Saturday, 24 December 2016

Today is my dancing day

They worshipped him, though some doubted

So, here we are. It is Christmas Day. The boy born as Emmanuel, ‘God with us’, now promises to be with us always, even to the end of time, as Lord of the Dance.

For three days he lay there in the tomb, just needing to be loved, as he had in the manger. And then, the King of the Great Reversal, overturned every law of physics and chemistry and biology; and while he was about it he overturned every law of religion and politics and social life as well.

Our faith depends upon this truth: that Jesus, the Light of the World, did not get overwhelmed by the darkness, but was reborn in resurrection. And he did not have his body stolen, as the Gospel tells us the guards and religious leaders would have the world believe. He burst from the tomb in a new dance of life.

It has been both jarring and profound to be thinking about the death of Jesus as we have been preparing to celebrate his birth. But today we celebrate both his birth and his re-birth as the resurrection Lord.

The account is heartening for us, I think. It is heartening to us who wrestle with faith that we hear how even as they saw with their own eyes the risen Lord Jesus, some still doubted (even if they also worshipped). While the women held on to his feet, and Jesus said they had to let go; so some of the disciples held back from wholly accepting the resurrection easily. Jesus condemned neither the women, for trying to hold on to him, nor did he condemn the other disciples for not holding to the truth of the resurrection easily. It was possible for them to worship and doubt at the same time, it would seem.

Well, that is also our experience too, I suspect. In the main we have questions and yet we worship. Because we have just enough of the truth in our hearts and lives which pulls us with the gravity of the resurrection story; yet we have questions because we live in a world whose laws of gravity pull in a different direction most of the time.

We are caught between the now and not yet, the longing for the Kingdom of the Great Reversal to be real and apparent yet the experience that this world is still shrouded in darkness. We still wear funeral clothes but long for dancing clothes. Well, bit by bit, we put on the dancing clothes of the resurrected Christ even as we peel away the funeral clothes of our sorrows and pains and suffering.

Today is our dancing day, not just tomorrow. Today, we are nearer to our salvation than when we first believed. Today, we are able to know the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ when we do the things he has asked us to do. The presence of God is known when we do these things together, not alone. The presence of God is known as we draw others into the Kingdom of the Great Reversal through the ministry of forgetfulness of ourselves and the remembering of Christ in the other. It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

And so today, Christmas Day, the day of the birth of Jesus, may we live in the light of the Resurrection, and the joyous dance of life. I end with the most beautiful carol from last night’s Nine Lessons and Carol Service at St Hilda’s. The choir sang only four of the verses; but when you see them all you realise it is an Easter Carol as well as a Christmas one. The two great festivals of our faith become one.

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance;
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

Then was I born of a virgin pure,
Of her I took fleshly substance
Thus was I knit to man's nature
To call my true love to my dance.
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

In a manger laid, and wrapped I was
So very poor, this was my chance
Between an ox and a silly poor ass
To call my true love to my dance.
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

Then afterwards baptized I was;
The Holy Ghost on me did glance,
My Father’s voice heard I from above,
To call my true love to my dance.
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

Into the desert I was led,
Where I fasted without substance;
The Devil bade me make stones my bread,
To have me break my true love's dance.
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

For thirty pence Judas me sold,
His covetousness for to advance:
Mark whom I kiss, the same do hold!
The same is he shall lead the dance.
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

Before Pilate the Jews me brought,
Where Barabbas had deliverance;
They scourged me and set me at nought,
Judged me to die to lead the dance.
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

Then on the cross hanged I was,
Where a spear my heart did glance;
There issued forth both water and blood,
To call my true love to my dance.
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

Then down to hell I took my way
For my true love's deliverance,
And rose again on the third day,
Up to my true love and the dance.
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

Then up to heaven I did ascend,
Where now I dwell in sure substance
On the right hand of God, that man
May come unto the general dance.
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.


