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John 20: 13: “That the Messiah, he is Jesus”
*I was brought up to read the Bible every day – that was due to no great virtue on my part, just the way it was. In recent years it has been possible to read through whole books of the Bible over a period of three months or so, using the “Old Testament for everyone” or “New Testament for everyone” series published by SPCK. I have just finished reading John Goldingay’s book on 1 & 2 Chronicles.
*John Goldingay is an English theology tutor who has gone to America to work. He reports, in his commentary on the Books of Chronicles, that less and less of his students are bothering to take the Bible seriously. I find that shift in culture very alarming.
*Scripture is there to challenge us. It acts as a kind of mirror against which we can measure ourselves and see whether or not we are truly human. That is never more true than when we are dealing with the Gospel of St John. “behold the man” Pilate says as he shows Jesus to the crowd. We are being told that Jesus is the pattern of humanity, the prototype if you like. So the challenge of today’s Gospel is to see how far we measure up to the prototype as we find him in John’s Gospel.
*It was evening on the first day of the week. It must be before sundown, when the new day starts in the Jewish calendar. It is the same day as the resurrection – it is linked to the Easter event. It is the first day of the new creation. The whole of John’s Gospel is about the new creation as he announces in the first 6 words of his Gospel. The question is – are we part of that new creation?
Now to give you a picture. Some years ago I read a book by Michael Frayn about a couple who think they have discovered a Breughel. It was the first art mystery I had ever read. It so happened that Breughel fitted very well with the sermon that I was preaching that Sunday and I thought how good it would be to have a Breughel (probably a jigsaw) by way of illustration. Living in a town that sold very few jigsaws I thought that this idea was doomed. But that afternoon, going into a local jumble sale, what did I find but a Breughel jigsaw. It is called “The numbering at Bethlehem”. It is the census taken at the time Jesus is born. That is the landscape – the census.
*But look at all the action. There is a crowd round the census point as you would expect – but there are plenty of other stories going on in the picture. Here comes Mary on her donkey, led by Joseph. Here is someone on a sledge being towed on the ice – two other people have just made a slide on the ice, while others are skating on the river. A man is mending a chair while someone else is holding a pig.
*Lots of small pictures that go to make up, and are held together by, the big picture of the Census at Bethlehem. The resurrection of Jesus leads to a whole landscape into which many individual pictures or stories fit, and only make sense fitted in this frame. John is about to give us some of these pictures that fit into the bigger frame. They are all part of the resurrection scene.
Lots of people understand the resurrection of Jesus as “Now you see him – now you don’t-now you do” as though he is temporarily removed from the scene like the sun being hid behind a cloud. If we reflect on the stories told about Jesus after the resurrection we cannot but notice that things are different – that he is different- which is why the disciples do not immediately recognize him in most instances.
*So, for instance, in this story about Easter evening (and the week later) we are told that Jesus comes into the room where the disciples are although the doors are locked. We are never told this about Jesus pre Resurrection. This is a property of the risen Christ. But what can it mean?
*It means that in Jesus two worlds meet – or that he can move easily between two different worlds. He both does physical things (like eating fish) but also appears to be able to do things impossible to a physical being. The picture challenges us to think about the kind of limitations on our humanity that may not have been intended originally. This is not about magic, but about something deeper.
*”Destroy this temple, and in three days I will build it up” Jesus tells the authorities in John’s Gospel. Jesus is the meeting place between God and this world or, as we would more regularly say, the temple. This easy movement between two worlds shows that in Jesus those worlds meet. And that has always been the aim of God’s work in restoring his redemption – the bringing together of heaven and earth. Or, as we say “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”
*Do the two worlds meet in us?
When I mention the word “peace” I wonder what image comes into your mind? Perhaps Canon John Collins carrying a CND banner. Perhaps a great crowd outside Buckingham Palace cheering the royal family and Winston Churchill. Or perhaps some people sitting in a railway carriage in a forest, or Monty accepting the German surrender on Luneberg Heath. In the Bible there is another picture entirely. It is a picture of a field with high, vibrant stalks of corn and a multitude of cattle all well fed and hugely fertile.
*In the Old Testament, and by implication in the New Testament, shalom or peace is something very positive and powerful. It does not mean that people have put away their weapons. It does not mean that someone has just brought hostilities to an end. It means something more than that in two ways.
