St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Second Sunday of Easter

April 27                                NOTES FOR REFLECTION                 Second Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 2:14a, 22-32; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

Theme:  All sorts of possibilities this week, some more obvious than others.  The very brave might want to make something of the fact that this week Anzac Day (and all that that involves) falls exactly one week after Good Friday (and all that that means).*  A safer option may be something like "No Turning Back" for reasons that may become clearer in these notes.  I'm leaning towards "This Man and No Other", if only because it seems to capture the essence of Peter's message in our reading from the Book of Acts.  In fact, a direct quote from the end of this passage may be a good choice of theme this week: "This Jesus God Raised Up".

[*I noticed a brief reference in the newspaper this week to the death in 1918 of the German flying ace, Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the Red Baron.  It said "he was credited with 80 kills of the enemy".  Think about that word "credited" – and about the identity of those referred to as "the enemy".  Kyrie eleison!]

Introduction.  It might seem a little strange to start this week's readings with an extract from Peter's Pentecost sermon, but it fits perfectly with the magnificent passage from John's gospel.  The Risen Christ appears to his GUILTY disciples.  Only when we grasp this can we hope to understand that, in coming to THEM, he is enacting divine forgiveness in the face of all human failure.  Likewise, Peter, having received such forgiveness (and having understood himself as guilty), begins to preach in the same mode: he preaches to the GUILTY, not to condemn them but to open their eyes to their need for that same divine forgiveness.  (More about that in next week's readings.)  This same Peter may or may not have been the author of the letter from which our second lesson is taken this week.  But whoever wrote it, it is surely one of the most positive, uplifting and encouraging passages in the Scriptures: and what a wonderful antidote it is to all the annual nonsense to which we are subjected "in the name of Easter" in the media!

And as for "Warbirds Over Wanaka"!  Could there be a less appropriate time for such an event!

Background.  In my former existence I was involved for about 20 years in law reform; so perhaps it's not surprising that I find myself every year at this time of the year pondering the reform of Easter – at least, pondering the reform of the observance of Easter in the Church and in our society in general.  To start with the easy stuff, I would remove Good Friday and Easter Monday from the list of statutory holidays, and I would apply the same trading laws to Easter Sunday as apply to every other Sunday; and I must confess that I would thoroughly enjoy the uproar that such a proposal would provoke.  A major part of my enjoyment would be watching those who would be in the vanguard of the protests.  Although most advocates for change from the commercial sector are careful not to spell it out, the subtext seems to be that it is we nasty Christians who are interfering with their basic right to make money whenever they can, and that we have no right to impose our narrow, outdated beliefs on others.

But, of course, what the garden centre operators, and the so-called hospitality industry, and retailers in areas like Wanaka really want is not the removal of Good Friday and Easter Monday from the list of statutory holidays at all: want they want is to be allowed to trade on those statutory holidays.  In other words, they want their customers to observe the statutory holidays, while they themselves do not.  So as an non-recovering reformer I hope the Church will take the initiative in seeking the removal of Good Friday and Easter Monday from the list of statutory holidays, and any particular restrictions on trading on easter Sunday, leaving Christians to observe those days as holy days freed (at the very least) from the obscenity of Warbirds over Wanaka, and the State can then decide when to have an alternative long weekend, the principal object of which would be to pay special honour to Mammon in whatever manner (according to whatever rites) that particular god's devotees desire.

Right.  That's society sorted, now what about the Church?  I ended last week with a grumble about what seems to be a growing trend to drop observances of Holy (Maundy) Thursday.  In the same cantankerous mood I want to question what seems to be a fairly common practice these days to have a time of fellowship (translation: a cup of tea and a hot-cross bun) following a Good Friday observance.   Surely there can be no fellowship among us while our Lord and Victim hangs on the cross?  (And if you were jolted by that word "Victim" read again Peter's sermon and John's description of that Easter evening "re-union".)  When I realised that the church I was attending on Good Friday was about to "adjourn to the lounge") I found myself impelled (and I might almost say "propelled") to leave in such a hurry that I dropped first my hat and then one of my gloves!

On a more positive note, one thing I learned this time was the importance of our resurrection language.  Twice during my sermon on Easter Day I caught myself referring to Jesus being "raised back to life", and had to correct myself.  I haven't checked every reference in the Scriptures, but I do think that the word "back" in that phrase is dangerous.  The Resurrection did not restore Jesus to his former existence; and it certainly did not erase or nullify the Crucifixion.  Jesus was "raised from the dead" precisely as the Crucified One.  Forgiveness does not remove the historical reality of our offences: it re-creates the relationship between the offender and the victim.  That, it seems to me, is at the heart of John's story about the encounter on the Easter evening.

But here is one of the most disturbing stories I have ever read, quoted by Rowan Williams in his book Resurrection, and set in Ulster during the time of "The Troubles":

A mother noticed that her teenage son was in obvious distress and fear; when questioned, he admitted that he was involved with a (Protestant) para-military group, which had ordered him to perform a killing locally, or else face 'execution' himself.  The mother was able to say eventually that being killed was preferable to killing; that night, her son hanged himself.

