Saturday, 22 April 2017

Living on the first day of the week

This week an interesting question has been raised within our Australian context, what are Australian
values?  The moment the question was asked the debates began about what Australian values might be and whether trying to define them was opening the door to racism.  As interesting as this debate may be for us trumping that insular kind of nationalistic question the gospel that we read today asks a more pressing question to us as Christians.

The question that comes to us today from the gospel of John is as simple and as complex as this, “Are you living on the first day of the week?”

“Are you living on the first day of the week?”

In John’s gospel we are told that the disciples were gathered in a locked room on the first day of the week.  Now the first day of the week is Sunday.  It is the day of resurrection.

Many of us tend to think of Monday as the first day of the week but in the Scriptures the first day of the week is Sunday.  Sunday is the first day of the week: it is the day of resurrection, the day Jesus first appeared to his disciples.

As Christian people we do not celebrate our faith and rest in God’s presence on the Sabbath, which is the last day of the week, the seventh day – Saturday.  No, we celebrate our faith on the first day of the week, on the day that Jesus rose from among the dead.  The first day of the week!  The first day of the new creation. So the question for us as Christians takes us beyond our nationalistic interests and into a deep existential question: Are you living on the first day of the week?  This is the first day of the new creation.

It is true to say that those disciples in that locked room were not yet there.  Though they were living, as we all do, in the context of the first day of the week – but they were not yet really alive.  They were not yet able to accept the news that they had received that Jesus was really risen from among the dead.

They were on the first day of the week but they were not yet really alive to the first day of the week.  It was not until Jesus came and stood among them and declared God’s peace, “shalom”, that they began to wake up to their new reality – it was in Jesus presence that they came to realise they were living on the first day of the week, that they were living in the now of the new creation.

In this new reality of Jesus’ resurrection there were implications for what it meant for them to be alive, to live as resurrection people.  I want us to reflect on three of these implications – three principles of being people who live of the first day of the week.

The first of these principles is that they were to be a people of peace.  When Jesus comes and says ‘shalom’ Jesus is declaring the ‘shalom’ of God, just as the high priest would have done on the day of Yom Kippur, the festival of atonement.

Jesus was saying to the disciples, and to us, that as people who live on the first day of the week we have been reconciled with God.  God has established mercy and peace and forgiveness.  This act of God is at the heart of the community of life in this new creation.   God’s way is a way of peace which reconciles us not only with God but with each other for often our failures to live in the light of God’s love are failures to live loving one another.

If we are to be people who live on the first day of the week, who are recipients of this declaration of God’s peace, we are called to be peacemakers.  In our relationships with family and friends, in our connections with people that we find difficult to get along with, and with the people who have wronged us personally we are to be peace makers.

So often, as humanity, our behaviour is the opposite of this, we are war mongers and power seekers.  As we listen to the news and hear the sabre rattling of world leaders, as we see the conflicts unfold around the world we see anything but peace.  God’s response to the violence of human beings, of the powers and authorities, is not more violence but in Jesus to accept the way of the cross.  The resurrection and the declaration of God’s ‘shalom’ speak to us and remind us that the violence and death we would perpetrate against one another, and God in Jesus, is not the last word.

To live on the first day of the week is to live as people who know this peace and share this peace of God by how we live.

This brings me to the second principle of living as people of the resurrection on the first day of the week.  Jesus breathes the Spirit on the disciples and says to them, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

In the past this passage has been associated with the power of the confessional and the right of those who sit in the apostolic succession to absolve or condemn the sins of individuals.  However, forgiveness and mercy are ultimately God’s domain. So what does this mean? What is Jesus naming here when he gives this authority to the disciples?

For me the power of forgiveness or the refusal of forgiveness fundamentally shapes our lives.  When we forgive others and find reconciliation life and relationships can be rekindled, but when forgiveness is withheld or not accepted the consequences can be drastic and dire.

On a personal level when we fail to accept forgiveness we can carry feelings of guilt and anxiety and depression that make us feel worthless.  And when we fail to forgive others we carry grudges of pain and hurt sometimes through the decades as we harbour ill feelings about a long past hurt or incident.  Community is lost and love goes missing.  If you retain the sins of any they are retained.

Just as this impacts on a personal level we see the same to be true of communities and ethnic groups and races and nations.  Hurt and hate develops into war and violence.

