Monthly Archives: April 2014

John 20:19-31 – 27th April 2014

How often have you sat in a room with a group of friends and realised that you’ve no real idea what they’re talking about? Like you’ve dozed off for a bit and the conversation has dramatically changed direction. How did you feel? It can be a quite lonely or confusing experience.

Sadly for some, Manchester UTD have not had the best of seasons. Others might be quite pleased! I don’t have many UTD memories, being an Arsenal supporter, how could I! But there is one that sticks in the mind. Nearly 15 years ago, on Wednesday 26th May 1999  – I’d been watching the United/Bayern Munich Champions League Final on TV. I had to go out to do a Baptism visit, there was perhaps only minute or two to go and United were losing, they were on the rack and going nowhere. The result was a foregone conclusion – Bayern Munich had obviously won the cup.

I wasn’t out that long, but I missed the key last minutes of the match. When I got back, I couldn’t believe what people were saying. United had scored twice in the last minute – they’d won. I wasn’t there – and if there hadn’t been independent accreditation of the victory, I would not have believed what people were telling me!

Whether we wake after having dozed off in a crowded room, or we were just not there when a key event happened – we easily feel ostracised and left out. No matter what anyone says, it still feels that way.

We’re not told why Thomas wasn’t in the upper room that first Easter evening when Jesus visited his disciples. We could spend time trying to imagine where he was – but we won’t! Suffice to say, he missed the key event, the turning point, the moment that changed defeat into victory. And how did he respond? In exactly the same way as most of us would have done. … Thomas couldn’t believe what the others told him. I doubt any of us would have done under those same circumstances.

Seeing is believing – but so is sharing in an experience with others. Thomas not only didn’t see what happened, he was left out of the experience that everyone else shared. He was in a lonely place, wanting to believe, wanting to share in everyone else’s happiness, but unable to do so. He hadn’t been there, he hadn’t seen Jesus.

Thomas’ reactions and feelings are understandable, and as we read the story we can see that Jesus thought so too. He provided a repeat of the same encounter – one in which Thomas could share; he gently reminded Thomas of his outburst – no indignant rebuke, just words which drew Thomas back to faith. Thomas’ response is one of the clearest statements of Jesus’ divinity in the Bible. Having seen the truth of the resurrection he cannot but exclaim, “My Lord and my God!”

The next 3 verses are important, and they are pivotal to John’s message:

Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” ….  Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

John has led his readers through a story – a story which allows those readers to meet Jesus and begin to understand who he is. It’s a journey of discovery, one in which we can identify with the different characters, feel their emotions, struggle with them to understand what Jesus is doing and saying. Thomas’ words are the culmination, the pinnacle of the story – the point where even the strongest of doubters expresses faith. Jesus response is not just for Thomas’ ears, not just for the disciples, but for all who read John’s Gospel in coming generations. “Don=t think,” says Jesus, “that the disciples were in some way special because they saw all these events first hand. Rather, blessed are those who read the stories and encounter Christ through the work of his Spirit in their lives and the lives of those around them.”

“Blessed,” says Jesus, “are all who read this Gospel, who struggle with doubts and come to believe that he is the Son of God.” We’ve not missed out on the party, we can still be part of the events which changed defeat into victory. We too can own the risen Jesus as our Lord.

This is good news – particularly for those of us who struggle with doubt; for those of us who’d like to believe more strongly than we do; for those of us who see other people’s faith, or the joy they seem to experience in their Christian life, and feel that we are somehow missing out.

The story of Thomas is important because it embraces doubt.

The story is also important because it embraces change. Everything is different, Jesus was dead and is now alive. This changes everything – nothing can now be the same. Thomas struggles to accept the new situation. For so many of us change is difficult to handle, yet it is happening all the time. We need to continue to engage with the communities around our churches, looking for new ways to serve, new ways to make Christ known and to bring hope where there is despair. We need to accept that the future for the Church of England is one with significantly less stipendiary clergy – perhaps one third less in numbers in ten years time – and we need to imagine new forms of ministry both lay and ordained, new ways of being church. Nothing is the same as it was, nothing will be the same as it was, and we want to shout out the loudest “No!” that we can manage.

There are two key things we can take away from this passage.

First – it’s OK to be honest – don’t pretend that everything is OK when it isn’t, don’t manufacture faith if it isn’t there. We can express our fears and we can express our doubts. In fact expressing our fear and our doubt is often, like it was for Thomas, the first step to faith.

