Our story begins with Acts 1. Judas has died. This creates an issue. They needed another apostle. Why? Probably, I suspect, because (strange as it may seem) they felt that the number 12 was important. 12 Tribes of Israel… 12 disciples. Twelve represented the people of God. It was symbolic.
Whatever the reason they picked two potential replacements… and then threw dice (cast lots) to find a replacement. Matthias got the job … and that’s the last we hear of the man.
But what is the deeper issue here? What do the apostles represent? What’s their role? Verse 21 says ‘one of these must become a witness (martyra – from which we get martyr) with us to his resurrection.’
But let’s think a little deeper again… Why is ‘witness’ such an important idea for Christianity?
Witness is about history… A witness is someone who makes a public declaration about something that has happened. If faith were a matter of private spirituality… a set of principles which each person could learn… or a relationship to God that each could explore in the privacy of their own life… we would not need ‘witnesses’. But at the centre of our faith is the memory that something earth-shattering has happened in history. So witness matters.
The apostles were ‘witnesses’ to the resurrection. We are witnesses now. The Bible is a kind of witness. As the apostles were beginning to die out later in the first century they began to gather together their memories and their writings and produced what we call the New Testament. They didn’t throw dice… but they did make a selection. Something has happened that must be remembered and known.
Two issues for Christians at the time: (i) How do we preserve the witness of the first Christians and the Apostles (i.e the NT)? and (ii) How do we read and interpret the Scriptures we already have – the Hebrew bible (what we call the OT)?
This second issue had been one they had been struggling with since the earliest days of the church… long before they gathered together the New Testament. In fact you can see their answer to the problem of reading the Old Testament if you look closely at the writings of the New Testament.
We looked at something like this a fortnight ago when I was preaching about the Eunuch… for a Eunuch reading the OT is not easy. Deuteronomy says God excludes him from the community of faith and Isaiah says God welcomes him. And I commented at the time that the scripture itself is a kind of struggle… it documents, or bears witness to Israel’s struggle to make some sense of God. For Christians this becomes the question… is God really like Jesus? (this week I’ve been listening to a guy called Brad Jersak who’s talking about his book ‘A More Christlike God’ – should be a fantastic resource if you’re thinking about these things, or I could send you a link to his interview). Is God really like Jesus? Because at some points in the OT God is portrayed as commanding things that Jesus forbids … like genocide, like slavery, wiping out children, plundering the women in organised rape… and the passage in Hosea about God commanding people to cut babies out of their mother’s wombs (check it out if you don’t believe me).
Of course this is not “the God of the OT”. This is just one strand. We also have Psalm 103 in which the psalmist is persuaded that God is ‘gracious, compassionate, abounding in lovingkindness … hasn’t treated us according to our sins’
It matters profoundly for our faith and our politics whether God is like Jesus.
Some Christians will tell you that God wrote the Bible. That each verse is kind of equally true… a flat bible. It might be how they read the Bible, but that’s not how the first Christians read the OT. And you can see this if you look at the NT. They didn’t just read the scriptures, they searched the scriptures to find things that pointed to Jesus (remember Philip with the Eunuch). But the writers are quite explicit about this at the beginning of John’s gospel and at the beginning of the letter to the Hebrews…. Listen to this as instruction as to how to read the OT:
The law (Torah – most sacred scripture) indeed was given through Moses: grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
See how Jesus functions for them to purify the images of God they might get from their own scriptures! Listen to the writer to the Hebrews
God spoke to our ancestors, in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being….
If you think about it the contrasts in these two scriptures are incredible!
What sort of search of the OT do you do if you want to know what God is like? … you do a search which looks for witnesses… before the event (before Christ) witnesses to a God who is exactly like Jesus, whose character is exactly reflected in Jesus life and words.
And today’s Epistle reading weighs into exactly this debate… It begins
If we receive human testimony(witness – martyria), the testimony (witness) of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son.
So there’s at least 3 dimensions of Christian thinking to this idea of ‘witness’ … the OT is a witness to Jesus from the past, there’s the NT witness of the first Christians, and there’s God’s own witness to Jesus (resurrection and gift of the Spirit) and finally (the fourth dimension if you like) our life is a matter of being witnesses ourselves. We are the bible that other people read!
