Saturday, 22 April 2017

How happy?


Gospel
of John 20:19-31 


In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews. Jesus came and stood among them. He said to them, ‘Peace be with you’, and showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were filled with joy when they saw the Lord, and he said to them again, ‘Peace be with you.
‘As the Father sent me,
so am I sending you.’
After saying this he breathed on them and said:
‘Receive the Holy Spirit.
For those whose sins you forgive,
they are forgiven;
for those whose sins you retain,
they are retained.’
Thomas, called the Twin, who was one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. When the disciples said, ‘We have seen the Lord’, he answered, ‘Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands and can put my finger into the holes they made, and unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe.’ Eight days later the disciples were in the house again and Thomas was with them. The doors were closed, but Jesus came in and stood among them. ‘Peace be with you’ he said. Then he spoke to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; look, here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer but believe.’ Thomas replied, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him:
‘You believe because you can see me.
Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.’
There were many other signs that Jesus worked and the disciples saw, but they are not recorded in this book. These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name.

“To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
― C.S. Lewis


I wonder if Thomas was an identical twin and if so, had he and his brother had ever played tricks on people about which of them was which? Or maybe not tricks - just the general confusion that happens when people find twins difficult to tell apart. At least until you really get to know them. 

Maybe with Thomas, it was more the fact that he was a twin than a doubter; that he knew you cannot just go by appearances. Jesus had already played the role of the gardener and the wandering teacher without being recognised. If Thomas was going to believe then he wanted to recognise Jesus' heart - he wanted to touch it. 

Many people, myself including, have a desire to experience the Risen Christ; isn't this just what Easter is meant to be about? To experience the supernatural; the paradox of knowing that Eternity has been changed; that the gates of Heaven have been opened and the Kingdom of God is here.

Is that why many people, myself included, end up with a sense of  anti-climax; wondering if it was worth it. After all that Lenten denial and journeying; after all the rituals and liturgies of Holy Week; after the candles, splashing, incensing, singing, solemnity and promises of last Saturday and Sunday - to be surrounded by the deep sighs and hrumph's of life 'getting back to normal' and wondering 'what was that all about?'

Thomas must have wondered; after the judgement and the death; even after the claims of the resurrection - whilst his brothers and sisters are sitting behind closed doors and windows and he is trying to gather supplies and wangle a way to get them back to Galilee - or whatever it was he was doing - 'what was that all about?'

Poor Thomas even missed it this time; the beginning of this passage when Jesus reminds the fearful followers what it is all about. And it is a reminder - they have heard in in sermons and parables; they have seen in healings and accusations; Simon Peter even had a heart to heart with Jesus about it.

It is the Spirit of Forgiveness; forgiveness that we struggle so much with; forgiveness of the most Grace-ful, unreasonable and undeserved kind. To be able to forgive the friend and the stranger; the valued and unworthy; the confused and the guilty; those that will not say sorry and those that cannot; and especially to forgive those who cannot forgive themselves.

And, if we do not forgive, then to bear all that that means on ourselves.

Thomas asked for the opportunity to get inside Jesus - instead Jesus got inside him  - as he gets inside each of us.

We breathe with Jesus' breath; with the Father's breath; we have the same ministry that Jesus was given; to speak with his Spirit that gives people hope, dignity and joy - that's about 'not normal' and as supernatural as you are ever going to experience. 

If you accept it...if you say...

My Lord and my God.


wordinthehand2017


“People are often unreasonable and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are honest, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway.
If you find happiness, people may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway.
For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”
― Mother Teresa


Sunday, 16 April 2017

Beyond Belief



Matthew 28:1-7

After the Sabbath, as the first light of the new week dawned, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to keep vigil at the tomb. Suddenly the earth reeled and rocked under their feet as God's angel came down from heaven, came right up to where they were standing. He rolled back the stone and then sat on it. Shafts of lightning blazed from him. His garments shimmered snow-white.

The guards at the tomb were scared to death. They were so frightened, they couldn't move. The angel spoke to the women: "There is nothing to fear here. I know you're looking for Jesus, the One they nailed to the cross. He is not here. He was raised, just as he said. Come and look at the place where he was placed.
"Now, get on your way quickly and tell his disciples, 'He is risen from the dead. He is going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.' That's the message."


So, if you were looking for a bit of cataclysmic action, Matthew's version of events is a little more like it. The earth reeled and a shining angel appeared; lightning blazing from him - that must have been a sight to behold. And the guards, more afraid than the women; showed how little regard Matthew had for the Romans. But the bolts are from Heaven, the angel is from the Father and Jesus is still not around.

There seems to be very little the Gospel writers can do to make the account of the Resurrection action-packed. And, perhaps, out of all the requests for evidence, for proof - this is it. That it is beyond exaggeration, beyond story-telling, it happened, no-one is ever going to tell you how, and it is up to you to believe it, or not.

