Monthly Archives: March 2008

Tomorrow’s Sermon: Resurrection Now

Matthew 28:1-10[1]

Introduction
Two weeks ago, Reuters reported this story:

The mayor of a village in southwest France has threatened residents with severe punishment if they die, because there is no room left in the overcrowded cemetery to bury them.

In an ordinance posted in the council offices, Mayor Gerard Lalanne told the 260 residents of the village of Sarpourenx that “all persons not having a plot in the cemetery and wishing to be buried in Sarpourenx are forbidden from dying in the parish.”

It added: “Offenders will be severely punished.”[2]

Sounds like Mayor Lalanne could do with the resurrection of the dead now! Confounded by a court decision forbidding his village from buying some private land to extend the cemetery and doubtless complicated by traditional Catholic preference for burial over cremation, the seventy-year-old mayor said, “It may be a laughing matter for some, but not for me.”

Today, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the resurrection that promises the emptying of cemeteries and with it God’s kingdom with new heavens and a new earth. It gives us vision and hope for the future.

But it also affects the way we live now. What did it mean for Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, those first witnesses of the empty tomb, according to Matthew?

1. Promise
One of the things we’ve tried hard to teach our children is that it’s important to keep your word. If you make a promise, you keep it. I can’t say we’ve always been successful, and sometimes it has been hard to live up to our ideal, but we have wanted to teach them that it is good to be known as someone whose word can be trusted.

The Resurrection is the event where God supremely shows his people that he can be trusted. He gives his word. He keeps his promises. Notice how the angel’s first word to the women is one that says, look, God has kept his promise in raising Jesus from the dead:

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.” (Verses 5-6)

Wow! What kind of promise keeping is that? It’s the fulfilment of a promise that has gone down to the wire – and beyond. It’s a promise made in the teeth of death. What faith it took from Jesus to give himself up to death, knowing that his Father had promised to raise him up on the third day. And it is that promise Jesus himself had relayed to his friends several times as they headed for Jerusalem.

How many of us have struggled to believe in the faithfulness of God, because everything has gone pear-shaped? The Resurrection is testimony to the fact that nothing can stop God keeping his promises, not even death. God is faithful. He makes and fulfils his promises.

Our friends in the circuit at Christ Church, Braintree are facing that very challenge, to believe in such a promise-keeping God right now. As some of you know, next to their building is a doctor’s surgery. The surgery is moving to a different part of town, and the premises have been up for sale. The location means it would be an ideal opportunity for them to expand their ministry, especially as they want to implement a lot of social care and community initiatives. After a lot of heart-searching and prayer by the leadership team and the congregation, they put in a sealed bid for the property. They were certain God had led them to do so. They based their bid on a survey they had commissioned. It was a huge amount for the size of their congregation.

However, they lost the sealed bid auction. So are they giving up? No. they believe God spoke to them, so they are holding on. They believe in a God who keeps his promises. The God of the Resurrection can certainly raise up a property deal, if it is his will. The church has not thrown in the towel. Who knows what God will do?

Are there aspects of our lives where we are waiting and longing – perhaps in desperation – for God to intervene? Yet is that situation still tending towards a cold tomb? The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the God of Resurrection. That means he is the God who keeps his promises. The Easter message says that it is always worth holding onto our trust in him.

The evangelist D L Moody had a list of people for whom he prayed that they would find faith in Christ. Many of them did. When he died, two of them still had not. But after he died, they did. Death can never have the final say in the face of the promise-keeping God. That’s what it means to believe in the Resurrection.

2. Proclamation
Something flows from the angel’s assurance that God in Christ has kept his wonderful promise:

“Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
(Verses 7-8)

‘Go quickly and tell his disciples.’ Which they did. They have good news – no, amazing news – for downhearted, discouraged disciples. Jesus is back, and he is still interested in those who denied him. He wants to see those who didn’t believe his word, and who failed him out of fear. The Resurrection is Good News to be proclaimed. Whatever our fear, whatever our failure, ultimately the Resurrection of Jesus brings us the joyful truth that Jesus still loves us. How is it each one of us has let him down? Whatever it is, whether it seems serious or trivial, we hear the Easter proclamation that he is going to meet us. Jesus counters the lie of the enemy that our sins mean God no longer cares about us, and we might as well sin boldly and make a complete wreck of our lives, and those of others. The Resurrection is the turning point. Receive and believe the Gospel!

So in that sense, the Easter Proclamation is something to be received. It is healing news for failed disciples. But the proclamation of the Resurrection is not only to be received: it is also to be shared. Perhaps our fear sent us undercover, and that is the reason for our shame. When we receive the Good News of Christ risen from the dead that heals our failure, we are also liberated from behind closed doors to share that Gospel with others, to be public about our faith, just as Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were on that first Easter morning.

