Sunday, 28 March 2010

His First Words

Palm Sunday

Gospel Luke 19. 28 - 40

Jesus Comes to Jerusalem as King

28 After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, 30 "Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' say, 'The Lord needs it.' "

32 Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?"

34 They replied, "The Lord needs it."

35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. 36 As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road.

37 When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:

38 "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!"
       "Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!"

39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, rebuke your disciples!"

40 "I tell you," he replied, "if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out."


Today we celebrate triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Jesus enters on a donkey. In fulfilment of Zechariah 9.9:

9 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
       Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
       See, your king comes to you,
       righteous and having salvation,
       lowly and riding on a donkey,
       on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

By doing so, he is claiming to be the king-messiah offering salvation to the people of Jerusalem.

Last year we read the account from Mark’s gospel. In it, all the people shout Hosanna. The word means “Save us.” Save us from what? Domination. The oppression of foreign rule. Occupation by the Roman empire.

This year, we read from Luke. You might have noticed Luke is a little more circumspect. In his account, only the crowd of disciples shout out. They don’t shout Hosanna – but they do acknowledge their master as king – one who comes in the name of the Lord.

The Pharisees rebuke them, and ask Jesus to shut them up. The Pharisees call Jesus ‘Teacher’ – a mark of respect. Jesus responds that if he hushed his followers, even the very stones on the way would take up their cry.

Last year I said quite a bit about what it meant to be Messiah. The expectation of the people that Jesus would be a military saviour who would oust the Romans. The disciples clearly shared this hope, which made their despair all the greater after Jesus was condemned to death.

Jesus had a different expectation, which was why he asked for his Messiahship to he kept secret when acclaimed by those he healed. This introduces my theme of Expectation, which I am going to follow throughout Holy Week and the Easter season.

In the next two weeks, we follow the events from Palm Sunday, through the Last Supper, the trial, condemnation, crucifixion and the empty tomb. This means we concentrate much more on the death of Christ than his resurrection. So, to start on my theme of expectation – what was the expectation of the disciples after Jesus’ body was laid in the tomb? Knowing the outcome, what are our expectations?

My suggestion would be this. The disciples expected a manhunt. They laid low. Their hopes of a king-messiah to free the Jews was shattered, and they hid, fearing for their lives as the Romans sought out the remaining followers of the cult whose leader they has destroyed.

Our expectation, knowing of the empty tomb, would be that Jesus would appear in triumph. His first words would be “I have risen!” “Look at me!” “Believe in me!”

What were his first words? I wonder if you know? They were nothing like those. If you say his first word was “Mary” – you are wrong. That’s what I guessed, and apparently that’s what most clergy say.

The answer, if you care to look it up in your pew bible, can be found in Luke 20 verse 15. Peter and John ran to the tomb when Mary Magdalene reported it was empty. They were scared of repercussions, so when they found the stone rolled back just as Mary had said, they went home. But only after they saw – and believed. They remembered that Jesus had said he would rise from the dead. Still, they went home.

Mary, being a woman, posed no threat and could wait around outside the tomb. After seeing the angels dressed in white, she turned and encountered a man whom she did not recognise. That man was the risen Christ.

It’s significant, of course, that his first words were to a woman like Mary – a woman with a past – although we don’t know whether she was the same woman who washed his feet with her tears, anointed them with costly perfume, and wiped them with her hair.

What were his words? No triumphalism. Nothing like “It’s me. I have risen. Now will you believe in me?” No, he asked a question. He showed concern. “Woman – why are you crying?” Then even more surprising, as it was obvious: “Who is it you are looking for?”

The truth was, she was looking for a body to anoint. But she found a man seemingly alive, though she did not recognise him. When Jesus then said “Mary” – she knew, somehow, who it was. The man she assumed was the gardener Mary called “Teacher” – and she ran to the other disciples with the news “I have seen the Lord.”

Of course they thought she was delusional. It’s not unusual for people to believe they have seen a loved one who has died. She did not have to endure their doubts for long, because that same evening Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples, in hiding, locked away in an upper room. He breathed on them, according to John’s account, and they received the Holy Spirit. From that point on, everything changed.

Later on, I’ll talk about the other first words of the risen Christ. You can read them in Luke’s gospel. It’s many people’s favourite story – the Road to Emmaus. Meantime, let’s use this week to contemplate the first words of the risen Christ. What he said and why? Why to Mary? Why was he not clearer? What was his appearance? And why did he leave such room for doubt when he could have commanded faith in a word, by a look, and by his very presence after the tragedy of Good Friday? Amen

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Costly Sacrifice

Reading Philippians 3.4b-14

If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.

Gospel John 12.1-8

Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honour. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”


It often seems to me that Scripture thrives on contrasts. Light and Dark. Good and Evil. Life and Death. Love and hatred.

