Monthly Archives: April 2011
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?
As the reality of God has faded from so many lives in the West, there has been a corresponding inflation of expectations that personal relations alone will supply meaning and happiness in life. This is to load our partner with too great a burden. We are all incomplete: we all need the love which is secure, rather than oppressive, we need mutual forgiveness, to thrive.
Unrealistically high expectations of a romantic partner are killing relationships today. Not that a couple shouldn’t do their utmost, but the lack of belief in God leads to new idolatries.
I’d like to say more, but it’s late! That is enough to start chewing on!
Twenty amazing images of our planet from NASA, starting with this one:
It is sad to read this morning the overnight news from Texas about the death of David Wilkerson. in a car crash. His life and ministry impacted millions. No appeals to his supporters for the money to buy a Lear Jet, just a guy who risked his life in the violent Projects of New York to show the love of Christ to gangs led by the likes of Nicky Cruz. Famously, this was recounted in the book The Cross And The Switchblade, and the film of the same name, along with Cruz’ testimony, Run Baby Run.
Google the Internet and you will find some of the controversial prophecies he made in recent years, not least on his blog. On some of these, time alone will tell.
Today I give thanks for the life of a courageous Pentecostal preacher, and the fruit of his ministry. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.
What a wonderful talk by Kathryn Schulz from TED2011. Essentially, her reasons why we try to maintain we are right amount to various ugly forms of pride. And the Gospel says, that pride needs to be brought low in the humility of saying in confession to God, “I was wrong.” Then, it is God who makes us right – in theological jargon, he ‘justifies’ us.
I would add to that an issue of fear: when we are afraid of how someone might react, we defensively entrench ourselves in our position of ‘rightness’, even when we know in our hearts we are wrong. So how liberating the Gospel is that we can confess our wrongness to a God of grace and mercy. It is the character of God that makes an admission of our wrong more possible.
Then note how right at the end of the talk she links her theme to the rediscovery of wonder. To quote her exact words:
if you really want to rediscover wonder, you need to step outside of that tiny, terrified space of rightness and look around at each other and look out at the vastness and complexity and mystery of the universe and be able to say, “Wow, I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong.”
That’s profound, isn’t it? We don’t get to a true sense of wonder through our own rightness. It involves acknowledging we are wrong – just as major scientific advances often happen not by incremental improvement on previous foundations, but on paradigm shifts from what was previously accepted. In Christian terms, it again goes hand in hand with accepting God’s outlook on things.
Or am I wrong?
The Methodist Church's new four-session course on talking about our faith and sharing it – the follow-up to 2005's TIme To Talk Of God.
I don’t do 5:30 am. Although I had to, today. Easter Day began with a 7 am ‘sunrise service‘ at Bisley Clock Tower, the highest piece of land locally. It’s part of the National Shooting Centre, so what better place to celebrate the resurrection of the Non-Violent One?
We gathered to sing three traditional hymns that we couldn’t include in the later 10 am All Age Communion, all to the accompaniment of a melodica. During the hymn before my talk, I felt prompted to change what I was going to say. Working from Matthew 28:1-10, I spoke about the women, the angel and Jesus. The women are the first apostles – they are the first witnesses to the resurrection. Effectively, they are the apostles to the apostles. You would not have chosen women as witnesses in the first century if you wanted to be believed – this is a hint of the account’s veracity. And God is always choosing unlikely people as his witnesses.
As for the angel, I loved the piece where – after rolling away the stone, he sat on it. The very object that had contained the imperial seal of Rome. For the Resurrection shows God’s conquest of all powers and authorities. Whatever we see today in terms of opposition, the Resurrection guarantees that principalities and powers will be ‘sat on’!
And Jesus – whereas later I was to talk about meeting him, now I emphasised him going ahead. Not only is the risen Lord always with us, he also goes ahead of us. Wherever we have to go in our life’s journey, we can find that Jesus has gone ahead of us to meet us there.
From that service to Addlestone for an 8:30 am communion, singing our hymns to the backing of CDs ripped to a laptop. And then it was back to the church building at Knaphill, where our wonderfully creative all age worship team had devised a service featuring scents and spices, an earthquake sound effect, drama, dance and Noel Richards‘ recent Easter hymn ‘Because He Lives‘. Back in February you could email Noel for a free MP3 of the song – not sure if that offer is still available, but in case it is, the link is here.
By the end of the morning, I was exhausted. No stamina, me. I didn’t go to the united service in the evening. But it struck me that on the original Easter Day, at least two disciples moved from exhaustion to energy – right at the end of the day. I’m thinking of the Emmaus Road story. Cleopas and his companion are downcast, discouraged and without hope. But when they recognise the risen Jesus in the breaking of bread, they hurry back to Jerusalem from Emmaus, late at night – even though they have invited the stranger (Jesus) in, because it’s late and you shouldn’t be travelling. The Good News that Christ is risen gives new energy – may it do so to us, too.
