’m C of E.”
In our reading today, the risen Jesus says, “Peace be with you” three times to his disciples. They don’t reject the offer of peace like the “No thank you, I’m C of E” man, in fact I’m sure they need it – one of the things that has struck me repeatedly this Easter season is just how scared the disciples were. Not just at the thought of arrest by the authorities, but the genuine fear they experience when they encounter the angel, the empty tomb and finally the risen Lord himself. They need peace!
But I am also struck in this reading – and it’s one of my favourite passages in the Bible – how the repeated gift of peace is accompanied each time by another gift.
The first gift is joy. The first time Jesus appears behind locked doors, says “Peace be with you”, shows them his hands and side, and ‘then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord’ (verses 19-20).
Not only is this a favourite passage, I also have a favourite story that I love to tell. It concerns the first Christian missionaries to the Inuit people of the Arctic. They were translating the Bible into the local language, but hit a problem when they came to these verses, and in particular, ‘Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.’ Their difficulty? There was no Inuit word for ‘joy’ and its related words. What could they do?
One day, a missionary went out with the Inuit hunters and their dogs. Upon return, the hunters fed the dogs with meat, and the missionary observed the evident happiness of the dogs as they tucked into their feast. He thought, “There’s a picture of joy. I’ll ask them what their word is for that.” As a result, the first Inuit translation of John’s Gospel reads at this point, ‘Then the disciples wagged their tails when they saw the Lord’!
Jesus is alive. He brings peace. That fills us with joy. Normally you cannot miss the sense of joy at Easter, can you? We have been through the self-sacrifice of Lent and the ever darkening shadows of Holy Week, only for light to burst forth on Easter morning and fill our hearts with joy.
Why are we joyful? Biblically, it isn’t that this is the ‘happy ending’ to the story – in fact, this is more like the beginning than the end. Nor is it only the promise that there is life after death and that we shall be with him forever after death. And as someone who lost his own mother just two months ago, believe me I don’t belittle that hope.
We are joyful because the resurrection shows God’s new world. As the Father has made his Son’s body new by the Spirit, so he is making all things new. It is the first event in the work of new creation. It is the foretaste of the new heavens and the new earth. You could say it is heaven on earth. Rejoice! God is not leaving things as they are. The resurrection says otherwise.
Look at it from the disciples’ point of view, before you get to any subsequent New Testament scriptures that make this point, such as Revelation 21. Think about how those good Jewish disciples expected the resurrection of the dead to happen at the end of history as we know it, when everyone would be raised back to life, either to blessedness for the righteous or judgement for the wicked, as Daniel 12 taught them. Well, suddenly this end time event has happened in their midst – a resurrection! Therefore God is bringing heaven to earth, and this is reason for great joy.
Let us also rejoice this Easter, because the life of heaven is coming to earth. We do not have to wait until death to experience at least a foretaste of God’s kingdom.
The second gift is mission. The second ‘Peace be with you’ is a preface to Jesus saying, “As the Father sent me, so I send you” (verse 21), and is followed by his [prophetic? Proleptic?] gift of the Holy Spirit (verse 22).
Mission makes sense after joy. We cannot keep quiet about the joy of knowing that God is bringing heaven to earth. God isn’t simply doing this for us, he is doing it for the whole world. It must not only be the subject of Joy, it must also be shared. Resurrection people are good news people.
And furthermore, it makes sense to talk about mission only after having received the peace of Christ. For how many of us get nervous about mission? It is a challenge, but Jesus offers us peace so that we may exercise the gift of mission.
But – what is this mission? Is it the much-feared door-knocking and button-holing? Before we make assumptions, let’s remember how Jesus described it. ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you,’ he said. Which begs the question: how did the Father send Jesus? And for that we have to go back from John 20 to John 1, to a verse we often read at Advent or Christmas, but which we need to hear all year round: ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14).
In other words, Jesus’ mission was not hit and run, however much he sometimes moved from place to place. It involved being with and living in the midst of the people to whom he was called. His life was visible to them, as well as his words and mighty deeds.
