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Sermon: Two Kinds Of Fear (Easter Day)

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.

[SLIDE 1]

Matthew 28:1-10

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.

[SLIDE 7] So will Richard Branson. [SLIDE 8] And Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.

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.

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Brief Sermon: Resurrection Discipleship

Luke 24:1-12

On the way back in the dark from my welcome service in this circuit at Walton in September 2010, we got to a mini-roundabout in Chobham where I was convinced from one or two sorties already that you turned right. Unfortunately, we should have turned left – and then right at the following roundabout.

The result was – that with one or two other mistakes I made – we ended up stuck up a narrow cul-de-sac, surrounded by flooding, needing a difficult reversing manoeuvre to get out. Let’s just say that Debbie is far better at reversing than me, and with children crying that they would never get home again, she took the wheel and offered me some – er – ‘words of encouragement’.

‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?’ ask the men dressed in lightning. ‘He is not here; he has risen!’ (Verses 5b-6a)

It isn’t because the women have gone to the wrong tomb; they knew which tomb Jesus was buried in. And if they had gone to the wrong tomb, then seven weeks later when the apostles preached the Resurrection at Pentecost, the enemies of the Jesus movement would have gone to the right tomb and produced a decomposing body.

No: the women’s problem is stated in the next words of the men:

‘Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: “The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words. (Verses 6b-8)

The first quality we need, then, as disciples of the Risen Jesus, is that of remembering. My failure to remember a route got our family in a pickle that dark night two and a half years ago. The women didn’t remember the promises of Jesus.

Now in one respect it’s unreasonable to be hard on them. When Jesus predicted his resurrection, he was prophesying something their existing beliefs didn’t expect. Many Jews expected the righteous to be resurrected at the end of time, according to Daniel 12, but not in the middle of history. And the Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection at all. So the beliefs the women already had made it difficult for them to take in what Jesus had said.

Yet that is what disciples of Jesus are meant to do – remember his words above the beliefs and values of our culture. His words often clash with the beliefs we have inherited. We need to strain to hear them, but they are important, and he doesn’t always shout them.

And most of all, we need to remember that he is risen. Because it changes everything in life and death, and in how we live as a result.

The second quality that disciples of the risen Jesus need is listening. Sometimes when we’re in a supermarket, Debbie will slip into the shopping a celebrity magazine, or at very least one of those similar magazines where readers tell their gory real-life stories for money. I smile politely, but inside I’m thinking that these publications are the spawn of Satan. I have no problem with light reading; I have every difficulty with trashy, celebrity gossip.

When the women get back from the tomb and speak to the Eleven and all the others, the men dismiss their evidence, ‘because their words seemed to them like nonsense’ (verse 11). ‘Idle tales’, some translations say. Rather what I think of the celebrity mags.

I wonder why the men reacted this way. Was it because their beliefs, too, prevented them from believing in the resurrection? Or was it because the testimony came from women? This was a society where women were not allowed to give evidence in a court of law. And so, at a tangent, if you wanted to make up the Easter story then, you wouldn’t have chosen women as your central witnesses.

But the Resurrection means we have to listen to unlikely sources, not least because Jesus himself chose unlikely followers. Would you have picked the same disciples as he did? Probably not. Yet these people – some of whom were on the margins of society (the women most likely were) – are those who have the testimony we need to hear.

This Easter, don’t just listen to the words of a preacher like me. Listen to the testimony of a quiet Christian who would not stand at the front like I do. Maybe you are that quiet Christian. You, as much as anyone else, have a story to tell of your encounter with the risen Lord. Do not deny others the joy of hearing your account.

Here’s the third element of being a disciple of the risen Lord. Many years ago, my home circuit ran a day when different people in the circuit could have a stall to advertise Christian resources they found helpful. My Dad took a stall to promote some material for house groups.

A man from another church in the circuit took one look at what Dad had to offer, and sneered at him: ‘We don’t need any of that rubbish.’ The man made it plain that he was beyond the idea of learning more about his faith.

Contrast Peter. His reaction to the women’s story is that he runs to the tomb and investigates for himself (verse 12). He isn’t complacent. He doesn’t belittle the women. He checks it out for himself. The third quality, then, is one of learning.

I’m fond of the story about the elderly grandmother who regularly read her Bible, to the bemusement of her grand-daughter. ‘Granny, why do you still read your Bible?’ asked the little girl.

‘Because I’m studying for my finals,’ said the old lady.

If we believe in something as mind-blowing as the Resurrection, then surely we get the message that there is always more to know and learn. God always has more that is beyond the current horizons of our minds. We do not have to be academic, but we do need a commitment to continual learning about Jesus and our faith as Christians. In fact, we can’t be a true disciple without it. The word ‘disciple’ means ‘learner’. It’s a matter of definition! No learning, no discipleship.

So I want to challenge KMC this Easter Day. To read in our worship questionnaire a few months that a high percentage of us only engage with the Bible during Sunday morning worship tells me that we as a church have a low level of discipleship.

Learning is not all about Bible study, of course, and one of my nastiest critics in a previous church was someone who was diligent in daily Bible reading. Learning about Jesus involves not only studying but also doing – putting into practice what we discern.

