Easter: Where Do You Stand

ChurchAds.Net have produced another catchy campaign for Easter this year, continuing their tradition of provocative adverts such as the Che Guevara-esque revolutionary poster of Jesus (Meek, Mild, As if), and ‘Surprise! Sais Jesus to his friends 3 days after they buried him…’ This year’s effort can be seen at www.wheredoyoustand.co.uk. It has a film noir vibe to it with a couple exploring a room lit only by their torches with all sorts of hints about who Jesus may be in the images that they see. The closing line ‘we should look into this’ leads the viewers to consider where they stand on Jesus – is he Man, Myth or Messiah? – before casting their vote.

This is a vital question to ask. I’m writing this on Wednesday with the precise nature of the events in Brussels this week still emerging and being clarified. These horrific acts of terrorism provide a stark backdrop to this question, and how we answer the question may affect how we respond to such events and tragedies.

Man? Was Jesus just a human revolutionary who set out to kick the Romans out of Israel so that his people could reclaim their homeland? Perhaps this is how Judas saw him, and why he betrayed him when he failed to live up to that promise, possibly in an attempt to provoke him into action. The suggestion that might or military action can bring peace like this is called the ‘myth of redemptive violence’. History suggests it doesn’t work; you could look at Western efforts in the Gulf and Afghanistan to demonstrate this. It could also be argued that Jesus was a different, not taking up arms but celebrating love in some sort of 60s hippy kind of way. Again, history suggests that love on its own doesn’t last; 60s love was trampled on by 70s punk and 80s materialism.

Myth? Is Jesus just a story – either an inspirational example at best or a cynical deception at worst? You know me, I love a great story. I believe that stories can change us and can change the world for the better. A story, however, cannot fix the brokenness of humanity, the part of us that is self-centred and has a tendency to damage relationships. Could a story bring an end to the violence of the so-called Islamic State, the greed and materialism of the West or our own brokenness?

Messiah? Could it be that Jesus is more than just a good story, more than just a human? This is the claim of Christianity and the heart of the Easter story. The Easter story is that of a human revolutionary being put to death for unsettling the powers that be with his call to servant leadership and humble selfless love. But this is where the story departs from other stories, for Jesus we are told was not merely human, but also without sin. And here’s where things get really relevant, on Easter Sunday morning, God the Father validated everything he said and did by intervening and raising him from the grave to new life. Where Man and Myth both start with hope but die out, Messiah ends with hope, hope that Jesus’ way will finally one day bring an end to our strife and suffering.


The Riddler

It’s been a while since I last posted a newsletter article, perhaps it’s time to do so again!…

There’s a character in Batman called The Riddler, a villain who delights in incorporating riddles and puzzles into his criminal plots for Batman and the authorities to solve, his outfits often incorporating a question mark motif, the same punctuation adorning the top of his walking cane. There’s something about puzzles that lures us in, teasing us with a sense of mystery and appealing to our desire to prove ourselves and come out on top. As a scientist, puzzles were what motivated me – how does something work? What lies behind it? Why does this happen? A similar intrigue was one of the paths of enquiry that led me to faith – why are we the way we are? Why do we exist? What’s the purpose of life?

I’m writing this having just got back from the Christian Union at St. Mary’s High School where rather than trying to solve puzzles we’ve been setting them. Our plan is to create a guerrilla advertising campaign for the group – a set of Easter Teasers around the Passion story with a prize of a chocolate variety for any who get all the questions right. Seven riddles leading to seven letters which make an anagram for them to solve. The answer is a significant word for the season, but I can’t let on what it is, just in case there are spies in the camp…

Creating the questions has reminded me yet again of the mystery of Jesus. In many ways we’re spoilt looking on from this side of Easter Sunday. We know how the story pans out. I wonder however what the disciples really made of Jesus? I wonder if he is the real Riddler! Who did they really think he was? Why did he seem so bent on heading to Jerusalem and provoking the authorities? What did they think he was trying to achieve? What happened on Good Friday? And what on earth did they make of Easter Sunday! Reading the Gospels without knowing the ending and they make puzzling reading. There is definitely a mystery here, a mystery which the rest of the New Testament spends trying to work out. I do wonder sometimes whether we spoil it a little too when we share the good news with others. Sometimes we reduce the mystery and this earth shattering story to a few neat and tidy phrases about Jesus dying in our place, bringing us forgiveness and eternal life. Sometimes I wonder if telling the story is much more powerful and profound. Such a story lures us in with its questions and enigmatic hints, teasing us promises just out of sight, and bringing us to the place where we find not a tidy and convincing argument but the outstretched arms of the one who died for us and longs for relationship rather than intellectual assent.