Second – this story of doubt and faith is made the crowning moment of John’s Gospel – the pinnacle – Jesus reaching out to his loyal but doubting and fearful follower, not in anger but in love. Thomas’ exclamation, “My Lord and my God!” is the point at which John chooses to rest his case. … Honest struggling with change, honest struggling through doubt towards faith is given the highest honour in John’s Gospel.

So, don’t be discouraged if the pace of change or the circumstances we face are a struggle. Don’t be discouraged if believing is a struggle. For many football fans winning or losing is a life or death issue. But here we go beyond issues of life or death, we’re concerned with eternity. Be encouraged as you struggle to be faithful in an ever changing context, when at times everything you hold dear seems threatened. Be encouraged as you struggle to believe, for the story of Thomas makes it very clear that God loves the open and honest doubter.

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Good Friday

Most of us want to succeed, none of us likes to be seen as a failure.

How do you measure success? Climbing to the top of the social ladder? Keeping up with the Jones’s? Getting promotion at work? Moving to live in the better area of town? Being liked by everyone?

And once you’ve decided what success means – how do you achieve it?

Isaiah, a couple of chapters before the Old Testament reading set for today in the Revised Common Lectionary – in chapter 50 – says these words, words which are often thought, like our reading from Isaiah 53, to point forward to Christ as the suffering servant:

I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. (Isaiah 50:6-8)

Isaiah uses the phrase: “I have set my face like a flint.” How might we rephrase that in today’s language if we want to talk about being successful?

“Go for it, no matter the cost.”

“Climbing over dead men’s bodies.”

“The end justifies the means?”

Or what about a picture that I find quite vivid – that  of the powerboat moving at such speed towards its destination that its wash overturns everything in its wake.

Ambition, determination, whole-hearted commitment to our goals. Quite good things in themselves. Often, however, when our hopes for ourselves conflict with the interests of others we can produce all sorts of justifications for less than generous attitudes and actions.

Isaiah in that reading talks of whole-hearted commitment, of being determined, even when shamed, made fun of, disgraced. A determination to see things through.

We start Holy Week by marking the events of Palm Sunday as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the donkey. Jesus on Palm Sunday sets his face like a flint towards Jerusalem, nothing is going to stop him fulfilling God’s will – nothing will deflect him from the path of the cross.

The adulation of the crowd – could easily go to his head, but it doesn’t. On that first Palm Sunday, Jesus is lonely, he is alone in the midst of the crowd. No one else understands, no one really knows what is happening. The clues are all there, the donkey ridden through the gates of Jerusalem is one of the biggest. Jesus is no ordinary king, yet people ignore the signs, they want him to be their King, a King in their mould, a real King!

But success for Jesus as King is not measured by the standards of the crowd. Success for Jesus is measured in terms of apparent personal failure. In his weakness, God’s purposes will be fulfilled.

In Isaiah, the Suffering Servant, sets his face like a flint into the suffering that is coming his way – confident of God’s help to endure. There’s no disgrace, no shame, in the torture he faces because he knows that he can trust God for his future, for his ultimate vindication.

How different these attitudes are to our own? We struggle and strive to protect ourselves. We’ve taught ourselves to be self-reliant. “Look after number one – no one else will!”

We’ve learnt to see failure and weakness as shameful. Success in the world’s terms is important to our sense of self-worth. We cannot be seen to fail, even if that means that we need to put others down.

Isn’t this all being a little harsh. …. Perhaps I’m being unfair?

Am I? … I don’t think so. I only need to ask myself a few questions to see how true it is of me. How willing would I be to embrace apparent failure, like Jesus did, for the sake of people I don’t know? … Would I be prepared for you to think bad of me, to reject me – if I only knew that I was doing what God wanted?

In the end, though, it is hardly ever as obvious an issue as that. Things are never that clear-cut. It’s in the smaller things that I need to learn to place the needs of others above my own, in the smaller things that I need to learn to set aside self-protection and look to the interests of others.

It was because Christ was open to others, vulnerably sharing himself with them listening to their needs, that he set his face like a flint to the cross. Because he was aware of others – he chose suffering and death.