By killing himself, the son had not only refused to commit the sin of killing others; he had also refused to allow others to commit the sin of killing him.    From Good Friday to Anzac Day, this story speaks to all of us who profess the name of the Crucified and Risen Lord.

And here's a question that occurred to me for the first time ever while I was out for a walk on Wednesday of this week: did the risen Lord appear to his mother?  There doesn't seem to be any reference to it in the Scriptures.  What do you think?

Acts.  What we have here purports to be the first Christian sermon ever preached: at the very least, it is an example of the preaching of the Christian community in its earliest years.  How different it is from most of the preaching we serve up today!  It is direct and confrontational from the first word to the last.  Sadly, Peter lapses into some biblical exegesis in between the first word and the last, but even that does little to quell the power of his words.  In a word he is personal. He names his audience (target): "You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say": and he names the one about whom, and in whose name, he is preaching – "Jesus of Nazareth".  He uses the very name by which he was known to those Peter is addressing.  He reminds them of what "you yourselves know" about "this man" – his "deeds of power, wonders and signs"; and then he proclaims the indictment against them: "this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law."  And he rounds off this part of his message with his ringing affirmation of faith and personal witness all rolled into one: "This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses."  Wow!  How did they react to such in-your-face preaching?  To be continued...

Taking It Personally.

  • Notice how Peter stresses "this man" and "you".  No principles, no generalisations, no platitudes, and definitely no punches pulled.  He is preaching about Jesus to you.  How do you react?  He is charging you: how do you plead?
  • Notice the references in verses 24 and 32 to God having "raised him up".  Do you agree that this is different from "raised him back to life", or am I just playing with words?


Peter.  Now we focus on the question, what does the Resurrection of Jesus mean for those who believe in him?  And here we have, not so much an early Christian sermon, as an early Christian creed.  It is a statement of faith.  The community of faith of the time this letter was written had already done a great deal of theological reflection on the significance of Christ's Resurrection.  It is the bedrock of Christian hope: because of the Resurrection we dare to hope that not even death can separate us from God.  Notice how the passage unites the past, the present and the future in our faith: it is rooted in what has already happened; it provides confidence for a glorious revelation in the future; and it gives an assurance that we are already in the process of receiving the outcome of our faith, our salvation.


Taking It Personally.


  • Ponder this passage prayerfully, phrase by phrase, as you reflect on your own Easter experience this year.    Be completely honest with yourself.  Are you rejoicing "with an indescribable and glorious joy"?  Or are you missing something?
  • Read the passage again.  Any better?


John.  There is so much in this amazing passage that we really ought to stretch it over some weeks.  We tend to think of this as "the Thomas story", and so skip over the earlier stuff.  Let's slow down.  Let's take the first verse, then pause and listen.  Can we not hear an echo coming to us all the way from Genesis 1:1-5?  It was on the first day that God separated darkness and light, night and day; and so into the darkness of that room, the Light of the world suddenly shines forth.  Just as the tomb could not contain Jesus, so now locked doors cannot keep him out.  He enters the holding cell, full of those who have failed him so miserably.  He greets them, not with words of rebuke or vengeance, but of peace.  Then comes the all-important verse 20: "After this, he showed them his hands and his side."  Time for another pause.  So often we seem to assume that he does this to convince them that it really is him, and not some "random apparition"; but surely there is more to it than that.  After all, there is no reference to his wounds in the other resurrection stories.  Is he not preparing the ground for what is to come in verse 23?  He is showing them the reality of his suffering, the suffering they and all humanity have heaped upon him, so that, when he gives to them the power to forgive or not to forgive, they are aware of the enormity of the forgiveness they have themselves received.  [Yes, it's the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant Mark II.]  It is also the practical demonstration of Christ's extraordinary prayer on the cross: "Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing."


Which gets me to Thomas.  Here again there is so much in this short passage that we can only begin to scratch the surface.  His mere absence speaks to me of the breakdown of fellowship that inevitably flows from the death of Love on the cross.  That breakdown is underlined when Thomas refuses to believe the testimony of his former associates.  However, during the week that follows Thomas thaws a little, symbolised, I suspect, by that reference to the doors.  Last week they were locked; this week they are merely closed.  In the same way Thomas is now not quite so closed off – he is open enough to the possibility of the Resurrection to come along to the meeting with the others.  But he remains to be convinced.  What is it he wants to see and touch for himself?  The very wounds that he and all humanity have inflicted on Jesus; but when the Risen Christ offers him the opportunity to do just that, he doesn't need to accept.   "My Lord and my God" says it all.


Taking It Personally.