This last week, the newspapers have reported[3] the story of one famous person who kept his faith secret for years. However, now he has gone public about his belief in Jesus. He visited the tomb of his spiritual hero, Francis of Assisi, and prayed there silently on his knees for half an hour. He said that Francis had brought him to the church, and had played a fundamental part in his life.

Whom do I mean? Mikhail Gorbachev, former leader of the Soviet Union.

Ben Witherington, the American Methodist New Testament scholar, made an Easter connection with the story of Gorbachev’s faith. He quoted a communist who had once said, “I’ll believe Jesus rose from the dead when the atheist leader of the Soviet Union becomes a Christian.”

Gorbachev has gone public. It’s an Easter thing to do. That’s why I can never use part of the intercessions in our Easter communion service. The liturgy prays for ‘those who have confessed the faith, and those whose faith is known to you alone’[4].

What might happen with us if we truly heard the Easter Gospel again, and it quickened our hearts? Would it not be the first step in the reinvigoration of our witness? Let us pray that we may receive the healing knowledge of the risen Christ who forgives our failures, and inspires our testimony.

3. Presence
Off go the women. According to Mark’s Gospel, they went away from the empty tomb afraid. But Matthew has a punch line:

Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (Verses 9-10)

The Resurrection means that the disciples will meet the risen Lord. He wants to meet with his friends. The Resurrection means that our faith is not a theory or a philosophy. It is about a real experience of the living God. We can come up with all sorts of reasons to believe the Christian message, and it is good to engage the brain in the service of Christ. However, if it remains no more than an intellectual conviction, then it is not the Gospel. The Gospel is that the risen Lord is present to meet with his followers. A recent survey shows that thirty percent of Britons believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. But whether that same thirty percent claim a personal experience of Christ is, I suspect, rather doubtful.

No, the Easter Good News is not simply that Jesus rose from the dead bodily. It is that when he rose, he sought out his followers. The Easter faith is that Jesus is alive, he is present, and he meets us. Don’t accept any account of Christianity that is less than a meeting with the risen Christ.

So where might we experience his presence? In church? Well, I hope so! I believe we hear his voice in the preached word as it seeks to interpret Scripture. I believe we meet him at the Lord’s Table when we come in obedient faith. I believe we meet him in the midst of our fellowship, and especially as we pray together.

But is that the only place we meet him? Is the gathering of God’s people the exclusive or even the privileged place of finding the presence of our risen Lord? No. All the angel asked the women to tell the male disciples was that they would see Jesus in Galilee. Yes, Galilee. Not only Jerusalem, the religious and political capital, but backwater Galilee, the ordinary place from which they came. The location of their upbringing and their working lives as fishermen. ‘There they will see me.’

Why should we expect it to be any different for us? At school: ‘there they will see me.’ At the office: ‘there they will see me.’ In a conversation with a neighbour: ‘there they will see me.’ At the petrol station, the newsagent’s and even in the supermarket: ‘there they will see me.’ Jesus is alive, and he cannot be restricted to church gatherings and buildings. Where is Jesus going ahead of us? Where might he surprise us with his presence? Can we open up our expectations and our vision so that we encounter him in more places where he wants to meet us? Places where he is on mission, and he is inviting us to join him, not just our religious events. He isn’t sending us to do his mission: he’s already on the job, and is calling us to participate. The risen Christ’s presence in the world is the primary strategy of God’s mission. As one minister puts it:

Heaven forbid we should ever do community in such a way that our main avenue for people coming to Christ is hearing the Gospel preached from the mouth of one person, rather than hearing the Gospel preached from the mouths (and lives) of the whole community. If, in your community, more people are becoming Christians on Sunday than during the rest of the week, I think you may have a problem.

Conclusion
So let us hear the Good News again this Easter Day. Be encouraged in your dark times that ours is the promise-keeping God who keeps his word, even in the teeth of death. The grave cannot thwart his promises. If we are failures, receive the Good News and go public with it to others. Finally, expect to meet the risen Christ everywhere, as much in the world on mission as in the gathering of God’s people at corporate worship.

I might not like the intercessions in our Easter communion service, but I like the way it ends. I say, ‘Alleluia! Go in joy and peace to love and serve the Lord’, and you reply, ‘In the name of Christ. Alleluia!’[5] However, I want to go further: don’t just go in joy and peace to love and serve the Lord. Go in joy and peace to meet the risen Lord.


[1] Regular readers will know I normally link to the NRSV at Oremus. However, when I needed to do so this week, the site was down. This link is to the TNIV at Bible Gateway.

[4] Methodist Worship Book, p 166.

[5] Ibid., p 173.