*Firstly, it means that God’s blessing is at work in our world. Peace is what we ask of God, not something that we can bring about of ourselves. When Jesus says, twice in our Gospel for today “peace be with you” he is giving a gift to the disciples.
*And that gift is a symbol of one of the things that has happened in the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection has restored to the whole of creation that harmony that God gave to it in the beginning. That harmony had been destroyed by humanity, by our self-centredness or our sin. Jesus, by his resurrection, brings back to the world its God-given harmony and peace.
How do we see life from that perspective of peace?
In the garden of Eden, on that fateful day in the story, we hear that Adam and Eve were walking in the garden in the cool of the evening. The “offshore breeze” that you get in so many coastal towns, was at work.
*That is the picture that lies behind the picture of Jesus standing there and breathing on his disciples. Some people wrestle with this picture because they see Luke’s picture of Pentecost as the only picture of the gift of the Spirit. John is telling us that the gift of the Spirit is all part of the resurrection, too. The resurrection is like a bomb that suddenly falls on our world spreading out all these gifts like, peace or the Spirit.
*Once Jesus has given the disciples the gift of the Spirit he commissions them to use that Spirit for God’s work. It is not a spiritual experience for their own benefit, but for the benefit of the creation. They are to forgive sins – and they have the authority to do that, to forgive. You will remember that the forgiving of sins was one of the things that Jesus did that created the most opposition – because it effectively bypassed the Temple and the sacrifices offered there. Now the disciples can forgive or they can withhold forgiveness.
*They can forgive someone if that person is sorry for what they have done and want to be restored to the new creation – that is the direction in which everything is moving. If, however, the person has an attitude that works against the renewal of creation, then forgiveness is withheld. This is about living in a new world.
*In either case we need to recognize that this is not an easy option. It is not always easy to forgive, as events up in Derby this week have shown us all. Equally, it is not that easy to withhold forgiveness from people when they may be desperate for it, but not of a mind to change their attitude.
*Where do we stand in the matter of forgiving and not forgiving, in our own lives now?
When talking about the Bible we can often be less than subtle in the way we summarise people. We reckon that Peter and John, or Judas and Thomas fit human classifications with which we are familiar. Peter the headstrong or Thomas the doubter. This passage is upheld as one in which Thomas doubts and is somehow fallible as a human being. All I can say is that it is easy with hindsight.!
*No-one in the ancient world expected that anyone would rise from the dead except, perhaps, at the end of time when there would be a resurrection of everyone. That is why disciples did not recognize Jesus or why they did not know what to make of the empty tomb. If I were to say to you now that before the end of evensong I will turn into a wall of flame before returning to my normal appearance, I guess that no-one would hear me. It is absurd, it is outside our experience. It makes no sense.
*Thomas is simply being rational in today’s Gospel. He is saying what people in any generation may have rightly said – I need tangible proof. He is not being a doubter or cynical. He is being human.
*Yet, suddenly we are confronted with a Thomas who is the first person in the New Testament to address Jesus as God – “My Lord and my God”. It is the appearance of Jesus alone that convinces him. Apparently he does not need to re-assure his senses or touch the wounds of Christ. The fact that his Lord stands before him is enough – as it was to be for Paul.
What goes through our minds as we encounter the risen Christ in the story that scripture tells?
If Thomas is convinced simply by meeting the risen Jesus, we notice the profundity of what he is saying. “My Lord and my God” expresses both his local experience “My Lord” and the universal “My God”. Thomas, for all his apparent reservation, has taken a full measure of what he sees in Jesus as he accompanies him. Jesus is the person who has a claim on his life – he is more than just a wandering teacher.
*But secondly, Thomas takes a step further than anyone else and sees in the person of Jesus the presence that Jewish people could hardly name for their reverence. Thomas sees what we would call the incarnation. Thomas sees in Jesus’ concern for full life for those he encounters the God of creation at work. “Without him was not anything made that was made” John has announced in the prologue to his Gospel.
*Thomas manages, in five words, to pronounce the mystery at the heart of the Christian faith without it sounding dull or heavy. No explanation of the Holy Trinity, no Byzantine explanation of two natures in one being – only a declaration “My Lord and my God”.
How far apart do we manage to keep the two halves of this declaration: how often can our picture of God be far removed from the nature of Jesus, or our understanding of Jesus make him a figure of purely local significance, like a favourite uncle?
