Sunday, 9 May 2021

Being fruitful


 

Reflection Sunday 2nd May 2021

 

I know nothing about growing vines. And nowadays I know less about sampling the produce of vines than I once did! But apparently the best grapes are produced closest to the vine. It makes sense, as that is where the nutrients are concentrated. The further away branches are, the less productive they will be – though they will still be drawing from the central vine wasting energy on something that is unproductive. Therefore, branches are pruned and kept close to the central vine.

Jesus drew an apt metaphor for what it means to be a disciple. Jesus is the true vine, God is the grower, and we are the branches.  And in this passage Jesus reminds his disciples how two aspects of God’s created world work together – bearing fruit and being pruned.

Once we understand the metaphor, we become concerned about the pruning! Branches that aren’t fruitful do not escape the knife. How does this process of pruning come into play in our lives of faith?

I’ve said before, I am not much of a gardener. But I know it is necessary to prune at the right time in order for the plant to grow and flourish. Whether it is deadheading or more, pruning now results in stronger healthier plants later.

In pruning a vine, two principles are generally observed: first, all dead wood must be ruthlessly removed; and second, the live wood must be cut back drastically. Dead wood harbours insects and disease and may cause the vine to rot, to say nothing of being unproductive and unsightly. Live wood must be trimmed back to prevent such heavy growth that the life of the vine goes into the wood rather than into fruit. The vineyards in the early spring look like a collection of barren, bleeding stumps; but in the autumn they are filled with luxuriant grapes. As the farmer wields the pruning knife on his vines, so God cuts dead wood out from among His saints, and often cuts back the living wood so far that His method seems cruel. Nevertheless, from those who have suffered the most there often comes the greatest fruitfulness.

In this passage Jesus has gathered his disciples around him to prepare them for what the future will hold for them. He knows the trials he will face, including death, he knows what they will face trials too. But rather than sounding a message of despair, he gives them hope.

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. John 15:4

Or as The Message puts it:

“Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me. John 15:4

Jesus doesn’t sugar coat it. Things will be hard for his disciples – whether then or now. But his message is clear. If we remain in him, we will draw strength. Hard times will inevitably come, but if we abide in Jesus, if we find our home in him, and with God the grower sustaining us, we can endure and even thrive.

C.S. Lewis wrote, "God has designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy without bothering about religion. God cannot give us happiness and peace apart from Himself because it is not there. There is no such thing."

To bear fruit when it counts means we must be attuned to Jesus. We must find our home in him and let him and his word find a home in our lives too, via faithful devotion. If we do this then this will bring about joy. The pruning and abiding are something done together. When we are attuned to Jesus, we remain close to him and he to us then the result is that which is best for us will surely come about.

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you John 15:7 NRSV

When we do this then what is dead, dying or diseased in our lives is pruned away, with what remains being devoted to Jesus.

In speaking to his disciples like this, Jesus is inviting them to put their trust in him. He is warning them that they cannot go it alone, trusting in their own strength. On their own they will be cut off from the life source. Remember what I said earlier. The branches that are furthest away from the core vine Jesus, are the weakest and the least productive because they are cut off from their life source.

This is an important message for us today. The temptation to do things ourselves is always there. For individuals and churches! It is very easy to think that it is all up to us and our own resources as we try to solve problems and meet challenges. But we can’t.

The Christian writer Max Lucado in his book, When God Whispers Your Name, puts it dramatically and graphically like this. He says:

"Take a fish and place him on a beach. Watch his gills gasp and scales dry. Is he happy? No! How do you make him happy? Do you cover him with a mountain of cash? Do you get him a beach chair and sunglasses? Of course not! So, how do you make him happy? You put him back in his element. That's what you do. You put him back in the water. He will never be happy on the beach because he was not made for the beach.

Indeed, so and the same is true for you and me. We will never be happy living apart from the One who made us and saved us. Just like a fish was made to live in water we were made to live in close fellowship with our Lord and nothing can take the place of that."

 

John Bell of the Iona Community wrote these words for his song “I am the vine”

 

For on your own, what can you dare?

Left to yourself no sap you share;

Branches that serve their own desire

Find themselves broken as fuel for the fire.