John’s epistle goes on:
Those who trust themselves to the Son of God have the testimony (witness) in their hearts … And this is the testimony: God gave us the life of the age to come, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life… I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have the life of the age to come.
How do we witness? We witness with our whole lives… because the life of Jesus has got to the very heart of our thinking and emotions. We have what John calls ‘the life of the age to come’ and so both what we do and what we say is a public statement about the historical event which shattered the history of the world and which is, even now, the life of the age to come.
I want to finish this morning with Jesus prayer from our Gospel reading…
I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.
I want to call this section of the prayer: Jesus ‘witness protection plan’. Did you notice what Jesus prayed for his disciples? Not protection from flooding. Not protection from war. Not protection from cancer. Protection from the evil one. He wants them to be protected from the force of evil in the world. He wants them to be ‘sanctified’. Made holy, made different. ‘Sanctify them in the truth, your word is truth’. He wants their life and witness to be more and more like the word that God has spoken. So if we are to learn to pray from Jesus prayers… as we do every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, let’s not pray for protection from illness or disaster. Let’s take Jesus’ witness protection plan seriously. Let’s focus on ultimately what matters – that the difference that Jesus makes in the world will be seen in us. Let’s pray that our witness will be protected.
Please forgive me if I try and say something about all three texts today… Each is important and reinforce each other. But you might need to concentrate. Fasten your seatbelts!
The Vine and the Branches… How could we summarise that reading. Let me attempt a short summary: If you don’t live your life in the life of Jesus (I would say the cross shaped life of Jesus) you die. If your life is not given its fruitfulness by the life of Jesus it will wither and dry up. You either live in God or you don’t live. John’s gospel is a bold and sharp as that.
It doesn’t say how we might do that… (it may be that there are many atheists in the world who live their lives in the cross shaped life of Jesus and who don’t think of themselves as disciples…there might be many piously religious people who talk about Jesus but whose lives bear no resemblance to Jesus). The passage doesn’t deal with that. but it does make it very clear that God has given us a life and a source of fruitful existence on this planet… the life of Jesus.
John’s Epistle extends this point. The life of God that makes us fruitful people is nothing less than the love of God… seen in our world.
God’s love was revealed among us in this way: [says John] God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning (or in contemporary language, the transforming) sacrifice for our sins.
We don’t have access any other way to this life but through the active love of God towards us. Love starts with God’s active love for us.
No one has ever seen God (Abba, sender of Jesus); if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us…. Love has been perfected among us in this: [in what?]… because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment
Here is the message of the tradition of John (gospel and epistle)… The love of God is visible, active, alive among us… and because of Jesus, ‘the true vine’, the same love takes its shape in our life (as he is so are we in the world). And importantly it does so without reference to fear or punishment. If we think we are a Christian because we otherwise we will be punished by God… then we are not really Christian (we are just looking out for our own skin). John says: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment.”
That’s kind of a big message! A message that takes a lifetime to soak in. But we also have a story… a story about how that message was soaking in as the church was born. The conversion of a Eunuch.
Who is this man? The Eunuch? He is a leading public figure of a foreign nation – in a chariot… no doubt with full courtege and bodyguard. The treasurer of Ethiopia… (modern Sudan)… He must be important because he has a bible… a scroll… long before the days of paperback bibles. It was very hard for a gentile to get such a scroll… perhaps it was a gift he received at a public visit.
But perhaps most interestingly, this man is one who embodies in himself the struggle of Israel! What do I mean? There are two significant references in the Scriptures to Eunuchs. The first is Deuteronomy 23:1 (Eunuchs are explicitly excluded from the faith of Israel). The second is in Isaiah 56:3-5 (Eunuchs are accepted by God’s boundless loving-kindness). If he was a would-be-worshipper-of-the-God-of-Israel… and a Eunuch then he would have known of these passages. So no wonder he responds to Philip… with ‘how can I’ understand what I am reading?’ The Scriptures themselves don’t agree. They are themselves a living argument about the nature of God and God’s people. The Eunuch has stepped into a fight. For the Eunuch this argument is not theoretical, it’s not a theoretical debate about a contradiction in the bible. It’s personal. Is he in or is he out? Is there a place in the people of God for a man of questionable masculinity? A man whose sexuality doesn’t fit the normal pattern? It matters for the Eunuch. He’s in a tricky situation here.
