Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Cross (Page 1 of 7)

What kind of messiah? A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter

[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]

Today’s Gospel reading is John 10:22-30. You can read the text here.

Background

In the year 167 BC, nearly two centuries before Jesus was born, disaster came upon Jerusalem.

Israel was under the control of the Seleucid Empire and its king, Antiochus IV, who came to power in 175 BC. He chose for himself the name Antiochus Epiphanes, which means “God manifest”; that gives you some idea how he saw himself. He immediately began to persecute the Jews, outlawing their religious practices, including the observance of kosher food laws, and ordering the worship of the Greek god Zeus. He had a gymnasium, symbolising the supremacy of Greek culture, built just outside the Temple. And in 167 BC, he committed the ultimate act of sacrilege, vandalising the Temple, setting up an idol on its altar, and outlawing various central practices of Judaism, including circumcision and the Sabbath. He set up altars to Greek gods and idols in every town and put to death anyone who refused to pray to them.

This, obviously, was the worst kind of humiliation for the people of God. For them, the Temple was much more than just a building where you went to worship: like the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle before it, it was the place where God himself dwelled among his people. And practices like circumcision and observance of the Sabbath were much more than mundane religious rituals: they were vital markers of Israel’s identity as the chosen, covenant people of the one true God.

Who would rescue the Jewish people from this awful humiliation and repression?

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Broken and poured out – A sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent

[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]

Today’s Gospel reading is John 12:1-8. You can read the text here.

Introduction

Come close with Mary, Martha, Lazarus
So close the candles stir with their soft breath
And kindle heart and soul to flame within us
Lit by these mysteries of life and death.
For beauty now begins the final movement
In quietness and intimate encounter
The alabaster jar of precious ointment
Is broken open for the world’s true lover,

The whole room richly fills to feast the senses
With all the yearning such a fragrance brings,
The heart is mourning but the spirit dances,
Here at the very centre of all things,
Here at the meeting place of love and loss
We all foresee, and see beyond the cross.

(“The Anointing at Bethany”, a sonnet by English poet and Anglican priest Malcolm Guite)

Retelling the story

Picture the scene. It’s Saturday evening and the sabbath is over. Jerusalem is already swelling beyond its usual size as pilgrims arrive for Passover, just a few days away. We find Jesus and his closest associates in Bethany, a village about a mile and a half away from the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem, on the far side of the Mount of Olives.

Jesus has already been to Bethany, not long ago. You might say he made quite a splash, raising his friend Lazarus from the dead after four days in the tomb. In fact, the commotion around the raising of Lazarus prompted the Sanhedrin – the Jewish council – to make plans to arrest Jesus and have him killed. In raising Lazarus, Jesus graduated from being a manageable nuisance to representing a serious threat to the religious authorities. Ironically, in restoring Lazarus to life, he effectively signed his own death warrant.

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Repost: A new day

This post was first published in April 2014. It is the concluding part in a three-part series. You can find the first two parts here and here.

New day

It is another morning, this time far from the hustle and bustle of the city. Uncertain of what the future held, we had gravitated back to the comfortable familiarity of Galilee. Once here, not knowing what else to do, it had not been long before we were back in our boats.

We spent the whole of last night trawling the lake, and came up with nothing to show for it. And then, just as we were drawing in the nets and preparing to come in, he called out from the shore and told us to try the other side of the boat. Now, the bulging net lies on the ground beside the boat, and we have just finished a hearty breakfast of fish and bread. A breakfast cooked and served to us by him.

Having got up to begin cleaning away the remains of breakfast, I find myself alone with him, a few yards away from the others. This is the third time I’ve seen him since he rose, but the first time we’ve been face to face. Although I am close enough that I could reach out my hand and touch him, something holds me back – there is a distance between us that cannot be bridged by mere touch. There is no doubt in my mind that this Jesus who stands before me now is the very same man I saw die a criminal’s death; God has raised him to new life, just as he said would happen. Which means I cannot escape the conclusion that everything he said about himself is true, that he really is the Messiah, the chosen one, the Son of Man who is Son of God. This – though it defies all logic and human experience – this I can accept, for there are no alternatives that remotely explain the facts.