The Church Council has decided we need to promote house groups, so come and talk to Chris Lowe or me about that. We can also help you find other modes of Christian learning.

But whatever we do this Easter, let us commit ourselves to learning more about the Jesus who has stretched our horizons, and who continues to do so.

The Day I Threw Away My Easter Sermon

I was never going to have time for a long sermon today. Hence why the one I posted last night was brief by my standards. I had two opportunities to preach it: once at 8:30 am at Addlestone, then at the 10:00 Knaphill service. The Addlestone service had to be an abbreviated communion so I could make the twenty-minute drive back to Knaphill. It then also had to be brief in the later service, because that included a baptism and we were also keeping the Junior Church in for the whole time.

I wrote the sermon earlier in the week, but I kept it up on screen for days, worrying at it, making the odd minor change but mostly leaving it untouched. I had been uneasy about it all the time. I  never could let it settle, even when I printed it out. Was I unhappy with the content? Not really. I can’t explain publicly why I was uncomfortable, because it was more about how it might accidentally be perceived. But it was all I had, so I took it with me.

By the time I got to the 8:30, I had already got through an outdoor ‘sunrise’ service at 7:00 am. Not much sunrise, with complete cloud cover and persistent drizzle, but you know what I mean. As we read John 20 there, and as I listened to my church treasurer give a beautiful reflection, some different ideas formed in my head. I turned some of them into the intercessions that followed the talk Chris gave. When I got to Addlestone, I jotted them down , ditched my prepared sermon and gave an informal, if untidy talk on them. Whether people appreciated it I don’t know, because I had to depart during the final hymn, leaving Richard our deacon to pronounce the blessing.

As I drove to Knaphill, I for once switched off the iPod and prayed about whether I should do the same there. The thought came rapidly that I should.

Ditching a carefully prepared sermon is not usual behaviour for me. I do not subscribe to the view that the Holy Spirit only inspires preachers in the moment of preaching. (And hence I do not hold with the nonsense that only extempore preaching is Spirit-led.) I believe the Spirit is present in the struggle of prayer and study that goes into preparation. I am self-aware enough to know that if I have carefully thought through what I am going to say, it is usually unwise of me to depart from it radically on the day, because the replacement words will not have been carefully considered and may lead into some traps.
So far, so very ‘J’ in Myers Briggs terms. There is a big part of me that likes things planned and mapped out. My wife will tell you of a time when we were on holiday, touring the Isle of Wight on a bus season ticket, when she spontaneously wanted us to catch a different bus from Newport Bus Station to another destination, and I panicked. This all fits.

But I’m actually borderline ‘J’ and ‘P’ in Myers Briggs. There is also a large part of me that can be spontaneous and unplanned. So if the J part of me was fearful, the P part was excited. On this occasion, I’m glad I tore up the script. By way of summary, I said the Resurrection was for four groups of people:

Firstly, it is for those who are looking into tombs. Mary comes to the tomb, yes, to do the last thing she can in honour of the man she followed, but also I believe she comes as a way of coping with her disappointment and shattered dreams. Many of us have broken dreams, or we are staring into tombs. We may be bereaved. A loved one may be dying. We may be terminally ill. Or we are metaphorically staring into a tomb. Easter is for all such people. Beyond the unanswered prayer of Holy Saturday comes the hope of Easter Day.

Secondly, it is for people who are struggling to understand. I kept some of the original sermon here. The disciples don’t expect the Resurrection – as good Jews they either believed it would happen at the end of time or they didn’t believe in it at all. They were not gullible ancient simpletons. They do not immediately understand, but they have an encounter. Easter encourages those who are struggling with faith and questions still to walk the way with Jesus. We do not have to wait until we have everything sorted in our minds.


Thirdly
, it is for people who need to hear Jesus speak their name. Jesus says, “Mary.” Chris told a wonderful story at the 7:00 sunrise about a British journalist from the Sunday Telegraph flying to South Africa to interview Desmond Tutu. At the end of the interview, Tutu changed from interviewee to witness. He had surmised that the journalist was a lapsed churchgoer, and reminded him that God loved him just as he was, because God only makes masterpieces. The question of hearing Jesus call you by name was pertinent to a baptism service, as we formally recalled the name given to the baby. Many of us need to know that Jesus addresses us personally. It is his word of love and affirmation, in contrast to the way we are misaddressed and abused in the world. Easter gives us that hope. Jesus is back from the dead to do this.

Fourthly, it is for people who need the challenge to be a movement, not a monument. I find the words of Jesus to Mary, “Do not hold onto me” puzzling, until I see that he is pointing her to the future. He will be returning to the Father, and she has a task to tell the disciples. Easter sends us forward in mission. The trouble many of us have with great spiritual experiences is that we want to build an edifice or an institution instead. We want blue plaques for our spirituality. As Simon Peter garbled at the Transfiguration about building booths for Jesus, Moses and Elijah so we want to have a fixed, static reminder rather than hear the challenge to move forwards and outwards.

And at that point I ended – like I said, there was no neat conclusion, because it was a late rethink.

Was it worth the change? What do you think?

A Brief Sermon For Easter Day

John 20:1-18
I want to begin with one of my all-time favourite stories for Easter Day.