Paul’s words to the Philippians are written from prison. There he has plenty of time to think. He contrasts profit and loss as he reflects on his own past, present and future.

The phrase a person with a past usually conjures up an image of someone who has a lot to hide which they would prefer to leave behind. Pauls past deeds were to persecute the church to which he now belongs. His credentials and a Pharisee were impeccable. That was his profit and pride – at the time. His birth. His education. His zeal for Judaism.

In his present, he looks back on the past in a different light. What was, for him, reason for boasting he now likens to dung or rubbish. Something of no value. What, in the past, gave him his status, he now regards as worse what worthless.

Still, Paul is a product of what he was. His theological education if formidably brought to bear when he writes to the churches and expounds to them the faith of Christ. But what qualified Paul in his past to rule others is now what drives him to be a servant of all.

His standing is now based not on observance of the Law but on his faithfulness. It is through his faith in Christ that Paul is enabled to view the past differently.

How we view the future has as much impact on the present as the past. Despair for the future makes us feel trapped in the present. On the other hand, a sense of hope profoundly affects the way we feel right now. Pauls hope is in the resurrection. That is his future, and it changes the way he lives in the present. The present, for Paul, means sharing in the sufferings of Christ, but the future is the prize for which he strains forward.

Lent is a good time for reflecting on the past, as well as how our past impacts on all our futures. In our gospel reading there are many stark contrasts. The past involves Jesus’ ministry before he arrives in Bethany and turns inexorably towards the present reality of Jerusalem.

Sitting at the table is Lazarus, who was brought back to life. The stench of Lazarus’ tomb is contrasted with Mary of Bethany’s perfume. The meanness of Judas is contrasted with the extravagance of Mary’s gesture in anointing Jesus’ feet with costly oil of nard – a pot of which would have cost the equivalent of a year’s wages for an ordinary working man.

Let’s accept at the outset that Judas’ objections are understandable. If we spent a year’s salary on perfume for a loved one, many folks will suggest we might have spent the money more wisely, especially in a country where there was poverty and deprivation at every street corner.

John the evangelist takes the opportunity of pointing out Judas would have stolen some of the money from the common purse, but that does not make his point any less valid.

Picture the scene. It is truly shocking. A woman would normally be hidden away and her hair would never be on view in a public place. Feet were considered such an intimate part of the body that only a slave would have been expected to wash the feet of another. Yet Mary removes her veil, lets down her hair, and wipes the feet of Jesus. The whole house is filled with the fragrance. There is a mixture of wonder mixed with horror at the intimacy and impact of what Mary has done.

There is undoubtedly an erotic air to the whole event, but surely rather than focus on Judas or Mary, we are meant to see this extravagant gesture as prefiguring the anointing of Christ’s body for burial after his death on the cross. To the objectors, Jesus defends Mary. The poor are always with you – you always have the poor among you, but I will not be with you much longer, Jesus says.

Our Lenten reflections are informed by the events of the last days of Jesus’ life on earth. The fragrance of the perfume strikes a contrast with his death and burial, but also illustrates the costly sacrifice of Mary of Bethany, what it meant for her to carry out such a gesture, and what it says about her discipleship from the intimacy and value of her gift.

Mary does not anoint Jesus as a king or messiah: she embalms a corpse. The beautiful scent clashes with the hideous stench of an ugly crucifixion, but then so does John’s insistence that Jesus is lifted up on the cross that he may attract all people to himself (12.32)

This is what Paul is saying when he reflects on his future – it is not unalloyed joy and pleasure, because the future still means sharing in the suffering of Christ, dying with him on the cross, being prepared for sacrifice whatever that might require of us.

That is why Paul is careful to distinguish between present and future time, and in our Lenten reflections we should do the same. Resurrection is the hope – it is not our present reality. Believing we have already obtained what is yet to come leads to carelessness, overconfidence, and casual discipleship rather than wholehearted straining with all our might for the prize that Paul is holding out for himself and for us.

This is not martyrdom. It is a call to live out our faithfulness to Christ. How we respond to this call will spring from our Lenten reflections on the past, because the present puts down roots in the past, out of which the future reality will grow.

So, as we enter Passiontide let’s live out these two weeks until Easter reflecting on our past, and preparing for the future just as Mary looked ahead to the death and resurrection of Christ in her costly sacrifice and wholehearted discipleship. Amen

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Lord of the Flies – Thursday Midweek Communion

Reading Jeremiah 7

21 " 'This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves! 22 For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, 23 but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you. 24 But they did not listen or pay attention; instead, they followed the stubborn inclinations of their evil hearts. They went backward and not forward. 25 From the time your ancestors left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets. 26 But they did not listen to me or pay attention. They were stiff-necked and did more evil than their ancestors.'