If you want someone to find an object that’s missing … don’t ask me. Debbie will tell you I am constitutionally incapable of even seeing something that is right in front of my nose. It’s not about the strength of the prescription for my glasses, nor is it my jealousy that Debbie still (just about) doesn’t need specs, I simply don’t seem to notice detail.
And we come to Matthew 28 on Easter Day, with a word that frequently appears in the Greek but doesn’t always make it into modern English translations. That word is, ‘Behold’. Behold: look closely, look carefully, pay attention. The places into which Matthew inserts ‘Behold’ into his text give us a way into appreciating the Easter story. He wanted his original readers to sit up and take notice. And the Holy Spirit wants us to do the same, I’m sure.
The first ‘Behold’ is to behold the earthquake. ‘And behold there was a great/violent earthquake’ (verse 2). An earthquake would certainly make you pay attention. Given the few earthquakes and the relative weakness of them that occur in the UK, it’s something we know very little about. But watch video of people in the middle of a quake or take in news reports, and you’ll know that one thing you can’t do with an earthquake is ignore it. You must pay attention and do something about it.
Now Matthew has a thing about earthquakes. This isn’t the first mention of them in his Gospel. He has recorded an earthquake that happened at the time of the crucifixion, and when Jesus is prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem (and possibly his own Second Coming, too) he speaks of earthquakes as being a sign of ‘the end’.
Put this together and you see the earthquake on Easter morning as God saying, wake up! Listen! I am doing something of world-shattering importance here! It’s not just a by-product of the angel rolling away the stone, it’s God grabbing our attention.
For on Easter morning, we are in the presence of power. God’s power. God at work powerfully in his world. Easter Day is not simply a happy ending after Good Friday: this is about the holy power of God at work. This is God at work in our world, and we stand in awe. The earthquake is there as a marker to say, never forget that God is at work in resurrection power in the world.
I came across a testimony from a man called Gary Habermas. He is a Professor of Philosophy whose lifetime calling is to promote the Christian faith by defending the historical truth of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. However, he lost his first wife, Debbie, to cancer when she was just 43. While she lay dying, he had an argument with God in prayer. He asked the Lord how he could let this happen, when he and Debbie had young children. If she died, how could he both follow his call into ministry and take care of the children?
He felt that God said to him, I’m not asking you to go through something that I myself haven’t. God reminded him that he watched his only begotten Son die on the Cross at a relatively young age. He promised Gary Habermas that he would be with him every inch of the way. And when Professor Habermas complained, saying, what kind of world is this in which you allow a young mother to die?, he felt God say, This is a world in which I raise people from the dead.
Debbie died. But this is a world in which God raised his Son from the dead, and one day he will do the same for us. Behold the earthquake, and the resurrection power of God that makes us stand in awe and live in hope.
On to the second ‘Behold’. It’s in the words of the angel when he says, ‘Come, see the place where he lay’ (verse 6). Or to give it its context, he says to the frightened women:
Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. (Verses 5b-6)
Behold the empty tomb is how you could paraphrase it. It is the first sign to encourage faith. The women will begin their journey to faith in the Risen Christ by witnessing the absence of his body from the tomb.
And, ultimately, there are no convincing explanations for the empty tomb other than the Resurrection. If the body had been stolen, someone could have produced it. If the body had been buried elsewhere, all you needed to do was go to that grave and – hey presto – end of the Jesus movement before it started.
It may not be proof, but it is evidence. The empty tomb is a sign that faith in the Risen Christ is not irrational. It has a basis in history. It may not be strictly scientific in one sense, namely that scientific experiments assume that you can repeat what has happened in order to verify the truth or prove it to be false. Here, though, we are dealing with the one and only example of someone being raised from the dead so far, and therefore it is not a scientifically repeatable experiment. But – it does come with circumstantial evidence from history.
So take a good look at the empty tomb. It means that all those ideas that faith means believing something you know not to be true are nonsense. After all, what is faith if not a matter of trust?
Think of it this way. When two people marry, they do not know everything about each other – and they never will! My sister once told me that her decision to marry her husband meant entering into a lifelong process of trying to understand this mysterious male person, whom she knew she would never completely come to terms with! But when people marry, I think it’s reasonable to assume they have come to a point of trust: they have experienced enough of the one they love to know that they can be trusted.
I suggest to you that Christian faith is a little bit like that. God doesn’t give us overwhelming, incontrovertible proofs of his existence, because if he did then there would be no room left in the relationship for trust, and that would diminish any hope of love. But here as we behold the empty tomb, we get that first sign that God says, “I keep my word. Won’t you trust me?”
This Easter Day, then, let your mind be reassured that what we believe is no falsehood, but based in truth. Let the evidence of the empty tomb witness to the possibility of trusting Christ.
However, you can’t stop there. It doesn’t fall into place finally for the women until the third ‘Behold’. In verse 7, the angel instructs the women to tell the disciples that Jesus is risen and that he is going ahead of them to Galilee to meet them there. This instruction ends with the words, ‘This is my message for you’ (NRSV) or ‘Now I have told you’ (TNIV). But what it actually says is, ‘Behold, I have told you.’