There once was a man who was convinced he was dead. He told his wife he was dead. He informed his work colleagues he was dead. He said to his friends, “I’m dead, you know.” He told the neighbours he was dead.

Everyone became concerned about him, and his friends and family arranged for him to see a psychiatrist. The man agreed, and at their first session the psychiatrist showed the man all sorts of learned medical literature which proved that dead men don’t bleed.

Eventually, having read book after journal after book, the man agreed. “All right, I believe you,” he said, “Dead men don’t bleed.”

At this point the psychiatrist suddenly took a lancet and jabbed the man in the arm. Watching with horror as blood spurted from him, the man gasped, “Good Lord! Dead men do bleed after all!”

Such is the problem with people who will not let the evidence change their minds. Yet that is one of the charges that many of the militant ‘New Atheists’ level at people of faith. In the case of some Christians, it is sadly true.

But the Christian faith is founded on an incident where people of faith did change their minds due to the evidence. That incident is the Resurrection.

It’s not unusual to hear that it must have just been gullible ancient people who came to believe in the nonsense of Jesus coming back from the dead. They talk about myths of gods coming back to life, and assume that’s what the Christian belief in the Resurrection was – desperate and distraught disciples lifted these myths and applied them to Jesus.

But that couldn’t be more wrong. The first witnesses of the Resurrection were all Jews. There is very little about life after death of any kind in their Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. The only solid text is in Daniel chapter 12, and Daniel is a book that only found its final form in the mid-second century BC. Any kind of belief in resurrection was relatively recent in Judaism, and even then not all Jews believed in it (the Sadducees didn’t) and those who did believe in resurrection only thought it would happen at the end of time, when God judged the world. Not a single one of Jesus’ followers would have been expecting a resurrection in the middle of history.
We get a feeling for this in our reading this morning. Mary Magdalene’s first reaction is to say to Simon Peter and the disciple Jesus loved, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!’ (verse 2) An empty tomb doesn’t mean resurrection to her. When Simon Peter and the other disciple run to the tomb, the other disciple does believe (verse 8) but immediately after that John says, ‘They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead’ (verse 9). When Mary does encounter the risen Jesus, she thinks he is the gardener (verse 15). These people may not think scientifically in the way that many people today do, but they are not gullible idiots who will either fall for any old nonsense or who will invent an account to support a set of lies. Why? Because they don’t believe in resurrection in the middle of history.

Something changes them. They have to change their beliefs – and they do so because they become convinced that they have met the risen Jesus. Nobody, friend or foe, doubted that Jesus died. Roman soldiers were expert executioners and knew they would suffer the death penalty if they failed to ensure that the prisoners entrusted to them died. Therefore Jesus could not have merely resuscitated in the tomb. If the tomb was empty and Jesus’ body were elsewhere, an opponent of the Jesus movement could soon have produced the body. The resurrection appearances are not easily explained as hallucinations, since hallucinations are usually solitary and several of the resurrection appearances are to groups. Furthermore, there is a sense of expectation about hallucinations, and as I’ve already said, they weren’t expecting it. And if this were a concocted story, it’s an odd decision to make women major witnesses in a culture where women were not allowed to give evidence.

So in fact here is a group of religious people who find that the evidence does make them change their minds. And that evidence is the Resurrection of Jesus.

The Resurrection makes us change our minds in all sorts of ways. ……

We change our minds about hope, because now we have a sign that death is not the end.

We change our minds about the present, because that hope of God renewing all things makes it worth us working for goodness, love and justice now. Indeed, it’s the best reason. Richard Dawkins says that the universe reflects exactly what you would expect if there is no Creator – he says it reflects a sense of ‘pitiless indifference’. Can you live by pitiless indifference? The Resurrection says no, there is meaning and purpose in this world and it’s worth working to change things for the better.

We change our minds about the way we live, because the Resurrection shows us God’s future. It makes sense to align ourselves with that. We have a word for that particular change of mind. There is a Bible word for a change of mind that leads to us living differently. It’s the word ‘repentance’. The risen Jesus calls us to think again about the way we live our lives.

But – what we have here that leads to our change of mind is this. We have evidence, not proof. We have the best explanation for what happened, and with it the best explanation for life. What we don’t have is watertight proof. Nobody has that, whatever their view of life. We have evidence, rather than proof, because God shows us enough on which we can trust him. If he gave us outright proof, there would be no room for proof and no sense of relationship with God.

This Easter, then, let’s consider the possibility that there is enough evidence to lead to a change of mind in every part of our lives and a relationship of trust with God through Jesus.

Silence And Darkness

The last of the Tenebrae candles is extinguished, as I suffocate its fire with the snuffer. Peter has denied Jesus. The congregation sits in near-perfect darkness, observing the silence they read about in their orders of service before the light of the final candle died. I have a little assistance as I oversee the service: I have brought the reading light I bought for my Kindle and attached it to the lectern. Together, we enter the dark silence of God. Or should that be the silent darkness of God? Perhaps it is both.

