Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Emmaus: What are you focused on?

One of the things that I find most surprising about the journey to Emmaus is the inability of the disciples to recognise Jesus.  With this reality in mind I want to do something a little different and show you a short video.

Now it is not exactly the same sort of scenario as Jesus walking with the disciples to Emmaus but what is interesting in this little experiment is to reflect on the issues associated with whether or not we can see something or not, and more specifically how we experience Jesus.

With this in mind I want to explore a few issues raised by the story for us.

The first is to do with where our attention is focussed.

The second is to do with Jesus presence with us.

And the third is connected with how we come to perceive that presence.

So to the first point; in the story from St Luke the disciple’s were lost in their grief and mourning and the shattering of their world had become an all consuming reality.  When Jesus met them on the road they conveyed to the unknown stranger the events that had unfolded.  So consumed were they by the events that they could barely believe that this stranger did not know what had occurred.

Like when we watched the Awareness Test their attention was focussed on something specific on their particular experience of what had occurred and how it had impacted on them.

As people who are walking through the journey of our lives day by day our attention is focussed in particular ways on particular things – important things no doubt but things that can blind us to who is journeying with us.

For me this is a twofold issue.  First to reflect on what kinds of things are we focussed on and second who told us that those were the most important things.

Thinking about our own lives: maybe it is our work that so consumes us, or our desire to be a good parent, or an issue going on in our relationship with our spouse, maybe it is concerns about repaying our house loan or worries about our health or our sense of grief and loss over a loved one.  In fact most of us would know and no doubt some of us have experienced times in our lives that we are so focussed on something going on that we begin to simply miss what is occurring before our eyes in other parts of our life.

Whatever you are focussed on the second part of the issue is how we came to focussed on that particular thing.  In the video for example we were told to count the passes – someone told us to look in a particular direction.  Who has told us to be focussed in a particular direction? Or what incidents and experiences have determined the central issues for us?  This bears some reflection.

It can be argued, that the sense of loss that was distracting the disciples was entirely appropriate. So whilst I would say that the things which take our attention are not unimportant, they do matter, these distractions of life can obscure our sense and experience of Jesus who walks with us.

So we all have issues that if not keep we awake at night certainly occupy our thinking.  What the reading does is to encourage us to think that in the midst of our daily walk what might surprise us is that just as Jesus came alongside the disciples so too Jesus comes alongside us.

The disciples were completely oblivious to Jesus identity until after he broke the bread.  The hope that this gives to all of us is that in midst of these issues which take up our time and worry and detach us from Jesus presence as if we were alone facing the world is that Jesus is not absent from us but it is precisely in these times of distraction and isolation that he journeys with us.

Jesus is there with us as we grieve at the pain and loss of death, Jesus is there as we try to make sense of why we bother going to work to face the daily grind, Jesus is there as we go to ever increasing number of doctors and specialist appointments, Jesus is there as we struggle with family relationships, Jesus is walking beside us in all of these situations.  This is the promise of our faith.

Having said this Jesus presence is not simply about us having some nice feel good experience even though these words bring us comfort.  Jesus presence with us is about teaching and challenge and change for there are times that Jesus is alongside us in ways that may be unexpected and even uncomfortable.

As Jesus says in Matthew 25 “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  Jesus is alongside us and we meet Jesus not simply as some sort of detached internal spiritual experience but in real people in real need!

This brings me to my third point.  When the disciples stop to refresh and renew themselves for the evening Jesus agrees to break bread with them.  It is in this breaking of the bread that the disciple’s eyes are opened to his identity.

The connection with the sharing of bread and wine that we do on this day is clear and is often spelt out for us in the words repeated in the communion prayer asking that Jesus ‘make yourself know to us in the breaking of the bread’.  In the video we watched what was required was for someone to actually ask a question of us.

Actually seeing Jesus presence required an action by Jesus which helped them see that he had been with them the whole time and to find value in his presence on every step pf the journey – it’s that hindsight thing.

Now for me this becomes a metaphor for what occurs in our gathered Sunday worship service when we listen for Jesus teaching us through the Scriptures and then the bread is broken in our midst.  It is in this time of coming together that we can begin to reflect on how Jesus has been with us in the days that have passed and consider what this might mean for us in the days ahead. Coming to church, and coming every week, is important.