Likewise, we are not called to hit and run mission. We are called to costly involvement with the people among whom we live. We are meant to be present for the long haul. We are meant to be known for the kind of people we are as a result of our faith, sharing God’s love unconditionally, so much so that people want to know what it is that makes us tick. And that gives us the opportunities to talk about Christ. Most mission, Jesus style, is among our neighbours. If we know the peace of the risen Christ, then it is a natural act of gratitude to pay it forward by pouring our lives into the communities where we are situated, demonstrating God’s love and looking for the chance to speak about the One who leads us this way.
Not only that, our peace-based mission is exercised in the same power as Jesus. Here he tells his disciples to receive the Holy Spirit. We’ll put aside this morning the question of how we relate this command to receive the Spirit with the delay until Pentecost in Luke’s writings, for which there are various explanations. But let us note that this is another case of doing mission just like Jesus himself. His public ministry did not start until he received the power of the Holy Spirit at his baptism. Similarly, we are to seek the Spirit’s power in order to engage in his mission. There will be no signs of heaven coming to earth through our ministry in our own strength. We too must rely on the Holy Spirit. Too often we look for the latest techniques in order to revitalise our churches. These are dead ends. The only revitalisation will come from the life of God himself, and that means looking to the Spirit.
The third and final gift of peace is faith. When Thomas is present a week later, again Jesus turns up suddenly in their midst out of nowhere. Again, the disciples need to hear his greeting, “Peace be with you” (verse 26). This time, what follows is the invitation to Thomas to check him out and to believe.
It is of course from this story that we get the nickname ‘Doubting Thomas’. He has said that he will not believe unless he examines for himself the wounds of the crucifixion in Jesus’ body.
But why do we regard Thomas as worse than the other male disciples? Is he really so different from the other apostles who doubted the women’s initial report of the resurrection according to the other Gospels? They too wanted strong evidence. I think my father was the first person to say to me that Thomas had had a rough deal from the church over the centuries, and I am inclined to agree with that assessment. The other men had no reason for a superiority complex: they had held the same attitude.
I don’t therefore see Jesus being any more censorious with Thomas than he was with any of the other apostles. He has just offered peace, after all. Yes, he points to the greater blessedness of those who believe without seeing him, but he still gives Thomas the gift of faith. And if early church tradition is to be believed, then although we don’t read of Thomas in the Acts of the Apostles, he most likely founded Christianity in India, where to this day there is a denomination named after him – the Mar Thoma Church.
I suspect that if we compared notes among us as a congregation, we would find a wide range in our experiences of faith. Some of us may find faith quite easy and serene, and others only find deeper faith after much wrestling with deep questions. And some of us individually oscillate between serene faith and questioning faith in different phases of our lives. The good news of peace from the risen Christ is that he invites us all on the journey of faith and trust in him, whether that comes easily to us or only with much struggle. The resurrected Lord comes to all his disciples, those who find it easy and those who don’t, with the gift of his presence and the bestowal of his peace. Just because you or I may be wrestling with some deep questions about God does not preclude us from the gift of his peace.
And because Christ still offers his peace to those who think they are bumping along the bottom of belief, that very gift can make the difference which allows faith to flourish and to be exercised with boldness. If the traditions about Thomas going to India are true, then maybe that is what happened to him. Did the peace of the risen Christ invigorate his faith, not only in the Upper Room but for the rest of his life? It is certainly possible for him, and it is for us, too.
As we conclude, then, let’s come full circle back to our ‘No thank you, I’m C of E’ man. There are people in our churches who don’t like The Peace. Maybe some present today are uncomfortable. But regardless of what we think about it as a formal practice, we cannot receive and keep the peace of Christ as solitary Christians. Since his peace brings joy, that most naturally overflows to others. Since his peace leads us into mission, that leads us to share Christ’s peace in word and deed with others. And as his peace leads us to deeper faith, we observe that is something that cannot solely be exercised in isolation.
This Easter season, then, let us say ‘Yes please’ to the risen Christ’s gift of peace. And may it enable our lives as disciples to grow and flourish to the praise of his name in the church and in the world.
Here is today’s sermon. It’s slightly shorter than usual, because it was preached in an all age communion service. I have left in the references to where the PowerPoint slides fall. If you would like to see the PowerPoint, please email me via the contact page.
There’s one word that stuck out for me in the Easter story this year. It’s not a word you would expect when Easter usually makes us happy.
[SLIDE 2] The word is ‘fear’. What makes us afraid? Suggestions?