I resurrect the candle flame, and we are to continue sitting in silence. However, the presence of light makes that silence more difficult. People shuffle. I become more aware of the cramp in my toes, and wish I could take my shoe off to put my foot on the cold stone floor. “Could you not wait?” said Jesus.

We leave in silence. The clearing-up is done in a quiet not usually experienced.

This morning, we gather at Holy Trinity church to begin our silent walk of witness to St Hugh’s for our united service. On a cool, bright morning we prepare to remember darkness. As we pass by the Chinese takeaway, the children of the owners are sitting in the window, munching prawn crackers and watching us with innocent puzzlement. Our cross is large, and only tall, strong men are able to carry it. We walk in silence, surely in contrast to the crowds who witnessed Jesus carrying his cross beam. It was a public holiday then, and it is today. But not for us the usual jollity. Instead, we are solemn.

The quiet, slow pace cannot continue for me, though, as I have no time to attend the united service in Knaphill. Instead, I walk home, unlock the car and drive to Addlestone for their united service. Before I engage clutch and gear lever, I check my mileage: it may be the holiest day of the year, but it is also the first day of a new tax year and I have to enter in my records how many miles I have driven in the last twelve months. Even on Good Friday, I am not in a bubble that insulates me from the usual world.

As Richard leads the service, we are invited to write on paper crosses those things we would like to bring to the foot of Christ’s Cross. While singing the Taizé chant ‘Jesus, remember me’, we do just that. I name some fears and feel some peace in placing them at the Cross.
Richard asks us to leave the service in silence. If we want to talk, we can do so over hot liquid caffeine in the vestibule. Except the silence is broken by an announcement that the teas and coffees must be brought into the worship area, because outside the staff of the Addlestone Food Bank are preparing to serve those in need. Noise and chatter, yes, and no silence – but it seems like a fitting response to the ministry of the Cross, as does my conversation with a colleague from another church about the hosting of an Alpha course.

The rushing from Knaphill to Addlestone has seemed so inappropriate for reflection. It is only now I have got back that I can home in on the value of the silence and the darkness. Today and tomorrow, as I remember Jesus lying in the tomb, I can prepare for a different kind of rushing on Sunday. In three morning services, I shall be facilitating joy. I have to link the two. Today is not merely about despair, and Easter Day is more than the happy ending. They belong together. The silence and darkness of betrayal and death, with the noise and light of an empty tomb.

Samantha Brick And True Beauty


Samantha Brick’s article
in the Daily Mail two days ago in which she bemoans the disadvantages of beauty has caused a (social) media firestorm. The Telegraph reports that some of the criticism seems more nasty than the narcissism of the original piece. In The Guardian, a male journalist has parodied it. In The Independent, a female journalist has defended Ms Brick. All the reaction seems to be in the ‘quality press’ – is this such a deep and important article?

I’m not going to enter into whether I think Ms Brick is beautiful. It only matters that her husband thinks she is. There are worse things to suffer in this world than jealousy for good looks. And in my case, I have a lovely wife and the most beautiful daughter. All I will say is that I find this a particularly sad debate to have in Holy Week of all weeks. My mind has gone to the final Servant Song in the book of Isaiah, one which Christians have traditionally seen as a prophecy of Jesus and his passion. These verses seem apposite:

Just as there were many who were astonished at him
—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of mortals—
so he shall startle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him
(Isaiah 52:14-15a)

he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
(Isaiah 53:2b-3)

Does that put all this palaver about beauty into context?

Lent, Holy Week And (Heading For) Easter

Last week, I was asked to give an extended talk to a midweek group on this theme. This is the text I had before me when I gave the talk.