So the third ‘behold’ is to take the angel’s words seriously and meet Jesus. And – lo and, er, behold – Jesus meets the women as they run away from the tomb. Beholding the earthquake can make you realise that God is at work. Beholding the empty tomb can put you on the journey of trust. But until you behold Jesus and it becomes personal, it’s not real faith.
You can be convinced that Christianity is true, you can be convinced that Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the world, but unless it becomes personal between you and Jesus it counts for nothing. It has to go from theory to commitment.
I used to work with a lady called Doreen. Her best friend was a Christian, who used to invite her regularly to church. Doreen became inquisitive and spent many Sundays in church. One weekend, she and her friend came to hear me preach. They gave me a lift. In the car on the way back, Doreen spoke wistfully about faith. Her friend said, “I hope one day it will become an affair of the heart.”
Well, one I came back from some sick leave to find that Doreen had been reading a book I had thought of lending to her but never had. What a mistake. Her friend had lent it to her, Doreen had read the story it told of a man who found faith in Christ, and she had made her own decision to follow Christ. Her friend’s prayer had been answered: now it was an affair of the heart. Doreen ‘beheld Jesus’.
And I plug this theme, because quite often in our churches I find people who are devoutly committed to church work, who are deeply religious, and yet who have never met Jesus. They are often ‘pillars of the church’ and we would miss their efforts when they move or die, but actually they are all about doing things and very little about prayer, Bible study and deep fellowship. Why? Because they haven’t discovered that the essence of Christianity is actually about relationship with Christ, and that everything spiritually healthy flows from that relationship.
So what to do? Well, note how in the reading the risen Jesus seems to appear out of nowhere to meet the women. Well, just as he ‘suddenly … met them’ (verse 9), so he is ready to do exactly the same today. We don’t have to go seeking him: because he is risen, he is present.
And so he is here now, greeting us by his Spirit, waiting for each of us to say ‘yes’ to him. Yes to his forgiving love. Yes to enjoying his company. Yes to following him. Yes to living for him in gratitude for his love, rather than out of duty.
We’ve beheld the earthquake and known that God is at work in our world. We’ve beheld the empty tomb to know that God gives us reason to trust him and his word. Will we also behold Jesus, give him our ‘yes’
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,
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.
I began Good Friday today with a united walk of witness here in Knaphill. Beginning at the Catholic church, we walked to the King’s House Coffee Shop, then to the Methodist premises, followed by the Baptist church, and finally to Holy Trinity C of E. At each stop someone read a portion of the Passion story. Different people volunteered to carry the big cross on each leg of the journey.
Most moving for me was the final leg, when a man with learning difficulties asked to carry the cross. Nothing like as physically big as his predecessors in the task, he struggled in places and had to be helped by two other men. It was a small glimpse of Jesus falling down and needing help from Simon of Cyrene.
As the one co-ordinating the walk, I found myself at each stop standing on one side of the person with the cross, while on the other side was the reader for that particular episode from the story. In a tiny way, it was like being one of the two thieves either side of Jesus.
In these two ways, I found myself entering into the Passion story in new and unexpected ways this year. The sadness was in having to leave the following united service at Holy Trinity fifteen minutes in to get to the tail end of a united service at my other church, Addlestone Methodist. I arrived at that, just as they were singing the closing hymn. Having to flit between the two communities felt like it undermined a sense of belonging. Can you belong in more than one community at once? If missional Christianity includes earthing ourselves in a particular place by incarnational ministry, does this militate against it?
I wasn’t the only minister facing this issue: the Methodist deacon left at the end of the service to go to his other church, and two of the New Frontiers church leaders came over from Chertsey, where they used to be based and still share with other Christians.
Unlike in Knaphill, there had been no united walk of witness in Addlestone. Some of the people in Addlestone said how much they missed it. A discussion on why we think the procession of witness on Good Friday is important would be interesting. As I’ve said, it hit home for me today in unexpected ways. On other occasions, I’ve watched passers-by as Christians walk behind a cross on this day of the year, and wondered whether they felt we were doing it as a reproach against them. I don’t suppose most Christians do have that attitude, but I’m curious to know how it’s perceived, if at all. A judgement? An anachronism? Other reactions?
In contrast, my wife and children didn’t come with me on any of these events or services. They needed something more child-friendly. Happily, the nearby church of Holy Trinity, West End Village had a suitable act of worship for children for Good Friday. Too often we are so caught up with the solemnity of the day that we exclude children by the tone of what we offer. Holy Trinity West End knew better. They provided a service called ‘Paradox’. It included two songs, a very short talk by the Rector, and plenty of crafts. Rebekah had her photo taken with her cross on which she had chosen to write, ‘Jesus died for me.’ If Christ died for all creation, then he died for the children – don’t we owe it to them also to find a way of including them in on this most holy of days? I’m glad Holy Trinity did.
I’ll be interested to know your thoughts on our experiences. But I’ll stop typing there and go back to finishing preparations for Easter Day.