There are two groups of people who are afraid in the reading. The soldiers are afraid when the angel appears, rolls away the stone and perches on top of it (verse 4). And the women who go to the tomb are afraid when they arrive (verse 5) and afraid when they leave (verse 8).
Today we’ll think about those two groups of people – the soldiers and the women – and why they were afraid. This will help us understand the importance of the Easter story for us.
Firstly, the soldiers. You can’t blame them for being afraid, can you? It’s not every day that an angel shows up at your place of work and undoes everything you are trying to protect.
Think about what the angel did. In the verses of Matthew’s Gospel just before today’s reading, we hear how the religious authorities asked Pontius Pilate to make the tomb of Jesus secure so that the body could not be stolen. Pilate agrees, and as well as posting some soldiers to guard the tomb, he has a seal put on the stone (Matthew 27:62-66).
We need to think about that seal. What kind of seal was it? Was it this kind of seal? [SLIDE 3]
No: it was a wax seal, like this one [SLIDE 4]. It was the seal of the Roman Emperor, rather like the way even today we put wax seals on legal documents. The seal of the Roman Emperor was not to be broken. Effectively it said, “No-one should tamper with this – on pain of death!”
Well, it’s a good job angels aren’t too worried about the laws of the empire and the penalties for breaking them. And the fear of the guards isn’t just their fear at this sudden, unexpected supernatural act. It’s the fear of empires. It’s the sign that governments and powerful institutions need to fear the kingdom of God.
What do I mean? Well, all sorts of organisations and institutions behave as if they have the final say in the world. Dictators. Governments. Armies. Powerful companies. The media – television stations, newspapers, Internet giants. They think they run our world. They think they can’t be stopped.
[SLIDE 5] Kim Jong-Un can do his worst in North Korea. He can even send his henchmen into a London barber’s shop that mocked his instruction that all men have to have the same haircut as him. But one day he will answer to God.
[SLIDE 6] Rupert Murdoch can run his media empire. His journalists can listen to people’s private mobile phone messages, and his newspapers can print photos that degrade women, but one day he will have to bow down to the God who bursts open sealed tombs.
You name them. If they have power in this world – even and especially big power – then the angel at the tomb reminds them that their power will not last forever. They can do all sorts of things now, but on Easter Day we laugh at their power, because we know who has ultimate power and who gets the last laugh.
Secondly, the women. They are afraid, too, but unlike the soldiers, the angel says to them, ‘Do not be afraid’ (verse 5) and he invites them to view the tomb. He hasn’t rolled away the stone for Jesus to walk out: he has rolled away the stone so the women can go in and realise that Jesus is risen. When they leave, their fear isn’t completely cured, but it is at least mixed with joy (verse 8). [SLIDE 9]
You can’t blame the women for being completely weirded out by the movement of the stone, the presence of the angel, and the absence of Jesus’ body. They never expected any of this. Now they are completely spooked.
But they get to hear the good news: ‘Do not be afraid.’ The resurrection might be bad news for the powerful, but it’s good news for those who follow Jesus. The women get to be the first witnesses of the resurrection. [SLIDE 10]
And you have to stop and think for a moment about how amazing that is. The women are the first witnesses. That might not sound remarkable to us, but two thousand years ago that was revolutionary. Women were not allowed to be witnesses. Only men. In fact, if you want another sign that the Easter story is true alongside what we heard in the Question Time sketch after the reading, this is an additional piece of evidence.
Don’t be afraid, says the angel to the women – people who don’t count in their society, people on the margins, people that the powerful would rather were invisible. These invisible people get the call to take on the most important job on the planet – being witnesses to the risen Jesus. [SLIDE 11]
Yes, before anyone else they get to learn that the risen Jesus will go ahead of his followers – a great promise when we do not know what lies ahead. They get to know that the risen Jesus will meet his followers – the promise that we are never alone in this world.
And it gets even better. The risen Jesus makes them jump out of their skin by suddenly meeting them while they are on their way to tell the disciples (verse 9).
The resurrection, then, turns our world upside-down. [SLIDE 12] Sure, we have to be aware of the powerful, but we don’t need to pay them the respect that many do, because the angels of the risen Jesus are rolling the stones away from their places of death. And when God one day raises all the dead from their graves, their time will be up. Let’s not pretend that the powerful have the last say in this world.