The Light of Life faces our Deep Darkness

Deep Darkness

Tomorrow we enter the deep mystery of the incarnation, the birth of Jesus. At the same time, we consider the deep mystery of the darkness, the extinguishing of the light. This penultimate blog has been written for Christmas Eve. And we will later this evening hear the nine lessons of the traditional carol service; whose climax is the first chapter of the Gospel of John.
What came into existence was Life,
    and the Life was Light to live by.
The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness;
    the darkness couldn’t put it out.

The darkness did put it out, though. That is what Chapter 27 is all about. There is darkness all around. Judas realises he has betrayed innocence, and darkness descends upon him, a heaviness fills his soul and he takes his own life. Darkness descends upon Pilate, who, despite the warnings of his wife, ignores her night-time dream to ‘not get mixed up in judging this noble man’. He bows to mob rule and releases man with a dark heart, a convicted murderer, and sends Jesus to the cross. Yet more darkness shrouds Jesus as he is mocked and bullied and reviled by soldiers. These soldiers may well have been the sons of those, whose brute-minded kind had 30 years before ordered the slaughter of the innocents. And then, finally, for three hours, deep darkness broods over the whole world, we are told, as Jesus hangs on the cross and the Life-Light goes out.

The deepest darkness must have been reserved for Jesus as he experienced (and bore witness) the turmoil of utter abandonment. Mark and Matthew are alone in telling us of this dreadful groan from the depths of his being as he echoed the first lines of Psalm 22. This was the darkness of separation, total division between the Father and the Son. And ultimately this is what our sin is, it is what separates us: from God and from each other. Yet, in this upside down kingdom of the Great Reversal, it was by entering into that deep darkness of the abandonment, that we believe humanity finds liberation and light. 

In Matthew's account, the depth of the darkness and the division is echoed in the very earth itself. His the only account which tells us of the earth-splitting response of creation itself as Jesus breathed his last - there was an earthquake. 

However, even as the temple curtain is torn in two, the darkness of Jesus’ death is accompanied by a prefiguring of his resurrection – again, only Matthew tells us that tombs were opened and believers resurrected at this moment. And as fear gripped everyone present, out of the darkness comes the voice of the Captain of the Guard, the representative of the dark powers of Rome and Jerusalem, who announces boldly – ‘this has to be the Son of God’.

So, even in the deepest darkness of the crucifixion and death of Jesus there are hints that this is not a full stop, but merely a coma; the candle has not gone out, it has simply, momentarily, lost its spark. And the powers of darkness – the high priests and Pharisees – as the sun goes down, are worried, that the Son may indeed rise. They remembered his prophesy that he would rise after three days, and so set a guard on the tomb.

As we wait for Christmas Day and the birth of the Saviour, we are left waiting by the tomb of Jesus. Today we sing:
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume,
Breathes of life of gathering gloom,
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

But later on tomorrow we will add:
Glorious now behold Him arise,
King and God and Sacrifice,
Alleluia, Alleluia,
Earth to Heaven replies.

And tomorrow, Christmas Day, will be his dancing day.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Food of the kingdom

Trial and tribulation

I have just come from blessing a home. At the heart of the home is the kitchen, the place where love takes time to produce good food to nourish the souls and bodies of companions, neighbours and family. And in praying for this room, I found myself reconnecting with the sense that sharing home-cooked food is a daily sharing of love. Cooks love people with and through their food.

It is around food that Jesus becomes within reach of us. He needed to eat, so do we. He sat with friends, companions and family, so do we. And so, it is that the places of food-sharing become the stage for acts of love and acts of betrayal in Chapter 26.

Eating dinner in a home in Bethany, Jesus is anointed with expensive perfume in an act of extraordinary love. Jesus predicts the woman who poured the perfume over him so lavishly would always be remembered wherever the gospel message was spoken – and he was right. But Jesus also saw a deeper significance in this lavishness: it was a sign for him that his time was up and he was heading for his execution; this was anointing for burial. And suddenly, events begin to have a momentum of their own. Jesus is slowly letting go of control. He is becoming the one who to whom things are done. It begins with anointing and ends with betrayal in a garden, false charges and being handed over.