Ultimately the experience for the disciples of Jesus appearance to them is not just about them and what they get out of it.  Jesus leaves the disciples and they go back to the others to share their news.  They were energised by Jesus appearance to them, energised to go and share the good news.  To follow him and in doing so to share his ministry; a ministry which Jesus had described in Luke 4 in this way

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
            because he has anointed me
            to bring good news to the poor.
            He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
            and recovery of sight to the blind,
            to let the oppressed go free,
            to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

Encountering the risen Jesus invites our response.  Our experience of him changes us.  The story of Jesus appearance on the road to Emmaus is certainly a challenging one – it reminds us that whilst Jesus may be alongside us sometimes it takes some pretty direct action for us to see that.  But having met with the risen Jesus we too can be encouraged and inspired in our journey to keep our hearts and minds open to his constant presence with us inviting us to grow as we follow him. And more than that we contemplate how we meet Jesus in others and how through our lives and the questions we raise we bring Jesus to others.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Hiding in locked rooms!

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.””

As we listen again to the stories of the resurrection experiences in these days following Easter, you and I are confronted by questions about what we as people can believe and what we can trust in.

Essentially, the same was true for the disciples.  Whilst John does not record it in his account of the resurrection Luke tells us that when the first witnesses told the disciples that Jesus had been raised from the dead they thought that the women were telling idle tales!

So, the disciples not trusting in the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, told to them by the women huddled in a locked room, we are told, ‘for fear of the Jews’, or to be more accurate the Temple authorities. 

This image of Jesus earthly followers huddled in a locked room denying the witness that had already been given them concerning Jesus’ resurrection should challenge every congregation as to whether we are being like the disciples - gathering in locked rooms.

As we gather on this day despite the fact the doors are open, and we are free to come and go, is it possible that for some of us our experience is exactly this: an experience that is closed off from the world around us. Are we locked in?

In coming into this space for worship do we cloister our religious experience? 

Do we shut it inside?  What are we doing in this uncomfortable hour of piety as we struggle with the notion that Jesus rose from the dead?  Can we believe that he rose again or even more outlandish that he is God?!

Do we close off this hour because we are not sure how to make connections between what is spoken here and what occurs day by day: at school, in our family, in our work place and in social settings; on ANZAC day and during Earth hours, in economic downturns and the boom times?

Do we hide away because we fear being open about our faith: are we worried about being labelled a bible basher; a do gooder; a moral prig?

Do we hide away because we fear being told we are nutters that science outstrips religion in terms of truth and knowledge?

Or have we been so socially conditioned by our culture, which wants our spirituality to remain a ‘private matter’, that we feel we cannot cross those socially accepted boundaries of 21st century Australia?

Maybe one of these descriptions is true of you, maybe not, but if you can hear some echoes of the truth of your faith being locked up and huddled then at worst, all you are doing is reflecting the behaviour of those disciples who received the very first witness to the resurrection.

And here is the good news.  Despite the fact that the disciples locked themselves away in disbelieving fear, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

Now when Jesus says “Peace be with you” this is a loaded term – it is both liturgical jargon and the common greeting “Shalom”.  Set in the context of John’s gospel and the emphasis of Jesus’ high priesthood, Jesus words mean far more than “hi, how are you guys going” and have far greater depth than the standard answer for every Miss Universe entrant “What do you want most?”:  “World peace!”

Jesus’ words of greeting are the affirmation that the work that God set out to do in and through him has been fulfilled.  Humanity has been forgiven, the creation has been reconciled with God, forgiveness, love and mercy abound for all.

The miracle is not simply that Jesus is alive but that in him God has renewed all things and opened up the possibility of a new future for all people.  This is the hope of the resurrection and Jesus’ words to his disciple invite them into an active participation in this future as he sends them out in the Fathers name.

“Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven, if you retain the sins of any they are retained.”

From being huddled and hidden, afraid and anxious, Jesus commissions the disciples to carry news of the forgiveness and new life to others.

I believe that this needs to be reiterated again and again that the core message that the disciples go not to judge but to forgive and pronounce new life to others.

So, if this is the experience of the disciples who locked themselves in a room what about we who in the 21st century cloister our faith behind the security blanket of the walls of the church.

The reality is that we do not have the same capacity to wait upon the confirmation of what we are invited to believe about Jesus. The resurrection appearance by Jesus among us is unlikely in that corporeal sense the disciples saw it. 

The disciples were able to rely on their own sense of sight and touch and hearing when Jesus appeared among them as the resurrected Lord – this is not going to happen in the same way for us.  We cannot rely on the same sensory experience to affirm us in our faith – but this doesn’t mean that Jesus is absent from us or that we cannot experience Jesus presence in our lives.