Instead, Easter entrusts the good news to the nobodies. Those who will never gain political power. Those who will never found a multinational company. Those who will never have influence in the media. They get to know that the risen Jesus goes ahead of them and with them. They get to tell the whole world this good news.
And when we face those experiences, the last thing we need is to hear Christian clichés and pious platitudes. In a web article called ‘God Has Let Me Down. There. I Said It’, a woman called Joy talks about having one daughter with heart defects, brain injury and cerebral palsy who died young, other children who are bullied, and one child who says to her, “I have tried praying, but I get no answer. People say they hear God, but I don’t.” In the face of all this, Joy has little patience for those who tell her, “People will let you down, but your Father God will never let you down,” or “God’s ways are not our ways,” and so on.
So my theme for Palm Sunday this year is, Jesus Will Disappoint You.
Now you may think that’s outrageous. We’ve just read the story of the so-called ‘Triumphal Entry’. He has been welcomed with palm branches, crowds have laid their cloaks on the ground like first-century Walter Raleighs, they have sung his praises and acclaimed him king … what could possibly go wrong?
I may not agree with Samuel Crossman, the author of the hymn ‘My Song Is Love Unknown’, who posits that the very crowd who praised Jesus on his entry to Jerusalem is the same mob that called for his crucifixion in place of Barabbas – I think that’s a different group of people – but the Palm Sunday supporters of Jesus will be disappointed by him. He comes in peace, not war. He takes on the religious establishment, but not the occupying Roman forces. He ends up on a cross.
I think we can safely say that isn’t what they were expecting when they sang Jesus’ praises.
When I went to Spring Harvest in its earliest years, there was always a seminar on the final full day before going home that tackled the issue of what to do when you got home. The organisers in those early days knew that while it was uplifting to worship for a week in a big tent with four thousand other Christians, led by a team of crack musicians and inspiring preachers and teachers, it would be very different back home. There would be rickety Mrs Smith on the harmonium, a boring preacher in the pulpit, and a few dozen scattered around a stone edifice from which the brown and green paint is peeling.
Or we have wider disappointments. Perhaps we have great hopes for the church. They might be simply for our own congregation, when we think we are entering a new phase where great strides will be made for the kingdom of God, or we may anticipate a new Spring for the church generally, such as in the 1990s, when on the back of certain dramatic events attributed to the Holy Spirit, many church leaders confidently predicted a spiritual revival in .
Our disappointments, then, may be personal or communal, but there is no doubt we shall have them, and there is no doubt that many of them will not be fixed by Jesus in the way we want.
Well, that’s all pretty bleak, isn’t it? You’ve come to church looking to taste something of the Good News of Jesus Christ, only to be told by some Eeyore in the pulpit that there is none.
Not exactly. But we Christians are too quick to jump to the happy ending, like people who give up reading a novel and skip to the last page. We don’t stay with the tension of the story as we wait for problems to be resolved. We came for good news, and if we can skip all the intervening messy stuff and just go to the good bits. We need the reminder the little girl received when she asked her mother, “Mummy, do all fairy tales end with the words, ‘And they all lived happily ever after’?”
“No,” replied Mum, “some say, ‘When I became a Christian all my troubles were over.’”
We live out our faith in Jesus in a broken, sin-cracked world. And yes, we do know the ‘happy ever after’ ending, and yes, that is the basis for our hope. But we do people a disservice when we minimise their present troubles by rushing to the end of the story.
Imagine Gethsemane, but envision it differently from the way you know the story. See Jesus praying in agony, needing the support of his friends. But instead of them falling asleep and letting him down, can you conceive of Jesus coming to them, asking them to watch and pray even though ‘the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’, and Simon Peter leaping to his feet, saying, “I don’t know what you’re worried about, Master. I know you predicted that you would be betrayed, suffer and die, but you also prophesied that you would be raised from the dead! Everything’s going to be fine!”