  • Pray through this passage using your imagination.  Place yourself in the room with them.  Experience the darkness, the desolation, the fear, the emotional exhaustion, the emptiness, the shattered hopes and dreams, the disillusionment.
  • How do you feel about Jesus now?  Are you angry – do you feel let down?  After all you have given up, after all you have committed to his cause?  Did he bring it on himself?
  • Or do you feel guilty – guilty for running away, for not being there for him in his hour of need?  What about these others in the room?  Are they any better than you – or any worse?  Look at Peter; did you use to look up to him?  What about now?  Can you still look to him for leadership – or to any of the others?
  • And then – suddenly Jesus is here standing among you.  What is your immediate reaction?  Once the initial reaction has worn off, how are you feeling?  Embarrassed?  Relieved?  Overjoyed?  Or just plain washed-out?
  • Is there anything you would like to say to Jesus?
  • When you are ready, come back to the present moment.  Read verse 31.  Do you really believe that Jesus is "the Messiah, the Son of God"?  If so, tell him.
  • End with a time of praise and thanksgiving. 

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Easter Day

April 20                       NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Easter Day

Texts: Acts 10:34-43; Colossians 3:1-4; Matthew 28:1-10

Theme:  I'm preaching at St Barnabas, Warrington on Sunday and I have already chosen my theme: it is "The Easter Experience".  And I have already come up with a little introductory prayer: "Send your Holy Spirit that Easter may be for us the personal experience of the Risen Christ, and that we, filled with his Spirit's grace and power, may be renewed for the service of your kingdom."  I have, of course, pinched most of that from the epiclesis on page 423 of our Prayer Book, so feel free to pinch it from me.

Introduction.  The Lectionary offers us some choice of readings for Easter Day, insisting only that we use the passage from Acts as one or other of the Lessons.  That requirement means that we must choose between Jeremiah 31:1-6 and Colossians 3:1-4 for the other Lesson.  Jeremiah would be an interesting possibility, concerned as it is with the return of the exiles.  No doubt, the idea here is about the ultimate vindication of the people of faith; but if you were choosing this reading it might be worth exploring the application of the theme of the returning exile directly to the Resurrection.  Who is the returning exile – Christ or the believers?  Similarly, we are offered a choice of two gospel passages, the other option being John 20:1-18.  As a preacher I would have been tempted to go with John: as with everything in this gospel his account of the resurrection is profound, nuanced, the product of years of prayerful reflection and thought.  More than enough material for a good sermon!  Put Matthew's version alongside John's and the contrast could hardly be more stark.  Matthew's version is raw, uncooked, even jumbled.  And therein lies the reason that I am glad the choice wasn't left to me; for it is precisely in its rawness that this earlier account strikes its note of authenticity.  It reads like a stunned attempt to describe the unimaginable event of the Resurrection.  Reflection on its significance comes later, and John provides it.  But first, let us try to savour the experience as the earliest witnesses did.  That seems to me what Matthew is trying to help us do.

There's that word "experience" again; and here surely is the reason why we need this reading from Acts to get us under way.  What we have is a brief homily from Peter, but one borne out of his own experience.  And what a pity we always stop at verse 43.  Why not continue through to the end of the chapter (only 5 more verses, after all): isn't that precisely the sort of response we should expect when the gospel is preached well?  And here we need the short sharp lesson from Paul's great letter to the Colossians.  To experience the resurrection means to enter into an entirely new life – to adopt an entirely new outlook – to put everything else in a new perspective.  Of course, it doesn't happen overnight: it will always be a work in progress: even the great mystic who wrote the Fourth Gospel had only got so far along the road.  Paul assures us that there is so much more yet to be revealed.


Background.  One of Bishop Kelvin's great gifts is an ability to speak about his own spiritual experiences in a humble, almost self-deprecating way.  I have seen and heard him preach in this way on a number of occasions, the latest being at the Te Harinui Regional Event held recently at St John's, Waikouaiti.  He spoke about "a chance" meeting with 2 young men who "happened" to arrive in Dunedin one day and turned up in the Cathedral, where they met Kelvin's wife, Clemency.  On learning that they had nowhere to spend the night, Clemency invited them home to the Vicarage in Roslyn, even though the Wrights were already late shifting out of the Vicarage following his appointment as Bishop.  As the story unfolded it became a wonderful account God's providential care and guidance of the young men and of the Wrights, and of how slow Kelvin was to recognise God's involvement in the whole thing. Kelvin described himself at this point as "not the sharpest knife in the draw"!

Doesn't that exactly fit St Peter throughout the whole wonderful tenth chapter of the Book of Acts?  And doesn't it exactly fit so many of us who either do not notice what God is doing all around us, or only notice when God is gracious enough to keep at it until we finally do?  One thing that perhaps distinguishes the Bishop's stories from those surrounding St Peter is their ordinariness.  Peter's vision is pretty overwhelming: at least, it would be for most of us.  Far from being overwhelmed by it, Peter entered into a debate with God about the orthodoxy of its message!  But look what is happening on the periphery.  While Peter is still trying to get his head around the vision, three strangers turn up at the house where Peter is staying, with a somewhat improbable story.  Who were they?  Should Peter have been more prudent – checked them out before letting them in, and certainly before heading off with them?  Should Clemency and Kelvin have been more careful with the strangers who "found" them in the cathedral?