Remembering the experience of the disciples it was precisely at their point of denial of the resurrection and their hopelessness in feeling that Jesus was absent that Jesus came among them.

So, as we gather here week by week I wonder what you expectations are.  Do you come expecting that you will encounter the presence of the risen and returning Jesus?

I personally do not believe that I or anyone else can make Jesus any more or less present by what I do as a worship leader, but the symbolism seen in our worship expresses just this trust and hope that through the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus is with us.

Lighting a Christ Candle does not make Jesus present, it simply reminds us of our hope that Jesus is here with us and is with us at all times. 

The building itself, whilst technically not holier than other places, is a sacred space in which our attention is focussed on God’s love and Jesus concern for us.

The readings and the preaching declare the good news, as we listen, not simply for entertaining and encouraging stories, but for the living Word of God, Jesus, to speak to us.

The bread and wine of communion bring to our hearts and minds Jesus acts for us but are also real food for our journey and bring about real transformation in our lives.

Even in each other we can acknowledge the presence of Jesus who has drawn us together into community. Looking at each other we see Jesus presence is here!

Being in this space with one another, whether we may treat it as a locked room or not, the possibilities open up and the potential is there that Jesus’ presence with us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, will become manifest to us in real and life changing ways.

So, just as the disciples encountered the risen Jesus in their huddling in that room, so too in our coming together Jesus can break into our midst, even in spite of our attempts to domesticate and institutionalise our religious experience and keep it private. 

In such encounters with Jesus we are changed and, we too, are sent with good news into the world.  This is why the gathering in or call to worship is mirrored by a sending out as we are commissioned to go from this place to live as God’s people declaring the good news in word and action – bring God’s healing and forgiveness into the lives of others.

As you look around the faces of those gathered here with you, and think upon your own experiences of the risen Jesus, I encourage you to find hope in Jesus presence with us as a community and to remain open to where and to whom Jesus might be sending us to share the good news. 

And remember this good news that we who have not seen and believe are truly blessed: let us rejoice in this blessing!

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Resurrection: Jesus emerges from the Holy of Holies

The story of the resurrection of Jesus as it comes to us in John’s gospel is one we may have heard a hundred times, more even!  Yet even to remember how the story goes can be difficult before we begin to pick away at the layers that lie beneath it.

This morning I want to just begin picking away at those layers just a little bit to get us contemplating the depth of what John is trying to get across to us in this story.

What I want us to begin to understand is how radical and consistent this move of God is with the God’s nature as loving.  So much does God love us that God wishes to share eternity life with us!

This ‘eternity life’ is not something that is necessarily restricted to what happens after you and I die but is about life lived now with God.

Now the scene that we have just retold and then heard from John’s gospel is part of a bigger drama.  John parallels his telling of the passion with the liturgy of the Day of Atonement, known as Yom Kippur.

This day was a day in which the Israelites experienced through their liturgical rites God’s decision to reach out towards them in mercy.

The theologian James Alison has provided helpful insight for me into the relationship between the two stories.  It is not my intention to give you a lengthy session on ancient ritual but merely to focus on a few points that may challenge the way you might think about the resurrection.

Firstly, to suggest that what occurred on the cross was not only about the demand that we human beings make of God and one another for vengeance to assuage our wrath.  But also that in response to God’s decision to make us in God’s image and to invite us into relationship is met with the greatest refusal possible – we nail God in Jesus to the cross.  This is a story about atonement and anger but it is not God who has the anger issues.

Secondly, to suggest that because the story in John’s gospel is over layed with the liturgical drama of the Day or Atonement everything is symbolic.  When Mary sees two angels in the tomb at either end of where Jesus had been laid there is an inference that here is the mercy seat.  The mercy seat was a related part of Ark of the Covenant and was found in the Temple, behind the Holy of Holies.

John, writing nearly 60 years after the event, appears to be adding meaning to the moment so it is clear what is occurring. The tomb of Jesus is itself the Holy of Holies and where Jesus lay was where the covenant lay.  Jeremiah had written “I will write the law on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people.”  In Jesus the covenant and the law was enfleshed and the angels standing where his head and feet were are a strong sign that what was occurring in this moment was occurring in relationship to how the Jewish people understood God’s relationship to the world.

Which brings me to the third point: the stone was rolled away.  In John’s gospel, unlike Mark’s, there is no report of the Temple Curtain being torn in two because that event is being signified here.