If you believe it, even if you believe with all your heart and mind and soul, the truth is that you will never convince another - the Resurrection is not an event that translates - they will have to make their own journey through a dark night and a dawn-lit garden to the empty tomb and decide for themselves.

wordinthehand 2017

Sunday, 9 April 2017

The price of peace

Palm Sunday 

Matthew 21:1-11
Matthew 26:14-27:66


In previous years, I have speculated on the need to have the Passion readings repeated over two weeks. Why put us in the place we are going to when, all through Lent, we have been trying to avoid the deja-vu experience of hindsight?

The experience of Palm Sunday doesn't offer hindsight but peripheral vision. Next week all eyes must be on Jesus, whether they be the eyes of the crowd, the believers, the Temple or the Roman guards. This week, we get to try out what that feels like before we find ourselves standing in their place. Imagining ourselves in the melee of Matthew's Jerusalem, we are invited to observe the misdirection and misunderstandings of this tragic week. 

Jesus rarely seems to make a fuss about his travelling. We imagine him the itinerant wanderer, distracted by pleas for help and offers of hospitality. Here, Jesus is quite explicit; he enters Jerusalem as David sent Solomon, as Zechariah promises the Messiah will come to his people-

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.Zech 9:9

a symbolism not lost on the exploited people of Israel; on the fervent enthusiasm of the pilgrims; on the impatient desires of the zealots. 

The shouts of 'Hosanna' meaning 'Save, now' and the thrown cloaks are recognition of prophecy being fulfilled. The palm branches signalling covert loyalty to a nation bowed by Roman rule.  The Messiah is here.

Who could not be swept up in the excitement of 'I was there'. 

But surely the Messiah would be on the side of the religious leaders - and he is not. Surely the Messiah would be speaking against the Roman occupiers - and he is not. And surely the Messiah would not be sitting with the poor, the lame and the children-  yet he is. 

The cloaks and palm leaves lie gathering dust, trodden into shreds of disarray - the mornings after... Perhaps this Messiah played his last trick with Lazarus; perhaps there is nothing worthwhile from Nazareth; perhaps the 'stage' is too big and Jesus has taken fright. Good for nothing except interfering with the business of the Temple then running for the hills. Another festival of disappointment.

How many of the crowd remember the continuing verse from Zechariah? 

I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
and the warhorses from Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea


The week will be full of confusion, sleight of hand and betrayal; so many questions. The covenant with his Father signed with tears; the procession continues into tragedy.

Did the 30 pieces of silver compensate in any way for the anointing with nard?

What is the price of peace?

In the reading of the Passion, one person caught my attention who I had not thought of before. 

Watching from a distance, no doubt holding on to each other in grief; the women. With the Mary's, another woman - the mother of Zebedee's sons. The mother of James and John, the favoured friends.  

The mother who, in Matthew's gospel, just before the entry in Jerusalem - asks for a gift. Asks that her sons will sit at the left and right hand of Jesus in his Kingdom. The Kingdom that she had, no doubt, shouted in with 'Hosanna's' of her own. In her imagining, seeing her sons as golden, victorious princes once the battle had been won.  

Does her heart sink as she looks into the faces of the two criminals; these strange thrones of suffering and the kingdom that they overshadow. What if this had been the fate of her fine boys? Would she have ever asked, knowing what she wished for?

Shockwaves of horror after horror have tormented this Lenten period, at home and globally. Surely we must be closer to realising that there is no act of retribution that will end the violence? There is no golden armoured prince who will change the world because he has a bigger sword? Jesus offers another way and it overwhelms him. He offers it anyway, he offers it still. The sword must fall, only peace will bring peace.

For those of us who have made it through Lent, one way or another, the road is not much clearer. Our involvement in the proceedings is still a choice to be made. 

The Methodist Covenant Prayer is one I find difficult to pray without crossing my fingers just a little. It echoes the prayer of Gethsemane.


I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, 
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, 
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, 
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, 
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly 
yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,Father, 
Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. 
So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, 
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

Let me have the strength to be at your side, Lord. 
Let me know the price of peace.


wordinthehand2017


Sunday, 2 April 2017

A good Lament

There was a man named Lazarus who lived in the village of Bethany with the two sisters, Mary and Martha, and he was ill. – It was the same Mary, the sister of the sick man Lazarus, who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair. The sisters sent this message to Jesus, ‘Lord, the man you love is ill.’ On receiving the message, Jesus said, ‘This sickness will end not in death but in God’s glory, and through it the Son of God will be glorified.’
  Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, yet when he heard that Lazarus was ill he stayed where he was for two more days before saying to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judaea.’ The disciples said, ‘Rabbi, it is not long since the Jews wanted to stone you; are you going back again?’

 Jesus replied:
‘Are there not twelve hours in the day?
A man can walk in the daytime without stumbling
because he has the light of this world to see by;
but if he walks at night he stumbles,
because there is no light to guide him.’
He said that and then added, ‘Our friend Lazarus is resting, I am going to wake him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he is able to rest he is sure to get better.’ The phrase Jesus used referred to the death of Lazarus, but they thought that by ‘rest’ he meant ‘sleep’, so Jesus put it plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad I was not there because now you will believe. But let us go to him.’ Then Thomas – known as the Twin – said to the other disciples, ‘Let us go too, and die with him.’