Although the Eunuch probably knew about clash between his situation as a Eunuch and Jewish faith, it wasn’t those passages he was reading in his chariot that day. He was reading an extraordinary passage in the Hebrew scriptures – the point where the prophet Isaiah is waxing lyrical about a figure he calls ‘The Servant of the Lord’. The Servant is one who suffers unjustly – who is the people’s scapegoat, who is brutally punished (sacrificed) by the people as though he were to blame for their iniquities. This brutalised victim, this ‘righteous Servant’, Isaiah says … is the one through whom God brings redemption and hope to God’s people.
The Eunuch reads this from Isaiah 53:7-8
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”
And yet Isaiah suggest that although those who kill this man cannot imagine him having any future generation, any offspring. God, who allows this to happen and is at work in all of it, will ensure (in some sense) offspring for him. Isaiah says, “through him, the will of the Lord will prosper” (v10). … It is, in my view, the most extraordinary part of the Hebrew Scriptures.
The Eunuch asks “Is the prophet speaking about himself or another”? It’s a great question. Philip doesn’t answer directly. What he does do is use the passage to tell him the good news about Jesus.
It doesn’t matter (for these purposes) … what the prophet intended… what matters is how the passage is fulfilled… what matters in the end is how it bears witness to God… It may not be an empty text (able to mean anything at all)… but its not full either. It’s a text waiting to be filled up (fulfilled) as a vehicle of God’s word… It is incomplete… perhaps profoundly ambiguous in what ultimately matters… So we read, “starting with this scripture, [Philip]… proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus”.
What strikes me about the Servant of Isaiah as an image of Jesus. Is the silence. He had preached the kingdom all his life. And now it was being rejected. The Servant Jesus responds to rejection in silence. Like a sheep led to the slaughter is silent. He has demonstrated the kingdom, he has announced it. But he will not force it on anyone. The end does not justify such means. He is silent. When other alternatives are exhausted he submits.
The silence does not last forever (thank God)… In the very next verse Philip, a representative of the Risen Christ, opens his mouth and begins to speak good news about Jesus. The Servant is silent. Philip can speak.
To return to the Eunuch’s dilemma as a would be Jew… Does the God of Israel come on the side of Deuteronomy or Isaiah in this particular debate? Is the Eunuch in or out? The first thing to see, as Philip explains the scripture to the Eunuch, is that God comes out on the side of Jesus – the Servant. The message of Isaiah and of the whole of the scriptures – as a living argument of many books – is only complete if you understand the good news about Jesus.
But that’s a good thing! Because it means for the Eunuch, in fact, that God comes out on the side of Isaiah (and not Deuteronomy). How do we know? Because it is clear to both Philip and the Eunuch that there is nothing preventing him being baptised. The Eunuch is a full participant in the people of God… according to Isaiah, interpreted in the light of Jesus of Nazareth.
Perfect love casts out fear… Neither Philip nor the Eunuch are afraid to cross the boundaries and to go ahead with a baptism. The scripture makes new sense. The vine has new branches.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
In one short and beautifully concise line the KJV summarised the most beloved song of all time. God supplies all my need.
But of course we live in a world which works like a factory for needs and wants. As soon as I watch TV or read the newspaper or go out in a crowd. I discover what new clothes I need, what technology I need, what skills I need to have a place in the world.
If the Lord is my shepherd… how can I live in this world of constantly accumulating needs. In my desperate need to have a place, to be someone, to be significant, or just to be ok… I find myself constantly lacking.
The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want… It’s as if the Psalmist provides us with a summary of the whole song at the beginning, but you only understand how the Psalmist reached that confidence at the end… or perhaps you only really understand such confidence when you appreciate Jesus the good Shepherd.
One thing I notice about this Psalm is that it changes when you go through the darkest valley – the valley of the shadow of death. Did anyone notice how the Psalm changes at that point?
It changes from talking about God… (the Lord is my Shepherd… my source of stillness… my provider… the one who restores my life to me) to talking to God. It’s one thing to talk about someone. It’s another thing altogether to talk to someone. In the darkest place… God is not simply out there leading, or even beside me, but God is ‘You’. The Psalmist turns towards God. For God has turned towards the Psalmist.