Let us not be naïve.  Forgiveness is not an easy business.  The cost of God’s shalom is seen in Jesus death. Remember his word from the cross, “Forgive them Father for they do not know what they are doing.”  Our inability to accept this forgiveness and to forgive others destroys the peace that God declares in Jesus’ resurrection.

To live as people on the first day of the week is to live as forgiven and forgiving people.  When Jesus taught his disciples to pray he taught them to say, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  This is a fundamental principle to live by if we are to live as resurrection people.

So, if we are living on the first day of the week we are people grounded in and shaped by God’s shalom, God’s peace, and by the knowledge we are forgiven and that we are called to forgive others.

I want to skip through to the end of the passage to after the declaration of Thomas which affirms another truth of living as people on the first day.  Thomas declaration is that we who live as people on the first day recognise Jesus properly as “my Lord and my God”.

With this in mind it is the last statement of the passage which informs the third principle I want to elucidate for living as people on the first day of the week.  “Through believing you may have life in his name.”  As people of the resurrection we live life in his name, in Jesus’ name.

The words of Peter's letter are helpful to us here as he reminds the people that they are people of new birth who have a living hope.  As the disciples are awakened from their state of denial and ignorance and doubt to belief in Jesus’ resurrection they are transformed.  Jesus breathes the Spirit on them and they are born from above. It is what Nicodemus had been told by Jesus in the 3rd chapter of John’s gospel.

Something fundamental has changed in their relationship with God and the disciples’ become aware of this new reality in their own lives.  Their life is to be define by the peace and forgiveness of God and how that changes their view of the world.  In living life in Jesus’ name the disciples are invited to encounter the outcome of their faith within this life, just as Peter will later write in his letter. The salvation of their souls and ours is not something to wait for but is to be encountered now – just as Jesus prayed, “on earth as it is in heaven.”

So, this is the third principle of living as people on the first day – to live life in Jesus’ name experiencing and celebrating the faith and salvation we are already encountering.

The question the gospel is asking is an important one, “Are you living as people on the first day of the week?”  This is more than a choice to live by a set of values but is an invitation to live in the light of the resurrection of Jesus.  We might wonder about how good or bad Australian values are, depending on who defines them and how, but for us as Christians the question that should occupy our thinking is not a question of which Australian values we choose to live by but whether or not we will live as resurrection people.  Do we live as people who know God’s peace, people who are forgiven and who are forgiving, and people that through new birth live our life in the name of Jesus and even more interestingly in Jesus.

Just as the disciples were woken to this reality so too this good news is before us – Jesus is risen, God’s peace is declared, his Spirit is breathed on us, we are forgiven and we are invited to living life in his name.

Are you living on the first day of the week?  It is the day of the resurrection.  It is the first day of the new creation.  It is the day on which we celebrate.  Christ is among us in the locked rooms of our hearts and minds, let us believe and celebrate with the disciples our resurrection life and with Thomas declare our faith in the risen Jesus, “My Lord and my God.”

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Maundy Thursday: Leaning In

For those of us who have gathered around the table this night we already have a sense of Jesus importance in our own lives.  All of us here have an understanding that Jesus life has made a difference and that by gathering tonight we seek to transport ourselves back to that moment when Jesus shared the last supper with his disciples.  We do so not simply as an act of remembrance but as a way of personally connecting with the resurrected and living Lord.  We pray that through the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus becomes present to us as we share.  His presence comes close.

So we contemplate this story tonight, this story we know so well, I want to focus on one aspect of the story, one scene.   The part of the story that I want us to hone in on is the moment that the disciple whom Jesus loved asks the question, “Lord, who is it?”

To set the scene.  Jesus has already washed the disciples’ feet.  We have seen Peter indicate that he is unsure why this is occurring.  Peter doesn’t understand and in response Jesus tells him that he is not going to understand until later.  And even though Jesus goes on to explain his actions, even though Jesus explains why he has done it, there is still a level of confusion lingering in the air.

Alongside this there is already the fact that Jesus has named that he will be betrayed.  “One of you will betray me,” says Jesus.  And he is deeply troubled in spirit, this is what we are told. That Jesus is deeply troubled.