That was the fun part of the Bishop's proclamation.  Then came the more disturbing part.  We all have experiences like this from time to time, don't we, he said in a cheery offhand way, and we all suddenly found the ground deeply fascinating.  We have them but we don't want to talk about them, do we?  In fact, one of the reasons why I have been struck by Bishop Kelvin's willingness to talk in this way is that in my experience he is almost unique among clergy, including bishops.  Some have been great raconteurs, always ready with a story drawn from their time in ministry.  But most of their stories are about human foibles, their own included.  I can't recall an occasion when a bishop or priest referred in a sermon to a personal experience of God in the sort of way that Bishop Kelvin does.

Yet isn't this what Easter is all about?  I was astonished to read an article by Ian Harris the other day that I agreed with: even he says that "something must have happened" to transform the disciples from a bunch of scared failures into apostles of such power that their message still reverberates around the world 2,000 years later.  So please join me in my Easter prayer this Sunday: "Send your Holy Spirit that Easter may be for us the personal experience of the Risen Christ, and that we, filled with his Spirit's grace and power, may be renewed for the service of your kingdom."

Acts.  We really do need to read the whole chapter to get what's going on in this extract.  Notice how the story is "worked up" from both sides of the great divide – Gentile and Jew.  Cornelius is a soldier and a devout man of prayer.  Peter is, well, Peter!  But each is given a vision, and a set of instructions.  Cornelius obeys without question – Peter argues; but in the end God brings them together.  And here is a classic example of theology in action.  Blessed be Christ the prince of peace, who breaks down the walls that divide, as our liturgy puts it; and of course St Paul has much to say about "making the two, one".  But here is all that theological and liturgical stuff worked out at ground level.  And both sides know that something momentous is going on.  And so Peter starts there, in verse 28, identifying the elephant in the room.  He then hands over to his "co-presenter": perhaps at this point each is really speaking to his own constituency.  So when Peter starts his homily, he can assert that God shows no favouritism, not as something he has been taught by a theologian, but as something that he and Cornelius have experienced.  Having established that common foundation, the rest is pretty simple and straightforward – a brief summary of the story so far.  But please read verses 44-48 as well: in particular, note verse 45.  Despite all that has already happened, and what Peter has just said, the support team still hadn't understood the message!  Clearly, they were not the sharpest knives in the drawer.

Taking It Personally.

  • Recall one of those experiences where you became aware that God was up to something in your life.  How long did it take for the penny to drop?  Have you ever told anyone about such an experience?  Why might you be reluctant to do so?
  • Has anyone told you about such an experience of theirs?  How did you react?
  • How would your local church react if, while the preacher this Sunday was still speaking, "the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word"?  How would you react?  Would you be thrilled, or would you prefer the Holy Spirit to fall somewhere else?  Why?


Colossians.  The first two chapters of this epistle are always worth reading; but if you really are pushed for time (even in Holy Week) at least spare a few minutes to read verses 20-23 of chapter 2 by way of introduction to today's brief passage.  Now notice the past tense in this passage, which is such a feature of this letter, and indeed of so much of Paul's writing.  We have already died; we have already been raised with Christ; our life is already hidden with Christ in God.  Only the final and full revelation of the completed Body of Christ still remains in the future.


Taking It Personally.


  • There is so much in this little passage, it is hard to take it all in.  It might be time to head for the bathroom mirror and tell yourself, phrase by phrase, what Paul is saying to the church at Colossae.
  • And what about extending the traditional Easter proclamation, thus:  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  And we have been raised up with him!  Alleluia!  Alleluia!
  • Then set your mind on things that are above.  What might that mean for you in this coming week?


Matthew.  As I said earlier, this is a very jumbled account of that first Easter morning.  Here the women are not going to anoint the body but simply to see the tomb; they are not going under cover of darkness but as dawn is breaking.  Suddenly there is an earthquake, not noted in the other gospel accounts, and rather surprisingly attributed to the angel.  It is the second strong earthquake in three days (27:51), but this time there is no report of tombs opening up.  The guards are so terrified they become catatonic, but the women hold it together well enough to hear the angel's instructions to them.  Do they take up his invitation to have a look inside the tomb?  We're not told.  They set off to find the disciples, only to be intercepted by the Risen Christ.  They prostrate themselves, taking hold of his feet, and worship him.  Then he gives them the same instructions the angel had already given them.  Matthew seems rushed, anxious to get on to his account of the chicanery and corruption of the guards (verses 11-16).  Perhaps he suspects that it is not the empty tomb that is of primary importance: it is the encounters with the Risen Christ that will kick-start the whole mission and ministry of the Church.  Those encounters could have worked without the tomb being empty: the reverse is not the case.


Taking It Personally.