But Anne Sexton knows the valley of the shadow of death. Listen to her poem (I may have read it before, but it’s worth repeating): ‘The Sickness unto Death’
God went out of me
as if the sea dried up like sandpaper,
as if the sun became a latrine.
God went out of my fingers.
They became stone.
My body became a side of mutton
and despair roamed the slaughterhouse.
Someone brought me oranges in my despair
but I could not eat a one
for God was in that orange.
I could not touch what did not belong to me.
The priest came,
he said God was even in Hitler.
I did not believe him
for if God were in Hitler
then God would be in me.
I did not hear the bird sounds.
They had left.
I did not see the speechless clouds,
I saw only the little white dish of my faith
breaking in the crater.
I kept saying:
I’ve got to have something to hold on to.
People gave me Bibles, crucifixes,
a yellow daisy,
but I could not touch them,
I who was a house full of bowel movement,
I who was a defaced altar,
I who wanted to crawl toward God
could not move nor eat bread.
So I ate myself,
bite by bite,
and the tears washed me,
wave after cowardly wave,
swallowing canker after canker
and Jesus stood over me looking down
and He laughed to find me gone,
and put His mouth to mine
and gave me His air.
My kindred, my brother, I said
and gave the yellow daisy
to the crazy woman in the next bed.
Anne Sexton, ‘The Sickness Unto Death’, in The Complete Poems (1981), 441–42.
It’s a powerful poem about the shadow of death.
This week we have been walking in the shadow of death… the death of thousands of New Zealanders a hundred years ago. Yesterday we remembered them. Today is the anniversary of the genocide of between 1 and 1.5 million Armenians (the Christian minority in Turkey). A systematic massacre which occurred about the same time as the Anzacs were landing in Gallipoli.
The Good Shepherd gives his life for the sheep. The Good Shepherd, in John’s gospel, comes to us not just in the valley of the the shadow of our own death, but in the shadow of his own death.
I will ‘fear no evil’. The Good Shepherd who gave his life for the sheep… feared no evil… he looked evil in the face and replied with love, ‘Father forgive them’ …
Jesus stood over me, looking down.
And he laughed to find me gone,
and put his mouth to mine, and gave me his air.
With a laugh… beyond any anxiety over death, beyond any fear of the evil that death’s power over us creates… the Good Shepherd can breathe life into us.
Jesus says that the good shepherd came that we might have life ‘abundantly’… I shall not want… when all we can see are things we don’t have and want… its more a statement of hope than fact at the beginning.
But everything often changes in the darkest valley. Because that valley is not only the shadow of our own death… the place where we know our own vulnerability, our true need of God, it is also the shadow of the God’s death… the death of the Good Shepherd.
And when God’s death, and our death meet… the Good Shepherd not only gives his life for us, but gives his life to us.
Did you see that image of the Spirit of Jesus? He gave me his ‘air’ All I need is the air that he breathes.
And then the resurrection.
My kindred, my brother, I said
and gave the yellow daisy
to the crazy woman in the next bed.
not only did she touch the flower… the world that she couldn’t even touch before … but she gave it away. Death has been conquered.
I want to lead us through the last section of the Psalm to conclude.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies… The unique contribution of Jesus to ethical thought… his big idea (but it’s so much more than an idea) is love for enemies. And we come out of the valley of the shadow of death and find ourselves sitting down at table with our enemies… giving daisies to crazy people. We give things away because rather than wanting… our cup overflows…
And then the Psalm concludes with these words.
Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life.
And I shall return to the Lord my whole life long.
It’s not the KJV but according to scholars its more accurate. The verb translated ‘dwell’ (shuv) usually means something quite different… it usually means ‘turn’ or ‘return’.
It’s quite different… its an ongoing journey. God is after me. The Good Shepherd is after me. And because I have met the good shepherd in a dark place… where my own fears of death meet God’s own death on a cross…. because I have been given new life there… I will return again and again, my whole life long.
For the first time in a long time, I took an Anzac service. I have long been resisting this challenge. My concern about the growing tide of nationalism and the glorification of war (disclaimers to the contrary notwithstanding). For the best summary of my views on the Anzac story see here. However, this year it was harder to get out of it. It was my turn and a friend had encouraged me to speak our rather than simply inhabit the parallel world of peace services. Here is my sermon from this morning
LESSON Luke 10:25-37
Today we gather with a sense that there is a great cloud of witnesses… many who have gone before are with us, in some sense looking on. As we gather today we feel that their deepest desire for us is that we never have to experience what they experienced. Never again!
