Easter Day 2015

Happy Easter!!  Jesus Christ is risen to day – Alleluia!

We have gathered to celebrate something strange and often poorly understood – the resurrection is a mystery.  It is literally impossible to take it literally because the Gospels disagree on the details.  The resurrected Jesus is solid enough to eat fish by the side of the lake, yet ethereal enough to appear from nowhere in a locked room and mysteriously vanish.

But to totally reject the resurrection leaves us with the baffling mystery of what caused the mostly illiterate scattered followers of a humiliated and executed leader to find heart again and be so full of energy and new life that they turned the world upside down.

The resurrection is the story of how death is followed by new life – whatever the realities of first century Palestine, it’s a meditation on the human condition.

Good Friday shows how bad the world can get: a good and kind and generous and inspiring and loving man, the brightest and best humanity can be, is executed in a barbaric way.  And then on Easter day we are given new hope.

The broken body of Jesus and his blood spilled by his Roman executioners has become a symbol of life and hope and the centre of the meal that has united Christians for millennia.

The act of Jesus’ judicial murder which scattered his disciples has become the very symbol of his life – the cross the most instantly recognisable emblem of our faith.

Easter does not remove the suffering of Good Friday.

Resurrection is not the denial of death.

Resurrection is what allows us to look at all the horrors of the world, the politically motivated cuts to the health service, the horrific plane crashes, the rise of militant fundamentalists and dictators and warmongers… …we look squarely into the horrors of the world and say – “we will not give you the last word.  We do not believe that this is what defines humanity.”

In the words of Gandhi “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall – think of it – always.”

This year I read a fascinating book, one which I highly recommend – its “The Better Angels of our Nature” by Stephen Pinker.

It’s a huge book that goes into huge detail and presents mountains of statistical data and analysis to prove (I think beyond doubt) that violence has been in decline over millennia and that the present is probably the most peaceful time in the history of the human species. The decline in violence is not a small change, it is enormous!  The evidence is seen in the reduction in military conflict, in the decline in murder, the comparative rarity of genocide, the limits paced on torture and outcry it causes whereas it was once commonplace, the increasingly civilised criminal justice system, and the improvement in the treatment of children, LGBT folks, animals and racial and ethnic minorities. He stresses that “The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue.”

If you disagree and think that the past was better and civilisation was better in the past think about bodies found in peat bogs and permafrost in eastern Europe – from before the dawn of civilisation – the majority of them reveal that they died violent deaths.  A thousand years ago there were a lot more natural deaths, but still a lot of violent deaths,

You only need a History GCSE to realise that five hundred years ago it had improved further and one hundred years further still.  Since the Second World War there has been a steep decline in all-out war between the nations.

Gandhi’s words are not just wishful thinking, they are fact: “all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall – think of it – always.”

But progress does not come in an endless easy cycle of improvement, it comes in a painful struggle with death and resurrection followed by death and resurrection followed by death and resurrection.

Gandhi saw his dictators topple, but he paid for it with his life.

Death and resurrection.  Christ showed us the way, and it is the only way.

Easter is not a historic event that we gather to commemorate, it is a present reality that we are invited to take part in.  We are invited to join the struggle for a better world, to strive for justice and create peace, to build the Kingdom to give hope…

I close with a poem that speaks of the challenge of Easter

EASTER MORNING by Edward Conder

You, Lord Jesus, didn’t stay
Quietly dead and hid away,
You’re still here to cause dissention,
To challenge clerical invention.

For there is still a need of men
To respond to as you did then
To overcome their normal fears
And face the world with fresh ideas.

Give us then the strength divine
To step completely out of line,
Going after where you led,
Doing always what you said,

Not putting you upon a throne,
Nor making monuments in stone,
But out there with you doing stuff
Where life is true and life is tough.

Be our strength when we are weak,
Be there when we your comfort seek,
Be there in glory when we win,
Be there in mercy when we sin.

