Friday, 27 April 2012

Times of refreshing

The first big miracle in the life of the early church happened, it seems, almost by accident. The lame man at the Beautiful Gate, begging for alms, called out to Peter and John as he had called out so many times before, probably without even looking up. You can read all about it, as they say, in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 3!

The two apostles themselves, perhaps with their companions, were not on the prowl for pastoral or evangelistic opportunities. They were simply going up to the temple at the hour of prayer – going to pray. Their ministry to this man sprang out of – was fed by – the soil of prayer and worship.

It was the continuation of one of the key narrative strands in Acts, a primary response to the resurrection. Already in chapter 2 of Acts, we’ve been told that they were devoted to prayer and teaching, fellowship and the breaking of bread. Four verses later we hear that they spent much time in the temple.

But on the way, they were interrupted by the man’s need. And then they jump into action, stepping quite naturally into the continuation of the ministry of Jesus. Jesus’ teaching, healing, forgiving, the exercise of power and authority, through the Holy Spirit, have fallen upon the church, and Peter and John are that church. At that moment, in that place, Christ becomes present for the lame man, in Peter’s words and actions, in his very life.

We might say that as Jesus was, so the body of Christ became. Peter didn’t have to think what to do; he just had to do what he did in the name of Jesus. And surprise, surprise, it worked!

The amazed crowd gathered like flies to the honey pot, but Peter has learnt his lesson well at the feet of Jesus. He immediately turned the attention of the crowd away from the leaping, praising walking man, to the Kingdom of God.
Our business, he says, is not about signs, but about that which signs signify. From why do you wonder? he turns pretty immediately to the good news: the God of Abraham has glorified his servant, or son Jesus. The healing is a small but significant act, pointing to the need for a total reorientation in the light of the death and resurrection of Christ.

The sermon itself has the typical structure of

a.       A summary of the Old Testament narrative;
b.      fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
c.       This is followed by judgement on the faithlessness of the past;
d.      and a call to the faithless ones to become faithful. They are to repent, to turn to Jesus, follow Jesus, be baptized in the name of Jesus.
e.       And as the new faithful, they are called to a community of power: in the name of Jesus: And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.

Towards the end of the sermon, Peter gives a strange promise: there will be times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord, followed by the sending of the Messiah at the time of universal restoration.

We sort of understand the end times. But times of refreshing? These are the moments, the markers, the signs, which remind us that the people of the Way, Peter, John, we, have stepped out of the world into the Kingdom of God as it unfolds and moves towards completion on the last day.

These times of refreshing are what George Herbert calls ‘heaven in ordinary’, when we are suddenly and strangely made aware of the fact that we inhabit a new world, a Kingdom that cannot be overthrown, in the midst of what is still a very mixed, confusing and often painful life.

All very promising, until we realize that we can’t make these moments happen. However, if we wheel back to the beginning of Acts 3, and two disciples on the way to the Temple to pray , we remember that these times of refreshing come from the presence of the Lord.

And so there are 4 little principles that we can practise that relate to the presence of the Lord. In order to prepare space for these times of refreshing in our lives, we must

a.       wait – make ourselves available in the temple so that God may draw near to us.
b.      watch – look for the signs of God’s presence, encouragement and refreshing that are already around us, but which get ignored in the haste of life.
c.       ask – reminded by Jesus that we never got anything by not asking, we approach a generous God in faith. And finally
d.      seek – with risky praying that we too, in the midst of a messy and turbulent life, may see miracles, signs of God’s presence as the Kingdom breaks in to a humdrum and despairing world.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

His sword is aimed at his own naked heart: Anders Breivik

I've been thinking a lot lately about Anders Breivik and his so-called crusade against multi-ethnic society and the supposed de-Christianization of Norway. It would be so much easier to say that he is mad, but if there is any madness in him, it seems to me that it is the madness of society writ large.

70 years ago this year, Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi leader of German-occupied Bohemia and Moravia, was assassinated by Czech partisans supported by our secret services here in Britain. The Nazi response was immediate and violent in the extreme. Notably, the village of Lidice - thought to have harboured the partisans - was razed to the ground and its inhabitants murdered or transported to concentration camps. After the war, only 153 women and 17 children returned.