Church Newsletter 28th February 2016

All The Way to the Banksy

I suspect many of you would have heard the news this week about the new Banksy that appeared on a wall in Bristol. As always it has caused a great deal of interest and controversy, mainly about the vexed question of ownership – just who owns a piece of graffiti done in a public place? Is it the artist? The owner of the wall it is done on? Someone else or even no-one? And who has the right to say what happens with it next, especially when that piece of graffiti could generate significant sums of money if auctioned in some way. In the past pieces have been painted over, damaged, and ironically been victims of graffiti themselves!

In this case owner of a nearby boys club took matters into his own hands and unscrewed it (for once it was mounted rather than painted directly onto the wall, and took it into the club for safety. It appears as if safety wasn’t the only motive, the club is in need of funding and this painting was seen as being Banksy’s gift to the club. They would auction it and use the proceeds. Unsurprisingly not all were of the opinion that they could just take it like that! It has now been taken from there via the police to the city museum for display, but the mayor has said he’d love Banksy to provide a limited edition print of it for the Boys Club to sell so that everyone could be happy.

Although the questions raised by the dispute are interesting, I found the questions raised by the artwork itself most interesting. It portrays a couple in an embrace, but each holding a mobile phone behind the back of the other which they are reading. The hug suggests relationship, but the phones suggest their attention is not really on the other at all; a modern portrayal of the nature of broken relationships. The painting is in many ways a commentary on the row that has broken out over it!

This weekend we celebrate the one who came to bring an end to broken relationships. As it says in Colossians 1:19-20, ‘For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Jesus], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.’

Let’s celebrate this wonderful guerrilla act which, like Banksy’s artwork, was done freely for all, and play our part in spreading the message of reconciliation through Christ to each other and to our Heavenly Father. Let us not try and lock it way to keep it safe, or see it as for our profit alone.

Church newsletter 20.04.14

Luke 24 – Experiencing the Risen Christ!

Notes from an All Age Easter Celebration Service, Easter Day 2009 (12.04.09)

When today’s passage was first written, it was a brand new story and that was the problem, which was why Luke had to stress that Jesus’ death and resurrection had always been intended.
• The women who went to the tomb were told by the angels that Jesus had promised them that he had to be crucified and would then rise again. (24:7)
• Stranger on Emmaus Road explained how the Moses and the Prophets explained what would happen to the Christ. (24:26-27)
• Jesus opened their minds so that they could understand the Scriptures – that the Christ would suffer and rise (24:44)

But Luke also knew that the time would come when it would no longer be a new story, but an old one. Now the story is two thousand years old. It’s all very well and good Luke saying that Jesus was raised back to life, but how can we know that this is true?

Luke doesn’t try and prove the resurrection by reasoned argument or scientific proof. Instead, he does something even more exciting. He tells us a number of different ways in which we can get to know the risen Jesus for ourselves today!

Series of items – to add to the Garden step by step…

EASTER GARDEN: Bring on the plants!
o Every year we tell this story, we remember how Jesus rose from the dead.
o The same thing happens in this chapter. Time and time we have the story being told and retold, with the resurrection as its ending. The women tell the disciples, the two on the road to Emmaus tell the stranger who joins them, then they tell the disciples when they discover the stranger is Jesus. As you finish the chapter with the disciples heading back joyfully to worship in Jerusalem, you also get the impression that they are bubbling to tell everyone they meet!
o By telling the story, we remember that Jesus is alive, and share that with others!