It is in the familiar setting of a meal with his friends who have followed him these last three years, that he first announces how his passion will begin. It has been triggered by lavish love, a lavishness which so enrages Judas that his betrayal of Jesus, his treachery with a kiss, is conceived. Jesus uses food to signal who his betrayer will be. And he then uses the ordinariness of bread and wine to signal how generations of believers are to remember what was yet to come. The act of eating bread and drinking wine was forever changed for those friends in the upper room. These most basic foodstuffs – grain and grape – were now ‘my body’ and ‘my blood’, the symbols and signs of love poured out for forgiveness.

What follows in Matthew’s narrative in this 75-verse episode is the account of how the disciples fall to pieces while Jesus is handed over in one piece. Although his body is broken on the cross, at this point in the darkness of night he appears to be very much in control even as he allows himself to be handed over. While the disciples sleep, he wrestles in prayer and utters the words of absolute surrender: ‘Do it your way.’ He still has strength to speak truth to the arresting mob of temple security guards and soldiers saying he has countless angels to call upon. ‘While mortals sleep, the angels keep, their watch of wondering love.’

What is it that he is charged with in the end? Blasphemy. This accusation is based upon a part-heard quote of Jesus: that the Temple of God, were it demolished, could be re-built in three days by himself. Jesus is of course referring to his own resurrection, with his body being the location of the Presence of God. Blasphemy is of course an accusation that religious power elites will always wheel out as their trump card for regulating and managing who is in and who is out. And in our time it is used by repressive regimes across the world. One of our contributors has already mentioned Asia Bibi, the poor Pakistani Christian mother who has been incarcerated for nearly eight years on the same charge of blasphemy. Jesus and Asia - linked by 2000 years of repressive, frightened, hate-filled power-structures unable to cope with the suffering servant.

As always, and especially now, in this the last of his great confrontations with the religious elite, Jesus refuses to be contained or constrained by their smallness of mind. Instead he provokes his accusers with his own glorious image of the ‘Son of Man arriving on the clouds of heaven’ – he is already reading the script of another reality, a reality based on heavenly communion with the Father. It is a script which was written long ago – as Matthew reminds us. It is a script whose fulfillment will inevitably lead Jesus through a profound sense of abandonment, brokenness and physical pain. It is a script which, in one 24-hour period, takes him from demonstrating the food of the kingdom life to becoming the food of the kingdom life.    

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Thoughtful risk-taking faithful love

Living the Kingdom way

Three memorable parables make up the whole of Chapter 25 – the ‘Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids’, ‘The Talents’ and ‘The Sheep and the Goats’. Each one is about what it is to be ‘ready’ for the Second Coming and for Judgement. Each one also places Jesus in three different roles – bridegroom, investor in people and suffering judge. These teaching sessions of Jesus in the shadow of his trial and execution are a kind of boot camp for Christian living after the Resurrection.

How might we be assured of readiness, preparedness, for life in the eternal kingdom? Well, by doing the work of the kingdom – and this work turns out to involve apparently small but significant details: having enough oil for lamps, attending to wise investment of the master’s resources and giving of water, food, shelter, clothing, comfort and courage to the lowest and the least. And in addition, it seems, those involved are surprised by the response of the Master, whether they have attended to these details or they have not. But more of that shortly. Getting ready is not about living in fear, but it is about exercising fearless love.

In the first parable, Jesus describes God’s kingdom (where God’s rule is effective) as being like a group of bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom. Five are prepared to greet the arrival of the long-awaited groom and five are not. And we know this because five have the extra oil to keep their lamps lit while five do not. The ones prepared are focused on being prepared. And they are not willing to share out their oil with those have not been ready. This is a kingdom where being ready is so important it almost feels like it is ‘every man for himself’. There is no sympathy from the five prepared bridesmaids for the five unprepared ones. It is very tough-minded and uncompromising. The five foolish bridesmaids are foolish because they do not make proper provision for their role, their vocation, their calling. They don’t think things through. They just leave things to chance. They are caught out by the arrival not because it is unexpected but because they are not ready for it when it comes. This teaching seems to be quite clear – the bridegroom will return, of that there can be no doubt. But will we have thought through how to be alert? What preparations do we need to make to be certain the Master will include us in the wedding celebrations? What this teaching does seem to strongly suggest is that there will be a time when, notwithstanding the inclusiveness of God’s grace, some will be locked out of the banquet of the kingdom even though they had partly been ready. Those locked out know the bridegroom is coming. They are not ignorant about this fact. They just seem a bit casual about it. Kingdom living, in this interpretation, is about thoughtful faithfulness set against casual unpreparedness.