  • What importance do you attach to the fact that the tomb was empty?  Do you agree or disagree that that would give rise to questions rather than answers?
  • Notice the involvement of three senses through which the women experienced the Risen Christ – they saw him, they heard him, and they touched him.  Why is touch so important here?
  • When you next receive Communion, how many of your senses will be involved? 
  • Pray that this Sunday you will truly be aware of the Risen Christ in your midst and within you.
  • Who will you run to tell?


And a final grumble.  Fewer and fewer of our churches seem to be holding Maundy Thursday services.  The Triduum seems to have become the Biduum.  Can we no longer spare the time to pray with Christ in Gethsemane?  Will we soon give away Good Friday as well?



Thursday, 10 April 2014

Psalm Sunday

April 13                       NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         Palm Sunday

Texts:  [Liturgy of the Palms] Matthew 21:1-11; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29:  [Liturgy of the Passion] Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66 (or Matthew 27:11-54)*

[*Note.  Those responsible for shaping a service for Palm Sunday have some difficult choices to make here.  I must confess that my practice has been to cut to the chase, omit the Liturgy of the Palms, omit the lesson and the psalms, omit the sermon, and have the full Passion narrative read in three or four distinct “blocks”, interspersed with periods of silence or suitably quiet music or hymns.  Generally, people have found this helpful, and it does serve as a useful entree to Holy Week.  But now I think this has gone too far.  There is great value, I think, in the contrast between the razzmatazz of the Triumphal Entry and the agony of the Passion.  And nowhere is that contrast brought out better than in the two psalms set for today.  So while I’m not generally an advocate for the widespread use of the psalms in our worship services (except where they are to be sung or chanted), I’m inclined to think using both of them in a fairly short time span could be helpful this Sunday.  The difficulty is to avoid burdening the service with yet more words, when our services are already rather wordy. 

My suggested solution is as follows.  Have the Liturgy of the Palms before the service, preferably with procession.  If for any reason the procession is impracticable, I would still use the readings for that liturgy before the start of the service.  When we get to the Proclamation, I would have someone read psalm 31:9-16, and then follow that with the full Passion narrative, either as a continuous reading, or in blocks.  I would have no other readings, and no sermon.  I am a strong advocate of the importance of preaching, but there is simply nothing to be said about the Passion.  The story speaks for itself and anything a preacher might say is likely to detract from it.  Of course, if for some reason (and I personally can’t think of a good enough one) the intention is to use the shorter gospel option it might be that the lessons, or even a short sermon, could be included.

Background.  As regular readers of the ODT will already know, we had two visitors from York join us for our parish Eucharist three weeks or so ago at St Barnabas, Warrington.  We didn’t know they were coming; they just turned up as visitors do from time to time.  They had been invited by one of our younger members, who had met them over breakfast where they were staying in Dunedin.  So it was that the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, and his wife, Margaret joined our usual congregation for worship, and, of course, for a cuppa after the service.  John was dressed in “civvies”, and Margaret in a dress.  I must confess I can’t remember if she was also wearing a hat; but if she was we had not been given due warning so none of our women parishioners had been urged to do so.  And for the same reason, there was no one at the service who had come to catch a glimpse of our distinguished visitors: all who were there were there to worship God.

It reminded me of an occasion some years ago when I attended Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral in Wellington.  As I came in I noticed a man in a smart suit sitting towards the front.  I thought I knew him from somewhere so I gave him a slight nod and carried on.  Part way through the service I suddenly realised who it was: it was the then Governor-General, Sir Michael Hardie-Boyes.  What was he doing there?  Nothing official; he was simply attending Evensong, as many Anglicans still do when given the opportunity.  I have no idea whether protocol required advance notice to be given to the Dean, but there was certainly no advance publicity, no crowds, no indication that regular non-attenders had suddenly had an overwhelming desire to worship God in that place that evening.

Contrast that with what will happen at St Paul’s Cathedral, Dunedin this Palm Sunday.  It was reported that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge had expressed a desire to attend an “ordinary” Palm Sunday service.  What a pity they hadn’t expressed that desire to John Sentamu who could have recommended a nice little church just 20 minutes or so north of the city, where they could have shared in an ordinary service with committed worshippers and been assured of the same warm welcome we give to all our visitors.  As it is they will attend a ticket-only service with a large number of people who (in most cases) have not attended a worship service for many years, or who usually attend ordinary services in their ordinary local churches, but have abandoned them this Sunday in the hope of catching a glimpse, not of the divine mystery at the heart of all our worship, but of the royal couple.  Oh, and by the way, ladies a small hat or a fascinator, please  - we wouldn’t want the Duchess to feel conspicuous, would we?  (No, I haven’t made this up – it’s in the latest email from the Diocese: besides, I heard St Paul himself laughing uproariously at our sudden desire to adopt his teaching on head covering for women!)

Could there be a more wonderful modern parable for Palm Sunday?  Look, your (future) king is coming to you...says Matthew the royal commentator quoting the prophet Zechariah.  He also tells us that a very large crowd had gathered to welcome this celebrity as he came into their city.  Who were they – what or who had they come to see?  Part of the rent-a-crowd that assembles whenever they think something is going on? How many of them came to pay him homage, how many of them understood who he was or what he had come to do?  How many cared?  How many had any intention at all of listening to his message, much less following in his footsteps?  One percent, do you think?  Less than that, maybe?  About the same percentage of those who will line the streets outside our cathedral?