A good book is more than just words. As you read a good book, the characters in it and the places and situations they experience come alive, that’s what it’s supposed to do. Through the voices in this passage, Luke is telling his readers that this is what the Bible is there for too. As Jesus talks to the two men on the road to Emmaus, he explains all that the Law and the Prophets had to say about him. The Law and the Prophets was an expression that meant the Old Testament as we now know it. Luke tells us that as he spoke to them, their hearts burned within them. He is also showing us that as we read the Bible today, that God will bring Jesus to life through its words for us, our hearts will also burn as we read it, the divine speaks through its pages.

It wasn’t until Jesus joined the two men on the Road to Emmaus for diner that they realised who he was. What was it that gave him away to them?
o As they ate he took the bread, broke it and gave thanks and gave it to them? Does that phrase sound familiar to you? It’s just like the Last Supper isn’t it, where Jesus took the bread and wine from the Passover Meal and used it to talk about who he was and what he was going to do for them, for us. No doubt they recognised the words. For us, I’m sure that like me, you thought about taking Communion where we regularly read those same words. Is Luke saying that we can come to know the risen Jesus in communion? How?
o Powerful symbol of what Jesus did for us – how he died so that we could be reconciled to God, made friends with him again.
o Promise of what to come – life after death!
o Opens our imagination and awareness of God in the present

£20 NOTE:
What is this? It’s a bit of paper with some pictures printed on it and some writing. Doesn’t sound particularly amazing does it! What’s it worth? Not much I wouldn’t have thought.
o What does it say on the note though? I promise to pay… Does that change anything? Still looks like a piece of paper to me! How am I supposed to know that its worth something? How do I know if it is really worth £20? By trying it. It is only by testing the promise that you can find out if it’s true.
o When the disciples first saw the risen Jesus in the room they were scared. They didn’t know if he was really who he looked like he was. Maybe he was a ghost? An Illusion? A delusion? That’s why Jesus told them to touch his hands and feet. By touching him they would be able to see that he was who he promised he was.
o Luke is telling us that at the end of the day, the only way to discover if Jesus is real is to test his promises. If we try to live by his promises, if we test him, touch him, we shall find that he is indeed trustworthy.

The final way in which we can get to know the risen Jesus today is found at the very end of the chapter. Jesus tells the disciples to go and share the great news of Easter with the rest of the world, but before they do so, they are to wait for God to give them power to do this – the Holy Spirit.
o Jesus is not with us now, he has left us, ascended into Heaven
o But the Holy Spirit is his way of being with us today,
 reminds us what Jesus taught us
 helps us to become like him
 and enables us to continue his mission of love in action

The story of Jesus rising from the dead may be an old story, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t know him today. We can know him through retelling the Easter Story, letting the Bible bring him alive for us, finding him in Communion, testing his promises, and enjoying his Presence through the Holy Spirit.

Luke 19:28-48 – The Visit of the King

Notes from an All Age Service Talk on Palm Sunday, 2009 (05.04.09)before a prayer walk around Wormley

Lot’s of fuss earlier this week about Obama visiting the UK. Did you see his car! (Show picture)

Observers say the car is likely to include:
• bullet proof glass
• armoured body,
• a separate oxygen supply,
• completely sealed interior to protect against a chemical attack.
• Some joke the car is so tough it could withstand a rocket-propelled grenade.

David Caldwell of General Motors who made it joked: ‘One of the specifications is that we don’t talk about the specifications’. What a contrast to Jesus coming into town, not in ‘The Beast’ but on a donkey…

But like the coming of Obama, Jesus coming to Jerusalem caused great celebrations!
• Cloaks on road – like red carpet
• Joyful praise!
• Other versions – palm branches, waving flags

But like Obama coming to London, not all were happy. The protests then were by the Pharisees who told him to make his disciples be quiet.

• Jealous? Afraid that the crowds might shift their allegiance from them to him?
• Afraid? Afraid of what the Romans might do? Would they decide that the Jews were crossing the line?
• Didn’t think it was right – should be celebrating Passover, God’s rescue, not Jesus

I wonder what Obama felt this week about all the fuss? How did it make him feel? What did it make him do?

Jesus looks over the city as he came, and cried over it
• Not self important, but concerned for people
• Prayerful
• Upset as Jerusalem didn’t recognize him for who he was

I’m always struck by this part of the passage. Struck by the humanity of Jesus, the emotions he feels. Struck by the depth of his feelings too – even for those who he knows are against him, or will turn against him in a few short days. Always challenges me to ask how much I care for those in my communities. Do I see through those outside the school, or in the shops or at the doctors, or even judge them? Jesus didn’t…

As we walk in a moment – try and see Wormley as Jesus does. Pray for the people and places we see. Pray that they might enjoy God and recognise him.