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Repost: Everything has changed – An Easter Sunday meditation

[This post was first published in April 2014. It is the second post in a three-part series. You can find the first part here; the concluding part will follow in a few days.]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo much has happened in the past week. It seems like only yesterday that we walked triumphantly into Jerusalem on a carpet of palm leaves, our emotions high as the crowd chanted “Hosanna!” None of us could have predicted what would unfold only a few hours later. And yet, looking back, it all seems so clear, and I wonder how I could have failed to see everything he so carefully explained and warned us about. I suppose there are some things you have to experience before you can really understand them. I tried so hard to understand – I wanted to be the one who understood better than anyone – but, as so often, it was in my head that I tried to work it all out and put it all together; it took the furnace of experience to shatter my delusions and finally allow my stubborn, wavering heart to see what had been in front of me all along.

*  *  *  *  *

Never has a sabbath night been so long and so bleak. After he finally let go of life – from the set of his jaw and the look in his eyes, it was almost as though he and he alone decided exactly when it should end – I could not bring myself to stay and watch the morbid proceedings that would inevitably follow. I left that hill in a daze, not knowing who or where I was any more, and not even thinking about where I was going. I stumbled in the darkness of my thoughts even as the sky blackened and the heavens opened; it was as if heaven itself was appalled at the events of that day, and the great drops that fell to the baked earth were the very tears of God.

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Repost: The morning after – a Holy Saturday meditation

[This post was first published in April 2014.]

Dead JesusDeath.

Death hangs heavy in the air. I can smell it, I can feel its oppressive weight, I can taste its cloying, bitter taste in my throat. At this moment, I can see and feel little else; death is everything and everywhere.

The night has seemed to last forever, the agony of regret my only companion. Now, from the shadowy corner where I sit, my knees drawn up to my chest and my head down, I hear stirrings of life as people begin to wake and prepare to go about a new day. The city cares nothing for yesterday or for my sorrow; it presses ahead, resolute and impassive. Life goes on, but not for me. Death is the place I now inhabit.

Yesterday…

No. I try to keep my mind wrapped in the relative safety of today, where all is dark and numb. Yet at the same time some awful compulsion drives me to relive those terrible hours, the way that a high, exposed cliff dares you to peer over the edge, knowing you could plunge to your doom but unable to resist the magnetic draw of the yawning chasm beneath.

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Repost: Glorified

[This post was first published in April 2014.]

Dark cross“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (John 12:23)

According to John’s gospel, Jesus utters these words shortly after entering Jerusalem at the beginning of this holiest and darkest of weeks. The atmosphere is heavy with speculation that Jesus could be the one to spearhead the revolution that will finally throw off the shackles of Rome. The crowd, willing to believe this, fêtes Jesus as king as he rides into the city, completely missing the symbolic significance of the fact that he is riding not on a white charger but on a donkey’s colt.

Given so much hope of glory among both the populace in general and Jesus’ own disciples in particular (not long before, they were still arguing about who would get the best seats with Jesus in heaven), it’s easy to imagine how they might have understood Jesus’ comment that it was time for him to be glorified. Yes! It’s going to happen! Jesus is finally going to take his rightful place and ascend to his throne!

They were right: Jesus was going to take his place. But what they didn’t realise was this: in a world that prizes strength, ambition, power and cunning, enforced by violence and kept in motion by sacrificial religion, there is only one fitting place for a God who is and always has been infinite mercy and love: the cross.

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Maundy Thursday: living in the face of death

Last supper

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

These are familiar words for Christians, recited week in, week out in churches all over the world as believers gather to partake of the Lord’s Supper. They are even more poignant today, Maundy Thursday, as we remember Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. However, as is often the case, it may be that our familiarity with the text makes us blind to certain aspects of the reality it describes.

Because we often rightly take great comfort and encouragement from the sacrament of communion, I think we tend to imagine that not only the disciples but also Jesus himself took similar comfort and encouragement from the meal they shared at the Last Supper. In truth, it’s probably much more likely that the disciples’ reaction was one of bemusement and confusion – What IS he talking about? – and that Jesus himself was in something of a state of emotional turmoil as he broke the bread and poured the wine.

Think about it: Jesus knows that his “hour has come”. I don’t for one moment believe that he knew this by divine omniscience; he knew it because he understood that “love is just a recipe for getting yourself crucified”[1]. He knew that his words and actions had set him on a collision course with the religious and political authorities at a time when Jerusalem, amid the patriotic fervour of Passover, was a tinderbox of unfulfilled revolutionary expectation. And, as a fully-fledged human being, the knowledge of his impending suffering must have filled him with the most intense apprehension and anguish.

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