We also come into the presence of Jesus who is deeply unsettled – it is a confronting moment for us.  Jesus who is our Lord, our friend, our teacher, our healer, our saviour, our prophet, our priest, our king – the one whom we follow is deeply troubled. More often than not our expectation is that Jesus is in control, that he is a clam of assuring presence, but here on this night we find Jesus is in a state of distress, he is out of sorts.

So, as we come on this night we come with this sense of confusion confronted by the possibility that we do not understand and that we are not as in control as we might like to think and that God himself shares in the distress and disorientation of our lives.

It is in the context of all of this, the confusion of the disciples and the clear distress of Jesus, that Peter indicates to the disciple that was sitting closest to Jesus to ask Jesus a question. ‘Lord, who is it?’

Now as we picture this moment I want to revisit with you a couple of things about sharing meals in the ancient world and meal etiquette.  The first is this.  That seating arrangements reflected status and relationship, it was not just as random roll of the dice.  The more important you are the closer you get to sit to the guest of honour or the host.  This reminds us of the special relationship that this disciple has with Jesus.  John tells us that it is the disciple that Jesus loved.  The person had a privileged position, he got to sit next to Jesus.

The second thing to think about here is that the meal table was probably low to the floor.  The disciples would have been reclining on the floor, possibly resting on their elbows with their legs stretched out behind them.  This little detail helps us understand how Jesus might have been able to move around washing the disciples’ feet.

So it is in this position stretched out on the floor that Peter indicates that the disciple whom Jesus loved should ask Jesus the question, “Lord, who is it?”  If you can imagine the disciple leaning in to Jesus to ask this question, who is it,’ it is more than likely that there would have been a deeply intimate moment of connection, including physical touch.  I have come across commentaries and seen pictures that have the disciple with his head on Jesus chest or shoulder as he leans in to ask the question.  He leans physically into Jesus.

It is a deeply intimate and emotional moment as the disciple asks this terrible question – who is going to betray you Lord.

Now, of course, we have already heard the narrative and we know what happens next.  Jesus dips the bread into the cup and shares it with Judas and Judas goes out into the night to do quickly what he must do.  Yet the question of who betrays Jesus should never be limited to a finger pointed out the actions of Judas.

We know that the other disciples desert Jesus and hide.  They deny Jesus, Peter denies Jesus! They doubt his resurrection. They remain in confusion and darkness.  And we who know this story know that we too betray God and Jesus in our failures to follow as closely as we ought and to live as we should as God’s people.  We are also confused by the world we live in and life and death and suffering.

This is the moment in which we find ourselves as we gather on this night and the thing on which we reflect tonight that moment of intimacy between Jesus and his beloved disciple.  A moment of intimacy leaning in on Jesus’ breast amidst the confusion of life and troubled Spirit of God that is within him.

In my mind the good news is that we are one with that disciple on this night.  That we who have gathered are invited to lean in and come close, to be intimate, with our questions of life, with our troubles and to know that God in Jesus is deeply troubled and distressed for the suffering and injustices of life.

We can lean in and ask Jesus personal questions about issues that plague our minds:  why have I suffered so Lord? Or why does this friend or family member struggle so much?  Or how do I continue believe in this secular society? How do I keep going when I find life so pointless?  We might also ask question of our life in the world.  Questions about chemical weapons, questions about bombings in Coptic Churches, questions about terrorists acts and refugees and starvation and suffering and evil. Our troubling questions are matched by Jesus’ troubled Spirit – God is with us as we lean into that intimate moment. 

In Jesus, God is with us, this is our hope and our faith and God’s Spirit in Jesus is troubled by the confrontation with confusion, suffering, betrayal and death.

We know that this is not the last word on these matters and we will be sharing in communion soon as a remembrance of this night but also the promise of the feast of the coming kingdom.

Yet before we do this I want to invite you into a few minutes of silence. To take the opportunity to lean into Jesus’ presence, just as that disciple did, so long ago, and as you do so to silently ask a question or maybe more than one of Jesus and to feel his troubled Spirit close to yours.  Maybe there will be an answer but if not maybe Jesus that feeling of intimacy as the Spirit of God comes close will bring some comfort in the face of the confusion and troubles of life.

So close your eyes and lean in.  Lean in and come close to Jesus, just as he has come close to us in the power of the Spirit, and know that in Christ all shall be we