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links for 2008-03-19

Maundy Thursday Sermon: Holy Communion As Time Travel

Matthew
26:17-30

Introduction
In my childhood, I was captivated by scientific developments: that phase of my
life was punctuated by Apollo
space missions
and moon landings. At primary school, we were summoned into
the hall to watch a large black and white television on the stage show a
recording of Neil
Armstrong
and Buzz Aldrin on the
surface of the moon. (Contrast me with my wife, who believes Buzz Lightyear walked on
the moon!) I idolised television presenters such as James Burke.
I thought Patrick Moore
was wonderful. My father took me to a meeting of the British Astronomical Association in
London where he was speaking, and he treated the children’s questions
afterwards with the same importance as the adults’. I later learned I shared a
birthday with him.

This love of science fact was paired with a love of science
fiction. (It was about the only fiction that ever interested me, once I’d
outgrown Enid Blyton.) I read novels
such as ‘The
Sands Of Mars
’ by Arthur
C Clarke
, and went to the cinema to watch ‘2001:
A Space Odyssey
’, instead of watching Princess Anne’s first wedding on TV. There
was a children’s television series called ‘The Time Tunnel’. Scientists
entered what I would now call a vortex, and travel either to the past or to the
future. I didn’t enjoy Doctor Who,
though: it was too scary for my over-active imagination, as was a film I once
saw on TV about the end of the world.

But time travel – that fascinated me. Maybe that’s why in my
twenties, I enjoyed the Back
To The Future films
.

And ‘time travel’ forms a theme to introduce my thoughts
tonight. On this Maundy Thursday, when we remember Jesus’ institution of the
Lord’s Supper, I want us to reflect on its place in time. Because Holy
Communion touches past, present and future.

1. Past
Have you ever had an experience where your mind recalls a vivid incident from
your past, and you are so caught up in it, you feel as if you were back there? I
have had it, and often when listening to boring preachers, so I hope it isn’t occurring
now! My mind will go off on tangents, and I might find myself thinking about a
particularly happy family holiday. The memory will be so vivid that it is
almost as if smell the sea air and taste the ice cream. If you have had such an
experience, you will probably have said something like this: ‘I was right back
there.’ Of course you weren’t, and neither was I, but it is as if we have gone
back in time to that special moment. Once the daydream breaks, we land back in
mundane present with a bump.

‘Do this in remembrance of me,’ says Jesus in some accounts.
Alternatively, his statements that the bread represents his body and the wine
his blood point to an event that was then about to happen, but which is now
located nearly two thousand years in the past. For us, Holy Communion is a
looking back to the past. It takes us back – albeit, unlike our daydreaming, to
an event at which we were not present. So how is it relevant for us? Authors
have written entire books in attempts to explain the mystery, but let me offer
the odd simple pointer.

One is this: while we were not historically present at
Calvary or the Upper Room, we were representatively. We stand in union with the
entire human race in its separation from God due to sin. We also stand as
disciples of Jesus in union with him. Our salvation did not simply come when we
encountered Jesus for the first time in the here and now: it happened in a land
under Roman occupation, on a hill outside Jerusalem. Physically and individually,
we were not there, but representatively we were. This connects us to the past.

Then, if that is too hard, try this: I think we would all
agree that the events of the past have an effect upon the present. Indeed, the
most important historical events shape
the present. Take the Second World War as a clear example of this. It led to
the creation of the Russian-led Eastern communist bloc, and to the later
freedoms in that region. Germany and Japan went from humiliation to economic,
rather than military resurgence. It led to the formation of what we now call
the European Union, as nations sought to prevent another international war. It led
to interventions in the former Yugoslavia, as the West feared more ethnic
cleansing and genocide. It affected our national politics.

And so on. This is what a powerful international event in
history does. It cannot be hermetically sealed in the past. Rather, a past
event shapes the present. It is the same, only more so, with the Cross of
Christ. When we remember that past event, as we do at Holy Communion, not only
are we connected in a representative way, we are changed in the here and now. It
is not for nothing that John Wesley called the Lord’s Supper a ‘converting
ordinance’.

We cannot come away from the Lord’s Table unchanged. At least,
Jesus does not mean us to do so. In the words of one book, it is about ‘Past
Event And Present Salvation
’. Jesus died for the sins of the world, he died
to conquer the forces of evil, and he did this in love to set us free. The
events of this weekend changed all history. At the very least, when we come in
faith to the sacrament, the expectation is that all he accomplished at the
Cross is made available to us. That past event brings us forgiveness, confidence
to face the darkness, freedom from the things that bind us and an assurance of
God’s love.

2. Present
‘This is my body … this is my blood of the covenant,’ says Jesus: simple words
that have divided his disciples for centuries. At risk of over-simplification, I
think there have been four broad strands of thinking about them.

First, you can take them literally. If so, then the bread
and wine truly become the body and blood of Christ. I think this view fails to
take seriously the fact that Jesus was using a typically Jewish heightened
version of metaphor in his speech here.

Secondly, at the other extreme, you can say that the Lord’s
Supper is just an ordinance, something Jesus commanded. It is purely a memorial
meal. But that is not to take seriously other New Testament texts, particularly
in 1 Corinthians 10, that speak of Holy Communion as a ‘communion’ or ‘fellowship’
in the body and blood of Christ.