 

God as the master gardener offers us a better plan for our lives. Let us find our home in God’s word and place our trust there. If we abide in Jesus and allow him to abide in us, we will be fruitful. But apart from him we are nothing. As John Bell’s song goes on:

 

I am the Vine and you the branches

Pruned and prepared for all to see;

Chosen to bear the fruit of heaven

If you remain and trust in me.

 

Sunday, 25 April 2021

Green pastures and still waters

 


Reflection Sunday 25th April 2021

 

Psalm 23 is so full of comfort isn’t it? It can be that Psalm of refuge which reminds us of God's constant companionship and God's faithfulness. It can keep us focused and it can feed our undernourished souls.

The part I want to look at today is verse 2 and part of verse 3. 

    He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;[a]
    he restores my soul.[b]

I think the reason this Psalm resonates with so many people is because there is a deep spiritual hunger in their lives. People spend time and money trying to find peace in their lives.  And while doing so, we reject the simple for the complicated; the new for the old; the untested for the proven.

So, let's look at some of the ways the Good Shepherd Restores our Souls.

First, the Good Shepherd restores our souls through green pastures. A Pasture is both a place of Rest and a place of Refreshment or nourishment.

We live in tough times. This last year has been draining for all of us. And for others it will be more so as people have experienced unexpected deaths, people are losing jobs, children’s mental health has been under strain and so on.

Our world is shrinking. and it's becoming more complicated at the same time. We need a place where we can recharge and be fed and nourished. We need a green pasture where we can rest. For in that rest we put our feet firmly back on the strong foundation of God. We regain our balance, so we don't stumble and get lost or get swallowed whole by the uncaring world. In a green pasture the stress is removed and we are recharged, so we can make a difference in the world.

The Christian writer, Gordon MacDonald, says that "God built a rhythm of rest and work into human existence. Rest wasn't meant to be a luxury, but rather a necessity to those who want to have growth and maturity." It doesn't do any good to have a strong body and a weak and shallow soul.

The green pasture is also a place of nourishment, too. A place where we are fed.

Worship, Bible Study and even life in our families is where we learn Christian principles. It is in these environments of trust, love, caring, comfort, compassion etc., that our spirits are fed. Even if we don't like the food that's put before us.

The church often offers things we haven't acquired a taste for. We think discipline is like broccoli, cauliflower or brussel sprouts. We know they are there and they're good for us. You can eat them if you like them but please don't put any on my plate.  We know our physical bodies require a balanced meal, we need the green stuff. We need antioxidants and vitamins that can only be found in vegetables and fruit. It's the same when we seek to nourish our souls. They need the good stuff, they need to be fed and cared for. The Apostle Paul called it Pure Spiritual Milk.

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Worship, prayer, study and the Sacrament are all integral parts of the green pasture which the Good Shepherd provides for us.

The Good Shepherd also leads us beside still waters where our thirst can be quenched. For me, this is our involvement in the Christian community. This is where we drink deep of the relationship with Christ, through our relationships with others. Most of the time, we don't even know what kind of impact our faith walk makes on the lives of others. But our faith journey can bring refreshment to others too just as we are refreshed by them.

When our lives reflect the love of God, when we are trying to live our best even when we fail, our lives become Still Waters for others. And you never know what a simple drink of water can do or the impact an act of kindness can have.

We can't really know what the impact of our faith and faithfulness will have on others. So, let Christ lead you so you might partake of the still waters of Christian Fellowship.

While Green Pastures and Still Waters bring about Restoration to the body, there is only one thing that can bring restoration to our soul. And that's God's Forgiveness.

The restoration the Psalmist talks about here can only come through that personal and individual relationship with Christ. We can feed in the green pastures and drink of the still waters. We can get rested and refreshed. But it's only when our experience of faith and forgiveness becomes personal and individual, that the Good Shepherd can restore our souls.

A preacher had a friend he thought he knew pretty well. He was a powerful and successful businessman, the kind who makes decisions easily but always drove a hard bargain.