  On arriving, Jesus found that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days already. Bethany is only about two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to sympathise with them over their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus had come she went to meet him. Mary remained sitting in the house. Martha said to Jesus, ‘If you had been here, my brother would not have died, but I know that, even now, whatever you ask of God, he will grant you.’ ‘Your brother’ said Jesus to her ‘will rise again.’ Martha said, ‘I know he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said:
‘I am the resurrection.
If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live,
and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.
Do you believe this?’
 ‘Yes, Lord,’ she said ‘I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who was to come into this world.’
  When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in a low voice, ‘The Master is here and wants to see you.’ Hearing this, Mary got up quickly and went to him. Jesus had not yet come into the village; he was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were in the house sympathising with Mary saw her get up so quickly and go out, they followed her, thinking that she was going to the tomb to weep there.
  Mary went to Jesus, and as soon as she saw him she threw herself at his feet, saying, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ At the sight of her tears, and those of the Jews who followed her, Jesus said in great distress, with a sigh that came straight from the heart, ‘Where have you put him?’ They said, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept; and the Jews said, ‘See how much he loved him!’ But there were some who remarked, ‘He opened the eyes of the blind man, could he not have prevented this man’s death?’ Still sighing, Jesus reached the tomb: it was a cave with a stone to close the opening. Jesus said, ‘Take the stone away.’ Martha said to him, ‘Lord, by now he will smell; this is the fourth day.’ Jesus replied, ‘Have I not told you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. Then Jesus lifted up his eyes and said:
‘Father, I thank you for hearing my prayer.
I knew indeed that you always hear me,
but I speak for the sake of all these who stand round me,
so that they may believe it was you who sent me.’
When he had said this, he cried in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, here! Come out!’ The dead man came out, his feet and hands bound with bands of stuff and a cloth round his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, let him go free.’

  Many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary and had seen what he did believed in him.


Martha's Lament

Lord, my brother sickens.
Abandoned by hope,
Pearls of desolation
Fall silently
Into empty hands.
In faith, I know
Your touch, Lord,
Your hand will save him.

Master, you have not come.
You have not watched
As life pours from him.
As he fades into
An obsidian maze of despair.
Raging against heaven
In torment at your absence.
One word, Lord; your Word.

Can it be, Lord?
His life, as naught to him
As it seemed to you,
Ebbed away leaving our
Hearts scalded by grief.
Were our lives no more
Than a storyteller’s plaything?
Was there a better story to tell?

How is it, Lord,
You did not come?
To a brother in love
To a friend in faith?
How is it he journeys alone
Into the Stygian depths?
Yet, speak Lord,
Your servant will still hear.


When I wrote this poem it was after the death of a friend. To be honest, it was a peaceful death of someone who knew they were going home. And the grief and suffering belonged, not to her, but to those who were left behind. Martha is often remembered as the 'too-good' housewife but I sympathised with her then as the woman who would stop at nothing to help those she loved. I admit that I put these words into her mouth - but maybe I am not as trusting as she is.

I have a great respect for Martha - she seems to be one of those women who can speak her mind and still keep her friends. Certainly the friendship with Jesus seems to have grown into a recognised relationship of affection and trust and extended to all the members of the family. I'm sure anyone would have expected Jesus to put these friends above almost anyone else -  and he didn't. 

Dealing with the 'why's' of suffering and grief  is never easy. No matter where your faith is. No matter that you are absolutely sure that, when the time comes, Heaven's gates will open; no matter if you believe that this world is somewhere we pass through as part of our soul's eternal journey; no matter - because the suffering and grief is not about what happens next - it's about what is happening now. And Martha is wise enough to know it and brave enough to say it. 

Why does Jesus wait? Is it really his intention to cause this tragedy?  Or does he believe that the Father will give him the time he needs to do what he has to do and still care for his friend?

I don't  believe in a God who treats us as puppets so I have to accept that Lazarus' illness and death were part of his life- not unusual in those times to sicken and die quickly and at a young age. When Jesus reaches their home, I believe that his grief is equally genuine  - as human an emotion as any he has felt before. 

But knowing - knowing - that nothing is impossible to God; even three days in a tomb - he can at least ask; he prays with all the faith that is within him; it is not he who brings Lazarus back but his Father who returns him to life, in the answering of a prayer. 

Out of the greatest of hopelessness' Jesus has drawn hope. As a human being, Jesus has given everything he has.  There are no more miracles left. Stones are being weighed in the hands of those who have judged him already.  Perhaps, in its own way, the raising of Lazarus has not only been a challenge to those who do not believe but a reassurance to those who do. Perhaps, a reassurance to Jesus himself.

wordinthehand2017