Jesus Tomb is the Holy of Holies and now there is no barrier between the perceived dwelling place of God and the creation.  The enormity of this event is difficult to fathom.  Turning again to James Alison, he says, "The Holy of Holies was the place that symbolized 'before the first day' - which meant, of course, before time, before creation was brought into being." (James Alison in Stricken by God p. 169)

Alison goes on to describe the liturgy, "The priest emerged from there and came through the Temple veil.  This was made of very rich material, representing the material world, that which was created.  At this point, the high priest would don a robe made of the same material as the veil, to demonstrate that what he was acting out was God coming forth and entering the world of creation so as to make atonement, to undo the way humans had snarled up the creation.” (James Alison in Stricken by God p. 169)

As Jesus emerges from the Tomb, the very dwelling place of God, before the first day, the Tomb remains opened!  The God whom we human beings had sought to destroy through our desire for sacrifice and fear of God, is not held back even by death and comes to us saying “Peace be with you!”  “I have loved you with an everlasting love!” “I will be your God and you will be my people!”  This is far more than a demand it is God’s promise and it is God’s nature, utterly, completely, wholly – LOVE!

And in this love God determines to share his life with ours.  Jesus had promised the disciples saying “I have come to bring you life and life in all its fullness.”  The fullness of life shared with God.

The ancient Fathers of the church knew this and the great teacher Athanasius declared the mystery of the incarnation: “He became human in order that we might become God with him.”

This is why sharing the bread and wine of communion takes on so much significance for we are sharing in a taste of the heavenly banquet where Jesus, our High Priest, offers us to share in his own life, symbolised in bread and wine.

Everything has changed for us in these moments: our understanding of life and death; of conception of grace and mercy; and our relationship of God and the creation which flows freely around us.

John was seeking to communicate a deep and wondrous mystery as he retold the story of Jesus resurrection.  He was theologising it – he put God into the story so that no one could miss the enormity of God’s desire to express love and mercy towards we whom God had created and loved from the beginning until the end.

The full implications of the resurrection remain as elusive and confusing for us as they did for the first disciples.  Yet on this Easter day I wish for all you a sense of the wonder of this moment where God defeating death continues to move towards us, coming out from the Holy of Holies, leaving the stone rolled away, and inviting us to share in God’s own life!

May you indeed have a happy and a holy Easter!

Easter: A letter to Jesus.

Dear Jesus

I heard that you were raised from the dead. 

Like anyone I find this hard to believe.  I mean it is supposed to be good news that you came back to life, but it is really hard to get my head around.  Not because it is such a fantastical tale, I don’t need scientific or historical proof, but because I really don’t see what difference it has made. People are still living with all their illusions and chasing their own dreams.

I mean it’s all very exciting to read the story about the women going to the tomb and finding it empty and then the disciple’s running back to confirm what the women had told them.  But even that’s a problem.  It’s so typical that the men didn't believe the women straight up.

And then you spoke to Mary.  You said her name.  How important was that for you... to say her name?  When you call any of us by name you open our eyes.  You open our eyes to your presence and your love for the world. That’s what you did for Mary, you opened her eyes and you affirmed her existence.

But Jesus even when our eyes are opened and we make claims about believing that you and your love for the world matter things just seem to keep going on the same.  I mean think about this whole Easter season for just a moment.

I was watching the news the other night and there was a story about Good Friday.  Phil Wilmington showed pictures of kids collecting chocolate Easter Eggs on Good Friday and said maybe we all needed “A place in the heart where joy and innocence hold sway over the trouble of the world.” And that maybe we could learn something from these kids.

But I kept wondering as I watched the kids running around filling their bags with chocolate about the issue of child labour and even reports of child slavery associated with the picking of cocoa beans in Africa.  I read something by Tim Costello the other day who said that there can be no guarantee that chocolate in our Easter Eggs wasn't picked by children.  How can we use one group of children in this way to make our children happy?  Shouldn't Phil Wilmington and Chanel 9 bring us a real news story about this?  But no I suppose we don’t want to hear anything that upsets us or interrupts our joys.  We only want to hear the so called good news stories.

So what do I do about Easter eggs Jesus?  Do I give my kids chocolate?  I don’t want them to miss out whilst everyone else has a good time?  I know I can buy fair-trade chocolate but even if I do then I begin to worry about the levels of obesity and diabetes in our culture, no doubt contributed to by the gluttony of our Easter celebrations.  Is this what it means to have my eyes opened to your death and resurrection?  To contemplate the things which are above as Paul suggests to the Colossians? 

When I contemplate the things which are above I always remember how you taught us to pray “on earth as it is in heaven”.  If things were on earth as in heaven I am sure no child would be exploited for the benefit of my kids. 