That leaves two other views. One says that the bread and
wine don’t change, but Jesus is really present in them. The other – and the one
I personally favour – also says that the elements don’t change, but it doesn’t
try to locate Jesus in a particular place. Rather, when we follow Christ’s last
command here in obedient faith, we commune with him in our lives. Obeying Jesus
in faith by taking bread and wine in his memory leads us to an experience of
him at his table.

How many of us can say that when we take the sacrament, we
have encountered Christ? I think a show of hands would have most of us
indicating ‘yes’. If that is so, then Holy Communion is not simply a memory of
the past, it is an experience of Christ in the present.

And for that reason, it is more than a memorial meal or a
memorial service. It is a funny kind of memorial service where the deceased is
present! For although there is a primary reference to the death of Christ when
he instituted the Lord’s Supper – ‘my blood … which is poured out for many’ –
it is also about his resurrection. Holy Communion holds together both the death
and the resurrection of Christ.

Tonight, then, like every sacramental service, is a time to
come to the communion rail with expectation. Here, on Maundy Thursday, not only
do we anticipate with sorrow the betrayal, suffering and death of our Lord, we
also anticipate Easter morning, when we shout with joy, ‘Christ is risen! He is
risen indeed!’ As the disciples recognised the risen Lord in the breaking of
the bread at Emmaus, so we meet him here. He strengthens us, and fills us with
his love. Sometimes we just need to know he’s there; other times, we need the
experience of his presence to thrust us back into active Christian service. What
is it we need from Christ this evening? Whatever it is, let us come to the
table expecting to meet him.

Which leads us onto the third piece of time travel:

3. Future
Verse 29 of our reading is a mysterious one that we easily overlook. Jesus
says,

‘I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the
vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’

But Paul too saw a future aspect to the Lord’s Supper when
he told the Corinthians that whenever they ate the bread and drank the wine in
memory of Jesus, they proclaimed his death until
he comes
.

However, although we can overlook this, we build this future
hope into our liturgies. The post-communion prayer is a common place to hear
it. One Methodist prayer (based on some Catholic thought from Vatican 2, trivia
fans!) thanks God for feeding us with the sacrament and giving us a foretaste
of the heavenly banquet prepared for all people.

Now I don’t know how good we are at foretastes of heavenly
banquets. In some Methodist circles there seems to be a competition to cut up
the pieces of bread as small as possible. The chance of having a foretaste of a
banquet seems remote!

There is a sense, though, in which Jesus will go thirsty
until the kingdom of God comes in all its fullness, until the new heavens and
new earth come. He will not drink the fruit of the vine again until he drinks
it new with his friends in his Father’s kingdom. Jesus is thirsty for the
kingdom of God.

And Holy Communion is designed to make us hungry and thirsty
for the kingdom of God, too. While connecting with Christ’s death in the past
and his risen presence in the here and now bring us comfort and hope, the Lord’s
Supper also brings us restlessness and challenge. It gives us a vision of how
the world is meant to be, and leaves us impatient for change. Holy Communion
makes us ask: who else should be at the table? It asks: who is going hungry,
because God’s will is not being done? For it reminds us of how things will be
in the Father’s kingdom. The bread will be plentiful, and the wine will flow –
however hard we Methodists pray to turn the wine back into water, it will be
poured out liberally! As we anticipate the generosity of God the Father who
will host the kingdom banquet, we notice the searing discrepancies with life
now. Holy Communion sends us out to share the Gospel in word and deed. It cannot
leave us in our spiritual enclave.

There is a section of the Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the
Battle of Hastings in 1066. The legend beneath it, when translated into
English, says, ‘King William comforteth his soldiers.’ How is William the
Conqueror comforting them? He is prodding them up the backside with his sword! So
too, a true celebration of the Lord’s Supper prods us into action. The vision
of God’s kingdom gives us not a placid hope, but a divinely inspired
restlessness that thrusts us back into the world as Gospel people.

Conclusion
Someone once said that the job of the preacher was to comfort the afflicted,
and to afflict the comfortable. Might it be that Holy Communion has the same
task?

What do we need tonight – comfort or affliction? May God
grant us our deepest needs in Christ, as we gather at his Table.