Do you suppose that was the kind of support Jesus was looking for in the Garden? Somehow I don’t think so. Yet it’s the kind of encouragement we sometimes offer to people in the church. And when we do this, we let people down. We trivialise their present suffering. We dissolve their current questions. It doesn’t exactly affirm them, does it? Of course the future brings light into darkness, but the road to the empty tomb is riddled with stones and potholes. As the Anglican bishop Nick Baines wrote five years ago at this season,
On Easter Day it is traditional for the service to begin with the vicar proclaiming: ‘Alleluia, Christ is risen!’ The congregation responds: ‘He is risen indeed. Alleluia!’ I think this might be a bit wrong. If we are faithful to the Gospels, the congregation should really respond to the proclamation of resurrection: ‘What?! Don’t be so ridiculous!’ Why? Because the disciples of Jesus did not respond to his resurrection with unbridled joy, but rather with bewilderment and suspicion and doubt.
Even on Palm Sunday, Matthew whispers to us, disappointment can be detected in the atmosphere. As the crowd spread cloaks for him, reminiscent of what people did when Elisha anointed the warrior Jehu king over Israel, and as they acclaim him ‘Son of David’, a messianic title, they fail to notice his mode of transport. He is coming in peace to establish the kingdom of God. Therefore to engage in conflict the powers and authorities as he soon will is more or less to guarantee a grisly fate. Institutions don’t easily release their grip on power, and will often do all sorts of things – scrupulous and unscrupulous – to keep their talons clinging on. That is what they will do with Jesus, and he knows it when he selects a donkey and a colt.
This, though, tells us that although Jesus will disappoint the hopes of his most ardent supporters, he will let them down in order to do something deeper and more wonderful than they could ever have imagined. It cannot be revealed by jumping past the unpleasant parts. It can only come as Jesus journeys all the way into the darkness. And we need to take that same trip with those who today are suffering or disappointed.
But at the same time, the hope is there for those who will not look for a short-cut but who will embrace the disappointment of Jesus in order to find his purposes. It is indeed true that ‘his ways are not our ways’, but we do not learn that by repeating it as a platitude, we learn that by going into the depths with him.
And we need to be ready for the fact that the way he will deliver us in the end will be something we could not possibly have imagined, let alone requested. Just as none of Jesus’ followers expected the Cross as central to salvation, so they also did not expect the Resurrection. If they were good Jews (and provided they were not Sadducees, which none of his disciples seems to have been) then they believed that God would raise the dead at the end of time, following the prophecy of Daniel 12. But not one of them was looking for an empty tomb, despite Jesus’ own predictions of it. Those times when Jesus foretold of his suffering and resurrection simply didn’t register in their minds at the time, because it didn’t fit with their sincere but limited understandings of God’s ways.
The disappointment of Jesus, then, opens us to new ways of God’s working in the world. I don’t mean that in order to give licence to the kind of people who jump onto the latest cultural bandwagon and say it’s what God is doing in the world, but I do mean that our vision of God is limited, and our understanding of his ways – however faithfully we study the Scriptures – will always be finite. Sometimes we get so caught up in our own assumptions and our spiritual short-sightedness that we miss what God is doing.
Remember, for example, George Whitefield challenging John Wesley to preach in the open air to the miners at Kingswood in 1739. Wesley was convinced it was a sin to preach anywhere except in a church building! But God used Whitefield to lead Wesley into what would be central to his life’s work.
Or consider those who object to musical instruments other than the organ in church worship. Guitars and drums are apparently unholy. But such people forget that at one stage in church history that was exactly how people thought of organs in church! It used to be a requirement in Methodist churches that hymn-singing be unaccompanied, and until recent times even the singing at the annual Methodist Conference was without musical instrumentation, facilitated rather by a precentor.
Or think about those who have witnessed the decline and death of a church, or even suffered such hostility in an existing church, that they have gone outside the existing patterns, grieved for their loss, and then started something new with a small group of friend in their living room, or maybe in a pub. Oh, wait – that last example would be Knaphill Methodist Church in 1866, wouldn’t it?
Yes, the God who disappoints is also the God who re-creates, the God of new creation. I think of one of Paul’s prayers in Ephesians where he praises ‘him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine’ (Ephesians 3:20). Or I think back to last week’s Lectionary and my sermon at Addlestone on John 11, the raising of Lazarus, where Jesus causes immense disappointment by refraining from visiting Bethany where Lazarus and his sisters lived until after he had died. But then, having allowed Mary and Martha to begin a journey into grief, he does something extraordinarily beyond their expectations in raising their brother back to life.