So I wonder Jesus what I should do?  Should I give out Easter Eggs at church, should I give them to my children?  It’s not as if you emerged from the tomb to speak with Mary wearing rabbit ears and carrying a basketful of chocolate.

Do you see what I am getting at Jesus?  I want to believe you died and rose for us but what I see around me is so confusing.

I mean it’s not just the kids who benefit from the exploitation of others.  On Hungry Beast the other night they did an expose about Apple.  No, not the apple that we think Adam and Eve ate, but Apple the computer company, the one run by Steve Jobs.

In the story it described how in 2010, 10 workers from the Foxcomm plant in China committed suicide. Now, as you know, Foxcomm supplies Apple.  I did a little further investigating and discovered that Foxcomm workers were working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week – that’s a 72 hour week.  That’s nearly double what is expected in Australia and we complain about our work hours! Thankfully their hours have now been reduced to 60 hours per week but they still only get about 50 cents per hour.  

I wonder who had made my iPhone, my iMac and my iPod.  How are they living now?  Are they even living?  

But the thing is without the exploitation who could afford the products?  Hungry Beast quoted a report which suggested if iPads were built by American workers they would retail for nearly $15 000.  Can we really live without our cheap technology?

Do you see what I am saying Jesus?  You came back from the dead but I really struggle to see how your resurrection has brought new life and hope for all people, not just from some privileged few.  I mean it was just like that back in your day too.  The rich lived off the exploitation and work of others.

Is what your resurrection means that I too can see the inequalities and inequities that you could always see and that I care?

Maybe this is what Archbishop Phillip Aspinall meant when he declared that we live in a “Kingdom of nothingness!”  I saw that in the Chanel 9 report by Phil Wilmington as well.  I thought that maybe the Archbishop was being a little too glass half empty, if you know what I mean, but maybe he is right.  Yet it is so hard to accept all this negativity about the world.  As long as I don’t look too deeply into the world I can just go on living this good life and not being concerned by what I am not exposed too, how our lifestyles are built on the suffering of others.

As long as no one mentions all this bad stuff I can almost imagine that we are living your prayer “on earth as in heaven”, I mean my life is pretty great.

But to do this is to treat you like the buddy Jesus statue all smiling and happy and giving us all the thumbs up, as if nothing was wrong.  You know, I have an action figure of you Jesus.   You are just that marketable that people have made plastic Jesus action figures of you – mine was made in China. (That’s a worry!)

A friend gave me the action figure and I have never opened it.  It sits on my desk and reminds me that for many of us we like to see you around but prefer to leave you securely in the packaging, a poseable figure with arms and gliding action trapped so that you can’t do either.  And more important so we don’t have to take you too seriously either.  

But what if I were to break the wrapping and take you out, would you simply be a toy for me to play with, a toy made by some underpaid worker in China.  Is all that we have done with the news of your resurrection given you a gliding action and poseable arms?

Jesus, you know wars still rage, despite decades of ANZAC Days and Remembrance Days, which are meant to remind us of the horror and futility of war, not celebrate it. Why, Jesus, why don’t we learn Jesus?  Life is really confusing, I mean I have just scrapped the surface of a few issues there are so many others.  Jesus I see all these confusing things and I long for hope.  Hope that is bigger than the problems we seemed to have continued to create since you wandered up to Mary in the garden and said her name.

When you lived among us I know that you went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with you.  But despite the fact that God was with you, you were put to death.  This does give me hope that you God are with us in our struggles and maybe that is why you appeared again after you rose from the dead, not to give us the thumbs up and say everything’s OK, but to let us know that there is no where that we can go that you haven’t been.  You Jesus who are God even travelled into death.

Is this real hope?  No doubt, for when we die we can trust you are there, but what about hope in this life as well?  For those first disciples and early Christian communities following you seemed to transform their lives and bring hope to people.  Maybe in a way what those early disciples did was resurrect the lives of other people – just as you had done: doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil.

Jesus, maybe this is the hope your resurrection gives me that you care enough to say my name, like Mary’s, and you to teach me to pray “on earth as in heaven”.  This has given me something to work towards so that life has more meaning than being simply a “Kingdom of nothingness”. Each time I see peace achieved in people’s lives, healing, love, compassion, empathy, justice achieved are these not signs of the hope of your resurrection which remind me that each day that unfolds is another gift created by God.