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links for 2008-03-18

The Atheist Delusion

I don’t need to agree with all John Gray’s conclusions and values to recognise this as a powerful attack on the contemporary atheist and anti-religious brigade:

The atheist delusion | By genre | guardian.co.uk Books

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links for 2008-03-17

Good Friday

James Emery White on Good Friday: Serious Times – Blog

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links for 2008-03-16

Tomorrow’s Sermon: The King Rides In

Matthew
21:1-17

1. Humility
On Thursday morning, I had to take two assemblies at Broomfield Primary School. Sharon
Young, the RE Co-ordinator, had asked me to take ‘Palm Sunday’ as my theme. I wondered
what to do. Then, stealing inspiration from a book on my shelf, I asked them
whether they watched Top Gear[1].
From the raucous response, I gathered the answer was ‘yes’. So I asked them
about people and cars. If the Queen turned up to visit their school, what kind
of car would she be in? The consensus was Rolls Royce. If Gordon Brown came for
a political photo opportunity, what car would carry him? Some kind of black
limousine was the main answer. And if David Beckham arrived to launch a branch
of his Football Academy, what would he drive? Here, the argument was purely
about which kind of sports car it would be: Ferrari, Lamborghini or Porsche.

Then I asked them what they would think if David Beckham
turned up in a Reliant Robin, or on a pushbike. I think the overall response I received
could have been summarised by the word ‘derision’. A famous or important public
figure just wouldn’t travel that way. We discussed how people would feel if
(locally born hero) General Sir Richard Dannatt, the Head of the British Army,
rode a bike rather than a military vehicle to an official function.

But that, I said, was exactly what Jesus did on what we call
Palm Sunday. He came, not on a warhorse, but a donkey. He came as king, but not
as the warrior king. He came fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah on a donkey,
an animal signifying peace and humility. Jesus was a different kind of king. What
kind of different king?

To make this point, I asked for two volunteers. The forest
of hands was dense! I invited one boy at the back to come out with a friend. I sat
the boy down on a chair, and asked him to remove his shoes. Then I asked his
friend to smell his feet. Fortunately, the boy didn’t use a rude word! He looked
closer to it when I then suggested he should wash his friend’s feet!

So I explained the foot-washing story from John 13, and how
it was necessary to wash feet after long journeys on Palestine’s dusty roads, wearing
sandals. I told them how Jewish servants found it too demeaning to do, and how
the task was allocated only to Gentile slaves. How shocking, then, for Jesus to
wash his disciples’ feet. The same Jesus who had ridden into Jerusalem on a
donkey, now also shows peace and humility in the act of foot washing. This is a
different kind of king. This is not one who lords it over others, but one whose
deepest concern is for those who – in terms of rank – are far beneath him.

We know all this – don’t we? It’s something we cover most
Palm Sundays and every Holy Week. Jesus is the ‘humble king’. But it raises the
simple points about Christian humility. Do we prefer the needs of others to our
own? Do we consider some activities beneath us? Are we a little too keen to
name-drop and make ourselves sound more important than we really are? Maybe this
year it’s time for a little check-up on our pride and self-importance. If Jesus,
the king of God’s kingdom, could behave with such humility, what would he call
us to do as a sign of that kingdom? Have we become more serious about ourselves
than about Jesus? Is it time to take ourselves a lot less seriously, and Christ
much more so?

2. Peace
Humility isn’t the only way in which Jesus will confound his crowd of
supporters. They shout, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, thus giving him a
messianic title. And – as we know again – they had certain ideas about what
Messiah would do when he came. He would save his people from the sinners who
were oppressing them. But Jesus has been given that name at birth for a
different reason. Not that he will save his people from sinners, but that he
will save his people from their sins.

And for that reason, he rides in on a donkey, not a
warhorse. He comes in peace. He will not save his people from their sins with
violence – he cannot do it that way. The humble king comes in peace, not to
inflict violence, but to suffer violence. In doing so, he will in some
mysterious way stand where his people should, absorbing that which rightly should
be theirs, sin being condemned in his body instead. Jesus rides into Jerusalem,
knowing that later in the week he will walk out of the city, carrying a crossbeam.
Hence, we sing:

Ride on, ride on in majesty
In lowly pomp ride on to die

This is how he establishes his kingdom. He conquers the evil
that opposes his reign not with force but suffering. And if that is how he sets
up his kingdom, then it sets the tone for life in that kingdom. This is why we
can never advance the Gospel violently. It is not a matter of arguing over what
individual verses of the Bible mean: it is a question of the Cross. The Cross
is why we can say clearly that historical atrocities like the Crusades and the
Spanish Inquisition were unequivocally wrong. It is why we can be dubious about
the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, who allegedly saw the Cross in a
dream and heard the message, ‘In this sign conquer’, taking it as the promise
he would win a battle. It is why – in my opinion – it is dangerous for the
Church to be too closely allied to the State, because the State inevitably has
to use violence.

We can argue all we like as Christians about whether there
is ever such a thing as a just war, or whether all Christians should be
pacifists. However, one thing should command our universal agreement: we cannot
and must not promote Christianity by force, because that is contrary to the
Cross.

Thus, a friend of mine in the 1980s, a Kenyan clergyman,
once told me: ‘If I am attacked because I am a black man, I have no problem in
fighting back. It is a matter of justice. But if I am attacked because I am a
Christian, then I must accept suffering.’