One day this preacher was having dinner with the businessman's son, and they were talking about the father – the businessman. The son revealed something new about his Dad. It seemed that the son had been in the army and during his service he made a terrible mistake. He got into trouble and was given a dishonourable discharge. The son said he knew what he'd done had disgraced his family. And he was absolutely certain his father would be outraged.

But he also felt he owed it to his father to tell him what happened and try to ask for forgiveness. So, he did. This young man sent a text to his father explaining what had happened. The father sent a text back. The text had three sentences in it:

"I will stand by you no matter what happens. I will be there in the morning. Remember who you are."

That's the way our personal relationship with God works. This father was disappointed, his heart was broken, but the loving, caring relationship wasn't.

God wants each of us to experience the restoration of our souls. Be nurtured at the green pastures and drink deep from the still waters. But then, he wants us to renew our relationship with him. Leave that which has burdened your heart and soul at the foot of the cross. And then leave as a soul restored.

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Walking into the heart of God

 


Reflection 18th April 2021

 

A Sunday School teacher once asked her students to talk about how they felt about their church. The students responded in the usual ways: some said something silly to get the rest of the class to laugh, while others tried to be more serious.

One of the girls was new to the class, and she felt uncomfortable about entering class discussions, so she usually never raised her hand, or volunteered an answer. That Sunday, however, she did have an answer for her Sunday School teacher, and it was unforgettable. She said that going to church was, "like walking into the heart of God."

I like that. That is a description of the church as it ought to be: "like walking into the heart of God." Of course, not every church fits that description.  We know what the church ought to be. We all know that the church is not a building, but the church is people. The church is a fellowship, a community of faith.

Our epistle lesson today was written to encourage church people to be more loving toward one another and to those in need. If we can't do that, John tells us, we've missed the very heart of the faith that Christ gave us.

The essence of Christian faith is love. That is where we begin this morning. Listen to some selected words from 1 John 3:

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God;

11 For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another

18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

A person reading John's words from this epistle might conclude that at the very heart of the Christian Gospel is love, and he or she would be exactly right.

I’ll say it again - The essence of Christian faith is love. Just as Christ laid down his life for us, so ought we to lay down our lives for others. That means loving all people, even those who misuse us. That means doing good to all people even those we may not approve of. Love means leaving our comfort zone from time to time for acts of extraordinary concern. The essence of Christian faith is love. That brings us to something else that is important for us to realize.

Love is our primary witness to the world. If the day comes when the Christian church is as loving as its Master, the world will be transformed and will beat a path to our door. John asks,

17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister[f] in need and yet refuses help? 1 John 3:14

Love is more than just an emotion or a feeling. Love is feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned. Love is not a passive verb, but an active one. And it is the primary way we share Christ with the world.

Last week a friend gave me a book and I’ve not been able to put it down. It is called “Love is the way”. It’s written by Bishop Michael Curry (the Bishop who preached so powerfully at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding). I thoroughly recommend it.

In his book Bishop Curry draws on his experiences of growing up in Buffalo New York being surrounded by people who had left the southern states of the USA to escape the segregation there. And how he learned of God’s love from these people. And how God’s love can be transformative.

There are many wonderful stories in the book. But one struck me when we are thinking about church being "like walking into the heart of God."

Bishop Curry’s mother was a highly intelligent mathematics student. She went to study at the University of Chicago in the 1940s which was rare for a woman, let alone an African American woman. After university she lectured at another university in Ohio and there she met Bishop Curry’s father. He came from the South. While they were courting, she took Mr Curry to church – an Episcopalian church (Anglican). There were very few black people in the pews. When it came to Communion Mr Curry was hesitant as in the South it was unthinkable for a black man to share the same communion cup as a white person. But the priest welcomed everyone.

A church of love "like walking into the heart of God."

Love is a gift from God. Pure love is not an attribute of humanity, but of God. Our human nature is selfish, to strive for survival. God's nature is self-giving love. The closer we are to God, the better able we are to love others. John writes, "And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us." 1 John 3:24 That Spirit is love.

The words John wrote centuries ago are still true for us today,

23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us 1 John 3:23

When the love of God truly abides in our hearts, we can look into the faces of others and see God's face.