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”  The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”  At least they allowed him in.  This Sunday he would need a ticket to enter our cathedral.

The Liturgy of the Palms.  There is a carnival atmosphere about this celebration.  Think bands, buskers, cameras and cell-phones, bewildered little children in Plunket-approved strollers and sunhats, waving little flags, and hoping for ice-creams, lollies, and other treats.  And then there’s that dear little donkey – don’t you just love donkeys?  Who cares who this guy is, or what he’s really up to!  We need some excitement every now and then.  And the verses from Psalm 118 capture the mood very well: this is a psalm of victory, over what we may not be too sure, but it feels good to shout and dance and let ourselves go for a time.  (Maybe that’s what celebrity visits are for.)  The people of Israel knew what tough times were like; and so when things went well for them it was worth celebrating.

Taking It Personally.

·        Are you a natural crowd-joiner?  Have you ever waited for hours to catch a glimpse of some important or famous person? Why?  What did you go out to see?  Was it a thrill or a disappointment?

·        Who would you most like to see in person?  Why?

·        Are you good at celebrating the goodness of God?  Is your local church good at celebrating the goodness of God?

·        Read these verses from psalm 118 through slowly and prayerfully.  Do they express your feelings, or are you aware of a “disconnect”?

·        As you prepare for Holy Week, do a spiritual stock-take.  How different from any other week will it be?  Have you truly let Jesus into your life?  Have you welcomed him joyfully?

·        Are you now one who comes to others “in the name of the Lord”.


Isaiah and Psalm 31:9-16.  The contrast is shocking, isn’t it?  On the one hand, a rock-star welcome: on the other, verse 6 of this passage from Isaiah.  Whether we are thinking of the welcome Jesus received on Palm Sunday, or of the welcome our royal visitors receive wherever they go, the words of this one verse are literally shocking.  And the shock is made all the greater by the verses that preceded it, as we realise that the “Servant” is one of great faith, who starts each day by listening to God, learning from him, understanding that we cannot teach others until we ourselves have first learned.  And it is all God’s doing; God has given him a teacher’s tongue, after opening his ear.  His ability to listen to the word, and to teach it, is all the gift of God.  And even though he suffers grievously for his ministry of proclamation, he knows that God will vindicate him in the end.  Both these extreme are underlined in these well-chosen verses from psalm 31, which clash so violently with the victory chant from psalm 118.  Now we have a personal lament of great torment (verses 11-13), followed by a staunch declaration of faith in the goodness of God.  Both these passages, then, look forward to the horror of Good Friday and the glory of Easter Day.


Taking It Personally.


  • How much of your daily quiet time is spent in listening rather than talking to God?  Can your practice be best described as “morning by morning” or “occasional”?
  • Do you know how to “sustain the weary with a word”?  Can you recall an occasion in the last week or so when you felt that something you said to someone might have sustained them in that way?
  • Can you recall an occasion in the last week or so when someone sustained you in your weariness?  Have you thanked God for that?
  • Have you been hurt, insulted or abused for your faith at any time?  Do you tend to “keep your faith to yourself” for fear of a hurtful response?
  • Read through this passage from psalm 31.  Are there any points of contact between the experiences described by the psalmist and your own experiences?  Call each such experience to mind, then close with a slow reading of verses 14-16.  Make those words your own.


Philippians.  I’m not sure that this reading “fits” on this day.  It is, after all, a reflection on the Passion rather than an anticipation or a description of it.  There are so many other days when it could be set down.  Perhaps its value here is to emphasise the corporate nature of our faith.  This is a plea to the whole body of believers to grow in unity with one another, to leave behind our own egos and agendas.  It is not a plea to each one of us to follow Christ’s example of humility and self-sacrifice in a sort of one-to-one private arrangement with him: rather we are to seek with all our fellow believers to be of one mind with them and they with us.  As we prepare to follow Christ to the cross this coming Holy Week perhaps that is the greatest challenge we face.  Kneeling before the cross we might ask ourselves how we “measure up” in the light of verses 3 and 4 in particular.


Taking It Personally.


  • So how do you measure up in the light of verses 3 and 4?  Are you aware of anything you have done in your local church “from selfish ambition or conceit?”
  • Do you honestly “regard (all) others as better than [yourself]”?
  • Do you really “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others”?


The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to St Matthew.


Taking It Personally.


  • Take a small section of the narrative each day in the week.  Pray with your imagination, putting yourself in each scene.  Monitor your feelings.  Look at each of the people concerned.  Do not judge them.  Just observe them.  Try to understand them.  Which of them is most like you; which of them is least like you.  What do you learn about yourself by the end of this exercise?  Pray about it accordingly.