In the very last verses of today’s Gospel we possibly come across the original ending to this Gospel. John lays out clearly why he has written this book –“so that, believing you may have life in his name”. There it is: the scriptures summon us to life. It is a caricature of our age that the Bible is always negative or against everything. That is how “The enlightenment” sees it. Sadly, the hallmark of the Enlightenment is to restrict what people believe, not to be open to it.
*In John’s Gospel the Jewish people constantly ask if Jesus can be the Messiah – and they are constantly divided about it. They are awaiting the Messiah. And even the non-Jewish world of that time, the Roman empire, believed that something very significant was about to happen. It is hard for us to realize how momentous it was that the Messiah had come. We are used to the idea of Jesus being the Christ or Messiah – we hardly give it a second thought. As Tom Wright suggests, many people think that Jesus Christ is the son of Mr and Mrs Christ – not Jesus the Christ.
*Finally, then, John makes this point: here the translation we have lets us down. It should be: And the Messiah – he is Jesus. This is the astonishing truth – the Messiah has come at last.
And that is what gives us life. With the coming of Messiah and his being raised from death we are in a new world, a restored creation. If we are part of that landscape then we have a new life. That is why John wrote his Gospel and we have to ask whether we are part of that new world or not – and if not, why not. Scripture challenges us all to live, and to live fully.
17As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 18Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.”’ 20He said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ 27Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’
28Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ 29Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields – but with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’
Sermon preached at St Peter Stockbridge Trinity 19 2012
The Big Question
One of my favourite books is Peter Lazlett’s “The world we have lost”. It is only when I go round a museum like the one we visited in Eastbourne this week that I realize quite how many of the things, once so familiar in everyday life, have now vanished altogether. But, of course, it is more than things that have vanished. It is a way of life, as Downton Abbey reminds us weekly. Can anyone today really believe that at one time schoolboys wore caps to school?
*As one radio commentator remarked this week, it has been an iconoclastic week. Jimmy Saville has been all but destroyed, Lance Armstrong has been shown to be a massive fraud, and the events at Hillsborough so many years ago have come back to discredit the Police. The truth is that we live in a very fragile society at the moment, where our iconic figures turn out to have clay feet. Where are our heroes?
*So perhaps the political party leaders, whatever their colours, speak for all of us in an unexpected way as they speak of their vision for the future. We can get so discouraged by the present. It is easy to dread further exposés, or to become cynical about everyone. Yet we all yearn for a time when we can celebrate or when we can affirm people.
*So the Big Question at the moment, as far as I can see, is “When is it going to get better”? I don’t mean the recession and the financial situation though that is important enough. I mean when is our world going to get better: when we are going to be able to trust authorities or celebrities again? We all want to see a better world in which to live.
If you had approached any of the characters that appear in the Gospels and had this conversation with them, they would have understood. As the Gospels open the Jews are at a similar juncture. They have been taken over by pagans, by Rome, and by their corrupt client kings the Herods. There was brutal justice, high taxes, little respect for faith and a sense of being strangers in their own land. Oh yes, they would have understood.
*In the later part of the Old Testament we see a very definite shift. After the glory of King Solomon, amid all the disasters that befell Israel and Judah, we see a new belief emerging. That belief was that a New Age would come. The time would come when all the shortcomings of our world would be put right, with God giving them a new king. They called this king Messiah, or the anointed one, and they spoke of him as a new David, because he would be like the David of old and take them into a new age. But this new age would be in the world they knew – that is why they can speak of a new Jerusalem.
*And this is what the man asks Jesus about as he runs up and kneels before him. “How can I be part of the new age when it comes?” is what he is asking about. Among the Jewish people there was a lot of debate about who was “in” and who was “out”. No-one wanted to miss out on being part of the new age. The question was: How do we know for certain that we can be part of the new age – hence the question to Jesus.
*He asks Jesus about the Jewish religious law and Jesus answers – and he answers by re-defining the Law. Jesus spells out the second half of the Ten Commandments – notice which ones are missing! And then he redefines our duty to God in calling God good, in letting go of wealth and caring for the poor.
At the heart of Mark’s Gospel is a journey, and any pilgrim to the Holy Land today is advised to make the same journey: from Galilee up to Jerusalem. This journey dominates the centre part of the Gospel – and shortly after this passage we see Jesus come to Jericho on the last stage. That journey was so important that the earliest Christians were called “Followers of the way”. They, too, trod the same road.