In 1915 it was billed as the ‘great war’… the ‘war to end all wars’. Of course it didn’t do any such thing. Wars do not end wars they beget wars.
Today we are in a church and so we listen to the word of God. And here this word from God goes by the name, Jesus of Nazareth.
In our reading Jesus is asked a question which essentially can be translated as a question about the good life. What does it mean to be part of the life of God? What does that look like? Jesus turns the question back to the questioner. What do you think? What does your law tell you? The guy says: “Love the Lord your God with all your soul and strength and mind. And love your neighbour as yourself’. Jesus agrees with this answer. It’s the standard orthodoxy of the time.
But the questioner isn’t finished. He wants clarity. “Who is my neighbour?” In response Jesus tells the famous story of the Good Samaritan – a story in which the person who loves his neighbour turns out to be a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans were in a state of constant hostility. They despised one another. And this incendiary role-model, this enemy of Israel, turns out to be the one who loves his neighbour by loving his enemy, a wounded and dying Jew.
The thing is, there was another orthodox belief at the time of Jesus… that ‘my neighbour’ amounted to ‘my fellow Israelite’. “Love thy neighbour”, yes, but only if my neighbour is a cultural ally, or a member of my own nation, within my circle of kin.
In terms of the orthodoxy of his time Jesus was a heretic. “Love thy neighbour”, became, for the first time, “Love thy enemy”. “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
The tragedy of this moment of remembrance is, of course, that it is easier said than done! Those who died in military action bear witness today to the long history of our failures as a people to love our enemies. Not only must we remember those who have died, but we must also learn to repent. We honour them in our memory by learning repentance, by learning and relearning the things that make for peace.
Of course, this heresy that Jesus of Nazareth introduced (love for enemy), was not simply an idea. It was a life that he lived. It was a life that he lived all the way to choosing death on a Roman cross over military rebellion. It was a life that he lived as he was dying with the words ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.’
And for us who believe that this life was more than just his life, but the very life of God… that God raised him from death… believe that this life and this “dying on the cross” is our great hope. And in this man, who gives himself unreservedly into the hands of his enemies, in this man is the beginning of the end of war …
In response to this man, Christians gather weekly in buildings like this for a kind of boot-camp in the fragile art of loving our enemies, and learning reconciliation… and we fail regularly in the process.
In the end we believe (counter-intuitively perhaps) that love (enemy-love) is more powerful than violence.
This faith teaches us, in all the messiness of life, to look for the creative long-term solutions… In Jesus of Nazareth we learn the willingness to suffer, and to trust God. Better to risk death than to perpetuate the cycles of violence that continue with us in the 21st century.
Let us continue to thank God for the lives of those who have died. Let us continue to remember them and all they were caught up in … not in cynicism or despair, but in hope for the new life to come.
Thanks be to God.
And there’s this guy called Daniel Imburgia, who, I just learned, is not just a fine artist and all round genius, he also writes great poetry… particularly for theologians. Here’s his recent offering on Fb for the season… obliged.
From, “God of the Sparrows #7”
And so we fall
But the god of the sparrows
Falls with us
Falling first before
Or its theory
Falling with us
Not in our stead
Some might have
We crash and shard
God, sparrow, and me
A mashup of smithereens
Dare we hope
– Dan Imburgia
There’s a very well known poem, penned by the famous American novelist, John Updike, in 1960, which I have always liked for its forcefulness and its main point.
Seven Stanzas at Easter
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.
And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
John Updike, 1960.
It’s about the importance of ‘bodily resurrection’. It’s about the
material world and the Christian faith. God takes the time (and space) to be material. That’s what Jesus, the incarnation, is all about – not simply a divine spirit who appears to be human but isn’t really. Jesus eats, drinks, shits, get’s sore feet, washes and so on. And the fact that some people will probably be offended by the language of bodily functions says something about our struggle to actually take bodily material world seriously for our faith.