This is the hope I long to embrace, a hope that encourages me to live everyday as if this is the day that Lord has made, to be glad and rejoice in it, by living a life with eyes opened to what you see in world and still to have hope for the world.  To have hope because you loved it enough to be a part of it.  To have hope because if I look hard enough I can still see those signs of your presence and peace in it.  To have hope because I know that I am not alone but you are standing with me and that I am a part of that great communion of saints that spans both life and death.  You gave us each other as believers to be the church, which continues in its own strange way to share your love with the world and maybe, just maybe, to bring hope and resurrection to those who suffer.

Can you understand what I am saying Jesus?  I want that hope as I look on the confusion of the world.  Jesus, I heard that you were raised from the dead. I want to believe, help my unbelief! Amen.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Coming to the Table

Psalm 116:12-19

12What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?
13I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord,
14I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.
15Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.
16O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant, 
the child of your serving girl. You have loosed my bonds.
17I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the Lord.
18I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people,
19in the courts of the house of the Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem. 
Praise the Lord!

Photo Creative Commons Licence. by Ian Britton

There can be little doubt
That what we do this night
Bears little resemblance
To the meal Jesus shared with his disciples
It is not a Passover meal
And is not meant to be

Where we sit at a table
They probably lay on the floor

Where we meet in a public place of worship
They probably met in someone’s home

Where we live in a time of perceived peace in this country
They were living as a conquered people

Where what we are doing lies at the centre of our faith
They were being introduced to new rituals

Yet here tonight in this place
As poor as the resemblance may be
We do as Jesus commanded his followers to do

We lift a cup in thanksgiving
And remember Jesus by eating the bread

It is a reflection of an ancient ritual
That we do not fully comprehend

Just as the High Priest offered portions
Of the lamb that had been sacrificed to the people
So Jesus offers himself to us

So come to the Table with hearts held high
Gather around for it is Jesus who invites you here

The Peace of the Lord be with you all
And also with you

As you gather around the table

I invite you to share the peace

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Turning over the Temple Tables

I wonder what image comes to mind when you hear the words, “Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.”

In John’s gospel, this story is located at the very beginning of Jesus ministry and has a stronger sense of violence about.  Jesus makes a whip of cords to drive out the animals.

It is understandable that the image might be built up in your mind of some kind of rampaging righteous hero who total disrupts the activities in the whole temple forecourt and is challenged by no one.

The Biblical scholar Douglas Hare questions this kind of image suggesting that this notion of Jesus interrupting the activities of the temple may be more than a little fanciful given the size of the temple forecourt where the market was said to be.   It was simply too large an area for a single man to take control of.

Moreover, the presence of temple authorities, guards and possibly even Roman soldiers nearby raise significant doubts about how extensive Jesus actions may have been.  This is not to suggest that Jesus did not engage in these actions but that the images we may have of the event are probably overstated.  The fact Jesus was not arrested on the spot might be an indicator that Jesus’ action, whilst significant did not entirely disrupt the temple operations.

The importance of the event for the gospel writers is not the extent of Jesus’ actions but the symbolism contained within them.

They are a challenge to some of the aspects of the temple system, its secularisation, and the corruption of institutions which potentially disadvantage even more the marginalised groups within the community.

In terms of symbolism the turning over the money changers tables seems to raise issues about the connection between the temple and Rome and the way this relationship was being handled.

As for the dove sellers chairs this may be Jesus making way for a different approach and understanding to religious practice and how God was to be understood.

It struck me as I was considering the symbolism of this event to wonder what it might have meant for your everyday kind of devout but ordinary Jewish person.  To us the old phrase the man on the street.

I would suggest that if you weren’t a follower of Jesus and neither a particular fan of the religious authorities Jesus actions were disruptive and confronting and made your life difficult.  In the practice of their faith the average person knew they could not use Roman coins in the temple, the needed to use the temple currency, and if they wished to make a sacrifice of thanksgiving or purification or atonement they would need some doves.

Jesus’ action interrupts the everyday life of the average person and asks serious questions of how they understand their relationship with God and the community they are part of.

The symbolism of this action of Jesus whilst having specific meaning in the moment in time when it happened is also transferred into our present reality.  Like most of Jesus actions there is a specific context and meaning but the scriptures also operate to make them parables of truth for us.

What this means is that just as Jesus presence in the temple raised issue for the average Jew on the street so too Jesus actions are a parable of God’s confrontation with our lives as well.

As I dwelt on this week I considered quite a long list of issues in which Jesus might be said to be confronting us in our religious, our social and our political practices.