Love is the essence of Christian faith. Love is our primary witness to the world. Love is a gift from God. We love because God first loved us. Only as we abide in God can His love abide in us. Only then will coming to church be like walking into the very heart of God.

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Unlock the doors

 

Reflection 11th April 2021 Second Sunday of Easter

For many of us Easter Sunday was the day when our churches reopened for worship. It was good to be together once again after several months of lockdown. It was good to celebrate, as best we could behind masks, the resurrection of our saviour Jesus Christ. It was good to hear the familiar Bible stories of the encounters with our risen Lord in the garden, to hear of the stone rolled away, to hear of the excitement and bewilderment of the disciples on that first Easter Day.

Now, on what is the second Sunday of the Easter season, we hear another familiar story – that of the disciples in a locked room and of Thomas and his doubts.

I want to think of the first part of the story – the disciples behind a locked door.

One thing to point out straightaway is that John talks of “the disciples”. They’re not identified as “the Eleven” (the Twelve minus Judas) and we’d be mistaken to think of the gathering as just that -  the Eleven. John in his Gospel rarely speaks of the Twelve. So, for John, the gathering of the disciples may well have included the core group, but there is no indication that it is limited to them. This gathering represents the wider group of Jesus’ followers.

This story follows immediately on from John’s telling of the encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. It is the same day

 it was evening on that day, the first day of the week John 20: 19

The disciples fearful conduct suggests they don’t believe Mary Magdalene’s story. Or even if they do, they are still fearful “of the Jews” v19. John’s phrase “the Jews” means the Jewish authorities intent on persecuting Jesus’ followers now that “the Jews” believe Jesus is dead.

Into the locked room, into the group of fearful disciples, Jesus suddenly appears

and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. John 20: 19 – 20 NRSV

“Peace be with you” was a conventional greeting. But here it has a wider significance. Earlier in John’s Gospel Jesus promises the disciples he will give them his peace (John 14:27). This gift of peace is significant. It is given to a community that will experience the world’s hatred and persecution as Jesus foretold in John 15: 18 – 25 The gift of peace to the disciples is a clear reminder to the disciples, and to those reading John’s Gospel, that there is nothing to fear or be anxious about with the peace of Jesus resting on Jesus’ followers.

John then tells us

21 Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.

We tend to think of Pentecost as the birth of the Church. But here Jesus gives the disciples the Holy Spirit by breathing on them – just as the Spirit came at Pentecost in tongues of flame. The gift of the Holy Spirit is a sign to the disciples that they are now being sent out into the world “Just as the Father sent me, so I send you”

It is as if Jesus is telling the disciples “unlock the door, do not be afraid, get out there and get on with the job of making disciples. Get out there and share the Good News. Get out there and be me in the world.”

Over this last year I’ve had a lot of conversations with many of the people in the congregations of the churches I serve. A constant theme has been the uncertainty and the fear caused by Covid19. This time has been like nothing any of us has ever known. All our lives have changed dramatically. And I believe that this last year has enabled Jesus’ current disciples to take stock. To re-evaluate our own lives and also to re-evaluate what Jesus wants us to be doing as his disciples.

Reading this passage of scripture, I’ve been really struck by the imagery of being behind locked doors. The disciples are gathered behind locked doors for their own needs, for their own safety. They are not concerned with what is on the other side of those doors unless it affects them. 

A constant question I’ve been asked throughout this last year is “When do you think we can go back to church?” It’s important to worship together it really is. But I do think we forget what we really should be about. Jesus didn’t say to his disciples to unlock the doors, go out to build churches to worship in, and then lock the doors behind them! Is this where we are? Is this our mindset?