Jesus’ actions and his words call us to set aside our well-being, our comfort, so as to meet the needs of others. So, how do we succeed? Jesus answer would be, “By becoming vulnerable. By being willing to die, by being willing to embrace failure.”

By accepting the Palm Sunday’s adulation needs to give way to Good Friday’s rejection. A very different measure of success!

Jesus sought his own honour not in the eyes of those around him but in the eyes of God. Success was measured by faithfulness to God’s plan for him. What seemed to the world to be shameful became his greatest success. Jesus greatest shame in the eyes of his society became his greatest honour in the eyes of God. The shameful cross became the place of glory, the place of salvation.

Take time to think about how we measure success, what is honourable and what is shameful for us. How can we … ? How can I serve God most faithfully?

A Poem by Shashikant Nishant Sharma (an Indian poet)

Success lies in being happy
After losing the game
Success lies in giving credit
And taking the blame
Success lies in doing good
Without thinking for name and fame
Success lies in winning friends
Sharing goods and claim
Success lies in the fair means
Not in anyhow achieving the aim
Success lies in team spirit
Making efforts jointly for the same
Success lies in enjoying the journey
Not in reaching the hall of fame.

These are lovely words. We could aspire to this kind of measure of success. ‘Very Christian,’ we could say. And perhaps they are. Perhaps they are the most pragmatic way we can find to emulate Christ in today’s world.

It is, however, Christ’s shameful death that is meant to be the measure of success for us. We are called to take up our Cross and to follow him. We are called to follow Christ through shameful death to resurrection. And, even if we find that following too difficult, we are called to accept that it is only through that shameful death that salvation is possible.

Salvation can only be won for us by a God who is prepared to take onto himself all that separates us and our world from God, all that divides us as God’s people, all of the pain and hurt that we impose on each other. It is at the cross that God in Christ succeeds, he triumphs, he is enthroned as King, he is glorified, but his triumph, his success, is not a battle won but relationship restored. His success is measured in the depth of his identification with us and in the strength and reality of his divinity. His success comes in the midst of apparent failure.

The cross is the centre of our salvation, the resurrection God’s seal of approval. It is not after his resurrection, but on the cross that Jesus says in triumph, ‘It is finished!’

Almighty Father, look with mercy on this your family for which our Lord Jesus Christ was content to be betrayed and given up into the hands of sinners and to suffer death upon the cross; who is alive and glorified with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Maundy Thursday – John 13

Headline news on Huffington Post – the internet news site.

On April 17, 2014, Pope Francis will visit the Centro Santa Maria della Provvidenza Fondazione Don Carlo Gnocchi home and wash the feet of the residents, many of whom are elderly and have disabilities. The ritual will happen on Maundy Thursday, which remembers the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with his disciples, when Jesus humbles himself and washes the feet of his apostles prior to their Passover meal.

Shortly after being elected, Pope Francis made headlines when he washed the feet of two women at a Rome youth prison, a sharp departure from the foot-washing of 12 priests in Rome’s St. John Lateran Basilica.

Over many years, the usual papal ritual has been for the Pope to wash the feet of 12 selected priests in an endeavour to mirror Jesus’ action at the last supper. Pope Francis has looked to move away from this careful and beautiful choreography towards something more meaningful.

As Pope Francis does this, he symbolically takes the place of Jesus and his message is the same. Jesus said, “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Pope Francis is saying the same to those who accept his leadership: “If I, you spiritual leader, have washed the feet of the elderly and infirm, the least you can do is treat them as human beings and honour them by serving them as you would serve your Lord.”

This is the most obvious challenge in this passage for those of us who want to faithfully follow Jesus. If I was to stop here, we’d have something worthwhile to think about as the service continues.

However, it is not the only challenge.

Peter’s response to Jesus: “You will never wash my feet,” carries another challenge which for some of us may be more significant.

So often our focus in this service is on Jesus, and rightly so. His humility and servant love call for a response. And so, perhaps, we make a mental note to be a little more generous in the way we deal with other believers. Or we feel something as the service progresses – our emotions are affected and we feel like behaving differently.

But what does the story feel like, if instead of identifying with Jesus, we take Peter’s place. … What was it that provoked Peter to say: “You will never wash my feet.”

Was it a sense that it wasn’t right? Perhaps Peter felt that a leader should not do something usually done by the lowest of slaves.

Was it embarrassment? My feet are so dirty, they’ve got corns and bunyons, my toes are mis-shapen. I don’t want you to see.