Thursday, 3 April 2014

Fifth Sunday in Lent

April 6                         NOTES FOR REFLECTION             Fifth Sunday in Lent

Texts:  Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

Theme:  We could play it safe this week and go for something like “The Resurrection and the Life”, so long as we remember that Lazarus was resuscitated rather than resurrected.  A variation on that theme, entirely in keeping with John’s gospel, would be “From Darkness into Light”.  But I’m going for “Coming Out for Jesus”, not because I want to be provocative, but because that is the phrase that came into my mind as I started to think about this week’s readings, and I heard again those astonishing words “Lazarus, come out.”

Introduction.  We begin this week with the extraordinary vision given to the prophet Ezekiel of a valley of dry bones, relics of a vast defeated people of long ago.  No one could be “more dead” than these people; yet the Living God can restore them to life whenever he wills to do so.  In the same way he will raise up the people of Israel by breathing his Spirit into them.  St Paul develops the concept of life in the Spirit, and of the Spirit living in us.  And he reminds us that it is this very Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, and will do the same for us.  We finish this week with the fourth of the great stories around which the first half of St John’s gospel is structured.  The Word of God reaches even those who lie entombed and brings new life to them.

Background.  As I have continued to ponder these four great stories in the Fourth Gospel I have become more and more convinced that they are to be understood as a short course (in today’s terms, perhaps, a mini-series) on spiritual growth.  The similarities in style, structure and narrative technique have long been noted.  Their symbolism, particularly the use of darkness and light, is another link; but the thing that clinches it for me is what I might call the gradation in the series, the increasing “degree of difficulty”, as we might put it.

We start with an intellectual discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus.  Yes, Nicodemus is challenged very strongly to change his thinking, but not really much more than that.  The woman at the well is challenged to do the same, but in her case the challenge becomes much more personal.  She is “fully seen and fully known” by Jesus, in a way that has never happened to her before; and in that process she is fully revealed to herself.  If spirituality is in part about being true to ourselves, then this encounter is a bigger, deeper step onwards from that between Jesus and Nicodemus.  In terms of today’s theme, Nicodemus is called out of his rationalism and conviction that his faith can be developed exclusively through further study and thought.  The woman at the well is called out of her present self-understanding, out of the role imposed on her by her culture, the neighbours, and the succession of men who have used (and probably abused) her over the years.  She is called to a new vision, a new recognition of her true dignity and worth as a human being, so that she no longer needs to lead the lie others have imposed on her for so long.  Jesus has revealed to her the divine truth about himself so that she can see the divine truth about herself.

There’s something else here, too, I think, beginning to develop in this series.  The whole encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus remains private, between just the two of them, from start to finish.  In this second story with the woman at the well we start to see the wider implications of the encounter.  The disciples are drawn into the story in a way that shows that they are just as much entangled in their cultural prison as the woman is herself.  And, of course, at the end of the story the woman who was probably ignored or even despised by her neighbours is transformed into an evangelist of great persuasive power.  The healing of the woman leads to the healing of her neighbourhood.

The third encounter, the one between Jesus and the man born blind, takes us yet further along these different tracks.  In one sense we can now see the increase in the degree of difficulty applies to Jesus’ actions.  With Nicodemus Jesus “spars” intellectually with a learned man; with the woman at the well he shows prophetic insight into the personal history and circumstances of the woman; and then he restored the sight of a man born blind.  It would be easy to overlook the degree of difficulty now experienced by that man, compared to that faced by Nicodemus and by the woman at the well.  This man has always been dependent on others; he is still, it seems, in the care of his parents.  He has known no other reality, and expected no other reality for the rest of his life.  But now, suddenly, he moves from blindness to sight, from reliance on others to independence, and perhaps for the first time he experiences open criticism and aggression. 

And we see how widely the ripples reach out from this encounter.  The impaired vision of the disciples is there from the very beginning of this story; the crowds cannot agree among themselves as to what has happened, much less how it has happened.  And, of course, the religious experts are driven into paroxysm of fury.  The man has not only be called out of blindness, but also out of years of fantasy and wishful thinking and a false belief in how wonderful the world would be if only he could see.  He is shown the truth of the human condition; but he is also shown the truth of Jesus’ identity.  It is in the light of that truth, that he is empowered to begin his new, very different life.

And this week we have this extraordinary finale of our miniseries.  Lazarus is quite literally called out of his tomb into the presence of Jesus himself.  What is this story about?  Again we are given at least some of the context in which this encounter takes place, some of it more implicit than explicit.  What sort of life was Lazarus leading before he took ill and died?  Was he perhaps entombed in that life, a comfortable no-risk existence looked after (grudgingly or otherwise) by his two sisters?  Were all three of them co-dependent, as we might put it today?  Certainly this story shows Jesus at “his Father’s work” with the sisters just as much as with their brother.  In fact, Lazarus speaks not one word in this long narrative.  He is the passive one; everybody else seems to have plenty to say and do.  Is this story about Lazarus, or is it about all of us who are entombed in some sense or another?