I really like Christian cartoonist Dave Walker. I’ve followed him for years. But during the pandemic he has produced some excellent cartoons about church. His cartoons primarily draw on Church of England references. But they hold true for all of us. These two are an important reminder of how we should be thinking




Produced with permission © Dave Walker https://cartoonchurch.com/

In other words, we might not have been able to worship in our buildings, but the life of the Church goes on outside our buildings. The life of the Church goes on in loving other people where we are. The life of the Church goes on in you and me. (See Acts 4: 32 – 35)

Our church buildings can be useful as bases for mission to enable us to be disciples. But if we are not of that mindset, if the doors of the house where the disciples meet are locked, for fear of our equivalent of “the Jews”, we should be praying for Jesus to come among us. We should be praying for Jesus to come to us saying ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ We should be praying for Jesus to breathe his Holy Spirit on us - “To fill us with life anew”

Sunday, 4 April 2021

He was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures

 


Reflection Easter Day 4th April 2021

 

Like you, a couple of weeks ago, I sat down to complete my Census return. It was all straightforward. However, there was one part that was a bit tricky for me and that was the bit that dealt with employment. You see Methodist ministers aren’t employees. As far as the taxman is concerned, we are “office holders”. But the census didn’t allow for this. Therefore, as far as the census was concerned, I am an employee of the Methodist Church.

That’s no big deal. But once I’d ticked the box for “employee” other questions popped up. “What is your job title?” Minister of Religion / Methodist Minister. But then there was another question “What does your job entail?”

Where to start? After all there is no job description. In the end I put something like “Proclaiming the Gospel and making disciples” It sounds a bit pompous now I think about it. But this is the important bit of my “job” – even if at times there seems to be too much other stuff to deal with.

I think on Easter Day it is important to get the priorities right. And if I’d been completing the census today, I might have been tempted to try and paraphrase Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 to explain what my “job” entails:

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 1 Cor 15: 1 – 2 NIV

We know the Resurrection stories well. And the first followers of Jesus would have known them well too. In some instances, they would have heard the stories first hand, for Paul reminds the church in Corinth that Jesus appeared to Cephas (that is Peter) and then to the twelve 1 Cor 15:5 And then Paul says Jesus

appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me 1 Cor 15:6 - 8

For Paul, the story of Jesus’ resurrection is the very foundation of our faith

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures 1 Cor 15:3 - 4

As I’m sure you’ve heard before, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was written - we think – to address some issues that were arising in the young church in Corinth. Often about fundamentals of faith. The resurrection has always been hard for people to swallow, even people of great faith. In this first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul has much to say about the resurrection, because apparently it was a problem for members of the early church. There were already those who were refuting the resurrection of Jesus. Paul reminds them that without the resurrection, there is no Christian faith. The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus are at the centre of it all.

As I’ve already mentioned the proof that Paul gives for the resurrection is that the risen Christ appeared to the disciples, and to hundreds of other people, including Paul. That continues to be the strongest proclamation we can make regarding the resurrection.

People claiming to be "the Messiah" weren't all that uncommon in Jesus' day. There were others who had devoted followers like Jesus did. He was just one among many. Just like Jesus, they routinely died at the hands of Romans. But when they died, their movements died with them. The Jesus movement was unique because it didn't die when he did. Instead, within days of his crucifixion, the movement had been transformed. Within weeks it was proclaiming that Jesus really was the Messiah. Within a year or two, it was taking the message of the good news to all the world. How can this amazing transformation be explained? It surely didn't come about because of a Messiah who had been crucified and buried.

There is a consistent message about the followers of Jesus in the Bible. Down to a person, not one of them believed in the resurrection of Jesus in the beginning. This rings true because the scriptures tell us about it in so many places and in so many ways. It also rings true because we know from our own experience that it's hard to believe. And yet, we know that something happened to Jesus' followers in the Bible, something so convincing that they devoted their lives to sharing the good news of the resurrected Christ with others. In fact, they were willing to give their lives rather than deny its truth. This, from the ones who cowered in fear behind locked doors after Jesus was crucified.

What was this thing that happened to them? The risen Christ appeared to them. We get some of these accounts in the Bible, but no doubt there were other instances as well. As I’ve said, Paul mentions an instance that we don't read about anywhere else in the Bible, a time when the risen Christ appeared to more than 500 brothers and sisters at once. Now, when over 500 people see something at the same time, you cannot dismiss it as a vision or a dream. There can be no doubt that it really happened.

After Jesus was raised from the dead, hundreds of his followers had the opportunity to see him. They saw the risen Christ. That explains why their lives were so transformed. I'm not sure how there could be any other explanation. After seeing the risen Christ, all the stuff that had confused them in the past became clear for them. Jesus really was the Messiah. From the perspective of the resurrection, the cross was not a shameful death after all but a victory.