The second parable is a different take on the same theme: the Master will return; the Master invests in you; what return will you give on his investment when he does return? Three servants are given the Master’s money to invest and the amount given depends upon their abilities. What the Master is looking for is faithfulness not fear. Two are faithful. But one is fearful. Two take risks. But one is cautious. Two go out on a limb. But one plays safe. Kingdom living, in this interpretation, is about risk-taking faithfulness set against cautious fearfulness.

The third parable completes the set and is the most extraordinary of the lot. It is extraordinary because the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats divides entry into the eternal kingdom not on belief in certain doctrines but on behaviours in certain circumstances. And for those involved, both the sheep and the goats, the measure used to determine which category each are in comes as a complete surprise. In this parable, the returning Son of Man is neither a late bridegroom or a soon-to-return master but a beautiful and unmissable shepherd sorting out all the peoples and the nations. It is an epic sight. The blazing beauty of the Son of Man, surrounded by all his angels, takes centre stage on an incredible throne and all the nations are brought before it. This shimmering vision is all about who gets the door code to the kingdom and who is locked out. It is as if the whole of life has been an audition for the real live show, and the X-factor turns out not to be faith or well-lived doctrine or church-attendance: instead, those judged to have the X-factor are those who have woven into their lives simple acts of kindness, self-sacrifice and practical responses to very real and human needs. And the biggest surprise of all is this: that every single hungry, thirsty, homeless, dispossessed, sick and imprisoned person is in fact the suffering judge sitting on the throne. The suffering servant king is seeking sisters and brothers with compassionate hearts and tough minds. Kingdom living, in this interpretation, is all about faithful love motivated not by any reward but by an instinctive attentiveness to the vulnerable, those on the edge, without resources and silenced by their most basic needs.

The Kingdom of the Great Reversal is open to all. But membership is measured by thoughtful, sacrificial, risk-taking and faithful love.   


Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Hope does not disappoint

The Second Coming

It’s Advent; and in Advent we are working with two different timescales. We prepare for Christmas, the first coming of Jesus. But we also have a tandem timeline running, as we prepare for the Second Coming.

For those overwhelmed by the horrendous consumerism of 21st century Christmases, the idea that the ‘end is nigh’ might come as a huge relief! But for us who want to remain faithful to Christ, our hope for the Second Coming might also wake us up and shake us up.

Chapter 24 is yet more tough reading courtesy of Matthew. It is laden with imagery of hard times ahead for Jesus’ immediate (chronologically) followers as well as future disciples. There are predictions of the destruction of the temple, persecution of believers, the rise of false messiahs, the cycle of wars and rumours of wars and physical hardships caused by natural disasters (normal history in other words). 

And there are instructions to simply stay faithful. 'Stay with it - that's what God requires. Stay with it to the end. You won't be sorry, and you will be saved.' (Verse 13)

And then there is the scary stuff.

When I was a child of nine or 10, I remember an American singing group came to our church in Pakistan (Karachi’s Holy Trinity Cathedral) and gave a presentation of the gospel. It is seared in my memory because of one haunting song which was based upon Matthew 24.39-44. It was night and the main lights were switched off. We sat in near darkness as a spotlight shone on an incredibly beautiful woman singing the haunting lines ‘one will be taken, one left behind’. I was sat on the floor not far from the singers as lights shone on some but were suddenly switched off others as she sang about two men working in a field, and ‘one will be taken, one left behind’; then of two women grinding grain, and ‘one will be taken, one left behind’. I can remember feeling overwhelmed with deep sadness as well as worry about which was better: being taken (where to? By whom1? And how – beamed up like the cast of Star Trek?) or being left behind?