*Before he starts to make that journey Jesus makes an astonishing announcement to his disciples. He announces to them, on no less than three occasions, that when he gets to Jerusalem he will suffer death. We should not be surprised that they cannot understand. For them Jerusalem is a place of joy, of pilgrimage. But for Jesus, reflecting on the suffering servant poems of the prophet Isaiah it will be a place of death.
*What Mark never lets us forget in his Gospel is that the Cross looms over everything. And the reason that it is so dominant in Mark is that it the gateway to the new age that everybody dreams of. Some will say they want a more cheerful Gospel: others see the cross as morbid. No-one in the ancient world was charmed by the cross, of course. Everyone knew how brutal and humiliating it was. But Mark’s Gospel was written to show how this apparently devastating event was the entrance to a new age, through the death of Jesus the anointed one.
*And it is not his death on the cross alone. The cross points to a whole reversal of values in a new age, in a time when God’s values are what count. If our only hope is a world where things are going to go right, then we have to reverse values. The first will come last and the poor will be the people who are shown to be the wealthy ones in new age terms. Hence Jesus invites the man to sell all that he has and become poor. He is inviting him to enter the new age.
I love Mark’s Gospel – it is always challenging. It takes no prisoners, it hurtles along, it is full of mysteries and puzzles, but one thing becomes entirely clear. Mark believes that the new age we yearn for has come into being with the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is where Mark starts from when he sets out to write his Gospel. It is, as he says at the start, the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
*And so Mark ends with the resurrection of Jesus. This, for him and for the people of the early church, was the proof that a new age was bursting in on their world. It was happening where they lived, where they knew – and not in some distant place. It was an earth-shattering experience, as the strange ending to Mark’s Gospel makes plain, but it showed that all that Jesus had taught and shown in his ministry was right. “The Kingdom of God is at hand” – it was breaking into the world at the resurrection.
*Some people inevitably asked “What proof have you got that a new age has broken through?” If they didn’t believe in the resurrection, and there were some who didn’t, then they could be pointed at the Holy Spirit. In the early church the presence and work of the Spirit was the sign that a new age really had dawned. A bit like a young couple putting down a deposit on a house: it makes it theirs, but the process still has a long way to go. The Spirit was a pointer to a new reality in their midst.
*So Mark gives us resurrection, St.Paul gives us Spirit. St. John, in writing his Gospel majors on the theme of the new creation. Yes, he takes both the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit as key places on the landscape. But the story that John tells is of a new creation, a new age coming to a tired old world. In every way they could, the first Christians proclaimed the truth they knew – that the new age had dawned and that Jesus would be known as the anointed one, as the Christos.
At the Paralympic Games Prof Stephen Hawking was a key player in the presentation on The Enlightenment which claims that we have so much knowledge that we can now grapple with humanity’s problems and save our world. There was no mention of the Banking crisis which has arisen from dishonesty, no mention of global warming which has arisen from greed. Knowledge is important, but it is not enough - humanity needs science and faith to co-operate. Sadly, it has become fashionable to see Christian talk of “sin” as unnecessarily gloomy. But the reality of human failure is something we have come face to face with in this past week. A new age lies beyond our capability.
*I want to invite you to think about three steps:
· Firstly, I want you to think hard about what is going on in the Gospels. What does the resurrection of Jesus mean, today, for you and me? What does it mean that Jesus is “the Christ” – the anointed one? What do we really think Jesus came to do and what did he achieve? Many of us believe it is very unC of E to think about our faith – we need to be cured of that thinking!
· Secondly, I want to ask you to use your imagination. Most people leave that outside the church door! Can you imagine what kind of world it can be if the resurrection of Jesus brought in a new age? If forgiveness, if generosity, if healing, if service, if love are all part of that new age what kind of world would we live in? Either we imagine that and let that enrich, ennoble and enliven our present – or we don’t and we have to go on living with the same old world, denying what Jesus is all about.
· And finally, in the light of both of those things, I want you to think about how you need to re-dedicate yourselves to God. We all have set ways of responding to God. Jesus invites the man to look again, and so should we look again. This new age question is “The Big Question” for many people – and we should be living out that new age here, in the Stockbridge we know, day by day.
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