I have a series of questions for you this afternoon. Here are the first two. Can you eat chocolate in Lent? And if so, when?
To answer these vital questions, I bring you to another question: how many days are there in Lent? If you answered ‘forty’, then I invite you to count the number of days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day (for Easter Day is when Lent ends). The answer you will come to is ‘forty-seven’.
So what happened to the so-called forty days of Lent? Well, they are still there if you exclude the Sundays. And that’s the clue to my initial question about eating chocolate in Lent. Sundays were never regarded as fast days. They were still feast days. Hence, if you have given up chocolate for Lent, you can still eat it on Sundays.
I think this illustrates the muddle we get into about Lent. We utterly confuse the beginning and the end of Jesus’ public ministry. The forty days of fasting make us think that it commemorates Jesus’ time of testing in the wilderness immediately after his baptism. But the way that time ticks down near the end, with Passion Sunday two weeks before Easter and Palm Sunday a week before, makes us think instead about the end of Jesus’ public ministry. Which is correct?
The answer is that Lent is connected to Easter. In the early Church, baptismal candidates would be baptised on Easter Day, and Lent was their season of preparation. It was similar for those who wanted to be readmitted to the life of the Church after excommunication. Both groups needed a period of reflection and repentance. Eventually, however, the Church came to see that a season of reflection and repentance would be good for everyone. No Christians are exempt from the need to examine themselves before God, and giving over a particular time of the year for everyone seemed to be a good idea. It doesn’t change the fact that this is something we need to do all year round, it’s just that sometimes dedicating a specific time to this underlines it. Similarly, every Sunday is a celebration of the Resurrection – that’s why we worship on a Sunday and not on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath – but we still give particular stress to the Resurrection itself on Easter Day and in the Easter season that follows.
This, then, is why we give things up for Lent – not to mimic Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness but for another reason. Fasting is the giving up of something good for a season in order to dedicate that time especially to God. If we give up something in Lent, it is for this self-examination in the power of the Holy Spirit. Churches may try to reflect this in the tone of their Lenten worship. Liturgical churches will omit the Gloria in Excelsis during this time, they will have no flowers in the sanctuary and they will avoid hymns that include the word ‘Alleluia’. How this sits with the idea that Sunday is still a feast day, I have never been sure. It also requires a tricky navigation in order to reflect a sense of discipline but not of dreariness. At its best it provides a suitable contrast for what is to come on Easter Day, although when we get to thinking about Good Friday in a few minutes, I shall want to pose some questions about how we regard the darkness of that day.
But let us now move onto Holy Week, which we begin on Palm Sunday. I cannot think of Palm Sunday without remembering a neighbouring Anglican church which always brought a donkey into worship on that day. The reason I cannot forget – and was not allowed to forget while I was there – is that the donkey had a name. He was … Dave the Donkey. You can imagine the comments.
Traditionally, we see the Triumphal Entry as the beginning of the week which led to Jesus’ death, and this has been held in the Church since the fourth century AD. However, there is no certainty in Mark’s Gospel, the first Gospel to be written, that Mark understood Palm Sunday to begin that week. It comes in chapter 11 of his account, but he doesn’t mention the Passover until chapter 14. Nevertheless, it is fitting in that the way Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey ramps up the tension between him, the religious leaders and the power of Rome. In his recent book ‘Simply Jesus’, Tom Wright calls the clashing of these three powers ‘The Perfect Storm’, and that is what we are about to face in Holy Week. We can have all the fun we like, waving palm branches and singing ‘Hosanna’, but the reality is that the conflict is being ramped up, and the subtext of Palm Sunday is that this is going to end badly for someone. Blood will be spilt. It happens that because we know the rest of the story, we know whose blood it will be. But if you were in that crowd when Jesus rode in on the donkey, you probably wouldn’t have seen that, just as his disciples couldn’t understand his repeated prophecies that he would be betrayed, suffer, die – and be raised from the dead.
But let us move on from Palm Sunday, without immediately doing what many Christians do, which is jump over several days. If we’re lucky, we’ll only jump to Maundy Thursday with the Last Supper and the washing of feet. Some will at least jump to Good Friday. Many, though, take leave of absence until Easter Day itself, missing out the unpleasant, gory parts of the story. It’s why in the Lent Course this year we’ve tried to reflect on some of the incidents while Jesus was in Jerusalem during that final week, as the tension increased.
It’s common in more Catholic circles to take a particular journey with Jesus leading up to the Cross, a journey you will have heard of – and perhaps experienced – called The Stations of the Cross. Some churches have icons depicting the story, as did an ecumenical church I served in Chelmsford. Some dramatise it – my first experience of the Stations was to walk around the streets of the City of London, seeing actors perform the story. As a crowd, we walked with the action. In one previous appointment, I joined with the local Anglican and Catholic clergy in each taking a meeting once a week in Holy Week to explore the Way of the Cross.
This, though, comes after Maundy Thursday, with its encircling darkness. You feel the discrepancy between Jesus and his disciples. They aren’t picking up all he has warned them about, so much so they are still arguing about status and greatness and looking forward to a good Passover meal. All the time, Jesus knows what is coming. The betrayal happens, you get those evocative words in John’s Gospel, ‘And it was night’, and the lights go out. We’ll be reflecting that here in our Maundy Thursday service when this year we follow the Tenebrae tradition. Candles will be extinguished, one by one, until finally all is dark.
At least, I keep calling it ‘Maundy Thursday’, but there is an argument for it being Tuesday. There are a couple of days missing from the sequence of the Gospels in Holy Week, and one possibility is this: could all the trials Jesus faced really have taken place in one night? It might also explain the problem with night-time trials, which were illegal.
But whether the trials drag over forty-eight hours or are compressed into one night, Jesus is arrested in Gethsemane after one of the most powerful scenes in the Gospels for showing how much he identifies with us. Not only does he identify with our sin at his baptism and on the Cross, we recognise his full humanity in the Garden as he wrestles in prayer with the suffering that is to come.