The poet Cecil Day-Lewis wrote a memorial to the village which has brought Breivik to mind again. It's a short poem, and the second and final verse says:

Must the innocent bleed for ever to remedy
These fanatic fits that tear mankind apart?
The pangs we felt from your atrocious hurt
Promise a time when even the killer shall see
His sword is aimed at his own naked heart.

I'm not sure that I have Day-Lewis' confidence that the pangs we felt... promise a time. Redemption is always possible, but it is not a necessary outcome. But I was struck by the absolute truth of the last line: His sword is aimed at his own naked heart. Breivik is not a loser, but his is the greatest loss; he is indeed the greatest victim of his own sin.

I give thanks for the bravery and dignity of the families, police, prosecutors and the people of Norway. At the same time, I pray that Breivik may see past his vain and pompous posturing - as if he were Norway's redeemer - and feel the sword penetrate his own heart. May he be broken by an awareness of the evil, and redeemed by the contrition that God demands of all.

As I continue to think about this sombre subject, I am reminded of the Apostle Paul's willingness to face deep evil. In an entirely different context, but equally passionate for redemption, he called on the Corinthian church to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Jesus carried his cross vicariously

Jesus carried his cross on your behalf and mine; on behalf of those who followed him, but had deserted him; on behalf of those who had condemned him to death; on behalf of those who had welcomed him into Jerusalem with one breath and cried, ‘Crucify him’ with the next breath; on behalf of those who were unaware of his existence.

‘Christ bore our sins in his body on the tree.’

‘He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and by his stripes we are healed.’

When Jesus spoke of his disciples ‘taking up their cross’, he was not just referring to their attitude to their own lives but he was also urging them to take up the cross of others, to bear the burdens of others. In Gal 6:2 Paul urges his readers:

‘bear one another's burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ.’

His readers would have been familiar with the law by which a Roman soldier could force any member of a subject people to carry his pack, but Christ urges us voluntarily and vicariously to shoulder the weight of those who are at any point in their lives too weak to carry on.

It is interesting that Christ, in the weakness of his flesh, was unable to carry the weight of his own cross all the way to Calvary. Tradition has it that Jesus stumbled a number of times before Simon of Cyrene was pressed into service by the guards that accompanied him. Up to this point in the story Simon is unheard of, and nobody is sure whether he was a disciple or not at the point at which he was commandeered to carry the cross of Christ.

However, his sons were later known to be members of the Church and it is possible that carrying the cross on that Good Friday, led to a life of discipleship for Simon and for his family.

Christ, who shared our humanity in its fullness, also needed the strong arms of another, to bear his cross and carry its load, when he came to the end of his physical strength.

{     How often when we despair do we need someone to hope for us?
{     How often when we lose faith do we need someone to believe for us?
{     How often when we cannot see the path before us  because of our tears, do we need someone to help us discern the way and walk with us?
{     How often when we cannot pray, do we rely on the prayers of others?
{     How often when we lose the physical health and strength to look after ourselves, do we depend on the well-being and the good will of others?

If Christ, in his humanity, needed Simon's strength, surely it is no surprise that those who follow in his footsteps will sometimes need the strength of others who are walking with them. And so Christ bids us take up not just our own cross, whatever that might be, but the cross of those around us,

{     the cross of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and
{     the cross of our brothers and sisters in the world.

Christ bore his cross for those who knew him and for those who ignored him.

There are vast numbers of people in our world

{     who suffer at the hands of the powerful, of those who exploit them;
{     people who are imprisoned without recourse to proper justice;
{     people who suffer at the hands of violent minorities;
{     people who have no voice, who have nothing with which to fight for themselves;
{     people without strength and without hope.

As we remember the Christ who carried his cross on behalf of those who were powerless against sin and death and evil, let us hear afresh his call to take up our cross - the cross that presents itself in various guises

{     in our own lives;
{     in the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ;
{     and in the life of the world around us.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Jesus shouldered his cross voluntarily

Having been condemned to die, the Roman soldiers would have used physical coercion to ensure that a reluctant prisoner carried his cross to the place of execution.