I don’t know whether you see Palm Sunday as frothy or as joyful. But either way, I urge you not to let the emotional ecstasy of the crowd mislead you. Start this year’s Holy Week journey as a trajectory downwards into darkness and disappointment. Our God does answer prayer, but he doesn’t have a white beard and he doesn’t wear a red costume. At some point either his answers will disappoint you, or his lack of an answer will disappoint you. it’s even how he treated his Son.
But then, when all hopes have been dashed to pieces on the rocks, witness what God does instead. It may well not be what you originally desired. But it will be new, transforming, and far better than you dared imagine.
This is the faith we embrace as we enter Holy Week. Let us open our arms to greet it.
I want to tell you about a book I have just finished reading. It is one of the best I have read in many a year. It isn’t one of the academic theological books I read. It’s one I want to recommend to my congregations. Unfortunately, I can’t wave my copy in front of you, because I read an electronic version on my Kindle. I could wave my Kindle at you, but that wouldn’t make much sense.
The book is called ‘Resurrection Year’, and it is by an Australian author called Sheridan Voysey. He is a successful radio presenter who has achieved his dream of broadcasting a talk show about life and faith across his native land. But his wife Merryn, a medical statistician, longs to start a family. It is their unfulfilled dream. The opening chapters of the book are a journal of ten years in their marriage when they hope to have a child. They are told they are exceptionally good prospects as adoptive parents, but no phone call about a child to adopt ever comes. When they tell the adoption authorities they want to try IVF again, they are told they cannot remain as potential adopters.
Several rounds of IVF fail. They take one last chance, and all the tests indicate that Merryn is pregnant. They tell their friends and family that a baby is on the way. But it’s one last false dawn. Yes, a gestational sac is growing, but there is no foetus. They have to let their dream of having children die.
The rest of the book chronicles their questions and struggles in faith. God never answers their ‘why’ questions. It also tells how they rebuilt their lives with new hopes – their ‘resurrection’.
For many of us – perhaps most, possibly even all of us – the life of faith bumps up at one or more times in our lives with broken dreams. We hoped for something big. It never happened, or it did but it was taken away from us. Since Mum’s death six weeks ago, our daughter has been asking question after question about why God couldn’t have done things differently for Nanny, or why we will have to wait so long before being reunited with her in Heaven.
I am sure you can add your own examples. In some cases, I know what they will include. For others of you, I do not necessarily know.
But of this I am sure: the Bible knows of this very dilemma, and we do so in today’s Gospel reading as Jesus approaches Jerusalem. The death of Lazarus is a broken dream. And Jesus just seems to make it worse. He knows Lazarus is ill, and he stays away. Not much of a pastoral visitor, was he? Lazarus is a friend. Mary and Martha are friends (verse 5). But still – in a culture where medicine was so primitive – he stays away two more days (verse 6).
So the first thing I want us to appreciate this morning is a painful, yet hopeful truth: Jesus is involved in our broken dreams. Broken dreams do not mean the absence of God, even if they do mean a loss of hopes. We do not understand why Jesus’ work in our broken dreams is what it is – Mary and Martha don’t really receive much of an explanation – but that doesn’t change the fact that he is still here.
It’s rather like the Book of Job. Lots of people are under the misapprehension that the story of Job gives us an explanation for the existence of suffering and of a good God. But it doesn’t. Job only answers one question: ‘Is there such a thing as innocent suffering?’ Its answer is ‘Yes’. When Job finally comes before God towards the end of the book with his questions, God doesn’t answer them. In fact, God more or less says, ‘Where were you when I created the world?’
If Jesus is still involved in our lives when he doesn’t answer our prayers for the fulfilment of our dreams, then what is our response? In one respect, our response is simple, but probably not what we want to do. We simply hang on to him in the disappointment.
That can be tough. But if it is, then remember these things. When we are screaming at God for not bringing to pass the things we have cherished in our hearts, we are not complaining from a position of unbelief. Rather, we are like the child beating their fists against their father’s chest, all the while being held in his arms. God is still holding us in our pain. He may not be answering us for reasons that are inscrutable to us, but he is still holding us.