All that goes, though, and off he is taken to trials that are a mixture of stitch-up and political expediency. Pontius Pilate is in a weak position, politically. Although he has all the power of being the imperial power’s official representative, he had previously offended Jewish sensibilities about the Temple. The Jewish leaders had sent a delegation to Rome to complain about him, and now he knew that one further false step could lose him his job. So although at first he resists their requests, ultimately he cannot deny their pressure. The loser, in human terms, is Jesus.
And now off he goes, on the Way of the Cross, the Via Dolorosa. Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, may have horrified many, but it did not spare any detail as to the true nature of first-century Roman floggings, torture and execution. Many prisoners died just from the flogging. But Jesus carries his cross beam, the visual sign to all who watch that he is a condemned man.
He is on his way. It is his great journey. It reminds us, amongst other things, that we have not ‘arrived’ spiritually. So often we talk about faith as if now we have found Jesus Christ we have arrived. But we haven’t. It’s like that wonderful U2 song ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’, where Bono affirms his belief that Jesus died for his sins but still insists he hasn’t found what he’s looking for. Why? Because he’s still on the journey. He hasn’t come to the fullness of God’s kingdom yet.
And neither has Jesus. The climax will be the Cross. In the eyes of the world, he will be humiliated there. In his own estimation – and his Father’s – he will be enthroned there. When he is ‘lifted up’ he will draw all people to himself.
This is the wonder of the Christian faith. What the world considers shameful we say is glorious. Our Muslim friends have a big issue with the Cross. The Qur’an can be read as denying that Jesus died on the Cross, but that he was snatched away and someone else died there instead. They have a terrible problem with the idea that Jesus would have to endure this. Indeed, if he did die on the Cross it is for them one further strike against the idea of his divinity, because surely God would not be humbled and humiliated like that.
Yet the Christian says yes, that is precisely what happened, and that is the wonder of the Christian faith. Our Lord was even willing to taste the worst humiliation in identification with humanity at its basest in order to bring salvation. Our account of God is not about One who is remote from suffering and evil, it is about One who is deeply involved with blood-stained hands in fight against it.
All of which brings me to two contrasting stories. See what you think of these.
Story number one: I am in a vestry before a Good Friday service. The steward prays for me before the service. The whole tone of his prayer is about how Good Friday is the worst day of the year. He seems to miss the word ‘Good’.
Story number two: I am an enthusiastic young twenty-something Christian, and I am at the annual joint Free Churches Good Friday service in my home town. It is being held at the Baptist church, but my Methodist minister is speaking. He introduces a worship song that was popular at the time. It begins with the lines, ‘I get so excited, Lord, every time I realise I’m forgiven.’ The congregation sings it – like a dirge. Michael, my minister, berates the assembled throng for this. “Can’t you understand on Good Friday the joy of being forgiven through the Cross?” he asks.
How do you respond to those two stories? Had the church steward missed the heart of the Gospel? Was my minister belittling the sufferings of Jesus? Somehow we have a difficult tension to hold together on Good Friday – both the sorrow for our sins which took Jesus to the Cross, and yet joy that he was willing to do that for us. Like so much of life, we have to live with tension. It’s like the question of the tone you set for a funeral. Is it to grieve, or is it – as is more and more requested these days – a celebration of the deceased’s life? Grief or celebration? Actually, I think you need both at a funeral.
And the greatest tension – or paradox – is on the way at this point, the tension between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Some major on one, but not on the other, yet we have to hold to both. One of the greatest theologians of the last fifty years, a German called Jürgen Moltmann, says we need to speak both of ‘The Resurrection of the Crucified One’ and ‘The Cross of the Risen One’.
But in terms of our own lives, we are awaiting our own empty tombs. We shall die and await the great resurrection of the dead. We live in that time between Good Friday and Easter Day. We live on that one day we so rarely mark in the Christian calendar, because we are too busy getting ready for Easter morning. We live in Holy Saturday. (Not Easter Saturday, by the way, because Easter only starts when the Resurrection has happened.) Holy Saturday is that time when Jesus is still in the tomb. That is where we spend a lot of our lives. Suffering is real. It takes its toll. Prayer seems unanswered, and God’s great deliverance has still not come. It’s quite appropriate that Holy Saturday this year is when one of our church member’s ashes will be buried in Bisley churchyard. She awaits her great deliverance, her resurrection after her suffering.
And so I won’t move on in this exposition of the season to talk too much about Easter itself. We’ll have plenty of opportunity here on Easter Day and in the succeeding weeks, when we are going to delve deeply into the meaning of the Resurrection. We’re going to close these reflections at Holy Saturday, because it is where many of us exist. Often we are in that cold tomb, with grave clothes wrapped tightly around us.
Pete Greig, the founder of the 24-7 Prayer movement, wrote a wonderful book about his experience of … unanswered prayer. While all the wonderful stories of answered prayer were happening as 24-7 prayer burgeoned around the world, his wife Sammie suffered a brain tumour. Greig puts his reflections on that experience in a book called ‘God On Mute’, and he shapes a spirituality around Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Day. He has this to say about Holy Saturday:
No one really talks about Holy Saturday, yet if we stop and think about it, it’s where most of us live our lives. Holy Saturday is the no-man’s land between questions and answers, prayers uttered and miracles to come. It’s where we wait – with a peculiar mixture of faith and despair – whenever God is silent or life doesn’t make sense.
As we turn to explore the silence of God, we are compelled to address the problem of unanswered prayer more literally than we have done so far, examining the times when God simply doesn’t reply to us when we pray. It’s not that He’s saying ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘not yet’ to our prayers; it’s that He’s not saying anything at all. We pray and pray but God remains silent.
But … Sunday is coming. And we can eat chocolate.