Lord Jesus, with the spirit fill us,
With his awesome power instil us,
For it is then that we can do
and follow truly after you.

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Palm Sunday

This Palm Sunday morning I want to reflect on a story of a controversial figure – everyone in the nation had heard of him, he was loved by some and hated by others.  He seemed to always speak his mind , and every word was analysed – and hailed as wit and wisdom by his followers, while being heavily criticised by his detractors.  This man has had enthusiastic supporters cheering him on, and jeering crowds baying for punishment.

The man’s initials are JC.

I am, of course, talking about Jeremy Clarkson.

Clarkson has always been a controversial figure, hated by environmentalists and people with… …a brain; and loved by car fanatics and right-wingers.

If you have spent this week in a cave (who knows, maybe you have been living in a cave for Lent) you may have missed Clarkson being sacked for punching Oisin Tymon, the producer of the BBC show Top Gear.

There have been campaigns and opinion polls and petitions to reinstate Clarkson.

The idea of “Celebrity” is an interesting concept.  The debate was more about people’s love or hate of Clarkson than it was to do with the rights or wrongs of the incident.

The idea of “Celebrity” stops people being people in their own rights, but gives them a deeper symbolism and meaning for those who either love or hate them.  Clarkson is either a bold spokesperson for the beleaguered motorist, standing up to the politically correct consensus… Or he’s an arrogant, vaguely sexist, vaguely racist, vaguely homophobic relic who’s denial of climate change makes him a dangerous idiot.  More likely than that he is a TV presenter you either warm to or want to punch in his smug face…

Palm Sunday is a day where the concept of “Celebrity” or its first century equivalent takes centre stage (which it is in celebrity’s nature to do!).

Jesus has been a wandering preacher for three years.  With mixed success:  Crowds have flocked to hear him.  But he was rejected in his own community, and the authorities hated him.

Then on the first Palm Sunday Jesus Parades into Jerusalem on a donkey.

Our liturgy says:

“Behold your King comes to you,
O Zion!
meek and lowly,
sitting on a donkey!”

However, we would be mistaken if we saw Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as a symbol of Jesus humility.  Riding into a city on a donkey was not a sign of humility, but a sign of Kingship.  A King at war would ride into a city on a horse, but a King coming in peace would ride a donkey.  The crowd certainly understood the symbolism, and hailed Jesus as ‘the Son of David’.

Jesus is defiant as he walks toward his fate.  The crowd, along with the disciples are delirious.  The disciples were euphoric – they thought this was their time of triumph was at hand…  They were marching with confidence into the stronghold of their enemies.  Surly they came to pull down the authorities that condemned them and their leader.  Surely their Messiah would oust the Romans.  Surely the Kingdom of God was at hand, and this was the pivotal moment.

The Kingdom of God was at hand.  This was the moment that Jesus ministry had been building up to, but it was not how the disciples imagined as they cried ‘Hosanna’ on the first Palm Sunday.  If they really knew what it was all about they would not desert Jesus on Good Friday, leaving the women to quietly keep the faith.

They came to Jesus for many reasons.  A famous person, doing something unusual in public always gathers a crowd, and Jesus was famous.  He was famous because of the healings that had been reported, and many people would have gathered to see a miracle – to see some magic worked.  Others heard of his criticisms for the religious authorities, and many would have liked that, and come to see the pompous be deflated by this bolshey satirist, whose jibes about logs in eyes of the authorities, and ‘whitewashed tombs’ were the toast of every disreputable inn in Palestine.  Others would have heard the rumours that Jesus was the Messiah, and gathered to see if he really could do away with the Romans.  Perhaps I’m biased, having been brought up in Northern Ireland, but I imagine that it was those desiring political independence, who wanted the Romans to go home, that made up the bulk of the crowd.

And here we part from any simiularity with th host of a motoring show.  Jesus was not an ‘entertainer.’

