Thursday, 31 March 2016

Schooled in faith at the wounded hands of Christ

The 2nd Sunday of Easter

Year C
John 20:19-31

Thomas doesn't have much of a speaking part in the Gospel of John.

Thomas appears to decline each time he opens his mouth. His first words (John 11:16) were a pep-talk he gave to the other disciples when Jesus suggested a return to Judea where he and his disciples had already been threatened with mob violence. Thomas suggested that they should together go and die with him.  All very noble, this, and the very thing you'd expect an apostle to say.  But something happened to Thomas along the way.  A few chapters later Jesus told his disciples that he was going to prepare a place for them - a home in the heavenly places.  Thomas' response (John 14:5) shows not only that he seems a bit thick and has misunderstood the big picture of what Jesus is saying.  It reveals a deep dis-ease and uncertainty at the centre of his soul

Lord we don’t know where you are 
going, so how can we know the way?

Show me a map.  Explain how it will be.  Tell me where to put my feet.  Which is more or less how Thomas will later challenge the other disciples (John 20:24-29) when he finds himself among people who have witnessed the risen Christ where he himself has not and is asked to share their joy which he believes he cannot.  Show me the map, he says again.  Show me the prints of the nails.  Show me the wounds in the side. 

I will not believe unless…..

This is not a story where the Church mocks Thomas.  Rarely does the question boil down to a  binary issue of whether we have faith or whether we don't as if there were a lottery going on and the lucky among us scratch the little box that reveals with an exclamation mark that “Congratulations you have faith!” and others merely uncover the words “Better luck next time!”  Our Gospel reading this Sunday is a story about God’s active and continuing interest in bringing faith to the surface and nurturing it into visible reality – exactly as Jesus does for Thomas in the story. Faith is discovered by needing and using it and by finding that God indeed makes it possible.   

I've been at this for well over thirty years now and have sat next to all sorts of people facing things which led them to wonder if they had the faith necessary to get through the next month or even the next six hours.  Most of them proved themselves pillars.  Most of them would testify to the active support of something beyond themselves as and while they forged forward with a degree of faith they were not sure they had.

Later stories about Thomas, while in no way certain, are reasonably well-founded.  From his base in Edessa in western Turkey he is said to have then traveled to India.  We may reasonably assume he did so without a map.  He had been schooled in faith at an uncertain time at the wounded hands of Jesus.   You may have been so schooled yourselves.  You may yet be.   You should pray to be.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Seek, find and be amazed!

Easter Sunday - Year C
Luke 24:1-12

…these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did
not believe them.  But Peter got up and ran to the tomb;
stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves;
then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

The ancient rubbish tip outside the ancient Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus yielded a Greek fragment of the curious text of the Gospel of Thomas - an enigmatic book which contains morsels of Jesus material at least as old as our first three Gospels mixed in with odd philosophical and even heretical musings from the third century.  It’s not been included amongst our canonical Gospels for some quite good reasons.  Nonetheless it does yield the odd gem:

(2) [Jesus said], "Let him who seeks continue [seeking until] he finds.
When he finds, [he will be amazed. And] when he becomes [amazed],
he will rule. And [once he has ruled], he will [attain rest]."

There is no question that the disciples and other early witnesses to the resurrection were perplexed, thunderstruck, disturbed and, in the case of Peter in this Sunday's Gospel, “amazed” by the events of Easter Sunday morning.  That they did not understand immediately doesn’t seem to matter because our Evangelists are telling two parallel stories about the Easter morning events and the appearances of the risen Christ in the days which followed:  What did God do?  And (because the Gospels are designed to be read by men and women of faith and to help refine and underpin that faith with the historical record) How did men and women come to faith in the risen Christ? 

The resurrection of Jesus is not an incomprehensible loud noise which deafens the attending disciples. Their perplexity is temporary.  It will be nurtured into faith through their fellowship with the risen Christ, through his words in the following forty days and through the future confirmation of the Holy Spirit.  This is the remaking of a fallen creation.   God’s pledge is to make that creation new again.  The risen Christ will be not only observed but in fact witnessed (there’s a difference!) and then proclaimed and for that to happen the Resurrection will come to be understood. 

I want to point to one very early response, on Peter’s part, which even preceded his sprint to the empty tomb much less any coherent understanding.  The women had returned with a story which seemed, to the gathered and grieving disciples, a vain and empty tale.  Without any particular textual justification, I can imagine Peter in another room hearing every second word shouted out by grieving and perhaps even angry disciples as they argue with the women.  The words beyond the wall sink in – idle – tale - master – gone – tomb – empty.   The merest shred of possibility presents itself that all is not in fact ended.  Like a dull ember buried deep in the ashes, hope finds a little tinder in Peter’s soul and catches light.   He’s off like a shot.  Prior to faith in full flower there can be both will and openness.  

Keep your ears open.  
Honour the hunger within you.  
Seek until you find.   
Be amazed!