Given today is Palm Sunday I have chosen to highlight just two of these issues that I have grappled with this week.  One for each hand, one for each palm as it were:

On the one hand there is the whole Easter chocolate extravaganza that we have in Australia.  I read a report on the IBIS World website predicting that that this year Australians will spend $190 million on chocolate this Easter: that’s around $9 of chocolate for every person in Australia!

Anyone can look at The Australian Bureau of Statistics website and be reminded about the growing number of children and adults overweight and suffering diabetes and question whether our Easter chocolate splurge is warranted.  In general most kids that I hear talking about Easter are counting the days until they get their chocolate. Is this really generosity? Does it really help people in their faith?

Added to this issue, there is of course the issue that much of the chocolate sold comes from sources where children are used to pick the cocoa, sometimes in conditions that we would consider slavery.  Each year I follow the anti-slavery and anti-child labour campaigns like STOP THE TRAFFIK to see what progress we are making in these areas.  As much as these issues are coming more into the public’s mind the changes at the checkout are not as significant as we might hope.

Now I believe Easter should be a celebration and that generosity is a good thing.  We usually have a couple of Fair Trade eggs in our house and I have given them out to congregation members in the past.  But what happens when our celebration and generosity get misdirected? 

This is exactly the kind of social and systemic norm Jesus challenges as he turns over the tables.  It is not that celebration and generosity are wrong but when the unintended consequences are revealed maybe, just maybe, Jesus would encourage us to think again on how to engage in celebration and generosity and possibly more importantly to whom our generosity should flow.

So that’s one thing for us to think about this week as we prepare our hearts, our souls and our children to celebrate Easter.

On the other hand a second issue I would raise is the way we approach our faith.  At some point in the period between the beginning of the Enlightenment and now we have been taught to believe that “faith is a private matter” something not for the lounge room but rather in the privacy of the more hidden spaces of our lives.

The question raised by Jesus in the Temple forecourt was both political and religious.  How are you practicing your faith?  How are you engaging in the rituals and the conversation and how is that shaping your day to day lives?

As I consider the hidden, private nature of faith – a faith forced into the shadows I believe we have as Christians lost both some of our basic disciples and stunted our growth.  If we do not converse, how to do we grow? If we do not engage, how do we share God’s love?

If we simply look at the specific context of what Jesus was doing in the Temple on that day we can be left floundering in our own mediocre approach to our relationship with God.  Jesus challenge to the way the Jewish faith was being lived out can easily be converted to being a challenge to how we are living our faith out.

In both examples, in the two hands, I would suggest Jesus is continuing to push us in our understanding of ourselves and God.

The reason the specific context is so important is because Jesus confrontation at the Temple is a step in a bigger journey through which we see God moving towards the world in love and reconciling all things to himself.  As we may find these moments of confrontation uncomfortable the good news is that Jesus has made all things new including our errors and misdirection.  As people who hear this message of good news we are invited to share in that message by considering again how we might live as followers of Jesus now.

So I would invite all of you during the week as you look at your two hands to bring them together and clasp as you pray and consider how we can celebrate and be generous and how we can live our faith more openly and therefore make our lives an example of God’s love for others. 

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Raising Lazarus!

In the ancient world death was done differently.

The gathering of people at Lazarus tomb is a reminder of this.

The image of the bystanders mourning and weeping by the tomb openly expressing their grief is more than a little detached from most of the funerals I have conducted over the years.  Our culture seems to cling to the vestiges of the idea of the stiff upper lip and exercising a certain level of control over our emotions as we grieve.

In our modern culture we have come more and more to hide death and deny its hold on us.  Far less often do we see a gathering at the graveside or crematorium, and even more unlikely than this is the possibility of actually handling the body of someone who has died!  Most people have never seen a dead body, let alone prepared it for burial.  In all of this, I wonder whether we are trying to hide from death and avoid its reality. 

But in the ancient world things were different, members of the family anointed the body for burial and open displays of grief were commonplace.  Whole communities gathered around to mourn and grieve together. Tears and weeping and wailing were accepted parts of the process, even for people with such a faith as Martha’s, who expressed her hope in the day of resurrection.

Jesus response to death, and so God’s response, to all of this is not to stand separated from the awful experience of loss that we have when someone dies but rather to stand alongside us and share in our grief.

The story tells us that Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit, and deeply moved, when he saw the grief of the community, so much so that Jesus wept.  It is interesting to note that Jesus compassion is for the living more so than Lazarus – he saw their grief and loss and this is what moved him.

Jesus was so moved by the moment that we are told that Jesus brought Lazarus back to life.  Of course John’s telling of the story hints that Jesus had been planning to bring Lazarus back all along, so that God’s glory might be shown.