Jesus words and actions set beople free, he broke down barries that divided people, he accepted the ourcast and proclaimed a new world order where the last and the least were the most important and valued.

But along the way he has upset too many if those with a vested interest in the status quo and a tragedy is about to unfold…

Passion Sunday by Margaret Offerman

We’ve passed the half way mark now on our journey through Lent, the season when we enter into Jesus’s wilderness  experience . Jesus withdrew from everything he enjoyed – the  company of his friends, the opportunity to share his thoughts with his followers, the food and drink which he relished, worship in the synagogue or temple..  We try to discipline ourselves by taking on something extra – last year it was the challenges; this year it’s been the daily bible reading.  These activities don’t begin to compare with Jesus’s desert fast, but they do help us to identify with his struggle with his inner demons, his battle to overcome the influences and temptations  that distracted him from God.

Now we’ve arrived at Passion Sunday, the beginning of the last stage of Jesus’s life.

Passion is one of those words that changes its meaning according to context.  It’s like sanction, which can mean permission to do something  or a penalty for having done it.  Among its meanings, passion can be the word for barely controllable emotion  or intense desire or, true to its Latin roots,  agonising suffering and death.  This is the meaning that has become specific to the arrest and execution of Jesus.  Because of its Latin origin – the Latin word  also gave  us ‘passive’ – we’ve come to look on the events of Passion-tide as the time when things happened to Jesus.  This is a misconception.  Our creeds would have us proclaim that the whole of Jesus’s life was a series of things that happened to him.  He was conceived, he was born, he was crucified, he  suffered death,  he was buried.  Would the Jesus movement have had a remote chance of surviving, growing, continuing to influence and inspire its followers if its leader had been a kind of puppet who sleep-walked  his way around Palestine and then disappeared?

The passion story is very like the nativity story in that it’s a  conflation of  different strands from the four gospels.  No single gospel contains all the elements of the story.  As a continuous narrative it begins on Palm Sunday with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple.  Jesus then spends time in Jerusalem while the Jewish hierarchy refines  its plan to arrest him, a plan that involves the recruitmen of Judas Iscariot.  On Thursday, Jesus eats the Passover meal with his disciples in the upper room of a house in Jerusalem as he had planned  and predicts that one of his friends will betray him. He uses the facilities laid on there to wash the disciples’ feet. During this  episode he predicts that Peter will deny that he ever knew Jesus.  Knowing that his capture is imminent, Jesus takes some of his friends with him into the Garden of Gethsemane where he prays fervently to be spared his fate.  He surrenders himself to the will of God.

All through this series of events, Jesus is clearly in control and has directed their course .  It couldn’t have been by chance that Jesus rode into Jerusalem at the same time as the Roman governor was riding into the city in imperial state.  Jesus must have arranged for the hiring of a donkey,  so that the scripture prophecy could be fulfilled:  the Messiah would enter the capital in a parody of the show  of power that the Romans were displaying.  He knew that Judas was part of the plot against him.  He knew that he was handing his enemies ammunition when he denounced  the money changers in the Temple.  When he sat down to eat the Passover meal, he said: How I have longed to eat this meal with you before my death.  Never again shall I eat it until it finds its fulfilment in the kingdom of God.

Jesus knew that he was going to be executed.  He knew many of the details  of the process of his arrest and trial.  The first charge against Jesus that really worried Pilate was that he had started causing unrest in Galilee and now it was spreading all over Judea with his claim that he was the son of God..  So  Jesus made the conscious decision to absorb the inevitable  violence into himself.  Caiaphas, the pragmatist, had advised the Jewish hierarchy that in the political climate of the time it would be in their interest  that one man should die for the people.   Jesus offered himself as the sacrifical lamb.