Such talk about suffering in peace rather than responding in
violence may seem remote for many of us (although it isn’t for millions of our
sisters and brothers in Christ). But we have our smaller acts of violence that
we need to repudiate. Our acid tongues. Our character assassinations. I can
think of churches I know where stories like this are common: ‘W won’t come to
church any more, because X was cruel to her’; ‘Y can never trust Z again,
because he ripped him to shreds’. A peaceable kingdom doesn’t just mean non-violence:
it means reconciliation.

3. Inclusion
But then this peaceable Jesus goes to the Temple. And here he doesn’t look too
peaceable at all. In a sign of the judgment to come, he overturns the tables of
the moneychangers and the seats of the dove sellers. He quotes Old Testament
prophecy:

‘It is written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer”;
but you are making it a den of robbers.’
(Verse 13)

Why is Jesus mad? He doesn’t oppose the sacrificial system,
but he is angry that changing ordinary Roman coinage for the special Temple
currency and then the selling of doves for sacrifices using this holy money is
happening in a particular place. Is it that it is happening in the Temple? No.
To get a clue, we need to think about where Matthew got his material, and when
he wrote it.

Matthew adapts a lot of Mark’s Gospel. Mark records Jesus as
saying that the Temple should be ‘a house of prayer for all nations’. However, unlike Mark, Matthew is probably writing
after the destruction of the Temple by Roman armies in AD 70. It is now
irrelevant to his readers that non-Jews might use the Temple as a house of prayer.
But that thought is probably central to Jesus’ original actions. Why? Because
the moneychangers and dove sellers had set themselves up in the one part of the
Temple to which Gentiles could be admitted. It was called, ‘The Court of the
Gentiles’. The presence of moneychangers and dove sellers there prevented
Gentiles from coming to worship Israel’s God. They had been excluded as a
result of preoccupation with religious business. That makes the Temple ‘a den
of robbers’: the authorities have robbed Gentiles of the opportunity to worship
the Lord.

And if you doubt the idea that the religious tastemakers
were an excluding lot, look at their offence over the noise, the healings and
especially the children. They protest at the noise – a din that has arisen
because Jesus has healed sick and unclean people; a racket that is all the
louder, because children are participating in it and don’t know how to fade the
volume. It’s as if the authorities would have been happier to see the sick
remain unclean and outside the Temple. And they certainly didn’t appreciate
children who should still be learning the ropes in synagogue school leading the
worship.

Outsiders, the unclean and children: still today these
groups face exclusion rather than the welcome Jesus issued to his kingdom – a welcome
found through the grace of repentance. So, for example, when I finished my
second assembly at Broomfield Primary on Thursday, I was invited to go to the
staff room for break time and drink a welcome cuppa. Among a few conversations
was one with the Head. I never realised before that she, too, was a Christian. But
she told me a shocking story of a ‘christening’ she had recently attended in a
parish other than her own. One child was
apparently so happy at the service that she began to sing and dance. The vicar
demanded that her parents keep her under control. Then two other children
wanted a better view, so they walked down the aisle and sat on the carpet near
the font, holding hands. Was that an ‘Aaah!’ moment? Not in the eyes of this
vicar. ‘Get these children out of my way!’ was his response.

It’s a good job my Head Teacher friend is a Christian, but
what must it have been like for the families of these children, and others attending?
What did it say for the welcome to the church family that was purportedly being
issued in the baptism of the infant? The opposite message was being conveyed
loudly.

It’s actually not much different from saying that children
are the church of tomorrow – a claim that excludes them from their proper
participation now in the community of God’s kingdom.

I wonder whether we have any groups of people who would be
silently or subtly excluded. Are there those whose backgrounds we dislike, and
whom we’d rather find a way of suggesting they don’t belong here or should find
a different spiritual home?

The crazy thing is, when we exclude those who don’t usually
fit our conventional ideas about who might be worthy citizens of God’s kingdom.
If Debbie and I have an urgent personal prayer request, there are a small
handful of people to whom we turn. If we have time to get on the phone, there
are my parents and a couple of people from our last circuit: a man in his eighties
called Cyril, and a woman in her seventies called Isa. My parents, Cyril and
Isa meet conventional church-insider stereotypes. But the other person we will
ask (provided the situation is suitable for her to know about) is Rebekah, our
daughter, who will not be five until next weekend. If anyone has a hotline to
God, it’s her!

Maybe you just find that a heart-warming story about a
little girl. But I challenge you to consider that those whom we exclude are
those for whom Christ rode into Jerusalem and then died outside its walls. They
miss their inheritance of faith, and we miss their contribution to the kingdom.
Their inclusion in the kingdom is required by the humility and peace that
Christ sets as core values.


[1]
Yes, I know it’s environmentally unsound and Jeremy Clarkson’s humour is often ‘inappropriate’.