Jesus’ picture imagery of the Arrival of the Son of Man is powerful, memorable and was enough to put the fear of God into a young lad. Is that why he tells us these things?

We have been mulling over the character of Jesus as portrayed by Matthew. We have found in this gospel a gritty, devastatingly tough-minded (and tender-hearted) Christ. We have not very often found him to be someone we are attracted to, but rather someone we are powerfully drawn to. We can’t avoid his words. We can’t avoid his puzzling parables. We can’t avoid his healing miracles. We can’t avoid his confrontations with the religious elite. And we dare not avoid his teaching on the Second Coming.

When I was at theological college 12 years ago, there was a reluctance, I felt, to deal with this teaching. Some tutors did not believe in the second coming at all – that it was a metaphor (for what I was not sure). Others saw it as problematic for reasons, precisely, because of my reaction as a boy – that it is never right to scare people into the kingdom work; that if we only join the kingdom to look after ‘number one’ then it kind of automatically disqualifies us from the kingdom anyway. But neither of these approaches seems to be worthy of biblical scholarship or serious theological inquiry.

This chapter is all about preparedness. It is about the individual Christian and the whole fellowship of believers taking seriously the Advent message of waking up. The liturgy of Morning Prayer in Advent has this theme running right through it like a golden thread. Here is a taste of it in these call and response verses based on Romans 13:

Now it is time to awake out of sleep,
for the night is far spent and the day is at hand.
Now is our salvation nearer than when we first believed,
for the night is far spent.
Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness
and put on the armour of light,
for the day is at hand.
Put on the Lord Jesus Christ
and make no provision for the flesh,
for the night is far spent and the day is at hand.

Waking up to, watching out for and waiting for Jesus means something very, very intentional. This discipline takes a lifetime of pondering prayer and practice of living in the presence of God. Looking for Jesus in the present means being open to the Christ in everyone we meet – even, and especially, in the unexpected places and people. How do we encourage one another to recognise the hidden Christ like this? One thing Jesus is very clear about – there will be people who think they are the Christ – fake Messiahs and lying preachers – who we need to be most on our guard against. And there will also be people who will hate us because we carry Jesus’ name. Tough minds and tender hearts are needed.

But we are not to get paranoid about missing fake messiahs or that we are being tracked down by people who hate us, either. And in the same way, I believe, we are not to get paranoid about ‘being taken or being left behind’. We are just to be ready for the arrival of the Son of Man. And to live each day beautifully, faithfully and honestly – with humility and repentance. The Master is looking for people he can depend upon. And it must be possible that we indeed can be those people; not because of any merit in us, but because of Christ's grace which gives endurance. 

I want to end this section with the uplifting and timely words of Paul in Romans 5, who, in his characteristic list-minded approach to understanding the steps that lead to Christian maturity, says this:

Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.



Frauds under fire

Now Jesus goes for the jugular. He has put up with endless attacks on his authority to preach, to heal, to show compassion and to point people back to God. He is still in the temple precincts. Matthew tells us that the Pharisees and Sadducees and High Priests have ended their inquisition.

We are sometimes told by scholars that Jesus reserved his most blistering attack on the Pharisees because he had such an admiration for their dedication to the Torah, yet he was so deeply disappointed in them. It is it for those we love most that we reserve our most profound anger?

Over the next 39 verses Jesus speaks to the crowd with the passion of a modern-day poetry-slam competition entrant or a ranting rapper. It is as unrelenting and powerful as anything he is recorded as saying in the whole of the gospels. It carries huge importance. For it defines what it is NOT to be a follower of Jesus. It is often in defining what we are not that we discover who we truly are.