The mission of the early church was simply to tell about what they had seen and heard. It was to bear witness to the things that happened.

What I said on my census return out of exasperation was true. My “job” is to preach the Good News, the Gospel. To share what has been handed down to me.

 

"... Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures" 1 Corinthians 15:3b-4 NIV

The biblical witnesses are still announcing the resurrection to us today. That's why we gather this Easter day, and every Sunday actually, because that's why the Christian church changed their sabbath day to Sunday, so every week our worship is a celebration of the resurrection. The resurrection had the power to transform the lives of the first disciples. The truth of their witness to the resurrection still has the power to transform our lives, as well.

 

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

 

Thursday, 1 April 2021

It is accomplished!

 



Reflection Good Friday 2021

 

Many church services around the world today will focus on “the seven words” spoken by Jesus on the cross. The phrase “seven words” is slightly misleading as there are not literally seven words. It is probably better to think in terms of “seven sayings” or even “seven statements”.

The “seven words” can be found in Luke 23: 34, Luke 23: 43, John 19: 26 – 27, Matthew 27:46, John 19:28, John 19:30 and Luke 23:46

For my Reflection today I want us to think about the sixth word -  John 19:30

30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. John 19:30 NIV

“It is finished”. What does this phrase mean? It could mean that the Jewish leaders and Roman government have achieved what they wanted. They have killed Jesus. They’ve finished him off.

I feel sure that for many of Jesus followers the phrase means that their hopes of a revolution, a new ruler, a new king, and kingdom had finished. 

"It is finished." That sentence is just one word in Greek--"Tetelestai." That sentence can have varied meanings depending on the context and the tone even suggesting ‘I quit’.

When Jesus cried out "It is finished," he was not quitting. Had he been announcing defeat, he would have spoken with a whimper. But that's not how Jesus said it. John is the only one of the four gospel writers who tells us precisely what Jesus said at this point. The other three report just the tone and volume and demeanour of Jesus. They are unanimous in reporting that he threw back his head and shouted. That was the shout of a marathon runner who has finished successfully that gruelling 26-mile race. And as he crosses the finish line, he throws back his head and shouts, "I have done it. I have completed the race!" The New English Bible renders "tetelestai" as follows: "It is accomplished."

When Jesus threw back his head and screamed "Tetelestai," he was declaring, "I have accomplished this awesome, painful mission. I have poured out every ounce of devotion, almost beyond my capacity to bear. Now it's done. I have not been defeated. History's most difficult assignment has been accomplished. Those who believe in me are set free from sin and death”

The American theologian Stanley Hauerwas has written an excellent small book on Jesus’ last words “Cross shattered Christ – meditations on the seven last words”. And in relation to the sixth word Hauerwas says:

“‘It is finished’ is not a death gurgle. It is not ‘I am done for’. It is a cry of victory. It is the triumphant cry of what I came to do has been done. All is accomplished, completed, fulfilled work.”

Jesus’ death is not a moment of defeat or despair (contrast what are Jesus’ last words in Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34 – “My God my God why have you forsaken me”). What Jesus is saying in this moment is a moment of confidence by Jesus that God’s work in the world, the work of salvation, has been completed. Jesus is picking up on what he has said to God in John 17:4

I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.

The work is finished. The cross has achieved its purpose of salvation. But that is not to say all is now right with the world. We know it is not.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said that “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world”. This is a reminder that we live in the between times. God’s kingdom on earth has begun in Christ. But it will not fully come into being until the end of this world when Christ shall come again.

Rowan Williams' comments are a helpful reminder to followers of Jesus that we should not become nostalgic for a less complicated past, or take refuge in some imagined perfect future. Rather we must live in the here and now, in the between times. We must remain with our Lord in his ongoing agony over the world.

Nevertheless, we can be assured that the new kingdom has been started. Pilate mocked Jesus and called him “the King of the Jews”. But “It is finished” signifies the start of the new kingdom and its king Jesus. The Crucifixion does not delay the kingdom, rather crucifixion points to how the new king rules. The crucifixion is kingdom come. It is with the crucifixion that the powers of this world are subverted once and for all. On the cross the old world is finished, and a new world begins.