Yet, even with this being the case Jesus compassion and empathy for those who were struggling with the death of Lazarus is clear.

It appears that Jesus understands and feels the pain of people who grieve and ,more than that, in grieving are confronted by their own mortality, which this is a fundamental aspect of grieving.

The Biblical stories we hear during Lent, like the story of the raising of Lazarus, and the confrontation with the cross itself on Good Friday, raise for us the question of our mortality in an intimate way.

In each funeral that I conduct I am personally drawn into the grief of a family and community and, so also, into contemplating the meaning of my life, in the face of the idea that there will come a time when I too shall die.  I wonder ‘what does this means for me and for my family?’  It is not simply a question of what occurs after death, but am I living life as I am meant to now?

Time and again we hear stories of people who have had a brush with death, either through an accident or illness, whose lives are fundamentally changed by the experience.  They begin to live differently, sometimes, but not always, in a more meaningful and inentional way. 

The movie “The Bucket List” follows the escapades of 2 men who are given terminal diagnosis.  In their last months of life they seek to cross items off the list of things that they want to do before they ‘kick the bucket’.  After the movie people began talking about their own bucket lists.  You can go online to all sorts of websites with suggestions of things to do before you ‘kick the bucket’.  On one level the idea is good, but on another there were aspects of the movie, and of the subsequent movement, that seem more than a bit self centred and shallow.

Still, being confronted by our own mortality raises the question of the meaning of our lives.  How are we to live? When we come to the time of our death and look back what will we see?  Will we have regrets as we lie on our death bed?  What will they be?  How will others view our lives? What will others say about us in our eulogy? Would we live differently this day if we knew this day or tomorrow would be our last? Or if we knew there was only a week or a year or two left?  How short does the time span need to be for us to have a sense of urgency to change our lives and live more abundantly?

These questions, of course, are not about our death per se but about our life and its purpose.  What gives our life meaning?  What purpose do we have?  Is our life simply about ticking off as many things as we can before we kick the bucket?

Jesus, in response to Martha’s hope in resurrection, declares those mysterious words:

‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’

These words, which have long been an integral part of the funeral liturgy, are also not so much about death but about life and its purpose.  Life in Christ is about life lived in the light of eternity.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he encouraged them to set their minds on the Spirit, for the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead lives within them.  This is life lived not bound by the constraints of death but empowered by resurrection hope.  This is the same Spirit which is in you and I who have set our minds on Jesus.

In this the confrontation with death during Lent we are reminded that our life is to be shaped not by thinking about what we want to do before we kick the bucket, but how we are to live faithfully in response to God’s love and life lived for us in Jesus.

Martha hearing Jesus words of hope declares her faith in him: ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life, is recognised by Martha as the one coming into the world.

This is God’s movement into our lives, affirming our created existence – Jesus, who is God, is coming into the world.  We do not have to wait for death.  Life is not a simply a test about where we spend eternity.  Life has meaning affirmed by the one who is coming into the world – Jesus.

Not only this but this notion that Martha speaks of as Jesus coming into the world reminds us that we do not need to go somewhere else to find God.  As imperceptible as it may seem for Martha, mourning Lazarus death, God is with her.  Jesus is there and he shares her pain and loss.

Martha’s comment about Jesus coming into the world should not be frozen as if it is only this moment in history, Jesus was coming, but the coming of Jesus is a continual event for us who share in the same Spirit which raised Christ from the dead. 

Through the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus is coming into our existence as well.  In John 14 we hear Jesus promise, “I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”

We do not have to go anywhere to find Jesus, rather simply to open our eyes and hearts to his presence where we are now in our lives: day by day looking to see Jesus around us, in others, in the moments of our existence. 

It is Jesus coming to us and his promise of life that should shape our decisions about how we should live rather than out of concern for crossing things off some list before we die. In other words: living life in God’s time.

The purpose and meaning of our lives is found in Jesus promise of life, which is a promise which does not deny the pain and loss and suffering of death but neither is it controlled by these things.  So, as we grow in Christ to understand these things, so we will also be led to serving others.

Jesus restores communities and relationships, even in the face of death as he raises Lazarus! This is the same Jesus who, by the power of the Spirit and the will of the Father, is raised from death, and is the same Jesus who is coming to us.  It is this Jesus that we are to listen to as we contemplate, ‘What gives our life meaning?’ A question so often raised in the context of our confrontation with our mortality is transformed into a question of faith and hope and life and love.