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Tomorrow’s Sermon: The King Rides In

Matthew
21:1-17

1. Humility
On Thursday morning, I had to take two assemblies at Broomfield Primary School. Sharon
Young, the RE Co-ordinator, had asked me to take ‘Palm Sunday’ as my theme. I wondered
what to do. Then, stealing inspiration from a book on my shelf, I asked them
whether they watched Top Gear[1].
From the raucous response, I gathered the answer was ‘yes’. So I asked them
about people and cars. If the Queen turned up to visit their school, what kind
of car would she be in? The consensus was Rolls Royce. If Gordon Brown came for
a political photo opportunity, what car would carry him? Some kind of black
limousine was the main answer. And if David Beckham arrived to launch a branch
of his Football Academy, what would he drive? Here, the argument was purely
about which kind of sports car it would be: Ferrari, Lamborghini or Porsche.

Then I asked them what they would think if David Beckham
turned up in a Reliant Robin, or on a pushbike. I think the overall response I received
could have been summarised by the word ‘derision’. A famous or important public
figure just wouldn’t travel that way. We discussed how people would feel if
(locally born hero) General Sir Richard Dannatt, the Head of the British Army,
rode a bike rather than a military vehicle to an official function.

But that, I said, was exactly what Jesus did on what we call
Palm Sunday. He came, not on a warhorse, but a donkey. He came as king, but not
as the warrior king. He came fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah on a donkey,
an animal signifying peace and humility. Jesus was a different kind of king. What
kind of different king?

To make this point, I asked for two volunteers. The forest
of hands was dense! I invited one boy at the back to come out with a friend. I sat
the boy down on a chair, and asked him to remove his shoes. Then I asked his
friend to smell his feet. Fortunately, the boy didn’t use a rude word! He looked
closer to it when I then suggested he should wash his friend’s feet!

So I explained the foot-washing story from John 13, and how
it was necessary to wash feet after long journeys on Palestine’s dusty roads, wearing
sandals. I told them how Jewish servants found it too demeaning to do, and how
the task was allocated only to Gentile slaves. How shocking, then, for Jesus to
wash his disciples’ feet. The same Jesus who had ridden into Jerusalem on a
donkey, now also shows peace and humility in the act of foot washing. This is a
different kind of king. This is not one who lords it over others, but one whose
deepest concern is for those who – in terms of rank – are far beneath him.

We know all this – don’t we? It’s something we cover most
Palm Sundays and every Holy Week. Jesus is the ‘humble king’. But it raises the
simple points about Christian humility. Do we prefer the needs of others to our
own? Do we consider some activities beneath us? Are we a little too keen to
name-drop and make ourselves sound more important than we really are? Maybe this
year it’s time for a little check-up on our pride and self-importance. If Jesus,
the king of God’s kingdom, could behave with such humility, what would he call
us to do as a sign of that kingdom? Have we become more serious about ourselves
than about Jesus? Is it time to take ourselves a lot less seriously, and Christ
much more so?

2. Peace
Humility isn’t the only way in which Jesus will confound his crowd of
supporters. They shout, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, thus giving him a
messianic title. And – as we know again – they had certain ideas about what
Messiah would do when he came. He would save his people from the sinners who
were oppressing them. But Jesus has been given that name at birth for a
different reason. Not that he will save his people from sinners, but that he
will save his people from their sins.

And for that reason, he rides in on a donkey, not a
warhorse. He comes in peace. He will not save his people from their sins with
violence – he cannot do it that way. The humble king comes in peace, not to
inflict violence, but to suffer violence. In doing so, he will in some
mysterious way stand where his people should, absorbing that which rightly should
be theirs, sin being condemned in his body instead. Jesus rides into Jerusalem,
knowing that later in the week he will walk out of the city, carrying a crossbeam.
Hence, we sing:

Ride on, ride on in majesty
In lowly pomp ride on to die

This is how he establishes his kingdom. He conquers the evil
that opposes his reign not with force but suffering. And if that is how he sets
up his kingdom, then it sets the tone for life in that kingdom. This is why we
can never advance the Gospel violently. It is not a matter of arguing over what
individual verses of the Bible mean: it is a question of the Cross. The Cross
is why we can say clearly that historical atrocities like the Crusades and the
Spanish Inquisition were unequivocally wrong. It is why we can be dubious about
the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, who allegedly saw the Cross in a
dream and heard the message, ‘In this sign conquer’, taking it as the promise
he would win a battle. It is why – in my opinion – it is dangerous for the
Church to be too closely allied to the State, because the State inevitably has
to use violence.

We can argue all we like as Christians about whether there
is ever such a thing as a just war, or whether all Christians should be
pacifists. However, one thing should command our universal agreement: we cannot
and must not promote Christianity by force, because that is contrary to the
Cross.

Thus, a friend of mine in the 1980s, a Kenyan clergyman,
once told me: ‘If I am attacked because I am a black man, I have no problem in
fighting back. It is a matter of justice. But if I am attacked because I am a
Christian, then I must accept suffering.’