He  could have run away.  Remember when he read  from the prophecy of Isaiah in the synagogue in  Nazareth and interpreted the passage with reference to himself.  The congregation picked up stones and began to throw them at him.  Jesus took flight and someone must have hidden him until the trouble died down.  But  by the time Jesus arrived in Jerusalem for the  Passover feast, the divisions were too great and the atmosphere was too charged.  Jesus gave  himself up, ordering his disciples not to meet violence with violence.  This is the cup the father has given me.  Shall I not drink it?

This is not to say that he gave up the intellectual argument.  He left his captors in no doubt that their evidence was spurious and their power merely temporal.  He argued with Pilate and Pilate, losing the  argument, wound it  up by asking Jesus: what is truth?  And in the words  of one of  Francis Bacon’s  most famous essays; he would  not stay for an answer.

Jesus was full of passion, a passion for justice, a passion that his commandment should be obeyed and that his followers should love one another.  He had a passion for life, lived in all its fullness.

As we move through passiontide and reach Good Friday, we have to recognise the nobility, the heroism  of his premature death.

Jesus underwent the whole emotional gamut  of a person facing death.   Another one of Francis Bacon’s essays begins: Menn fear death as  children  fear to go in the dark.  Jesus  didn’t want his death  to happen – he prayed that he might be spared the agonising process  of death.  He raged against the unfairness of his trial.  He felt the treachery of the friends who had abandoned him and he  was anxious about those who would be bereft.  He lost his dignity but he  never lost his self-esteem.  Finally he had a sense of completeness as he consciously handed his earthly being back to God.

It’s against that background that we’re able to rejoice at the resurrection.  There’s a resurrection drawing by Michelangelo of a naked man in the prime of life leaping out of a sarcophagus with all his muscles tense with the effort.  One hand is pointing to the sky.  In Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel of Jesus at the creation of the world, he’s horizontal, with an almost palpable burst of energy connecting him to God the father.  In the artist’s resurrection drawing the figure is like a bolt of lightning travelling vertically from earth to heaven.  If it were possible to superimpose one work of art upon the other, the figures would form a cross.  The cross stands for energy, for dynamism, for the triumph of the divine spirit as it became flesh in Jesus.

Happy Lent to you

Lent is upon us.  For many of us, long hard weeks without chocolate, or biscuits, or alcohol are about to begin.  I’m going vegan again – which I did last year and at first it felt hardcore-Lent-to-the-max!! But I quickly felt better and more alert & had more energy.  But in a few days some of us will be biting our nails, looking forward to Easter Day and stuffing our face with our forbidden foods, or drinking the few celebratory pints that we may have denied ourselves for forty days.

Some of us will fail in our Lenten disciplines, but we should all try.  All of us should think about the value of making some kind of special effort during Lent.

So what are we to do?  Give up something?  It would seem that giving things up, making a sacrifice, is an important part of the Christian message ‘Anyone who loves their life loses it; anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for the eternal life.’  (John 12.)  The central image of Christianity is of a man being executed, giving up his life, making the ultimate sacrifice.

I think as we are all adults here I can tell my favourite story about giving things up for Lent (sensitive souls may want to cover your ears!).

Robert Runcie was, for a time the principal of Cuddesdon theological college, and one day at teas he asked a group of young men who were training for the priesthood what they were giving up for Lent.  I’m not sure if the young man was being serious or not, but one of the ordinand said he was going to give up “masturbation.”

Runcie was not at all phased by this, he just shrugged his shoulders and said “what a delicious way to spend Easter morning.”

The suspicion of sex (even sex when alone) is a real problem in the psyche of the Christian religion.  I have spoken before about the religious tradition in which I was brought up, which stressed sacrifice above all else (especially sacrifice from women, but that is, as they say, another sermon).  It was very puritanical, and taught that if you didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t use foul language, didn’t sleep around, and ‘gave your heart to Jesus’ you would go to heaven.  The options seemed stark – a miserable life on earth in return for eternal life in a kind of cosmic Centre Parcs with harp music; or have fun on earth and spend eternity in the flames of Hell (where the company would be more interesting, but your really good conversations with Oscar Wilde or John Lennon would be constantly interrupted by sessions of torture with Satan and all his minions).