Sermon: The Post-Easter Church and the Mission of God

John 20:19-31
Fabric conditioner and orange juice: what’s the connection? Apart from being regulars on the Faulkner family shopping list, they have one thing in common: concentrate. It’s hard now to find any fabric conditioner that isn’t of the concentrated variety. And if you are watching your budget carefully, as more of us are in these straitened times, then you may well buy fruit juice concentrate, where the water has been removed before transportation and later added again, rather than the original juice, that is so much more expensive.

What does all this have to do with the second half of John 20, and this account of early post-Easter Resurrection appearances? It’s that word ‘concentrate’. John has so much to say, that he concentrates it into a brief summary. Remember, he will not go on to report Pentecost and the explosion of the early church. So before he concludes his Gospel, he has to communicate briefly some strong hints of the big themes to come as the People of God take on a new shape in response to Jesus. How does he do it? Concentrate. He concentrates down the major themes that will shape the mission of God’s Church.

And because we have a concentrated account here of big themes in the mission of God’s Church, it seems to me that this passage – which is the Lectionary Gospel for today – is also a fitting one for this church anniversary.

What concentrated major themes are there here that shape the Church and her mission? I’ve picked out three. They come from the first half of this story, that is, before Thomas turns up.

The first concentrated theme is Easter. Surprise, surprise! Easter shapes the mission of the Church. It’s there when Jesus says, ‘Peace be with you’ (verses 19 and 21).

Where is Easter in ‘Peace be with you’? Remember the context. The disciples are behind locked doors out of fear that the Jewish authorities will be coming after them next (verse 19). And of course when their mission gets underway a few weeks later, they will soon encounter opposition from the religious establishment. They will be hauled before the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling Council), they will be imprisoned, some will be executed and a man named Saul will volunteer for a murderous campaign against the new movement. So to a group of people who are feeling the threat of death now, and who will again in the future, Jesus says, ‘Peace be with you.’

How can he say that? Because of Easter. He shows them his hands and his side (verse 20). Here is the one who was betrayed, who suffered and died, yet whom God raised from the dead. He had faced head-on what this group of his followers now feared, and would indeed encounter soon. But God had raised him from the dead, and so all the forces of evil arrayed against him could not prevail. Neither will they be able to prevail against the Church.

So ‘Peace be with you’ indeed – no wonder Jesus says it twice. Whatever evil, injustice and suffering is thrown the way of Christian disciples, the Resurrection means ‘peace’. The forces of sin and destruction do not get the last word, God does. For he promises to vindicate his people in raising them from the dead to a resurrection body and eternal life in his new creation, just as he did his Son.
‘Peace be with you’ – the Easter message of hope in the face of opposition – therefore becomes something to strengthen God’s People in their mission. To engage in God’s mission risks conflict with the world. Some will ridicule our beliefs. Others will want to silence us, accusing us of indoctrination. Some Christians will pay a price in their work environment. In parts of the world, there will be organised persecution, and even the BBC recently covered that when it reported the mass arrests of Christians from unregistered churches in China on Easter Day. In the face of all that, whether we think we will merely face mockery, or whether we risk physical and material consequences, Jesus says, ‘Peace be with you. Whatever happens to you now, resurrection awaits you, and eternity with God in a new creation where sorrow and pain will be banished.

So when we are nervous to do something that is part of God’s mission – whether it is to speak up for Christ in witness to his love, to show that love to those our culture despises, or something else – let us remember the Easter message. ‘Peace be with you.’ Nothing the world does in response to that mission can outrank the resurrection hope in which we live.

The second concentrated theme is Christmas. At the end of the Knaphill Easter Day service last week, I introduced the final hymn by saying it was the one that you could never omit on Easter Day – ‘O come, all ye faithful’. Then I announced it was actually ‘Thine be the glory’.

But Christmas – at this time of year? Yes! Jesus saw it that way. Not only does Christmas link forward to Easter – he who was born was born to die and be raised – Easter links back to Christmas. And that’s what we have here. Jesus describes the mission of the Church like this in verse 21:

As the Father has sent me, so I send you.

That links Easter back to Christmas. How? Like this: if the way Jesus sends us into the world is modelled on the way the Father sent Jesus, then you’re back to Christmas, when Jesus was sent. So Christmas becomes the model for our mission. We go back from John 20 to John 1, to that description of how Jesus was sent:

The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. (John 1:5)

As you get to know me, you’ll realise this is one of my favourite Bible verses. The mission of Jesus was not in terms of “I’m here, come to me” but in terms of “I come to you.” And this is one of our greatest mistakes in Christian mission: we set up so much in the church on the basis of getting ‘them’ to come to ‘us’. We want it all to happen in our comfort zone of the church: how can we get more people in? Well, ultimately that’s a reasonable question if it means, how can we bring more people into the fellowship of Christ’s followers? But when it means that we want to stay on our safe territory and just put on events here or tweak what we do on a Sunday in the hope that people who have not previously been attracted to us will suddenly come through the doors, then it is badly wrong. It is dangerous.

The Risen Christ calls us to go to the world with his love. We go to where others feel secure, not vice versa. We mingle in the community, rather than seeing church life as the centre and circumference of our social life. That’s why in our last circuit Debbie and I got stuck into the networks of people around our children’s school. That’s why here we’re starting to develop strong links with uniformed organisations. Christians need to be active in these places, as bearers of God’s love in Christ. For some it will be a group in their neighbourhood. For others it will be a sports or a social club. If we are in paid employment, then that will certainly be part of it. Where might it be for you?