Gospel Luke 11

14 Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed. 15 But some of them said, "By Beelzebul, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons." 16 Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven.

17 Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: "Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall. 18 If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebul. 19 Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 20 But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

21 "When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. 22 But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armour in which the man trusted and divides up his plunder.

23 "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.


Both readings about where your allegiance lies. We cannot be ambivalent – we are either for or against Jesus. Worse than that, if we are for him we gather: but if we are against him, we are not just passive but we scatter – we don’t just sit on the fence, we break it down.

The prophet Jeremiah was saying the same thing. It was about burnt offerings and sacrifice. It was not about exactly how the sacrifices were conducted, but where your obedience lies. Those who obeyed God walked in obedience to him. Those who did not listen or pay attention were stiff-necked and more evil than their ancestors.

The exchange about Beelzebul came immediately after Jesus’ teaching about how to pray. He taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer. Then Jesus was involved in a healing or a man who was mute. Like many afflictions at the time, the man’s affliction was attributed to demon possession. After his encounter with Jesus, the man spoke and all were amazed.

Some of the crowd said Jesus exorcised by the power of Beelzebul and not the finger of God. Exorcism played a large part in the ministry of Jesus and indeed in the early church. Jesus was not criticised for carrying out these exorcisms – he was not the only exorcist around – but his power and motivation.

Beelzebul, the ruler of demons, is the same Canaanite or Syrian god Baal who was hostile to the God of the Children of Israel. Beelzebub is a corruption of the same title – it meant ‘Lord of the Flies.’ With a growing appreciation of the power of the one God, the alien gods were undeified and became associated with Satan. In other words, Jesus was accused of being an agent of Satan.

Unlike other exorcists, Jesus did not invoke powers in order to heal – he did so on his own authority, hence the accusation he was a godless person.

The argument is not a hard one to refute – it’s basically a non sequitur – you cannot do good by being bad. You cannot heal by engaging the forces of evil. The finger of God is a lovely phrase that comes from Exodus 8 and the plague of gnats.

Since the gnats were on people and animals everywhere, 19 the magicians said to Pharaoh, "This is the finger of God." But Pharaoh's heart was hard and he would not listen, just as the LORD had said.

The ‘finger of God’ reminds me of the fresco by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel where God’s finger touches that of Adam’s as he breathes life into the first man. This leads Jesus on to tell his hearers that if he exorcises, but by Beelzebul but by the ‘finger of God’ then what they are witnessing is the Kingdom of God coming upon them. It represents a new, effective power under which we can all live. Although not yet here in all its fullness, we are already living within its power and embrace.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Natural Disasters – Where is God in all this?

Reading 1 Corinthians 10.1-13

I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert.

Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did – and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test the Lord, as some of them did – and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did – and were killed by the destroying angel.

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

Gospel Luke 13.1-9

Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them - do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig-tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig-tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig round it and fertilise it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”


Whenever there is natural disaster like Haiti earthquake, tsunami, or floods and storms washing away homes and livelihoods, we tend to ask ourselves same questions. Where was God in all this? If God is all-powerful, how could he have let this happen? Why is the world the way it is – if it was created by a loving and all was good, how come inexplicable death and suffering is meted out to seemingly innocent people?

Sometimes the evil or negligence of human beings themselves is responsible – random shootings in schools, or shoddy buildings that collapse after an earth tremor because they were not properly constructed. Most of the time, we have no explanation to offer.

It was just this sort of question Jesus was being asked in our gospel reading. The tragic events are lost to history, but we can easily guess what events occasioned the questioning.

Pontius Pilate the Roman governor of Judaea was portrayed in the trial of Jesus as a vacillating, weak and cruel man, who gave in to pressure. He condemned Jesus to death against all notions of justice to appease the religious leaders, and to avoid insurrection and save his own job. In practice, he was probably much worse than that.

First event – Pilate had mixed human blood of Galileans with their sacrifices to God. Second event – 18 people had been killed when Tower of Siloam collapsed, crushing them as it fell.

Implication was – Galileans must have sinned to be treated in this way. Not infrequent reaction. If something bad happens, we first ask whether the sufferer himself was partly responsible. For example, that was clear view of Hebrew Scriptures – because Job suffered so badly, everyone believed he had offended against God and must confess his sins.

In first reading from I Corinthians, Paul writes that after Exodus people worshipped pagan gods and indulged in sexual immorality, with result 23,000 of them died in desert. Killed by snakes because they tested the Lord. Put to the sword by destroying angel because they grumbled against God. These things happened to them as example to rest of us, says Paul. As Voltaire puts it: It’s good to kill an admiral now and then, because it encourages the others.