It is on Good Friday that a new age begins. Out of Jesus’ death on the cross comes a new creation. A new world is created out of the world of sin. As for the work of the new creation- “It is finished”.

Look back to the opening verses of John’s Gospel John 1: 1 – 5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.

Jesus, the light of the world, has conquered the darkness of sin and set in motion a new creation of salvation for his followers. “It is finished” and it has started!

What has finished is humankind’s attempts to be our own creators. If we accept Christ’s new creation, we are overwhelmed by Christ’s love for us, his outpouring of God’s love for us, through the crucifixion. Through the sacrifice of God’s only Son. If we accept that love into our lives, if we accept to be overwhelmed by it, then we can see the beauty of God’s care for all. If we truly accept the love poured out via Jesus’ blood shed on the cross, then it is possible to transform the world, to live in peace, to be God’s agents of peace and love in the world – until such time as the kingdom comes.

But to live like that does not mean we will be free from suffering. That is not promised. It is a theme Paul in his letter to the Colossians picks up on (Colossians 1: 24 – 27) In the passage Paul talks of our ongoing suffering. Paul makes the point that we do not continue to suffer because Christ’s sufferings on the cross were insufficient. Rather we can suffer because the work of the cross is finished. The new creation is initiated. Christ is triumphant.

It is something that we know challenges us all. But that is part of living in the in the between time.

“It is finished”. Through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross our sins have been forgiven, our new lives in Christ have begun.

“It is finished. It is accomplished”



Sunday, 28 March 2021

Who is your "king"?

 




Reflection Palm Sunday 28th March 2021

Make no mistake Jesus had everything planned for his entry into Jerusalem. It wasn’t by chance his disciples found a donkey tied up. And Jesus knew full well what his entry would mean.

He chooses to enter the city when there is a huge crowd making its way to Jerusalem for the Passover. And there is Jesus, riding on a donkey. People are singing His praises and throwing palms and cloaks before Him. The high priests and the Roman soldiers are watching. The modern church has taken the donkey as a symbol of the meekness and humility of Jesus, and so it was. Jesus said more than once that He came to serve, not to be served. But to the Jews of Jesus’ day, the donkey was also a symbol of kingship. The old Testament prophets had said that the Messiah would come riding on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9-10.) Jesus knew full well that by coming to Jerusalem in this way and at this time, He was using the symbolism of a king, even a Messiah. He knew full well what this symbol would mean in the super-charged atmosphere of Jerusalem.

How often is it said, "Don’t mix religion with politics," but here we see them mixed inextricably as Jesus enters Jerusalem. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said once “When people say religion and politics don’t mix, I wonder which Bible they are reading.” I agree with him entirely. And the story of Holy Week is political. 

Passover is the most political of Jewish holy days - the celebration of their liberation from Pharaoh. Here is Jesus, coming as the prophets had said He would, and here is the crowd cheering Him on.

On Monday, the day after His provocative and triumphal entry into the city, Jesus goes into the Temple and starts a riot in this most sacred of places. He picks up a whip and drives out the moneychangers: "My Father’s house shall be a house of prayer for all the nations, but you have made it a den of thieves!" (Mark 11:17). Then, because of the uproar He has caused, Jesus slips out to Bethany for the night, a few miles outside of Jerusalem.

Jesus comes back to the Temple on Tuesday and Wednesday and provokes the authorities even further. Listen to what He says: "Woe to you scribes and Pharisees! You load the people with heavy burdens, but you yourself do not lift a finger!" (Matthew 23:20. "Woe to you, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear clean and beautiful, but inside are full of the bones of the dead" (Matthew 23:27).

In four short days, Jesus has antagonized both the Roman political leaders and the Jewish religious leaders. He has united them in opposition to Him. If they feared or disliked Him before, now they want Him dead.