What are Jesus’ main accusations, and how might they hit home to us? Is there not a lot of truth in Jesus’ assault on those whose lips and lives are not in sync? We who claim to be followers of Jesus have much to attend to here. I have always found Matthew 23 a little close to the knuckle. So here goes:
Jesus accuses the Pharisees of:
·       Being very good at teaching the Torah but not living the Torah: ‘It’s all spit and polish veneer’
·       Loading obligations on people but not lifting a finger to help
·       Enjoying public flattery and being placed on a pedestal
·       Being frauds, talking the talk but not walking the walk – and what’s more, blocking the way to the kingdom
·       Putting huge effort into winning a convert, then making them into replicas, twice as fit for damnation
·       Failing to treat the promises of God and the law of God seriously – preferring to nit-pick over tiny details rather than seeing God’s big picture story of salvation
·       Being greedy and gluttonous
·       Presenting a purity and cleanliness, but in fact being a bundle of bones
·       Attacking the wise in each generation

Jesus ends his diatribe by revealing a motherly heart. This country preacher and healer cries out for Jerusalem; the city which is the locus of power in Israel as well as the seat of God the Holy One. Human leaders of that city had for centuries murdered the messengers of God, the Prophets and the broadcasters of God’s good news.

‘How often I’ve ached to embrace your children,’ says Jesus to the crowd with the smarting Pharisees and other leaders of the faith, ‘the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you wouldn’t let me. And now you are so desolate, nothing but a ghost town. What is there left to say? Only this: I’m out of here soon. The next time you see me you’ll say. “Oh, God has blessed him! He is come, to bring God’s rule!”’

He places himself as the defender and protector of the people of Jerusalem – but not as a Lion of Judah or a Messiah with winged angelic army, but as a mother hen, who will shield her chicks from harm with her wings.

The attack that normally hits home greatest to any Christian is the accusation that we are hypocrites. As you will probably remember, this word relates to the world of Greek tragedies. It is the word used to describe an actor who wears different kinds of masks to represent different kinds of lives or behaviours. It is acting, pure and simple. A Christian who is accused of being good at acting is assumed that they do not actually mean what they say or believe. They are people living a double life.

In our culture, the Press will often set themselves up as the guardians of morality, using the public interest justification for their inquiries as a shield with which to attack a politician or celebrity for double-standards, or hypocrisy. I used to be a member of the Fourth Estate (the Press). As a local reporter, there were a few occasions when I found myself in the uncomfortable position of writing such a story. On one occasion, it was a politician (an MP who got, it was alleged, preferential treatment in a local hospital) and another it was a public figure (a vicar accused of having an affair with a member of his congregation). On both occasions, I found my role in the story distasteful and messy. I questioned what right I had to ruin their reputations and yet found that the ‘public interest’ argument had some traction with my superiors.

On both occasions the energy which drove the story was the attempt by the parties concerned to cover up what was going on. There is nothing that energizes a reporter so much as the desire to uncover what authorities or people in power are trying to hide. In fact, as we know from many media scandals, it is the cover-up that is nearly always more criticised than the original sin of omission or commission. It is why, in these days of the uncovering of the extent of the sexual abuse scandal of our day, that institutions and organisations (the church prime among them) are doing all they can to prove that they have no longer got a culture of cover-up. Of course, there is also a real concern for the myriad victims of the predatory people who have ruined so many lives. But cover-up is the big sin of organisations and institutions.

Could it be that repentance is a public matter not just a private one? Could it be that the word that heralds the announcement of the kingdom – Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near – finds its absolute and unerring focus in Jesus’ attack on the Pharisees?

As the cradle and the cross approach, Jesus renews our call to a new birth and to stop our cover-ups. The journey to maturity is littered by the throwing away of many masks.

Monday, 19 December 2016

No questions, no faith


No more questions

There is a relentlessness about the account now. It feels like Jesus' enemies are circling like sharks around a wreck, or, as Psalm 22 describes, like strong bulls with opened mouths like a ravening and roaring lion. No sooner have the Chief Priests ended their confrontation then the Pharisees step in to trap him. And when they have failed, the leaders of the Sadducee party launch an attack. All of them hope for drawing Jesus into saying something incriminating that will fit into a charge they can bring. They want Jesus to damage himself. But all that happens is this country preacher beats them at their own game, sending his various opponents off speechless. And at the end of this episode, they stop asking questions for good; for his opponents are unwilling to lose face in public anymore, says Petersen’s paraphrase.