And again we can see that the “degree of difficulty” has increased from the previous story, not only in the obvious sense of bringing a dead man back to life, but in the sense that Lazarus is called out of his old, comfortable, limited life into the true freedom of a child of God.  I find myself thinking again of the paralytic at the pool whom Jesus asked, “Do you want to be made well?”  Did Lazarus want to be made well?  Did he want to be called out by Jesus?

Which gets me to one last general thought.  I seem to remember reading somewhere that the word “ecclesia” means “those who are called out”.  Originally it had a political meaning; people were called out to be members of the council or ruling body.  But I like the idea of remembering that Christians are those whom Jesus, “in a loud voice”, has called out of whatever entombed life we may have created for ourselves, or been imprisoned in by others, into the fullness of life always intended by God for all his creatures.

Ezekiel.  I doubt whether the Book of Ezekiel is anyone’s favourite book of the Bible; and if it is I rather hope I never meet that person.  But this story has got it all – including an insidious soundtrack that has invaded my mind from the Black and White Minstrel Show, or something of that ilk, so that I can’t read this passage without hearing “dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones”!  [And now you can hear it, can’t you?]  It is clearly presented (in verse 1) as a “vision” or a “spiritual experience”, not a literal report sent back by a party of archaeologists or palaeontologists.  And just in case we miss that point, and the constant reference to God speaking to Ezekiel (the mortal), the analogical significance of the vision is made clear in verses 11-14.  The whole passage is a wonderful assertion of the creative, restorative, healing power of God, drawing perhaps on the story of the creation of Adam from the dust of the earth, and looking ahead to the resurrection to come.  Is it embarrassingly naive for modern tastes?  At Warrington, we walk through the graveyard to get to St Barnabas Church, in which we affirm our belief in “the resurrection of the dead”, and we are not at all embarrassed to do so.

Taking It Personally.

  • At one level this valley can be seen as an image of hopelessness.  Can there be any hope left in such a situation?  That is essentially the question God puts to the prophet, whose answer is remarkable.  We might expect the answer to be “No”.  But the prophet rules nothing in or out, leaving the answer to God.  What does that tell us about facing a “hopeless” situation?
  • Can you recall experiencing “utter hopelessness?  How did you get through it?  Is hopelessness ever objectively real, or is it a label we use to describe our feelings about something?
  • If God is real, can there ever be a situation that is truly hopeless?


Romans.  St Paul draws the distinction between the physical and the spiritual aspects of our human life.  He reminds us that the Spirit of Christ (the Holy Spirit) dwells in us; and, even more importantly, he reminds that that this Spirit is the one who raised Jesus from the dead.  We have that Spirit, that power of resurrection, living in us NOW; and it is on that basis that we can be assured NOW of eternal life.


Romans.  For some reason, as I read this little passage a vision came into mind of a plain weatherboard cottage sandwiched between two towering, important buildings.  We might be inclined not to notice this reading, overshadowed as it might seem by the famous vision of the first lesson, and that magnificent story in the gospel reading.  But that would be sad: this little passage goes to the very heart of our Christian faith, and St Paul pulls no punches.  The Holy Spirit is not a sort of optional extra, to be acknowledged on the Day of Pentecost, but then put back on the shelf for the rest of the year.  The Holy Spirit is the means by which the Father and the Son gather us up and bring us into the unity of the Holy Trinity.


Taking It Personally.


  • Read slowly and prayerfully through this passage.
  • Give thanks for indwelling Spirit of Christ.  When are you most aware of the Spirit dwelling within you?  When are you least aware?
  • Ponder verse 6.  Are we too much concerned with physical health (our own and that of others) and not concerned enough about spiritual health?  When did you last go to your doctor?  When did you last talk to anyone about your spiritual well-being?


John.  All the elements we have seen in the first three stories are here again.  Once again the disciples seem no closer to understanding Jesus than anyone else.    There is another, strange enigmatic “explanation” from Jesus about the real purpose of Lazarus’ illness (verse 4), similar to the response he gave to the disciples’ question about the “cause” of the man’s blindness from birth.  We see Jesus and the disciples talking past each other: Mary and Martha seemingly knowing the theology, but not able to believe it can apply in practice.  Perhaps the new bits are the most appealing: Jesus weeps with those who are grieving; and Martha’s wonderful warning about the stench likely to come out of the tomb keeps everyone grounded!  (Jesus might be the resurrection and the life, but dead bodies still smell awful by the fourth day!)  And what a climax to the story!  “Unbind him, and let him go.”


Taking It Personally.


  • A perfect story for the use of imaginative prayer.  Put yourself in the scene; listen; watch; experience.  Monitor your feelings, particularly when Lazarus emerges.
  • We can be entombed in many ways; by our fears, by our personal history, by the expectations of others, by our beliefs and convictions.  What is your tomb made of?
  • Now hear Jesus call to you in a loud voice, [your name], come out! How will you respond?  And then the words Unbind him/her, and let him/her go.  Are you willing?