Jesus is the master of the tactics of nonviolent confrontation. (Ironically, as I write this, the right to nonviolent protest is currently a topic of much debate in the United Kingdom.) But by provoking the authorities as He did, Jesus is making sure that the inevitable conflict takes place, but on His terms.  It isn’t Jesus’ tactics in the Temple or His tactics against the priests and lawyers that get Him killed. No, what sends Jesus to the cross is one question, and one question only. It is the question asked by Pilate later in the week, when Jesus is on trial for His life: "Are you the king of the Jews?"

To claim oneself king of Israel is to deny the authority of Caesar; a crime of subversion that Pilate will not overlook. We think of Pilate as weak and indecisive as He faces Jesus. In fact, Pilate was a ruthless, ambitious, and blood-thirsty tyrant who made liberal use of crucifixions to put down insurrection. What Pilate is doing during the trial is manipulating the priests into saying what must be said, so he can put Jesus to death as a subversive. Pilate starts by saying he finds no fault in Jesus and claims he wants to release Him. But as the trial progresses, it gets more political. The turning point comes when Jesus finally speaks.

Pilate has said to Him, "Why do you not speak? Don’t you know I have the power of life and death over you?" And Jesus finally answers, "You would have no authority over Me unless it had been given to you from above" (cf. John 19:1-11). That’s the turning point! Jesus is putting Pilate and Caesar in their place. Rome says Caesar is a god who rules by his own divine right. Jesus says, "No, all authority comes from the God of heaven and earth. My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36).

Jesus holds ultimate authority. Jesus does have a kingdom, but it exists beyond the reach and power of Rome. In effect, Jesus is telling Pilate: "You have no claim on Me. My kingdom is far beyond even you or your Caesar." This is a test of wills and Jesus beats Pilate hands down.

The priests pick up on that: "If you release this Man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar." In other words, the priests are saying to Pilate, "If you release Jesus, you are committing treason against Caesar. You are jeopardizing your office, risking your career, and failing in your duty to Caesar."

Now the priests are coming close to where Pilate wants them to be. Pilate says, "Behold your king!" Then the priests utter the most fateful words imaginable; the words which convict them, not only by Jesus, but by their own sacred Scripture. They cry out to Pilate: "We have no king but Caesar!" When Pilate hears this, he is satisfied. He turns Jesus over to be crucified.

"We have no king but Caesar."

That same cry echoes down the ages, as people claim other "kings" as their first loyalty, instead of Jesus Christ. We hear that cry today and maybe even say it to ourselves. We have no king but keeping up with the Joneses! We have no king but avoiding taxes! We have no king but hating immigrants! We have no king but cutting overseas aid! We have no king but patriotism - my country, right or wrong! All other claims of love, justice, mercy, or faith must take a back seat, because we have no other king but ... Fill in your own. There are so many to choose from.

Jesus was a Man with a tough mind and a tender heart. He shows how serious the struggle is between good and evil and what a formidable force God’s Spirit must be in this fallen world. Here we see Jesus standing face to face with human authority, with the salvation of the world at stake, and Jesus wins the day. This friend we have in Jesus - make no mistake about Him! In the cosmic contest between good and evil, this kingdom and the next, this Friend of ours is tough as nails and that is the side of Jesus I have tried to show you today.

Of course, this same Jesus rides into our town and into our lives on this Palm Sunday morning and He is forcing some questions on us, as He did in Israel so long ago. As we cheer Him riding by, with palm leaves in our hands, and hosannas on our lips, are the Caesars and Pilates of this world worried? Do they worry about a church whose "kingdom is not of this world," or is the church a comfortable partner with secular authority, fitting its worldly purposes like a hand fits a glove? Does Jesus have in His church a disciplined, "underground" organization - people who are alert to His purposes and ready to put themselves on the line for Him, like the keepers of that donkey did so long ago? When Jesus sends someone to us and we hear the password, "The Lord has need of you," do we respond no matter what the cost or risk?

Or do we stand with the priests shouting, “We have no king but Caesar”? This is the most important. Who or what is your king? This is the fundamental question Jesus forces on us this morning. Today we cheer Him, but soon our true loyalties will be put to the test. Soon we will have to choose between Christ and the many Caesars of this world.

"Hosanna to the Son of David!" Jesus is riding into your heart today, and He wants to know ... who is your king?