Or was it embarrassment for another reason? Did none of the disciples want the job? Were they looking round at each other wondering who would crack first? And then shock, horror – it is Jesus who picks up the slave’s towel.

Was it pride? Under no circumstances am I going to be so demeaned as to have you touch my feet.

What do you think it was that provoked Peter’s response? .Take time to think about it. …….

Then I’d like to ask you a few other questions.

What is it that governs your decision on Maundy Thursday, when you are presented with the opportunity in church to have your feet washed. What is it that keeps you in your seat? Or come to that, what is it that propels you out of your seat to come forward to have a foot washed?

Or, when someone offers to serve you in another context, or seeks to help you, what is your response? Would it be one of these? ‘I am not prepared to accept charity.’ ‘Go away, I don’t want your help.’ ‘What is in it for you?’ ‘There must be a catch!’

What governs your decision? Is it a sense of propriety? Is it embarrassment? Is it pride? … Is your response like that of Peter: “You will never wash my feet.”

It is often easier to serve than be served; easier to serve than to take praise for our service; perhaps even, easier to give than to receive.

John 11:1-45; Ezekiel 37:1-14

How do you feel about the future? Optimistic? Pessimistic? What fills you mind as you think about the next few years?

What about the future of the Church?

It is easy to feel despondent. We’ve been told time and again that numbers attending churches are dropping, that the church is no longer relevant. The evidence seems to support a general air of despondency. And at times many of us will have wondered whether there is any point carrying on coming to church.

I’ve heard people saying things like: “It’s dry and musty, it’s not my kind of thing, it’s just like a bag of old bones – no life there at all. Why would I want to come to church?”

And yet for others of us, Church does not feel that way at all. Somehow God has reached out and touched us through the worship. Sometimes there is a tingling inside us when we think about coming to worship – and we say that coming to church seems to give our life a sense of purpose. We have hope for the future again.

The readings set for Passion Sunday are long. But they clearly have one theme in common. New life breathed into dead bodies. It was obvious in Ezekiel, just as obvious in the raising of Lazarus. Both these readings have a sense of hope and life.

Both in Ezekiel and in the story of Lazarus the seemingly impossible happens. In Ezekiel’s case it is in a vision, in Lazarus’ case the story asks us to accept that he was raised by Jesus. Both are saying to us in their own way that the seemingly impossible is possible with God. God can even raise the dead! Ezekiel wants his hearers to believe again that defeated, hopeless OT Israel can again be a living, dynamic force.

And Ezekiel’s vision was taken up as a primary rallying point for black slaves in America. “…Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones … hear the word of the Lord.”

And as generations past, hopelessness was transformed into belief and action. The slave trade was abolished and later, the sporting success of a person like Jesse Owen brought dignity and hope to black people. And people like Dr. Martin Luther King took on the establishment and brought an end to official discrimination.

Hope rose from the ashes of despair.

There have been other instances in the history of the world where darkness is defeated. The fall of communism and the downfall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the end of apartheid in South Africa.

And in our Gospel reading Jesus speaks into a tomb and raises Lazarus, prefiguring his own resurrection which was to take place only a few months later. Martha clearly believed in the resurrection, but for her it was something remote, something which would only happen come judgement day. …  Jesus wanted her to have hope now, hope for the present and the immediate future – and so he raises Lazarus.

It would be so easy for us to relegate hope and hopefulness to the hereafter. So easy for us to think that our faith only really works as we look beyond death and pray that God will accept us home to heaven. But ‘life to mortal bodies’ isn’t just for heaven. Life and hope are for now as well as for the future.

Just as in Ashton-under-Lyne we saw, 6 years ago, a new market rise from the ashes of the old – like a Phoenix. Jesus wants us to believe that he can through his Spirit breath new life into us as individuals and new life into our churches. We might feel small and insignificant, we might feel hopeless. But our bible readings talk of God’s Spirit energising and strengthening us.

All Lazarus had to do was respond – he could have stayed in the tomb, but he chose to come out into the light. Ultimately, all we have to do is to respond to what we see God doing in our churches and in our wider communities.

No doubt the signs of new growth will be fragile. They will need tending and caring for, they might even seem small and insignificant. But God’s Spirit is at work, we need to feel his breath inside us and respond, like Lazarus walking out into the light.