Going back to two events – one was grisly example of Pilate’s brutality, and so death caused by cruelty of another human being. Second was a random accident – maybe the Tower was badly built, or maybe it was an earth tremor. I almost said Maybe it was an Act of God as insurance industry used to put it.

Now you might have thought such questions gave Jesus opportunity of explaining why innocent lives were snuffed out for no apparent reason, or even coming to defence of a God accused of mismanaging the Universe. But he does neither.

He only implies we must not equate tragedy with divine punishment. Atrocities might come about through sin, but most natural disasters just happen.

The very fragility of life gives it a particular urgency. We are not on this earth for very long, and who can predict with any confidence when our sojourn will come to an end? Jesus wants to talk about repentance. His answer is surprising. It seems to miss the point. He does not try to answer the question.

The need for repentance is universal. The only certainty is – all of us will perish, so all of us must repent. That includes the 18 people crushed by the falling tower of Siloam, as well as the Galileans massacred by Pilate. They were not more guilty than those who did not die, but still all must repent.

The story of the fig tree shows there is not much time. When it did not bear fruit, the owner (that is, God) wanted to cut it down. The gardener (Jesus) pleads for a reprieve. It will be given 3 years stay of execution.

Patience and mercy save the tree for the time being – and we are not left to our own devices. The tree is fed, watered and fertilised. Everything is done by the gardener to make it bear fruit. That fruit is repentance.

But repentance is not just expressions of regret – half-hearted resolutions – vague moral uprightness. Repentance (Greek Metanoia) is a 180-degree turnaround. Complete change of mind. An altered persona. Reorientation. Fundamental change of outlook. That’s what John the Baptist was calling for, and what Jesus means here.

All this has moral consequences, but morality is not the horse that pulls the cart. This call from Jesus would be pretty scary if it were left to us to repent of our own power, to bear the fruit after years of barrenness. The care for the fig tree depicts human life as fragile but as a precious gift. God will not give us so easily. The gardener is at hand to nurture the tree and bring about a radical change.

Too many Lenten observances require little more of us than morose piety, denying ourselves a hit of chocolate, or a gulp of wine. No, repentance is much more than that. As one theologian has observed:

But the Christian outlook on repentance arcs toward joy. And it finds grace experienced within the awful precariousness and strange beauty of our fleeting existence. Amen

Thursday, 4 March 2010

The Unjust Steward Becomes a Dishonest Manager

Thursday Midweek Communion 4 March 2010

Gospel Luke 16

9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

10 "Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own?

13 "No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money."

14 The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15 He said to them, "You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God's sight.


Gospel reading is last part of Parable of Dishonest Manager. NIV: Shrewd Manager. Remember the story?

Rich man had a manager. Summoned him. Said: I hear you are squandering my property. Sacked him without giving him a change to explain. Asked for his account books – sign of his authority.

Manager made deals with all those who owed his master money. Gave big discounts for settling for as little as half the debt. Hoped to curry favour with other merchants in order to get a job with them when out of work. By appearing shrewd, hoped to persuade them he was the sort of steward you needed on your side rather than against you.

Rich man instead of being angry at betrayal commended him for being clever. Jesus then gives his teaching. First – use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves on this earth, so that when it runs out you may be welcomed into heaven. Second – if you can be trusted with worldly things, God will trust you with the true riches that belong to God.

If this is really the message, it’s an odd one. The steward was not trustworthy – yet he’s meant to represent us. He defrauded his master to curry favour with others. The rich man does not deal with him fairly, and commends him for his dishonesty – yet the rich man is meant to represent God. What does it all mean?

Has Luke mixed up some teaching from elsewhere with this parable, or appended it to the parable when it actually came from another time altogether? Taken on its own, maybe the parable is meant to teach us that we are in and of the world for our brief span on earth, and must deal with the things of this world with ingenuity and vigour. The steward is his master’s agent, and makes the rich man appear generous to his debtors. Yet for all that, the manager is described as dishonest and is not reinstated to his job.

So it’s a mystery . What is undoubtedly true is that all the parables of Jesus are intended to surprise, shock, and exaggerate for their effect. This one does exactly that, and leaves us wondering what was the message Jesus intended to convey, even if we accept that what Luke adds at the end might have been drawn from another time altogether.

That does not take anything away from the message itself: no one can serve God and Mammon. We all have a choice to make: between the pursuit of money and possessions and the salvation of our souls. Maybe the unjust steward went about it in the wrong way but reached the right answer in the end?

Like all parables, we each have to reflect on them and draw our own conclusions. So over to you. Luke 16 – the Shrewd Manager commended for his dishonesty. Make of it what you will – I wonder what your explanation will be?