What is clear is that the Risen Christ wants his disciples to break out of holy buildings and contagiously spread his love in the world. All that is implied in the concentrated sentence, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’

The third concentrated theme is Pentecost. Jesus breathes on the disciples – breath being to do with the Holy Spirit – and says, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ (verse 22). Then he gives them the message of the Gospel about the forgiveness of sins (verse 23).

And you might say, wait, hold on! We’ve got Pentecost coming in six weeks’ time! Can’t we just hang on until then? But remember, John is concentrating all this into a brief account. And furthermore, isn’t there something wrong with us if we only want to think about the Holy Spirit on one Sunday out of fifty-two in the year?

But no: receiving the Holy Spirit is essential to the church’s mission. We have no mission from God unless we reach out in the power of the Holy Spirit, who emboldens us with the message of sins forgiven. Thinking about the Holy Spirit on one Sunday out of fifty-two is approximately fifty-one Sundays too few. The Risen Jesus will return to his Father, and he will send the Holy Spirit in his place. Jesus himself only entered upon his public mission after the Spirit descended upon him at his baptism; how much more do we need to reach out in the power of the Spirit?

And right now part of me doesn’t care what experiences we’ve had of the Spirit in the past, what matters is whether we are living in vital relationship with the Spirit now. Why, even only two chapters after Pentecost the early Church was filled with the Holy Spirit again. What about us?

I am sure of this: that we cannot afford to be complacent about our living in vital dependence upon the Holy Spirit. It is not enough to say, I received the Holy Spirit in the past. It is not enough to have our doctrine of the Spirit in neat order. Some Christians argue about terminology: receiving the Spirit, being filled with the Spirit, being baptised in the Spirit. Who cares? As one preacher I heard many years ago said: “I don’t care what you call it, just get it!”
There can be no doubt about the connection between the empowering of the Holy Spirit and the proclamation of the Gospel of reconciliation. When the Spirit fell at Pentecost, the outcome was preaching. Whenever the Spirit comes in power in the Book of Acts, the result always seems to be some kind of bold speech. John Wesley is reputed to have said that if you are on fire for God, people will come for miles around to watch you burn.

So what might we do? Would it not be good for us to seek God seriously and persistently for the empowering of the Spirit so that we might speak courageously for Christ? That is, the same Spirit by whom God raised Jesus from the dead, so that we might have peace in the face of whatever the world throws at us when we proclaim or show the Good News? And is it not the same Spirit through whom Mary conceived the infant Christ who showed us the model for mission, not in waiting for people to come to him but in going to where they were?

Yes, the Spirit of God is a critical presence through all these episodes that define the Church’s participation in the Mission of God. If God the Father and God the Son relied so much on the Holy Spirit in order to accomplish the central acts of salvation and mission, then is it not doubly important to us that we call upon God so that we, the Church, are filled with that same Holy Spirit and consequently take part effectively in the Mission of God?

What could be more important on a Church Anniversary than that?

Not St George’s Day

Today is not St George’s Day here in England.

“But it is,” some object, “It’s 23rd April. That’s St George’s Day.”

Not this year, it isn’t.

The church calendar for this special season of the year takes precedence over saints’ days (we’ll overlook the dubious nature of George as a saint), and this year it’s relegated to 2nd May.

So what is today – Easter Saturday?

No, not that either. Easter doesn’t start until tomorrow. We’re still in Lent today. Easter Saturday is in a week’s time.
Today is Holy Saturday, one of the most neglected days of the church’s year. It is the day when, as my friend Will Grady posted on Twitter and Facebook earlier,

Sometimes, though, we Christians need to observe a Holy Saturday moment. On Holy Saturday, there is nothing you can do except wait. — N. T. Wright, Lent for Everyone

It’s the day of waiting. Jesus is still in the tomb, so to speak. Hopes are still dashed. Darkness still covers over hope. It forms a wonderful section in Pete Greig‘s book on unanswered prayer, God On Mute, where he recognises that this darkness is where many people spend much of their lives. We wait in the tomb of hopelessness, with our prayers seemingly unanswered or refused, not necessarily knowing that it is all going to burst out of the tomb in new and unexpected ways tomorrow. Greig quotes the poet R S Thomas, who says that God is ‘the darkness between stars’.

So let’s not rush past today in the hurry to prepare for tomorrow. If we get a chance, let’s linger here. Because many people are – often against their will.

Later tonight – after sunset – my Easter Day sermon will appear here on the blog. But in the meantime, let’s wait – especially with those who are living protracted seasons in Holy Saturday.

Happy Easter

Happy Easter, one and all. I have no new sermon material for Easter Day this year. In the morning, we are doing worship differently, and although I am giving a two-part talk it is designed as initial input to start discussions around tables. It won’t easily translate here. In the evening I am at another church in my circuit (not one for which I have responsibility) and am taking the opportunity to repeat an old sermon.

In the meantime, let me enc0urage you to head over to the WorshipHouse Media website and view the Easter Drawing video.  We’re using this in the morning service. I think it’s great.

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