And moreover this: when God is holding us, his grip on us is stronger than our grip on him. When our world has fallen apart, we may well feel like we cannot hang onto God. But he is stronger than us. As we cry out in our agony, he does not intend to let go of us. He wants to hold us close to him, even if that does mean we punch him in the chest. Remember how many of the Psalms are written by people calling out to God when life is dark. Like Jesus using Psalm 22 on the cross, saying, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’, we have that sense of abandonment but we can still call the Lord ‘my God’.
And this links with the second thing I would like to say from the passage: the faith we exercise is faith in Jesus. I know, I know: this is another of those times when I say the obvious in a sermon. But that’s what happens for Mary and Martha: when Jesus finally arrives in Bethany, called by some ‘God’s favourite place on earth’, he hears them both say, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died’ (verses 21, 32).
But there is a difference in their responses. Mary, who is held up as the paragon of faith in Luke’s Gospel for sitting at Jesus’ feet and learning from him, is not the faith-filled one here. Martha, whom Luke depicts as distracted and frantic, is the one who shows glimmers of faith in this story. Mary doesn’t say any more – although we should note that Jesus is not judgemental about this, he is moved by her tears (verse 33).
But Martha does. Listen again to her exchange with Jesus:
20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
She still believes Jesus can do something for her. Her faith is still at one level that of a typical devout Jew, believing that the resurrection of the dead will happen ‘on the last day’. You know and I know that her faith is about to be elasticated, but there is basic faith in God and in Jesus going on here.
And sometimes that’s all we need. That is the raw material God uses to make something beautiful that we had never imagined.
It all puts me in mind of Rolf Harris. It may be contentious to mention him now, given the criminal charges he is facing, but his many talents were a large part of my childhood. An LP of his greatest hits was the first record I bought with my own money (actually a Sunday School prize), and we always watched his television shows. I am sure you recall his catchphrase when he was painting something: ‘Can you guess what it is yet?’ What looked like a few random brush strokes was the beginning of a work of art.
When our dreams are broken, the only faith we may be able to offer Jesus might be just a few random brush strokes, just some basic faith. But God too is able to work with that and create something beautiful.
And that leads on to the third and final strand of what I want to say this morning. Jesus can transform our broken dreams. Mary and Martha wanted their brother Lazarus healed. It didn’t happen. When he died, Martha could still at least believe God would answer Jesus, and that her brother would be raised at the last day. But what Jesus actually did was far more than they could ever have imagined. He goes to the tomb, has the stone rolled away, defies the retching stench, and says, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ (verse 43) He has promised Martha she will see the glory of God (verse 40), and in this miraculous sign she does. He told her he was the Resurrection and the life (verse 25), and now she knows he is.
But the thing about resurrection is that it comes after a death. For Jesus himself to be the resurrection and the life will have to follow his crucifixion.
Yet this does at least mean that if our dreams have died, then the stage is set for new life. Death is not the end for us. It is the end of one act and the curtain closes, preparing us for the next.
Sheridan and Merryn Voysey never did get to have children. And their ‘resurrection’ involved not only the death of that dream, but the burial of Sheridan’s radio career in Australia. They came to the UK, where Merryn was offered a job at Oxford University, and new opportunities began to present themselves to Sheridan in writing and speaking – but not yet in radio again, I believe.
In my own life, I could think about some of the dreams I had for ministry when I set out that have never been fulfilled. Ordination has never opened up doors to the new vistas I hoped it would. Early in my ministry, I was a seminar speaker at two big Christian conferences, but that side of my calling has never taken off. Sometimes ministry has been less about my dreams and more about my nightmares. But at the same time, I have found myself doing other things that I never imagined I would. Things that I never thought would bring me contentment and fulfilment do indeed bring those blessings.
So I want to encourage you this morning if you have broken dreams in your life. Consider today an invitation – an invitation to bring those broken dreams to the altar of God. Remember that an altar is a place where living things are placed in order to be sacrificed. I dare to invite you to lay down your dreams to die, to place what questioning faith you have in Jesus, and enter into your grieving.
But wait for God to bring new life from the tomb. It is what he promises, and it is what he does. You may be tempted by the thought that laying down your unfulfilled dreams on the altar will lead only to a future filled with regret, but we believe in the God who makes dry bones live, the God who brings life out of a cave used as a tomb.
In short, we believe in a God whose Son said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”