Such talk about suffering in peace rather than responding in
violence may seem remote for many of us (although it isn’t for millions of our
sisters and brothers in Christ). But we have our smaller acts of violence that
we need to repudiate. Our acid tongues. Our character assassinations. I can
think of churches I know where stories like this are common: ‘W won’t come to
church any more, because X was cruel to her’; ‘Y can never trust Z again,
because he ripped him to shreds’. A peaceable kingdom doesn’t just mean non-violence:
it means reconciliation.

3. Inclusion
But then this peaceable Jesus goes to the Temple. And here he doesn’t look too
peaceable at all. In a sign of the judgment to come, he overturns the tables of
the moneychangers and the seats of the dove sellers. He quotes Old Testament
prophecy:

‘It is written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer”;
but you are making it a den of robbers.’
(Verse 13)

Why is Jesus mad? He doesn’t oppose the sacrificial system,
but he is angry that changing ordinary Roman coinage for the special Temple
currency and then the selling of doves for sacrifices using this holy money is
happening in a particular place. Is it that it is happening in the Temple? No.
To get a clue, we need to think about where Matthew got his material, and when
he wrote it.

Matthew adapts a lot of Mark’s Gospel. Mark records Jesus as
saying that the Temple should be ‘a house of prayer for all nations’. However, unlike Mark, Matthew is probably writing
after the destruction of the Temple by Roman armies in AD 70. It is now
irrelevant to his readers that non-Jews might use the Temple as a house of prayer.
But that thought is probably central to Jesus’ original actions. Why? Because
the moneychangers and dove sellers had set themselves up in the one part of the
Temple to which Gentiles could be admitted. It was called, ‘The Court of the
Gentiles’. The presence of moneychangers and dove sellers there prevented
Gentiles from coming to worship Israel’s God. They had been excluded as a
result of preoccupation with religious business. That makes the Temple ‘a den
of robbers’: the authorities have robbed Gentiles of the opportunity to worship
the Lord.

And if you doubt the idea that the religious tastemakers
were an excluding lot, look at their offence over the noise, the healings and
especially the children. They protest at the noise – a din that has arisen
because Jesus has healed sick and unclean people; a racket that is all the
louder, because children are participating in it and don’t know how to fade the
volume. It’s as if the authorities would have been happier to see the sick
remain unclean and outside the Temple. And they certainly didn’t appreciate
children who should still be learning the ropes in synagogue school leading the
worship.

Outsiders, the unclean and children: still today these
groups face exclusion rather than the welcome Jesus issued to his kingdom – a welcome
found through the grace of repentance. So, for example, when I finished my
second assembly at Broomfield Primary on Thursday, I was invited to go to the
staff room for break time and drink a welcome cuppa. Among a few conversations
was one with the Head. I never realised before that she, too, was a Christian. But
she told me a shocking story of a ‘christening’ she had recently attended in a
parish other than her own. One child was
apparently so happy at the service that she began to sing and dance. The vicar
demanded that her parents keep her under control. Then two other children
wanted a better view, so they walked down the aisle and sat on the carpet near
the font, holding hands. Was that an ‘Aaah!’ moment? Not in the eyes of this
vicar. ‘Get these children out of my way!’ was his response.

It’s a good job my Head Teacher friend is a Christian, but
what must it have been like for the families of these children, and others attending?
What did it say for the welcome to the church family that was purportedly being
issued in the baptism of the infant? The opposite message was being conveyed
loudly.

It’s actually not much different from saying that children
are the church of tomorrow – a claim that excludes them from their proper
participation now in the community of God’s kingdom.

I wonder whether we have any groups of people who would be
silently or subtly excluded. Are there those whose backgrounds we dislike, and
whom we’d rather find a way of suggesting they don’t belong here or should find
a different spiritual home?

The crazy thing is, when we exclude those who don’t usually
fit our conventional ideas about who might be worthy citizens of God’s kingdom.
If Debbie and I have an urgent personal prayer request, there are a small
handful of people to whom we turn. If we have time to get on the phone, there
are my parents and a couple of people from our last circuit: a man in his eighties
called Cyril, and a woman in her seventies called Isa. My parents, Cyril and
Isa meet conventional church-insider stereotypes. But the other person we will
ask (provided the situation is suitable for her to know about) is Rebekah, our
daughter, who will not be five until next weekend. If anyone has a hotline to
God, it’s her!

Maybe you just find that a heart-warming story about a
little girl. But I challenge you to consider that those whom we exclude are
those for whom Christ rode into Jerusalem and then died outside its walls. They
miss their inheritance of faith, and we miss their contribution to the kingdom.
Their inclusion in the kingdom is required by the humility and peace that
Christ sets as core values.


[1]
Yes, I know it’s environmentally unsound and Jeremy Clarkson’s humour is often ‘inappropriate’.

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