As the road to Calvary gets closer, so Jesus' parables get tougher. There may be something about attending to these teachings that is harder to bear as the shadow of the cross gets stronger. Jesus is in the equivalent of a debating bearpit in the temple precincts. He is surrounded by the crowd and stage left and right are different wings of the theological movement that is Judaism.

Jesus responds to this claustrophobic situation of being surrounded by telling yet more stories. This time it is of a wedding banquet being organised by a king for his son. But none of the invited guests show up. In fact, they even kill the messengers bearing the message (the prophets and John the Baptist) that everything is ready. So instead of seeking the guests already invited, the king spreads the invites around the streets and anyone, good or bad, is urged to drop everything they are doing and attend. One comment on custom is needed here. It is suggested by every scholar that we need to understand that it was normal for all guests to be given their clothes for the celebration by the one responsible for the wedding.
So, when we get to the king’s inspection of the guests, he is not being as unjust as we might have thought at first sight – his question is justified: Why are you not wearing the right clothes? What are these clothes signifying, however?  Some commentators suggest they are ‘the garments of salvation’ (Isaiah 61.10):  "He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels."

Many are invited to the wedding feast of the king of the Great Reversal, but only a few make it, is Jesus’ interpretation. Jesus challenge to the holders of power in the Judaic religious system is this: ‘I am the gate, the door – not you. I am wresting control back for God. God invites. God decides. Not you. Every place at the banquet of the kingdom of the Great Reversal will be filled. But those who refuse to wear the garments of salvation will, by their own decision, be cancelled out of the celebration.’

This parable is received and understood and immediately the Pharisees go on the attack with their question about taxes, which Jesus nimbly deflects, leaving them speechless. The Sadducees then ask their clever question about the resurrection, something they don’t believe in – and again, Jesus sees through their deceit and not only refutes their rejection of the resurrection but makes it all about God being the living God who is in a living relationship with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (who are of course dead to this earth but alive with God). Finally, the Pharisees return with another verbal assault. But Jesus, after an elementary exposition on the law, turns the tables and asks them their interpretation of Psalm 110 and the relationship between the longed-for Messiah (who had to be a Son of David according to the Prophets) and David, who called him his ‘Master’. How can a son be a master? Petersen suggests that what stumped the Pharisees was their literalism. They did not have the tools to interpret the scriptures because they were hidebound by literalism. Literalism may lead to extremism. Extremism leads almost inevitably to violence. And in their case, because they could not battle with Jesus on his terms, the only action left was to plot his death.

They had no more questions because they could not get the answers they wanted.

Faith is about questions. When we run out of questions, perhaps we run out of faith. When his opponents ran out of questions, Jesus ran out of life.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

No turning back

Collision course

Lines are being drawn in the sand. A collision course is being set. Jesus arrives in Jerusalem to public acclaim and to the outrage of powerful opponents. Yet the religious elite are afraid of the crowds, for now. Jesus is brazen in his critique of their stewardship of the temple and the teaching of the Torah. The holiness of God’s temple has been defiled by traders. The authority of Jesus is again questioned, this time by the High Priests, the true power behind the temple cult. Yet the eagerness of the lowest of the low to enter into the kingdom life (the crooks and whores who changed their lives at John’s baptism, for example) is where true holiness and godliness resides, says Jesus. These ordinary people whose lives have been transformed by the generous grace of Jesus are the last who shall be first.

It struck me today that we should pay special attention to the teaching of Jesus in this his last week before his crucifixion. And so we will shortly look at the parables and conflicts of this chapter.