And when Jesus is raised, this is not a departure from the body. This is not a ghost who lives on. Not a lessening of his material reality… not a kind of thinner lighter Jesus. This is a re-energised, renewed, divinely transformed body, a more potent material reality… That’s what the creed means when it refers to the ‘resurrection of the body’. What we hope for is not to escape from the body but for the material world, the bodiliness of existence to be transformed and lifted up into the life of God… and here we get a bit mysterious… of course … we have no science for this, we cannot put resurrection under a microscope.
So that’s one thing that the resurrection has always been about. But the other thing that John Updike wants to stress is that if you say you are Christian and believe in the resurrection, don’t then turn around and say that it is merely a metaphor for Spring time, for flowers blooming, for the changing seasons, for new life in the Christian community, for something within our own world. To do so is to create for yourself a Christianity without God. The resurrection is God! It is an event that meets the world from beyond.
And I think that is what today’s reading highlights for us… in Mark’s memory its a shocking thing, a fearful thing.
What did the women do after leaving the tomb?
If we read John’s or Luke’s gospel we would have heard them go and tell the other disciples and say ‘I have seen the Lord.’ Did you notice how Mark ended his Gospel. Let me read the last words of Mark’s gospel – this is according to scholars, very probably the original end of Mark’s gospel. The other verses are later additions. Mark concludes:
So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’
Not the joy of the resurrection, not the happy ending… but the shock of the resurrection.
These are the women. The ones who didn’t betray him. The ones who unlike Peter, didn’t protest at his talk of dying. The ones who stayed and watched at the cross and wept. They didn’t take up their cross with him. But then again they didn’t abandon him either.
They were not the prodigal sons… they were the one’s who stayed at home like the older son… they were faithfully sitting in the pew… all the way to the dead end.
They had accepted the real world… unlike their more idealistic male counterparts, they were grounded in the realities of birth and death and so they went along with Jesus, knowing that his was a lost cause. They knew how the world worked. They were practical people. They had even bought the ointment to seal the finality of it all.
The funny thing is, they hadn’t thought about how to get into a sealed tomb… and then when they get there an unnamed man in the white robes of a martyr points to an empty space… and while they are panicking inside and looking in all corners calmly declares ‘Don’t worry’… “You are looking for Jesus”… (as if he were in the hotel lobby and there were a list of possible people that he was checking off). “He has been raised”…..He’s been what?! What the…!
‘So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.’
Lawrence Moore suggest that its the women’s turn for their Gethsemane. This is when they freak out and abandon Jesus.
They had taken the path of resignation… of despair. Their spirituality had become in a deep sense tragic. It was paradise lost for them. And all they could do was recollect times past.
Suddenly… Jesus was no longer ‘times past’. Jesus was ahead of them going into Galilee. Jesus was present and future. And they couldn’t handle that. They could lose their life for his sake, or at least out of a sense of duty and inevitability. They had walked that path. But now they were overtaken by not just a death-event, but a God-event.
Now the rules of the universe had changed, they realised. When Jesus abandoned his life into the hand of Abba, Abba had taken it seriously. Now they were dealing not just with a past to be grieved, but future to be lived. The story wasn’t over.
The material universe was not just a material universe, not just a random collection of atoms and a very long time fading into
nothingness… the material universe was now ablaze with the glory of a crucified God. Taking up their cross and finding their true life was not just the past, but also the future now.
All they needed was eyes to see it… All they needed was a Spirit to give them the courage to live forward into it.
Thanks be to God.
Texts: John 12:20-33 Jeremiah 31:31-34
If you haven’t noticed… there is an enormous difference between John’s Gospel and the other three gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). The first three introduce us to Jesus blow by blow, as it happens, as if we too were disciples on the road with him learning with them what it is all about. John on the other hand begins long after the conclusion is known, after the resurrection, and never hides this from his readers. The reason why Jesus is good news for the world… is right there front and centre in the whole story. And so John’s gospel doesn’t begin with the birth of Jesus but before and behind the creation of the world ‘In the beginning was the Word” with God. Before and behind the creation of all things is God who speaks … and God’s Word became the flesh of a human life… and so on.