But was Jesus just concerned about that town, those people, his people?
He was inclusive, concerned for foreigners, those who came from elsewhere – turning over tables so that the Gentiles could pray and meet with God.
As we walk, let’s pray for those of other cultures and backgrounds in this area, that they might be made welcome. Pray too that we might be open to those outside the church

Luke 22:66-23:56 – Who Was That Masked Man?

Notes from a sermon preached on Good Friday 2009 (10.04.09)

For many the sound of the William Tell Overture will conjure up memories of radio and TV westerns with a masked man with American Indian companion confronting conflicts and problems, with the famous question, ‘Who was that masked man?’

Whilst the Lone Ranger may now be a figure of the past, others queue up to take his place. Superheroes with their secret identities are all the rage on the big screen right now, with Spiderman, Superman, the Hulk, X-Men and Watchmen generating big bucks at the box office. Again the question is asked by those who come across them, ‘Who is that masked man?’

There is another such figure who has hit the screens again in recent years whose identity prompts the same question – who is that man? Films such as the Da Vinci Code and The Passion by Mel Gibson have thrust him back into public consciousness, if he ever went away. Last year at this time, the BBC made their own adaptation of the passion story, the last week of Jesus’ life.

There are many haunting portrayals of Jesus’ final week before his was crucified, not the least those of the Gospels themselves. Whenever I read them I am left asking that same question, who was that man? In many ways, that’s what the rest of the New Testament is about, trying to answer this riddle that the Gospels present. Who was he? What did he stand for? Why did he die? What did his death achieve?

Today’s passage in many ways focuses no this mystery as Jesus is jostled from one kangaroo court to another.

The Council of Elders
It starts with the chief priests and the teachers of the law, the council of elders. They are the ones who have detained Jesus with the help of the Temple guard. Jesus is thrown before them at first light, and they demand of him, ‘If you are the Christ, tell us.” In other words, who are you? Are you just a man? Or are you God’s chosen one, the one sent in his power and authority that has been long awaited?

This figure of the Christ is one that emerges gradually in the Old Testament. Hint by hint, the suggestion of someone coming in God’s power and authority develops, one who will restore Israel to her former glory, a king like David, a prophet like Moses. One who will set her people free! And yet this Messiah remains in the shadows, unclear, disguised. They do not know what he will look like and when he will come. At the time of Jesus, many thought that in those days of occupation by the Romans, the time for the coming of God’s Saviour was nigh…

Was Jesus that man? The religious leaders pose the question that was on many lips, and it hangs there in the air for us today. Was Jesus the Christ, God’s appointed one?

Of course, they had already made up their mind. It was not Jesus. This question was just to give them, the excuse they were looking for to dismiss him, to remove him. If he said no, then it was all over. If he said yes, that was blasphemy.

Are you the Christ?… They did not expect the answer they got, ‘I’m not going to tell you, as you wouldn’t believe me even if I was!’ They certainly didn’t expect what he suggested next…

Off to Pilate. Again the question rears its head. Who is this man? Here’s a trouble maker who preaches rebellion against the state… There’s a contemporary ring to that isn’t there. Pilate, here’s someone preaching race hate, campaigning against taxation, radicalising the people. He claims to be the king! So goes their suggestion – not what they really think though is it. Pilate is a sharper politician than they thought though. He wants to find out for himself. Perhaps he sees through their motives…

‘Who are you?’

Perhaps he sees in Jesus a deluded preacher. Perhaps he sees him as a challenger to the religious leaders, but no more. He certainly doesn’t see him as a threat. ‘I find no basis of a charge against him!’ But the Council won’t back down. They press their allegations, and to Herod he goes…

Herod’s heard of Jesus. He’s heard of the walking on water, the feeding of the five thousand. Maybe even rumours of Lazaras. News like that spreads. Jesus is the hot property on the entertainment circuit, the darling of the Tabloids and Glossies. Eat your heart out David Blaine they announce. This man is the real deal, a true magician!