Jesus needed no such persuasion. In the Garden of Gethsemane he had contemplated the cross in its grim reality and in the weakness of his human nature, he had shrunk from it. Jesus shared that same fear of death that so often makes us unable to look it squarely in the face.

‘If it be possible let this cup pass from me.’

Jesus prayed to be released from the cross, but having wrestled with his own weakness, and with discerning the will of his Father, he shouldered it willingly, without complaint, held to his fate by the love which he bore for his Father and for you and me, fastened to the cross in the faith that God would be there in that darkness and would bring good out of his anguish.

As Christians we sometimes find ourselves shrinking from circumstances and situations that we face:

{     a debilitating or life threatening sickness
{     the untimely death of someone we love
{     a handicap that limits our freedom to do and be what we would like to do and be.

And it is with an air of weary resignation that people sometimes refer to these things as a cross which they must bear. A cross to be reluctantly shouldered.

I think the way in which Christ approached his cross has something to say to us, when we find ourselves in that kind of situation.

It is all right to pray for release. Suffering is not something which God delights to give to his children. Life is not some kind of ‘sufferathon’ with a prize for the one who suffers most. Suffering is an intruder, an unavoidable intruder into the harmony of life as God created it and intended it to be.

{     It is all right to acknowledge our weakness and inability to face some of the things that life throws at us.
{     It is all right to pray that this cup should pass from us.

But if having wrestled with our weakness, and having wrestled with God, we still face the inevitability of the path before us, we need to ‘take up’ our cross.

Not passively submitting to life's hardships, but positively summoning our limited resources and God's infinite resources, so that whatever our experience may be, it becomes creative for us and for those around us. Faith displayed amidst great difficulty can exert an amazing power on people of little or no faith. It is an amazing witness to the faithfulness of God and it has the power to soften the hardest human heart and encourage the faintest human spirit.

Sixth Station: Jesus scourged and crowned with thorns

They put a purple robe on Jesus, made a crown out of thorny branches, and put it on his head. Then they began to salute him: ‘Long live the King of the Jews!’ They beat him over the head with a stick, spat on him, fell on their knees, and bowed down to him. [GNB Mark 15.17-19]

In the Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood, the poet has a vision of a glorious and bejewelled cross, presumably on the altar of a wealthy church. As the dream goes on, he sees through the gold and jewels to the blood-stained wood beneath, whereupon the cross itself begins to tell its own story.

It is much the same with the account of Jesus’ scourging. How is it that we have turned instruments of torture into works of art? A brief search of internet images will bring up elegant, neatly-woven and sometimes flowering crowns of thorn, so far from the reality of the passion of Christ as to be almost meaningless.

This is not to despise the place of art in the Christian tradition: the early church did not use art for its own sake but as a means to an end, as a window into heaven, a doorway to worship. As we spend at least part of this day today remembering and giving thanks for Jesus’ sacrificial death for us – it is after all Good Friday – it will be important for us to recall the cost of what Christ did. And as human beings, we understand best of all the cost of physical pain.

Consider for a moment your reaction to pain, however small that experience may have been. It’s likely to have been a reaction of anger and frustration, a sense of being cut off from the world and disabled from really living and being productive. Now consider Jesus’ reaction, exactly the same in human terms, coupled with a deep sense of abandonment by his heavenly Father.

And here, even as he was scourged and whipped and brutally scratched with thorns, he had to face the third and profoundest reality of all: that he was being cut off from the land of the living in order for his brothers and sisters, so scarred by sin, to find a life-giving, hopeful and eternal way of living in that land. ‘Father, I will pour myself out for them.’ It’s entirely beyond comprehension. But as I wish you a blessed and holy Good Friday, my prayer is that you will be filled with joy that the one who alone could do this for you did it. Because he died, we live.