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Do you hear the people sing?

Palm Sunday - Passion Sunday
Year C
Luke 22:14-23:56                                                                                                               
Do you hear the people sing?

The most recognisable song from “Les Misérables” is set amidst the decay and turmoil of Paris in the 1830’s.   The song is defiant and hopeful.  It is a young person’s song.  The voice of the people will lead the way.  They can be trusted to do the right thing.  Well that’s the theory anyway.  

A number of you this Sunday will note how the long Passion Gospel from Luke is divided up amongst the several voices expressed in the story.   We all have our parts to play.  It’s fitting that ordinary human voices should be heard. 

Jesus has a voice in this long reading. 
Pontius Pilate and the religious authorities in Jerusalem have their voice as well -
and of course there’s that voice of the crowd or the assembly calling out in unison: Crucify him!

What is a crowd, anyway?  Like the man said in the fine print:  Your experience may vary.  

If you’re a policeman a crowd is something to be controlled.  If you’re an entertainer, you might look at the crowd in front of you as something you need to whip up or encourage to sing along with you or to laugh at your jokes.  Those of us who live in democratic societies look to crowds to cast a vote in general elections and referendums.   We delegate, to their hands, the destiny of our nations.

For most of us Passion Sunday is also Palm Sunday.  At the beginning of our service we heard the voice of Jesus’ followers crying out during the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem that Jesus is blessed and that he is the coming Messiah.  And so we cannot avoid being smacked in the face by the change in the crowd’s tone between one Gospel and the next.  Let’s not try to score any easy points.  This is not a jab at the madness of that particular historic crowd in Jerusalem nor does the Gospel reading join us in in our disdain for a crude contemporary public whose taste in music, religion or politics we might despise.    To avoid ever accusing somebody else we are therefore asked to take our part in the readings this Sunday. 

We are the judged and not the judges.  We are the fickle crowd.

Salvation is the gift accomplished by Christ for us and freely given to us.  That’s what the Gospel accounts are at pains to show us - not in a simple statement but in the layered drama of the Passion accounts.   Any potential partners in salvation are peeled away from the story.  Pilate (and with him the greatest administrative state the world had ever known) is out for the count.  The priests and the scribes are out as well (and with them the historic religion that presumed to know God best).  The disciples, Judas - even Peter - either betray or deny Jesus.  God shoulders the burden of the cross himself.    And as for the voice of the people?

 The crowd, it would appear, is just another failed actor.  

Thursday, 10 March 2016

"The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume"

Lent 5 - Year C
John 12:1-8

“The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume”

How bright is the lamp? 
How powerful is your space heater? 
How potent is the perfume? 

How able are any of these to fill a room with light or heat or fragrance?  Somebody out there knows the maths and can hold forth on Lumens or British Thermal Units to explain it.  I certainly can’t.

How much is too much?  Rooms can be overheated.  Lights can be too bright.  If you’ve ever sat in a movie theatre, with a group of ladies of a certain generation on their night out together behind you, you know that perfume can be too strong.

Is this what Judas is griping about - that Mary has cracked open a one-pint alabaster jar of expensive imported perfume?  It’s too much, he says, not only wrong but unnecessary!  We might have spent money differently and in a less extravagant fashion.  This comment earns Judas a direct rebuke from Jesus in the story and a critical side note from John the Evangelist which rubbishes his character and his motives.  What John knows (and what you know) is what Jesus reveals just prior to the last supper:  Judas is on the wrong side of the fence – as even principled critics sometimes are.  He feigns an attitude of care but fears the loss of his control.

Who is in control?  These are little people, remember.  They are not the big beasts of their generation.  Moreover, they stand at the beginning of a chapter in Jesus’ earthly life where nobody but God is in control.  The anointing at Bethany is the overture to the Passion Narrative in John’s Gospel as well as Mark’s and Matthew's Gospels.  It is the starting gun.  From this point on, everybody from Judas to Peter, to Pontius Pilate and the High Priest plays the role that has been chosen for him and the son of God goes to the cross as it has been written. 

She's a bright light - this Mary of Bethany - once again she correctly discerns what the right attitude in such circumstances might be – the “one thing [which] is needful” in this prelude to Christ’s Passion.   It alone makes sense at the beginning of a week which will see their world turned upside down.   It takes the form of an extravagant and overt act of adoration, of love and of worship. Wordlessly she draws attention to the One in their midst who is giving himself for the life of the world

It is a gift beyond argument, dispute and objection. 
It is the small planet settling into orbit around the grander sphere.
It is the servant bringing the fruits of the harvest to the master. 

She has understood. 
And have you? 

Worship is not a periodic obligation, sparing and conservative (perhaps even self-serving) like one of Judas' disbursements.   It is the pouring out of our substance at Jesus’ feet as a response to what he has accomplished for us.  Even the worship of little people like ourselves has its own power over powerlessness.  It fills the room.