You know what they say about meeting your idols? Herod was disappointed. Jesus was nothing like the figure he’d been told about. The hype failed to live up to the reality. No tricks on show here. No illusions. No response to his demands or questions. ‘Who are you?’ When no answer comes, no display of power, Herod concludes he’s a joke. He’s got one illusion of his own, and egged on by the jeering troops and priests, he drapes a royal robe upon Jesus’ shoulders – look, the masked man has become a king indeed!

Back With Pilate
But Pilate’s not into jokes right now. Perhaps being woken first thing has put him in a bad mood! He just wants shot of the Jews and their accusations. I see nothing wrong with this man. I’ll humour you by having him flogged, but that’s it, then he’s out of here. But the gathered crowd aren’t so keen…

The BBC’s Passion last year suggested that the crowd were in fact a rent-a-mob gathered together by the Jewish leaders. Although the Gospels don’t say as much, it makes sense. Not everyone is against Christ – there’s a crowd that follows him to his crucifixion, mourning his loss – but here not a voice cries out in his support. How else would they know about Jesus being presented to Pilate?

Remember Peter the night before warming himself beside a fire, whilst denying three times that he knew Jesus? What follows is a strange contrast. The crowd keep calling for Barabbas to be released instead of Jesus. Three times Pilate appeals to them, saying that Jesus is innocent. The crowd cannot be appeased though, and Pilate finally relents. Jesus, the innocent one, is locked up awaiting execution, whilst Barabbas, the guilty on, goes free. Isn’t it strange that unlike Peter, the Jew, Pilate, the Roman Gentile resists the temptation to deny Jesus. And yet, despite this, in the end both Jew and Gentile abandon Jesus to his death… What is Luke trying to say here? In the innocent Jesus taking the guilty Barabbas’ place? And in Jesus being denied by Peter, and yet defended by Pilate? But how about when Pilate finally gives in, and surrenders Jesus to his fate?

The Jewish Leaders are guilty. Pilate is guilty. Herod is guilty. The crowd are guilty. Both Jews and Gentiles are guilty. Even the disciples are guilty – Peter as well as Judas. Jesus, the innocent man, is killed because no one stopped it from happening. Jesus is killed because no one was prepared to find out who he really was…

But Who Is He Really?
The danger of thinking about Jesus is that we decide who he is. As with the characters in this story, we look for what we want to see, what our labels suggest, and what our prejudices want – or don’t want. Rather than us trying to decide who he is, perhaps we should let him talk for himself.

• What does it say about Jesus that we find him hanging between two Criminals rather than in the court seated alongside Herod, or presiding over the ceremonies alongside the priests?
• What does it say that as the voyeurs watch him, the rulers sneer at him, the soldiers mock him, and one of the criminals throws insults at him, what does it say about him when Jesus says nothing, does nothing?
• Why does Luke point out the humiliation of Jesus losing even his clothes which are gambled for by the guards below?
• What does the irony of the sign ‘King of the Jews’ above a man hung on a tree, cursed by God, reveal about him?
• How about when he dies? The sky goes dark, the earth shakes and the curtain separating the people and God in the Temple tears in two – what does this mean?

To the women following him, he tells them to mourn for what is about to happen to them rather than what is happening to him. About those executing him, he asks his Father to forgive them as they don’t know what he is doing. To the criminal who asks to be remembered by Jesus in his kingdom, he says he will be there with him in paradise. And as he dies, he cries out, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’

Jesus identity is marked by power, but not power as the religious leaders and political top-cats know it. It is marked by the power of extreme forgiveness, forgiveness offered to friends and enemies. It is marked by surrendering the chance to save your self in order to save others, including those who’ve betrayed you or let you down. It is marked by the wealth of relationship, the Son offering relationship that lasts beyond even the grave, security in the Father.

The apparent end of this King is marked by irony. The King of the Jews is so different from the kings of his day – and indeed ours – that he is rejected; not recognised by his religion or by his country. But this is not to say that all reject him. A Centurion – a Roman occupier – announces him as a righteous man, and the women, so often rejected by their time, are those mourning him before and after his crucifixion.

All that is left is a question. Who is that masked man?