And in today’s scripture… as Jesus life gets close to its culmination, to its moment of ‘glory’, as John’s Jesus likes to call it … we are introduced to some Greeks. John, of course, is written at a time when the Christian gospel is moving well beyond the Jewish community and into the wider world. And so these Greeks (who could well be symbolic representatives, perhaps of this wider world) say to Philip “We want to see Jesus”. We never really find out if they get to see Jesus and there is this curious, cumbersome process where Philip goes to Andrew and then Andrew and Philip go to Jesus…. and then Jesus just begins to talk… its not clear whether the Greeks ever see Jesus.
It may just be poor story telling … but it’s as if John wants to remind us that this gospel is going out to those who will always be one step removed from the physical Jesus… like the Greeks, the readers of his gospel will rely on the witness of others. Each of us know of the life and story of Jesus because we got it from others.
I wonder whose witness inspired you with the life of Jesus?
When Jesus dies on the cross in John’s Gospel his last words are ‘It is finished’. The verb ‘telein’ means to bring to completion. What do you think Jesus was saying was completed in his death… What did he think he was achieving with his death.
I think the answer to that question is very clear at the end of todays text. Jesus says:
“Now is the judgment of this world,
now the ruler of this world will be driven out.
And I when I am lifted up will draw all people to myself.”
Now is the judgment of this world! Last week we read in John 3 a definition of judgment (anyone remember?) “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world”. Remember Jesus did not come to condemn the world… (according to John 3). The judgment is not active destruction… but insofar as he is rejected he becomes the light that exposes the world for what it is. As he takes on himself the world’s judgment (the judge of the world takes on the world’s judgment) and is lifted up on a cross he reveals the dominion of death for what it is. Declared innocent by his Father at his resurrection, he exposes the lie that rules the world and so proceeds to drive out the ‘ruler of the world’.
“The cat (you might say) is out of the bag”. On Thursday morning here at the church we were welcomed by a sheep which had escaped from from its yard somewhere up the road in our suburb (those who read this sermon on my blog will know that NZ is largely inhabited by sheep with a few humans in between, so they will not be too surprised ;-)). The problem for us was, how to get the sheep back to its yard, wherever that was.
Once the cat is out of the bag its almost impossible to get it back into the bag. To change the metaphor slightly, once you’ve seen the planet earth from outer space its impossible to imagine a flat earth.
What you see, when you see God raised up on a cross… is a world arrayed around, a world controlled by powers of violence and self-deception. You see a world that organises its peace around its scapegoats. The forces that rule this world… the prince of this world, to use the old language … is exposed as an exercise in justified violence, often mysterious and religiously justified violence, it is a world in which, according to Caiaphas, ‘it is necessary for one man to die for the people’. In the ancient world, they called it a sacrifice to the gods. We just know it as a process of finding someone to blame.
And most powerfully of all when we see God raised up on a cross, we don’t see a one-finger-salute to the self-deceiving powers of this world… it’s not a gesture of resentment that we see… its a gesture of forgiveness.
Jesus now makes it clear that the judgment point for the world – a man lifted up and hanging on a cross – will also become the attraction centre of a new world.
Historically we can never be certain that a saying like this goes back to the historical Jesus or not. But even if it really comes from John’s theological reflections up to about 90ad, it is incredible foresight! After over 2000 years of world history this saying has been so profoundly vindicated by the sweeping effect of this event on the history of the world. The voice of the world’s victims has been heard… the divine and moral authority of the world’s victims has subverted the consciousness of the world in so many ways – the God who sides with them has let the cat out of the bag. It’s not as if the power that rules the world has been annihilated and no longer functions, but the cat is out of the bag.
And by ‘cat’ here I mean Holy Spirit… Paraclete (in greek) which means counsellor or defense lawyer…
When the ruler of the world is judged, when the truth about the world is exposed on the cross. Jesus promises a defence lawyer who will ensure that what is accomplished in cross and resurrection is slowly but surely accomplished in the community of those drawn to the crucified God.
Remember John 16
“Unless I go (says Jesus)
the Advocate (defence lawyer) will not come to you
but if I do go
I will send him to you
And when he comes
he will show the world how wrong it was
about who was in the right
and about judgment”
The cat is out of the bag… even if each day, we still find ways of averting our eyes from our victims… Perhaps like the Greeks who wanted “to see Jesus” we too fail to see Jesus in the face of the poor and of our society’s victims… all that may be true but there is still good news. The cat is out of the bag… a covenant is being written on our hearts, the hearts of humanity are being re-programmed.