But first, how bewildering it must have all been for the disciples? The tension must have been unbearable. They must have been hoping that the triumphant arrival in Jerusalem signalled that Jesus’ dire predictions were out of step with the reality. He WAS being hailed a king, a messiah. Perhaps there would be a bloodless coup? Perhaps the High Priests and Temple Guard would welcome him after all? But Jesus does not help himself. In this chapter, he goes out of his way to provoke further hostility and opposition. In Matthew’s account, Jesus, fresh from fulfilling yet more prophecies (by entering Jerusalem on a donkey), heads straight into the temple precincts and effectively throws down the gauntlet to the High Priests. Here is the Son of God raging against an economic system that had been built up around the religious obligations for sacrifices. He is raging because every soul should have unfettered access to a place of prayer. Yet here the outer courts have become a marketplace where quick-witted sharp-minded traders were making a mint out of slower country folk coming to the temple to carry out their obligations. As we commit ourselves to opening up our church to the community so it is a place of prayer for all people, what obstacles do we still need to demolish? Everyone has a yearning for prayer.

We are in the last week of Advent as we cover the last week of Jesus’ life. We are strangely anticipating the birth of Jesus, with the angel’s chorus (at least in Luke) praising God and whispering news of peace and goodwill to all people. And here we read that the goodwill of the Passover pilgriming country people and their praise of Jesus, with their loud hosannas, unnerves the city folk. The whole city is shaken up by Jesus’ arrival, asking ‘who is he?’ (how I will always remember Joan Davies in our Passion Plays asking that question at the very beginning of each play).

Then the High Priests, who jolly well know who he is, because their spies have been following his progress up from the country, ask him what authority he has to teach the stuff he teaches. Jesus, now in pugnacious mood (after the withering of the fig tree incident and overturning the tables) will only answer if they answer his unanswerable question – or, at least, a question they know they cannot answer without falling into a trap. They form a huddle but cannot win. These men, so well-versed in disputation and the law and the prophets, were shown up to be fools by a country preacher. And worse is to come: Jesus has them in his sights with his two stories. He reels them in and then hits them with the punchlines.  

In the first teaching, Jesus highlights the importance of kingdom action over words that are not converted into action. A son who says ‘no’, changes his mind and does what his father asks him. The other son, who says ‘yes’ fails to take any action. One flatters to deceive – these are the High Priests. The others experience a conversion of attitude and take action – these are the lowest people whose lives have been truly changed by the kingdom. Jesus pulls no punches. The High Priests and the religious leaders are the former. The thieves and prostitutes who responded to John’s baptism of repentance, these are the ones guaranteed to get into the Kingdom of the Great Reversal first.

And then, as if to rub their noses in the humiliation, Jesus tells another parable against them – with his role as Son of God in the spotlight. He winds them up completely with this teaching. He tells a story of injustice and murderousness, where a son sent to collect rent from tenant farmers is killed after they had disregarded previous servants sent to receive what was owed. He gets them to comment on what should happen to those tenants – they should be evicted and better tenants brought in, ones who will pay their rent on time. And then he turns the tables again, and says that this is what is going to happen to them.

And they get it! And they want to get him arrested. But they are afraid of the people because they know him to be a prophet. And so the drama is suspended for another episode. Matthew seems to portray Jesus as still very much in control of events. He knows he is heading for the cross. Yet, he is doing all he can to provoke those who will take matters completely out of his control. He is moving into the Passion, when he becomes the one who is done to. There appears to be no turning back now.   

Those last words remind me of the Sunday School song I learned as a child and which effected me deeply as a nine-year-old, when I first began to realize to be a Christian had to be a conscious choice. 

I have decided to follow Jesus;
I have decided to follow Jesus;
I have decided to follow Jesus;
No turning back, no turning back.
Though I may wonder, I still will follow;
Though I may wonder, I still will follow;
Though I may wonder, I still will follow;
No turning back, no turning back.
The world behind me, the cross before me;
The world behind me, the cross before me;
The world behind me, the cross before me;
No turning back, no turning back.
Though none go with me, still I will follow;
Though none go with me, still I will follow;
Though none go with me, still I will follow;
No turning back, no turning back.
Will you decide now to follow Jesus?
Will you decide now to follow Jesus?
Will you decide now to follow Jesus?
No turning back, no turning back.