Of course this is not really sacrifice at all, it is just an investment with high returns.  I give God my misery for four score years and ten, and God gives me joy for all eternity.  My problem is that I firmly believe that God wants us to be happy here and now on Earth.  Even in Lent God wants us to be whole and happy.

So what then does our Lenten discipline mean?  Why is it good to do something special in the run up to Easter,  to either give something up, or take something on?

In Matthew Gospel we hear Jesus say the following:

“…whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.

But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

We are not to make ourselves miserable, and certainly not to show everyone how miserable we are.  Fasting (and out Lenten disciplines are a sort of fasting) is not about punishing ourselves.  We are not denying ourselves something we like, just so that we can miss it.  Nor are we giving things up just so that we can feel self-righteous like the hypocrites Jesus talks about, at how much we are able to give up for God.  We make a Lenten discipline in order to grow in faith, to learn to increase our love for God, for our neighbours and ourselves.

If we give up something we are fond of we are not punishing ourselves.  We may do it for the good of our health, out of respect for the bodies God has given us.  We may do it to help change our outlook.  The things we love in life and base our lives around are not necessarily the things that lead to fulfilment.  Sometimes we need help to detach ourselves from unhelpful or unhealthy obsessions.

A few years ago I spent a week working with people who were addicted to drugs and alcohol.  The people I met were not bad people, but they had an obsession.  For those on hard drugs, their life revolves around their drug.  All their time is spent either taking drugs, or looking for money to buy them.  The drug becomes their life.  If they are to be fulfilled as human beings they must give up the drug that is their reason for living.  They must give up their reason for living.  They must loose their life in order to find it.  And so it is with all of us.  We all have obsessions, and concerns that stop us from being fulfilled.

Those of us gathered here today may be obsessed with status, money, security, feeling needed.  None of these are wrong in themselves, just as even heroin is not wrong of itself (it can be used to relieve the pain of the very ill).  It is when they become obsessions that they are no longer healthy.

Self-sacrifice is not the beginning and end of Christianity.  God has created a good world for us to enjoy.  And while we do honour God by denying ourselves, we also honour God by enjoying the good gifts God has given us.

I must stress, at this point, that I am not trying to persuade you to stop whatever you are planning to do for Lent, I just want us all to think about why we are doing it.  We may need to take time out this Lent to make a sacrifice to help us get our life and loves into a better perspective.

God asks us to give up only the things that stop us from being fulfilled, the things that stop us from loving.  Because it is in loving, loving God, loving our neighbour, and loving ourselves, that we reach our full potential.

All our possessions and money and position, do not bring fulfilment, only love, given and received, can do that.

We may want to give something up, or we may want to take something on.  Like five minutes of prayer, or meditation, or Bible reading every day.  Our weekly email has gone daily again for Lent.  Not with challenges like last year, but with a prayer and a reading for every day.  This is in itself a sacrifice – a sacrifice of some of our time and energy.

Come along to one of our midweek services in Lent – Morning Prayer if you are free or our new midweek Eucharist at 8.00 on Thursdays (in Lent it will be followed by an episode of Rev and some discussion…

The gaining of life is the goal of Christianity.  The sacrifices that we make are not things we give up in this life, so we can have a wild time in the next life; nor are they a way to punish ourselves; nor are they a way to show off.  We sacrifice (our time, or something we enjoy) to grow as human beings, to grow right here and now.  Jesus came to give us life and life more abundantly.  Even in Lent God wants us to be happy.

On Ash Wednesday we measure our lives with some sobering words:

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return, turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.”

These ancient words are gloomy and difficult.  Difficult to say as a priest, difficult to hear… But this reminder of our mortality is necessary if we want to gain perspective on our lives.

This Lent,and always, may we grow in our love of God, our neighbours and ourselves, and in our detachment from the false treasures of this world.