Lord Jesus, you faced the torment of barbaric punishment and mocking tongue:
be with those who cry out in physical agony and emotional distress.
You endured unbearable abuse:
be with those who face torture and mockery in our world today.
To you, Jesus, the King crowned with thorns,
be honour and glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Fifth Station: Jesus judged by Pilate

But what crime has he committed? Pilate asked. They shouted all the louder, ‘Crucify him!’ Pilate wanted to please the crowd, so he set Barabbas free for them. Then he had Jesus whipped and handed him over to be crucified. [GNB Mark 15.14-15]

All in a day’s work for Pilate, it was. Not the crowd-pleasing, but walking the political tightrope of excessive control and social disorder. I’m writing this on a day when the BBC Breakfast News is discussing whether schools in this country are agents of social engineering or simply of good, old-fashioned learning, whatever that is.

Pilate was certainly afraid of riot, and so are we. And, fearing it, we want to explain it, police it, punish it, restore order for those of us who consider ourselves decent citizens. As if our citizenship stood separate from the social construction in which we all live.

In Jesus’ case, he’s the pawn of a social construct which sweeps all before it, the Pax Romana, the much vaunted reason for the Roman Empire, its peace and order and well-oiled military and economic machinery. What does one person count in that setting? Not much at all, especially if he’s a Palestinian around whom there always seems to be the whiff of trouble. Who can blame Pilate for that?

Yet we are offended that Jesus became a pawn of the games of others, and so we should be. We must always be offended when systems are privileged over people, outcomes over values, expediency over love. And as we are offended, perhaps we need to be reminded that it’s all too easy for us, in the little worlds that we inhabit, to make everything fit our systems, our expediency, our outcomes. Those things that make life comfortable or maybe just bearable, need to be set aside for the sake of the ‘other’, the one who doesn’t count. We who inhabit the Kingdom of God need to learn to live in it especially when it becomes uncomfortable, and when we are tempted back into the simpler, broader path of worldly comfort.

Lord Jesus, you were condemned to death for political expediency:
be with those who are imprisoned for the convenience of the powerful.
You were the victim of unbridled injustice:
change the minds and motivations of oppressors and exploiters to your way of peace.
To you, Jesus, innocent though condemned,
be honour and glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Fourth Station: Peter denies Jesus

Just then a rooster crowed a second time, and Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows two times, you will say three times that you do not know me.’ And he broke down and cried. [GNB Mark 14.72]

One verse says so much. One moment of panic changed Peter’s life; one slip, which actually made no difference to Jesus’ journey towards Calvary, though it made it an even lonelier journey.

Imagine your sins being written into the narrative of God’s redeeming work with humanity. We could let our imaginations run riot over Peter’s thoughts now: a wry smile perhaps, or we hope that he’s so taken up with looking at the glory of God that all that’s past?

However, it’s better to look at our response to shame, our sense of letting ourselves down, which is where this episode left Peter. He’s the rock on which the church is to be built. Certainly in one major tradition of the scripture material, he’s the first apostle, but he’s a fractured vessel, a cracked pot, a blunt instrument for the work of God. In essence, he’s St Punctured Pride Peter. And so are we.

We spend quite a lot of our time thinking of ourselves as fundamentally OK folks, glad to be blessed by the grace of God. And then the momentary lapse which cannot be called back. The words are out in the public domain, and the relationship will never be the same again. At the point of our shame, we know ourselves as we actually are before God, naked, empty, lost, the shame of Adam and Eve is our shame.

Extraordinarily, this point, when Peter weeps, when we lament our lost innocence (an innocence we never had) is the point at which God really begins to do business with us. We discover grace: love that does not measure us by our actions; the gift of reconciliation though we don’t deserve it. And in our tears, as we watch Jesus watching us, we find a new and more honest way to live, the way of the redeemed sinner, ever indebted, ever grateful, never doubtful of God, because it does not depend any more on anyone’s opinion of our actions, not even ours.

Lord Jesus, as Peter betrayed you,
you experienced the double agony of love rejected and friendship denied:
be with those who know no friends and are rejected by society.
You understood the fear within Peter:
help us to understand the anxieties of those who fear for their future.
To you, Jesus, who gazed with sadness at your lost friend,
be honour and glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever.