Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Third Sunday of Easter

This is the transcription of my sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter on April 26, 2020.

The Third Sunday of Easter


• Acts 2.14a,36-41
• 1 Peter 1.17-23 
• Luke 24.13-35

Today’s Gospel reading is the famous account of the ‘Journey to Emmaus’.  Two disciples of Jesus are walking to Emmaus, a village 60 stadia from Jerusalem.  This is about 7 miles.  The phrase ‘30 stadia’ was a way of saying an hour’s journey by foot.  This would mean that the village is about two hours from Jerusalem.  Also possible is that the village is a 60 stadia round trip, that is, 30 stadia each way.  We don’t know because we don’t know where Emmaus actually was!  We are only told the village’s name.
We are also only told the name of one of the disciples, Cleopas, but not the name of his companion.  Not that knowing his or her name would help much.  In the same way that we don’t much about Emmaus, we don’t much about these two disciples.  Other than that they were disciples from Emmaus and that one of them was called Cleopas, we know nothing more about them and who they were.

We do know, however, what they were talking about. 

As they walk and talk a Stranger also walks up beside them.  They are kept from recognizing him.  He asks them what they are talking about.  What else is there to talk about?  Where has this Stranger been this weekend?  They tell him they are talking about what has taken place in the past few days.  The Stranger then asks them, ‘What things?’

They explain, as disciples of Jesus, all the hopes they had in him and how they had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel, that is, set her free from Roman rule and establish God’s Kingdom on earth.

This was a reasonable hope.  Jesus himself had taught his disciples to pray, whenever they prayed, for this very thing to happen.  But it hadn’t.  Instead, all their hopes had come to nothing when he had been crucified just three days ago.  Clearly, Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t the One after all.  He was definitely a prophet, they still believe that, but, equally definitely, not the Messiah.  You can sense the disappointment in their voice, even from so greater a distance in time as this.

Cleopas and his companion go on to relate how they had been told, just a few hours earlier in the day, by the women in their group, that Jesus’ body has now gone missing.  What is more, the women claim to have seen angels who told them Jesus was alive.  No wonder they thought the women mad.  To their disappointment, then, is added confusion.

The Stranger in response explains to them from the Scriptures what he feels they themselves should have known by reading them.  The Messiah had to suffer.  Rather than Jesus’s suffering and death proving he was not the Messiah, it suggests the exact opposite.  The Stranger then takes them through all the Scriptures explaining how they are about Jesus.

Eventually they reach Emmaus, and the Stranger goes to walk on.  They, however, want him to stay and prevail on him to do so.  And so, he goes into where they live.  They sit down, or rather recline as they did in those days, to eat a meal together. 

But there is something strange about this meal. 

Normally, the host, not the guest, would bless the bread, but the two disciples have let the Stranger take over and become himself the host.  Assuming this role, the Stranger blesses the bread and breaks it, and as he does so their eyes are opened, and they recognize who the Stranger is.  At which point, he vanishes from their sight.

They comment to one another on how their hearts had been burning on the road as he had explained the Scriptures to them.  There is now only one thing to do, they must get back to Jerusalem and tell the others.  When they get there, they discover that the others already know and that the Lord has appeared to Simon Peter.

The two disciples, not to be out done, tell their story of what had happened on the road and how they had recognized the Lord in the ‘breaking of the bread’.

Well, it is a great story.  We would love to know more.  More about the two disciples who are as strange to us as the Lord was to them.  More about what they did next.  Why the Lord singled them out for such an amazing experience.  We would at the very least like to know where Emmaus is.

Last week, we saw how St Thomas, ‘Doubting Thomas’, as he is generally known, is regarded by many today as their patron saint; one who not only comforts us in our doubts but encourages us to doubt.  We like also to see this journey to Emmaus as a parable.  We only come to know the Lord, we claim, by walking with him.  Faith, we are encouraged to think, is a journey and not a destination.

There is a pattern here.  We want doubt, not certainty; questions, not answers.  The exact opposite, in fact, of what Jesus actually says.  Jesus tells Thomas to stop doubting and to believe.  And these two disciples he calls foolish and slow for needing him to explain what he thinks should have been obvious to them all along.

Was Jesus being a bit hard on them?  From the point of view of Christians like us who are encouraged to doubt rather than believe, and always to ask questions rather than to discover answers, it may seem that way.  We can at least take comfort from the fact that they were as foolish as we are, if being fools together is a comforting thought.

Whether it is or not, Jesus didn’t want Thomas to doubt and he didn’t want the two disciples to ask questions without getting answers.  That’s why he appeared to them on the road to Emmaus in the first place.  He didn’t praise them for asking good questions, he told them they shouldn’t have needed to ask them in the first place!

So apart from reprimanding us too for our foolishness and slowness to believe, what else does the Lord want to say to us through this story?  There are three things, in particular, that I think he would say to us:

1. Jesus is revealed in the Scriptures.

The Risen Lord wanted to reveal himself to the two disciples.  He wanted them to see him for who he really was and is.  But strangely, he didn’t reveal himself to them directly at first.  The easiest thing for Risen Lord to have done would have been simply to appear to them as they walked and talked.  They would have seen beyond all doubt that he was alive and realized that he was the Messiah after all.

Instead, the Risen Lord goes through this drawn out procedure of appearing in disguise, and then carefully showing them how what has happened is all in fulfilment of the Scriptures.

Now, we could argue, that for a variety of reasons personal to them, this was something that these two disciples needed.  But no.  When Jesus later appears to the other disciples still in Jerusalem, he repeats what he said to the two on the road to Emmaus about how the Messiah had to suffer and that it was in fulfilment of the Scriptures.  He says to them:

‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ (Luke 24:44)

And having told them that, he ‘opened their minds to understand the Scriptures’ just as he had done with Cleopas and his companion.  The Gospels and the New Testament writers are all sure of two things.  Firstly, that Jesus’ death and resurrection came as a complete surprise to everyone and, secondly, that it had been clearly predicted and explained in advance in the Scriptures.

The reason it was a surprise is not because God had not told anyone in advance that it was going to happen this way, but because none of his disciples before his death understood what Jesus himself had repeatedly tried to explain to them.

We may understand today that the Messiah had to suffer if for no other reason than he clearly did suffer.  We are not, however, so sure about why he had to suffer.  In the same way that Peter and the disciples didn’t like it when Jesus tried to explain it to them before his death, we are not so keen to hear the explanation now after his death.

We both don’t understand and we also don’t want to understand.  Yes, of course, we have doubts and questions, genuine doubts and questions.  But it is also true that we welcome and embrace both doubt and questions because we are not happy with what we are being asked to believe and the answers we are being given.

Our doubts are dealt with and our questions are answered in exactly the same place as the Risen Lord directed the first disciples to, that is, in the Scriptures.  The Bible is where we must go to find out about Christ and hear what God says in answer to our doubts and questions.  And what it says is what must be.  Everything written in the Scriptures, our Lord says, must be fulfilled.

The reason we don’t read the Bible is sometimes out of laziness and apathy; sometimes because we find it hard to understand; but often because we don’t like what it says.  The Risen Lord could have by-passed the Scriptures.  He didn’t, and nor should we.

2. Jesus is recognized in the ‘breaking of the bread’.

The Risen Lord wanted to reveal himself to the two disciples, but, again, he did not do so directly.  Not only did they have to first see him in the Scriptures, he only finally revealed his real identity in the ‘breaking of the bread’.

Many interpreters argue that this was just a standard evening meal and interpret what took place to mean that Jesus can reveal himself in the normal and ordinary events of everyday life such as a typical evening meal.  And that’s true.  But how would anyone read St Luke’s words and not think back three days to how Jesus had done precisely this same action in blessing and breaking the bread at the Last Supper?

St Luke tells us that the two disciples recognized Jesus in the ‘breaking of the bread’.  St Luke, when he relates how the two disciples reported what had happened to them to the other disciples, records again for emphasis specifically how they recognized Jesus in the ‘breaking of the bread’.

By the time St Luke wrote his account of our Lord’s life in the Gospel and his account of the early Church in the book of Acts, the ‘breaking of bread’ and the account of our Lord’s words and actions at the ‘Last Supper’ had become an essential and intrinsic part of the Church’s worship.  St Paul describes how such a meeting took place in Corinth in Greece just 20 years or so later.  God speaks to us in many ways, through many different means, but if we want to recognize him today, we too will find him in the breaking of the bread. 

The biggest deprivation for Jesus’ followers at the present time isn’t not being able to travel and go to public events.  It is not being able to participate together in the body and blood of Christ.  It is as we do so that our Lord is seen among us.

Our hope and prayer during these Broadcast Services is that even in this way our Lord might be recognized in the breaking of the bread.

3. Jesus is revealed to and recognized by those whose eyes have been opened.

What the two disciples wanted the Messiah to be was what prevented them from seeing the Messiah for who he was.  They passionately wanted Israel to be liberated.  Liberated so she could be free from political oppression, but liberated too so she could be spiritually free to serve God in the way he wanted.  They longed for the Messiah who would be the leader who would enable them to realize their hopes and longings.  Many, including Cleopas and his companion, had thought that Jesus was such a Messiah. 

A dead Messiah is, however, of no use to anyone.  How could he fulfil their hopes and dreams if dead?  Despite all the wonderful things Jesus had said and done, it seemed as if he was a false Messiah as had been so many before him and would be after him.

These two disciples still believed he had been special.  They describe him to the Stranger as: ‘a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people’ (Luke 24:19).

Now, however, they are disappointed.  They felt badly let down when Jesus failed to live up to their expectations.  (We saw this in the sermon for Palm Sunday.)  Jesus will disappoint us if we expect him to conform to our ideas of what he should be like.  We have to come to Jesus on his terms and, indeed, we can only come on his terms; he will not let us come on any others.

We have to see him as he is and as he wants to reveal himself to us.  Many today want him to be a ‘prophet in word and deed’.  Someone who can be enlisted to their ideology and cause.  Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth, has been claimed by colonialist and communist; by capitalist and socialist; by chauvinist and feminist.  But he won’t be a prophet for our cause no matter how noble.

Cleopas asks the Stranger:

‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ (Luke 24:18)

The irony was that the Stranger was the only one in Jerusalem who really did know what had taken place there.  Everyone in Jerusalem saw what happened on Good Friday.  Everyone in Jerusalem had the Scriptures which said these things must happen.  Only one person in Jerusalem understood why they had happened and why they had to happen and that was the person whom they happened to.  Everyone else’s eyes, like the eyes of the two on the road to Emmaus, were prevented from seeing. 

As they are today. 

For the only way for us to see Jesus for who he is and the only way for us to understand what he has done is for him to explain it to us and for God to open our eyes.  And he will do that today, as he did it then, as we read the Scriptures and break the bread.

Which is why reading the Bible and participating in the Eucharist are not optional extras.

First of all, Jesus cannot explain the Scriptures to us if we don’t read them.  Many of you watching or listening to this will have heard me say previously that we, today, are the most privileged generation there has been when it comes reading and studying the Bible.  The resources available to us are resources that people historically couldn’t even dream of.  And yet the irony is that poor, illiterate peasants in the past, who could not read or write, knew more of the Scriptures than many in the Church do today.

It is no benefit having the resources that are now at our disposal if we don’t use them and it is no good using the resources unless we read the Bible itself.  The two disciples said to each other after Jesus had left:

‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ (Luke 24:32)

It is when our hearts burn within us that we know we are reading Gods’ word as it is meant to be read.

Secondly, though, Jesus doesn’t just want us to read about him, vital and exciting though that is.  He wants us to see him.  He wants to reveal himself now to us as the Crucified Christ who had to ‘suffer these things’ and as the Risen Lord who then entered ‘his glory’.  And now having suffered these things and entered his glory, he wants us to recognize him for who he is.

The Risen Lord in the book of Revelation says:

‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.’ (Revelation 3:20)

The Risen Lord wants to enter our lives as he entered the home of the two disciples from Emmaus.  He wants to come in and eat with us.

But we need to know this: he will not enter as a guest, but only as the host; not as a visitor to our lives, but as the owner.  That’s what acknowledging him as our Lord means.  It means surrendering ourselves to him.  Giving ourselves to him.  Having faith in him. Trusting him.  Obeying him.

And so now as the bread is broken in this our Broadcast Service, may our eyes be opened so that we, like Cleopas and his companion, may recognize and open the door of our lives to him that he may come in and eat with us and us with him.


Friday, April 24, 2020

Minutes that Matter: Friday in April, 2020

This is the transcript of my fourth talk for RTHK Radio 4 Minutes that Matter on Fridays in April.

Talk Four: The Death of Christ as the Path to Life

St Peter said to those who crucified Jesus: 

‘This man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law.’ (Acts 2:23)

The question, ‘Why was Jesus crucified?’ is not as straightforward as asking questions about the death of any other historical figure.  While answering questions about a famous person’s death may be challenging, in principle we know how to go about it.  It may be complicated and there may be different theories as, for example, is the case with the assassination of President Kennedy, nevertheless we know what it is we are dealing with.  Not so with Jesus.

In attempting to answer the question, ‘Why was Jesus crucified?’ we know, firstly, he was crucified because the Jerusalem leaders had decided that they wanted him out of the way. However, as I have suggested in a previous talk here this month, it is not nearly so clear as to why they wanted him out of the way.  We know that to have Jesus crucified they had, for legal reasons, to hand him over to the Romans to those, as St Peter ironically puts it, ‘who were outside the law’, that is, outside the Jewish law.  The irony being that the Romans for their part didn’t want to kill him!

Secondly, however, Jesus himself suggests that behind those who were the historical agents of his death, there were other powers at work.  In the Gospel of John, from the moment Jesus begins his ministry, before he has had a chance to do anything that would lead people to want to kill him, he speaks of the ‘hour’ of his death.  Jesus knows not only where his ministry will lead, but that this is what his ministry is all about.  This is why he has come and this is what he has to face.  His ‘hour’ casts a shadow over his life.  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus describes the time of his crucifixion as the hour of the ‘power of darkness’ (Luke 22:53).  It is the Devil who puts it into Judas’ heart to betray Jesus (John 13:2).

There are, then, the New Testament suggests both physical and spiritual forces at work in bringing Jesus to the Cross.  But, thirdly, and this is the staggering explanation of Jesus and the first Christians, the ultimate cause of the crucifixion of Jesus is God himself.  St Peter describes it as being the ‘definite plan and foreknowledge of God’.  God didn’t just see that it would happen, he determined that it should happen.

Jesus tells his disciples that his death will be in fulfilment of the Scriptures and, after his resurrection, he famously says to two disciples on the road to Emmaus: ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory? (Luke 24:26)’.  Jesus’ final prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion is one of submission to God’s plan: ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done (Luke 22:42)’.  

The death of Jesus was then no accident of history.  It was not only as a result of human scheming and jealousy, not simply because he was seen as a political threat to those in power, nor even the outcome of dark forces at work in our world.  Above and before all else, the death of Jesus was the plan and will of God. 
In discussing why Jesus was crucified and who was responsible for his death, we have missed someone out.  And that someone is you.  It was God who determined that Jesus should die.  But why would he do that?  Because of you.  And because of me.  St Paul writes: ‘But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8)’.

Many today revolt against the idea that God was ultimately responsible for the death of Christ.  It has even been labelled ‘cosmic child abuse’.  But the reason we hate the idea so much is that we hate the idea that we need dying for.  We like to think of ourselves as wonderful ‘just as we are’ without needing any outside help.  If that’s how we think, then Christ is not for us.  His death is of no use to us.

But for those of us who know our failure, our weakness, our inadequacy, our sin, the death of Christ is the most important thing that has ever happened.  It tells us that we can be saved and that we need not be lost.  As we look at the One nailed to the Cross, we see not a helpless victim, but One who died for us and who offers us forgiveness and life.  Who says to us quite simply:

‘Follow me.’

Minutes that Matter: Fridays in April, 2020

This is the transcript of my third talk for RTHK Radio 4 Minutes that Matter on Fridays in April.

Talk Three: Resurrection

Last Sunday was Easter Sunday.  Easter Sunday is the day in the Church’s calendar when we celebrate the resurrection of Christ, the day when Christians believe Jesus was raised by God from the dead.  This year the coronavirus has cast a shadow over the celebrations, but virus or not, church services or not, the resurrection is what gives those who follow Christ hope both for the future and in the present, no matter how bad circumstances may be.  Lent with its message of self-denial and self-discipline is over.  We can move on from the death of Christ and concentrate instead on the message of new life.

We are assisted in this, in the northern hemisphere at least, by the time of the year that we have now begun.  March 22 was the official beginning of Spring, and nature itself is speaking to us of new life.  Given what we have been through these past few months, it is a welcome relief.  No wonder, then, that we want to move on.

And it is right that we want to celebrate that Christ is alive.  St Paul wrote of how the announcement that Christ is alive is at the heart of the message that the Church proclaims.  Without it, the Christian faith is meaningless.  As St Paul put it: ‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.’

There is, however, a danger here.  For while we, the followers of Jesus today, want to believe in the resurrection of Christ, the temptation is to believe in it without believing in the death of Christ.  Of course, we have to believe in it in the sense that we believe it happened.  After all, Jesus had to die to be raised, but, for many, the important thing here is that God raised him from the dead, and it is this that we focus on.  It is this that gives meaning to our faith and the way we live our lives.  The death of Christ becomes, then, a thing of the past that happened historically, but which is of little relevance to us in the present.  What matters in the present is the new life we now have in Christ.

But not so fast!  The New Testament brings us back time and time again to the death of Christ.  Jesus himself made his death central to the identity of his followers by commanding them to share a Meal together, every time they meet for worship; one in which they participate in his body and blood.  Graphically he said on one occasion, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’  And, as if to drive the message home, he added: ‘whoever eats me will live because of me.’  St Paul writing to pagan converts tells them, ‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’

But there is even more to it than benefiting from Jesus’ death and proclaiming it until he comes.  Jesus’ followers are to experience his death for themselves.  The Christian life begins with baptism.  Baptism, however, is more than simply a ritual involving water.  It is, we are told in the New Testament, a baptism into Jesus’ death.  Jesus himself saw his death on the Cross as something that his followers would share and take part in and something that would define how they lived as his followers.  The Cross was to be central to their identity as his followers.  Again, Jesus said: ‘If anyone wants to become my follower, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’

St Paul wrote: ‘May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.’  In the chapter of the New Testament in which he writes the most about the reality of the resurrection of Christ, he tells his readers, ‘I die daily.’

In this Easter season then, the Church celebrates the resurrection of Christ: ‘Alleluia! Christ is risen!’  It is a message that gives us hope as we contemplate our own death and mortality.  We are assured that he is with us as we seek to live for him in the present.  We rejoice that we can experience his new life for ourselves.

But this hope, assurance, and joy in the life of Christ comes only to those who are willing to share in and experience his death; to those who are willing to take up their Cross and die daily as they follow him, proclaiming, as they do so, his death until he comes.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Second Sunday of Easter

This is the transcription of my sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter on April 19, 2020.

The Second Sunday of Easter


Acts 2.14a,22-32
1 Peter 1.3-9
John 20.19-31

Today’s Gospel reading is in two parts.  The first part takes place on Easter Sunday.  It is the evening after the disciples have discovered that the tomb where Jesus was buried is empty.  Mary Magdalene has reported to the disciples that she has seen the Risen Lord.  The disciples are now meeting behind closed doors.  They are in a lockdown of their own for ‘fear of the Jews’.

This should not be taken as a criticism of the disciples.  The disciples had every reason to be fearful.  Their leader had just been crucified as a rebel against Rome and the authorities had made known their views of Jesus and his movement.  Not only were the disciples fearful, they were confused.  What were they to make of the events of the past three days?

Jesus himself answers their question by appearing to them.

It is worth noting that Jesus has to convince them that it really is him who is appearing to them by showing them the marks of his crucifixion on his hands and side.  He is now the Risen Lord, but he is still the Crucified Christ.  As the hymn puts it: ‘those wounds yet visible above in beauty glorified’.  Even though raised from the dead, he bears the marks of the crucifixion to remind us of who he is and of the importance of the Cross and of what he has suffered.

His words to them are simple and to the point:

‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ (John 20:21)

Jesus has accomplished all that he came to do, now it is time for them to do the work he has chosen them to do.  As the Father sent him so now he sends them.  But, before they can go, something has to happen.  He breathes on them and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit.  He had told them much about the Holy Spirit on the night before he was betrayed and handed over to be crucified.  The Holy Spirit so far had been ‘with them’, but he is now to be ‘in them’.  The Holy Spirit will both direct and empower them as Jesus sends them out.

Jesus sends them out, but to do what?

Knowing as we do what Jesus tells the disciples in the other Gospels, what happens in the Book of Acts, and what takes place in the years ahead, we naturally assume that they are sent out to preach the Gospel and establish the Church, which is to be his body on earth in the time before he returns.  That, however, is not what the Risen Lord says here.  He tells them specifically:

‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ (John 20:23)

These words have caused trouble for those who have bothered to try to understand them and take them seriously.  For Roman Catholics, they are understood as the basis for ‘sacramental confession’ and the establishment of the priesthood.  The apostles and their successors are authorised to hear people’s confession and to pronounce absolution, that is, the forgiveness of sins.  Whether this understanding of priesthood is right or wrong, it doesn’t seem to be quite what Jesus has in mind here.  And what does it mean to have the authority to retain sins?

Protestants understand the words in a broader sense to mean that Jesus is giving the Church in general authority to forgive sins through the preaching of the Gospel.  Again, whether this understanding of Jesus’ words is right or wrong, it doesn’t seem to be quite what Jesus has in mind here.  And it still doesn’t answer the question of what Jesus means by giving authority to ‘retain sins’.

A full consideration of what Jesus means must be a question for another day, but for today it is important for us to see that Jesus puts individual human sin at the centre of what the disciples are empowered to do as he sends them out.

I have been involved in many discussions as to what the mission of the Church today should be.  I have listened and taken part as churches have discussed their mission statements.  Some place an emphasis on preaching the Gospel and making converts.  Others, on caring for people in their need and providing support and social welfare.  Nowadays, there is major emphasis in the Church on working for peace and ‘social justice’ in our world.  Whatever we think of these as legitimate concerns, here the Risen Lord establishes at the heart of the mission of the apostles the need to address individual human sin.

This is important.  Whatever else we may do as a Church and as followers of Christ, unless we are focusing on sin and every person’s need for forgiveness, we are not fulfilling the commission that Jesus gave to the Church through the apostles.  If we don’t address people’s sin and their need for forgiveness, we are failing to understand why the Father sent the Son and why he, in turn, is sending us.

What people need is not simply to become members of the Church, not simply to receive physical and material help, nor even to be given the chance to live in a more just and fair society, what they most need is forgiveness for their sins.  Until they find that, they remain lost and in darkness.

When the paralytic was lowered by his friends through the roof of the house to get him to Jesus, the first thing Jesus said was: ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’  (Mark 2:5)  Only then did Jesus go on to heal him.

This may not be what people want to hear.  It may challenge their belief in themselves and their illusion that they have the power to help themselves and do whatever they set their minds to do, but that is the message and mission that the Risen Lord has given us.

Yes, Jesus promises ‘abundant life’.  Yes, his triumph over death offers us hope as we face our own death.  But there can be no life, before or after death, unless we find forgiveness of our sins.  And the Church’s responsibility is to tell a self-satisfied world, which puts self-fulfilment before everything else, that they are sinners who need to experience that which only the Crucified Christ can offer.

This is why Christ died.  It is at the heart of our worship as we eat his body that was given for us and drink his blood that was shed for us.  And if people will not accept that message and turn to Christ, we have a further responsibility to tell them that their sins are retained with all the consequences of what that means.

Believing in Christ is not simply a way of making our life here better and more fulfilling.  It is not an optional extra.  Believing in Christ is something that God requires of people, and he has given us the task of telling that to people.

St Paul says in his speech to the pagans at Athens:

‘While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent …’ (Acts 17:30)

The first words that St Marks records our Lord as having said are, ‘Repent and believe the Gospel.’ (Mark 1:14)

Which brings us to the second part of the Gospel reading for this morning.

One person was missing when Jesus appeared to the disciples: Thomas.  This is the Thomas who, when Jesus said they would return to Jerusalem to help their friend Lazarus, said, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ (John 11:16)

When told by the other disciples that Jesus has appeared to them and has shown them his hands and his side, Thomas says:

‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’ (John 20:25)

For this response, he has been given the label, ‘Doubting Thomas’ as if he had been wrong to doubt what they told him.  But Thomas was no more wrong to doubt than the disciples had been to be afraid.  Would you believe anyone who had told you that someone you had seen crucified and stabbed with a spear, was now alive and had mysteriously appeared in a room, even though there was no way for them to get in?  Of course, you wouldn’t!  You would say, as Thomas says, ‘Unless I see for myself, I will not believe.’

St Thomas has become the patron saint of many today.  His doubt gives comfort to us in our own doubts.  But it is a bit more complicated than that.

Doubt can take many different forms.  For most people today doubt tends to centre on doubts about the whole Gospel story including doubts about the very existence of God himself.  Our doubts are of a factual and intellectual nature.  Is there a God?  If there is a God, how can he allow human suffering?  Are the Gospels true?  Was Jesus really born of a virgin?  Did he work miracles, rise from the dead, appear to the disciples, and ascend to heaven?  Can we really know God for ourselves, experience the Spirit, and be sure he answers prayer?  Or are we just indulging in wishful thinking?  Is it all a fairy tale?  Is it a nice story, but one we now know not be true, at least not in the sense that any of it is real?  It is one we can perhaps learn from, but not actually believe in.

Apart, however, from what we can describe as intellectual doubt, doubt can take other forms.  It can also be of a more personal nature and to do with whether we, individually, are acceptable to God.  In the past, Christians tended to have less doubts about the facts of the Gospel.  They believed in God and in the Gospel story without too many problems.  The doubts they had were instead about whether they personally were loved by God, whether Jesus died for them as individuals, and whether they were acceptable to God and could be forgiven for their sins.  Such doubts often caused great internal distress and anguish.

How then are we to respond to and deal with doubt both intellectual and personal?

When it comes to the second type of doubt, that is, personal doubt, some still feel this intensely.  They find it hard to believe anyone, let alone God, could love them.  They indeed need reassuring, but most of us don’t.  Our understanding of Jesus the man - the prophet and teacher, if not the Son of God - tells us that God, if there is a God, must be a very nice sort of God.  One who accepts us just as we are without making too much of a fuss about it, or about anything we may or may not have done.  After all, how could an intelligent being not love us?

The first type of doubt, intellectual doubt, is inevitable just as the disciples’ fear was inevitable.  We live in a world in which, from the moment we are born, we are encouraged to see faith as something optional and not central to our lives.  The existence of God, we are constantly informed, is something that we cannot be sure of.  And if we can’t be sure of it, we shouldn’t make it something we build our lives on.  By all means take it into account, even believe in it as a possibility, but realize, we are told, that there is no room for certainty.

This, for example, is how our education system functions.  It doesn’t have to explicitly tell children there isn’t a God, it just proceeds as if there isn’t or that it doesn’t matter if there is.  The existence of God is simply ignored and implicitly denied or at best assumed to be unimportant for them as they grow up and live their lives.

So, naturally, we are going to find it hard to believe; everything in the world in which we live explicitly and implicitly works against it.

Christians have responded to the fact of doubt by making a virtue out of a necessity.  In the Church, St Thomas has become something of a hero.

We should, Church leaders and teachers assure us, be suspicious of certainty and dogma and ask questions, even fundamental questions, about what the Church has traditionally taught as truths.  We are told that it is more important to seek than it is to find.  And that God (assuming he does exist) understands and welcomes our questioning.  The enemy today is not doubt, but certainty.  What God wants, we are told, is not people who know what they should believe, but people who know how they should live, and anyone who tries to live a good life will be alright in the end.

If those who say this are right, it makes our Lord’s response to Thomas somewhat puzzling.  For Jesus did not say to Thomas, ‘Well done you for asking the right questions,’ he said, ‘Do NOT doubt but believe.’  Then, when Thomas realizes that Jesus is alive, Jesus says:

‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’  (John 20:30)

Our Gospel reading concludes by St John telling us the reason why he has written his Gospel.  After pointing out that Jesus did many other things than those he has recorded in his Gospel, he explains:

‘But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20:31)

St John has not written his Gospel as a basis for further discussion or to provoke us to ask questions.  He has written it so we might believe and through believing have life in Jesus’ name, which rather suggests that if we don’t believe, we won’t have life.

So, we have a problem: everything about our life and upbringing makes it difficult for us to believe, and yet, St John tells us, unless we believe, we won’t have life.  How to solve the problem?  Should we just pretend?

The way forward is to ask what the Bible means by ‘believe’.

Part of the problem is that for us when we talk about ‘belief’ and ‘believing’ the focus is on what we personally think to be true.  We normally come to the conclusion that something is true either because intellectually we are convinced that it is or because we feel that is.

So, for example, I believe that the earth orbits the sun because I have confidence in those who tell me it does, and I am convinced by the evidence I have seen to support that belief.

Believing in something will involve our minds and how we think, and this applies especially to questions of fact.  But, in life, what we believe is not only about issues of a factual nature.  When it comes, for example, to where we believe we should live; what job we believe we should do; whom we believe we should marry; and in a whole host of other areas of our lives, while what we believe involves our minds and what we think, it does not only involve our minds.

People make important choices in their lives not only because of what intellectually they think to be true, but also because of what emotionally they feel to be right.  Most of us marry, for example, not simply because of an intellectual decision we have made about someone, but because we also ‘feel’ a person is the one for us.

Relying solely on how we feel can be dangerous.  It is all too easy for our emotions to let us down or for them to be manipulated in the way they often are by advertisers and politicians, for example.  But then so too can how we think.  We have seen many examples in history of whole nations being manipulated into believing ideologies that turned out to be not only wrong, but destructive.  Even a scientific ‘fact’ in one generation can turn out to be an outdated theory in another.

The English word ‘believe’ is how we translate a verb in the New Testament, which is in Greek, into English.  It is part of the Greek word also translated ‘faith’.  The connection between the various ways the Greek word group is translated is maintained if instead of translating the Greek word into English as ‘believe’, we translate it as ‘have faith’.

Faith in the Bible is not about what we think to be true nor about we feel to be right, but about a decision we make and what we do as a consequence.  Faith is about making a decision to trust Christ and what the Bible tells us about him.   We marry someone, for example, because we think and feel they are the right one for us.  It is a decision we make to trust and to act accordingly

We make important life decisions based both on how we think, considering all the evidence, and also on how we feel having done so.  But, however, we make it, we have, in all the important areas of our lives, to make a decision.  Faith is not primarily about what we think or feel, but what we decide.  It is about the will.  So, Jesus says to Thomas, stop doubting and believe.  It is Jesus saying to him, ‘You’ve seen the evidence, you know how you feel about me, now decide if you are going to trust me and live for me.

For many people, faith is a ‘leap in the dark’, doing something without knowing whether it is true or not but hoping that it will turn out to be OK in the end.  That is not how the Bible sees it.  Faith is the decision and commitment we make after considering how we think and feel having heard the Gospel of Jesus.  Are we going to believe in him or not?  Are we going to have faith in him or not?  Are we going to trust him or not?

St Anselm famously said:

‘I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand.  For I believe this also, that ‘unless I believe, I shall not understand’ (Isaiah 7:9).’

The reality is that we are not able to see, that is, to understand, precisely because we are sinners, blinded by our sin, who need our sin forgiving.  None of us deserve to receive the life that Christ offers, quite simply because we are sinners.  If we want to understand and if we want to be able to stop feeling bad about ourselves, then we need to make a decision of faith.  It is a decision to trust in the Risen Lord standing before us with hands outstretched, hands that bear the marks of the nails from when he was crucified, not only because of our sin, but for our sin; so our sin could be forgiven.

By the authority of the Risen Christ, I can say confidently to you now that, if you are willing to trust Christ, your sins will be forgiven and you will be on the way to life.  If you are not, then your sins are retained and you do not have his life within you.

We all come to Christ with fears, doubts, guilt, hang ups, problems, and questions.  What matters is not how we come to him or what state we are in when we come to him.  What matters is that we do come to him.

Jesus said, ‘Anyone who comes to me I will never turn away.’ (John 6:37)

The hymn writer Charlotte Elliott wrote:

‘Just as I am, though tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt,
fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come.’

Today, may we come to Christ just as we are and may we be amongst those of whom Jesus said, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.’ (John 20:29)


Monday, April 13, 2020

Easter Sunday

This is the transcription of my sermon for Easter Sunday on April 12, 2020.

Easter Sunday


Acts 10:34-43
Colossians 3:1-4
John 20:1-18

We have now come to what we have been preparing for during Lent: the celebration of Easter and Christ’s resurrection.  Lent, a period of 40 days, is modelled on the time our Lord spent in the wilderness, where he went without food for forty days and forty nights.

During this period, as part of our preparation for Easter, it is common for Christians to give something up for Lent.  I must admit I never thought that the time would come when I would be required to give up church for Lent.  But this is something that we have had to do this year because of COVID-19.

We are all agreed that the nature of the virus and how easily it is transmitted made giving up meeting together in church during Lent something we had to do.  However, the important thing about giving something up for Lent is that it is meant to be something that it is hard for us to give up.  The problem with giving up church has been that it hasn’t always seemed as if we have found it that hard to do.

We have given up coming to church and meeting together far more easily, for example, than people seem to have given up eating in restaurants, or drinking in bars, or even going to the beach.  We have, as Christians, instead embraced going online with an enthusiasm that has been commented on even in the secular press.  And why not?  We are educating our children online, studying online, working and relaxing online.  Why not worshipping online?

Please don’t misunderstand me!  It’s been a useful substitute being able to use online resources to worship, study, pray, and keep in touch with one another.  Here, at Christ Church, we have been putting Broadcast Services online and sharing with each other online.  Being able to take ‘church’ online is a substitute that has, at times, undoubtedly been a blessing.  My fear, however, is that the substitute may take over from the real thing.

Again, there have been some interesting articles in the secular press on what effect going online during the present crisis will have on the church after the crisis eventually comes to an end.  The articles this Easter in the Spectator and Economist magazines, for example, are particularly thoughtful.  

Which is all very interesting, but what has it to do with Easter Sunday?

Just this: taking church online has been a relatively easy option, but in a crowded virtual market-place, getting people to watch and stay watching means that you have to give people what they want if you want to hold their attention.  The very ease with which we have closed our churches and gone online has not only created a positive feeling that the church can survive online, it’s also led to a focus on a message of optimism.

Paradoxically, in a time of despair that’s what people want, and we have been anxious in the church to give it to them.  The temptation this Easter Sunday particularly is to rush to optimism, mistaking optimism for hope, and failing in doing so to hear the hard and challenging message of Easter for the present time.  

Today, Easter Sunday, does seem to offer the message that we need to hear at the present time.  The message that God loves us; that he has triumphed over death; and offers new life and a bright future.

It’s a message that I am sure will be popular in the crisis we are experiencing.  A message well-suited to the virtual world in which we now live; a world of instant amusement and satisfaction.  I would, I know, have more chance of being heard if I embraced it.  It is, however, a message of false hope, made all the more dangerous by the way it parodies the real message of Easter.

The problem with it is that it ignores how we got here to Easter Sunday.  We got here only after our Lord had been betrayed and falsely accused, mocked and denied, beaten and flogged … and then crucified.

Crucified, not only because of our sin but for our sin.  Only a few days ago, on Maundy Thursday, at the Last Supper, Jesus told us that his body is given for us and his blood poured out for us (Luke 22:19-20).  We want hope and optimism, and that’s understandable, but there can be no hope and optimism without pain, suffering, and death.

‘But,’ you reply, ‘surely we have that by the thousands this Easter.’  What on earth do I think is happening now with COVID-19 if not pain, suffering, and death?  But for pain, suffering, and death to be redemptive, it has to have a purpose, and we have to learn from it, or else it will all be in vain.

The present situation, for example, has frequently been compared to the wars of the last century, but what did they teach us?  What did we learn, for example, from the deaths of millions in the first world war?  The philosopher Hegel said: ‘But what experience and history teach is this - that people and governments never have learned anything from history …’

So, this Easter before we rush to post messages of optimism and confidence for the future in the desire to get more clicks and likes online, we need to pause and ask what we are learning from this time of pain, suffering, and death.  And I don’t now mean things like we should relax and take life more easy; that we should spend more time with our families; or that we can do a lot online and at home without even having to get out of bed.  I mean what have we really learnt?

In Revelation 9, St John has a vision of terrible plagues afflicting the human race.  At the end of them, he writes:

‘The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their immorality or their thefts.’ (Revelation 9:20-21)

The Ten Commandments were written on two tablets of stone.  They gave two sets of responsibilities: one to God and one to each other.  Our Lord, when asked what the greatest commandment was, said it was that we should love God with all our being: heart and soul, mind and strength.  And, he said, the second was like it that we should love our neighbour as ourselves (Mark 12:29-31).  These two commandments represent the two parts of the Ten Commandments: love of God and love of our neighbour.  We listen to this summary of the commandments by our Lord at every Eucharist.

St John, in his vision, said that mankind, after experiencing terrible plagues, did not repent of its failure to worship the one true God, nor did it repent of its failure to love each other and instead continued to practise evil.  Something terrible that should have led people to repent had no effect on their behaviour.  They learnt nothing from it.

Now to avoid any possible misunderstanding, let me say that I am not saying this morning that God sent COVID-19.  But what I am saying this morning is that we need to hear what God is saying to us through COVID-19.

The Holy Father, Pope Francis, on March 27 gave an ‘Urbi et Orbi’ message from an empty St Peter’s Square in Rome.  I want to quote from it because it says something important that I believe we especially need to hear this Easter.  Comparing the present crisis to the storm that Jesus and his disciples experienced on the Sea of Galilee, the Holy Father, said:

‘The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities. The tempest lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls; all those attempts that anesthetize us with ways of thinking and acting that supposedly “save” us, but instead prove incapable of putting us in touch with our roots and keeping alive the memory of those who have gone before us. We deprive ourselves of the antibodies we need to confront adversity.’

So, will we repent or will be like those in St John’s vision who refused to change?  We began Lent with the words:

‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’

The talk in the media at the moment is of when the lockdown and the present restrictions will end and of when a vaccine will be found.  When will life be able to return to normal?  When will the economy get moving again?  When will we see a return to global growth?

When will life return to normal?

For those who have lived through Easter, there can be no return to normal life.  Indeed, there can be no life at all until we kneel in repentance at the feet of the Crucified Christ.  For the real challenge to us this Easter is posed not by COVID-19, but by the Cross of Christ.

We have to face the challenge the Cross brings to each one of us.  Not to seek to move beyond it, but to identify with him who is nailed to it, and to face up to our own mortality, weakness, and sin and, as he dies there, to die with him.

For unless we have died with him on the Cross, died to self and the false gods of our day, there can be no Easter Sunday for us.  There can be no message of hope and confidence for the future, only false optimism and empty promises.  

In our second reading this morning, St Paul writes: ‘for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God’ (Colossians 3:3).

The message of Christ crucified and we crucified with him does offer hope.  Not that everything will be OK after all.  That was not what Christ offered his followers.  ‘In the world you will have trouble,’ he told them.  But he continued, ‘Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world’.  In other words, in the midst of all the troubles, uncertainties, difficulties, dangers, and deprivations of this life, our life, if we belong to Christ, is hid with Christ in God.

St Paul tells us:

‘When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.’ (Colossians 3:4)

There is hope and there is a future to look forward to, but it is not the easy hope of social media; the hope that comes effortlessly and without pain.  It is not a future that will be comfortable and free from suffering.  In the world, we will have trouble.  But Christ’s followers can face that trouble knowing that Christ has overcome the world.

So, my hope this morning for me and for everyone watching or listening to this broadcast is not a ‘return to normal’, but a turning to Christ.  It is only in turning to Christ that we can find hope.  Hope which is ours because God loved us so much that he gave his Son to die to bring it to us.

St Paul begins the second reading:

‘If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth …’ (Colossians 3:1-2)

This morning don’t set your sight on getting back to normal.  Set your sight higher than that!  Don’t seek a return to economic growth, seek something far more profitable: your spiritual growth.  Seek and set your mind on things above: on Christ himself.

The present time has been, and still is, a time of fear, pain, and death.  Don’t let it be a wasted time.  Let it be a time when you discover the life and death of Christ in your life and as you die with him hear the words of real hope that St Paul speaks to us today:

‘When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.’

This morning our only hope is in Christ: Christ Crucified and Christ Risen.

Alleluia, Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed, Alleluia.


Sunday, April 12, 2020

Good Friday

This is the transcription of my sermon for Good Friday on April 10, 2020.

Good Friday


Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Hebrews 10:16-25
John 19:1-19:42

Good Friday is all about the death of our Lord.  Our Gospel reading is St John’s account of the crucifixion.  Sermons for Good Friday, quite rightly, focus on the Cross.  Normally, here at Christ Church, we have a service of the ‘Last Hour at the Cross’ when we think of the ‘seven last words’ of Jesus from the Cross.
There we tend to stop.  Once our Lord has died, we leave the story, and wait expectantly for Easter Sunday and the good news of his resurrection.  Good Friday, however, didn’t end there.  Our Lord’s body had to be taken down from the Cross and buried.

The Gospels are all agreed that Joseph of Arimathea was the one who stood up to do this.  We are told that he went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body.  This was rather brave.  Jesus, after all, despite Pilate’s reluctance, had been crucified as a rebel against Rome.  The Jewish authorities had made their views plain.  By asking for the body and taking responsibility for Jesus’ burial, Joseph was putting himself out there.

Interestingly, St John tells us that another person helped bury the body with Joseph.  This was none other than Nicodemus, who has appeared earlier in the Gospel.

It gets more interesting still when we stop to look at the two characters involved.

First of all, Joseph of Arimathea.  Joseph was a common name, and Arimathea, the town from which he came, identifies which Joseph we are talking about.  All four of the Gospels tell us that Joseph was involved in Jesus’ burial, and each of the four Gospels provide us with a bit of information about him. 

St Mark tells us that he was a respected member of the Council ‘who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God’ (Mark 15:43). 

St Luke describes Joseph as a ‘good and righteous man’, who, ‘though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action’ (Luke 23:50-51).  St Luke tells us it was a ‘new tomb where no-one had ever been laid’ that Joseph laid Jesus’ body. 

St Matthew tells us that Joseph was a ‘rich man’ and a ‘disciple of Jesus’ (Matthew 27:57).  St Matthew also tells us that the new tomb that Joseph laid Jesus’ body in was his own, which ‘he had hewn in the rock’.

St John tells us that Joseph was a ‘disciple of Jesus, but a secret one because of his fear’ of others among his people.  St John also tells us that ‘there was a garden in the place where he was crucified’ (John 19:41) and it is here that the tomb is located.

Putting all this together, we learn that Joseph came from a town called Arimathea.  He was a rich man, who was a devout, observant Jew and much respected.  He was a member of the ruling Council and was, therefore, a person of some power and influence.  He had become a disciple of Jesus, although he kept it secret because of his fear of others.  He had not gone along with his fellow Council members in their plan to get rid of Jesus and have him killed.

It was Jesus’ death, however, ironically that changed everything for him.  Although he had kept his faith in Jesus secret while Jesus had been alive, seeing Jesus die, he could do so no longer.  St Mark tells us he went ‘boldly’ to Pilate to ask for the body.  Joseph made his faith known when in many ways there was nothing to be gained from doing so.  Jesus, after all, was dead and no-one expected anything to come of it.  Joseph had nothing to gain and everything to lose.

Was this an act of repentance and regret for not having been open about his faith when Jesus was alive?  Is it shame at having been a part of the body responsible for Jesus’ death?  We just don’t know.  Whatever his motivation, it took courage and he backed up his courage by giving Jesus the tomb he had made for himself.

St John, however, adds something that the other Gospel writers don’t tell us.  St John tells us that when Joseph took the body to the tomb, he was not alone. 

The second character involved was another rich man and a fellow member of the ruling Council.  It is someone we have met before: Nicodemus.  Nicodemus, St John tells us, went with Joseph to the tomb (John 19:39).

Nicodemus you may remember from the Broadcast Service for the Second Sunday of Lent was a Pharisee, who came to Jesus by night and who found Jesus’ words about being ‘born again from above’ hard to understand. 

Nicodemus appears three times in St John’s Gospel.  In John 3, when he first approaches Jesus.  Then in John 7, when he argues with his fellow Pharisees, telling them that Jesus should not be condemned without being given a ‘fair hearing’ (John 7:51).

Now, in John 19, he comes with Joseph and brings with him a large quantity of spices to embalm Jesus’ body.  The cost of these spices would have been very great.  Jesus was crucified as the King of the Jews in a way which made a mockery of the very idea.  Jesus was, however, buried in a manner befitting royalty.  Crucified as a criminal, he was buried as a King.  The title on the Cross had been right all along.

But now it was too late.  Or so everyone thought, but that story must wait for Easter Sunday.  For now, it is all over.  What did Joseph and Nicodemus think would happen to them next?  How would they face their fellow Council members?  Their fellow Council members may have taken the attitude that it didn’t much matter.  They had got what they wanted.  It was, nevertheless, brave of Joseph and Nicodemus to come out in the open.  Intriguingly, we are told that after Jesus’ resurrection many Pharisees became believers.  Were Nicodemus and Joseph amongst them.  I think so.

Nicodemus is always described in St John’s Gospel as the ‘one who came to Jesus by night’.  At the beginning, he can’t see what Jesus is trying to show him.  It is he who is in darkness.  We get a sense that he is coming to faith in his argument with his fellow Council members over Jesus in John 7.  Now, after Jesus death, he at last comes out of the darkness.

What does all this say to us this Good Friday? 

1. Jesus really did die for everyone. 

Quite rightly in the Church, we are anxious to reach out to the poor and those in the past whom the Church has either ignored or failed to reach; to those who are excluded and oppressed.  But we need to remember that Jesus loves both rich and poor alike. 

Jesus preached ‘good news to the poor’.  The good news, however, is not that they are poor as if poverty is a state that we should seek.  Nor that the good news is for the poor rather than for others who are not.  The good news to the poor is that God loves them and that while the kingdoms of this world might exclude them because of their poverty, God does not.

Jesus was a friend of the poor.  He was a friend of the rich as well.  This doesn’t mean he didn’t challenge both rich and poor.  He did.  He challenged the rich about their wealth and about putting their trust in riches, but he did not exclude them, any more than he excluded the poor.  Quite the reverse.  The poor too were challenged not to think that their hope lay in gaining riches.  Instead, it lay in trusting God.

The Church too easily can make it sound as if there is virtue in being poor for being poor’s sake.  It is true that often not having this world’s wealth leads people to see what really matters in life and so to put their trust in God.  It is true too that those with money can put their trust in their wealth rather than in God.  The issue, however, is not whether someone is rich or poor, but whether they trust in God and how they regard and use their poverty or wealth to bring glory to God.

All of us rich, poor, and anywhere in between, need to be concerned, first and above all, not with the state of our bank balance, but with the state of our relationship with God.

2. Sometimes it just takes time.

St Luke describes Joseph as a ‘good and righteous man’.  He was ‘waiting expectantly for the Kingdom of God’.  There is no open criticism of him in the Gospels.  The Kingdom of God obviously mattered to him.  He was focused on God and not just on himself.  He had obviously been affected by Jesus and was attracted to him.  It just wasn’t strong enough to get him to come out in the open.  In addition to his fear, what doubts, if any, did he harbour?

Nicodemus ‘came to Jesus by night’ and that description of him has stuck.  It is used as a description of him each time he is mentioned in the Gospel.  He knew that there was something special about Jesus: 

‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ (John 3:2)

But he couldn’t work Jesus out.  He didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about.  ‘How can these things be?’ he replied to what Jesus told him.  His inability to understand provoked from Jesus the question:

‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?’ (John 3:10)

There are those of us who feel just like this.  We are attracted to Jesus.  We do think that he has something important to tell us.  But we are confused and can’t quite get there.  It’s difficult and hard to understand.  No matter how much we try, we seem to remain in the dark.

Jesus said:

‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ (John 12:32)

St Luke tells us that as Jesus was being crucified, darkness covered the land from noon to midday (Luke 23:44).  Today, as Jesus is being lifted up, it may be us who are amongst those who are being drawn out of the darkness to Jesus. 

Jesus said:

‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’ (John 8:12)

Good Friday is not simply about an event in the past that we remember each year, nor is it something we only think of today and then forget as we move on to think of happier things.  The Cross is where we see God’s light shining in the darkness.  Shining in the figure of the one dying there for us and because of us and who invites us to be drawn from the darkness to himself.

St Paul wrote:

For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ (2 Corinthians 4:6)

As we look on the face of Jesus Christ this afternoon, we need God to shine in our hearts to give us too the light of the knowledge of the glory of God.

Sometimes it just takes time as it seems to have done for Nicodemus, but at last at the Cross he seems to have got there.

The Cross changes everything.

3. The Cross challenges us to decide.

Both Joseph and Nicodemus kept their faith in Jesus secret.  Both had much to lose.  I am not thinking here of their money.  They were unlikely to lose that.  But they were members of a powerful body.  They were respected; had influence; and exercised authority.  They stood to lose that power.

It would be so interesting to know what part they played in the trial and examination of Jesus.  We simply do not know.  The suspicion is that, even though we are told Joseph did not agree with their plan, being heavily outnumbered they kept quiet.  Feelings were running high, and the Chief Priest had already made his mind up.  Anyone going against the majority would certainly be unpopular at the very least. 

We shouldn’t underestimate how important being popular can be to us as humans.  We see in popular culture how people crave to be celebrities; how they love getting their photos in the media and having everyone looking up to them and wanting to be like them.  Some celebrities are famous simply for being famous.  The rest of us can be a bit smug about this.  We, of course, are not like that. 

Maybe not.  We do, however, rather like being well-connected or well-thought of by those above us in the social hierarchy or at the places where we work.  Some bosses use this as a tool to manipulate their employees.  And we all do rather like being liked, even if it is only getting likes on social media.  And, at the opposite end to being liked, many of those who find themselves not being liked but receiving hate messages, often end up suicidal, even if those hate messages are only anonymous and online.

But in addition to making them unpopular, there would be another price for Joseph and Nicodemus to pay in loss of power and influence.  Who now would trust these two who had been secret disciples of Jesus all along? 

Power is a powerful drug.  Politicians crave it and will bend the rules and abandon their principles to get it.  Being in authority and having control, together with the trappings of power that go with it, are addictive, and not easily given up.

The Cross shows what happens when you refuse to put your trust in riches; when you reject power, position, and prestige; when you speak the truth and reject the values, priorities, and attitudes of this world.

We may want to believe in Christ and yet hang on as well to our place in this world, but ultimately there must come a time of decision.  The Cross challenges us to choose.  ‘We preach Christ crucified’ wrote St Paul.  We cannot hide forever.  We cannot be secret disciples for long. 

It sometimes takes time, but the choice has to be made.

It took the Cross for Joseph and Nicodemus to make it.  Today, however, we only know the names of two people apart from the Chief Priests who were on the Council that sentenced Jesus.  ‘Whoever serves me, the Father will honour,’ Jesus had said (John 12:26).  Today we honour Joseph and Nicodemus.  Now we need to do as they did and end the secrecy.

Whose side are we on? 

The Cross challenges us to decide.

As we spend time at the Cross today, may we come out of the darkness and follow Christ in the days that lie ahead.


Maundy Thursday

This is the transcription of my sermon for Maundy Thursday on April 9, 2020.

Maundy Thursday


• Exodus 12.1-14
• 1 Corinthians 11.23-26
• John 13.1-17, 31b-35

Today is Maundy Thursday. Lent is now over, and we have come to the celebration of the Paschal Mystery. Over the next few days, we will be thinking of our Lord’s suffering, death, and resurrection. Tonight, we begin as we remember the Last Supper of our Lord with his disciples.

What we call the Last Supper was a meal to mark the Passover. The Passover was, and is, when the Jewish people celebrate their deliverance from slavery in Egypt in the events of the Exodus. Famously, St John tells us that this Last Meal with his disciples began with Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, giving them an example of how they should behave towards one another when he was gone.

Then, during the Meal, he told his disciples that the bread was his body, and the wine, his blood. They were to do this, he said, ‘In remembrance of me.’ The disciples took this commandment so seriously that just 20 years or so later, we know that former pagan followers of Jesus in Greece were gathering to eat the ‘Lord’s Supper’ modelled on this Last Supper of our Lord.

That we should do it is something that Christians agree on. What they understand to be happening when they do it is, however, another thing altogether. The words that Jesus used continue to cause many arguments about the meaning and significance of the Lord’s Supper for believers in the present.

We even use different names for it depending on our Church background. For Roman Catholics, for example, it is the Mass. For others, Holy Communion. A name common among believers is the Eucharist, and that’s the word we use here at Christ Church.

For the first 1500 years of the Church’s history, the Church universally thought there was far much more to what they were doing than simply remembering, although there was that dimension to it. Focusing on Jesus’ words, ‘This is my body’ and, ‘This is my blood’ they believed that something real was happening when they came together to celebrate this Meal.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Church had developed the celebration into something truly mystical. Critics would even say ‘magical’. The bread was believed to become miraculously and actually Christ’s body and the wine, his blood. Indeed, so mystical was what was happening that most believers rarely physically shared in eating the bread or drinking the wine. This was left to the priest to do alone. Most worshippers simply watched the amazing event that was taking place.

The Protestant European reformers of the 16th century rebelled against this, arguing against what they saw as the superstitious practices surrounding the Mass. At the very least, they thought that every believer should receive both the bread and the wine. 

While largely agreeing on what they were against, the Reformers found it impossible to agree on what they were for, and offered their own understanding of what was happening when the Lord’s Supper, or whatever they happened to call it, took place. These various understandings are still with us today. 

Two opposite types of approaches stand out:

First, in many Protestant circles, when Christians meet for the Lord’s Supper nothing is believed to happen as such. We are doing what we do to remember Christ. Christ is present just as he is when we normally meet together. He is not, however, present in a different way, and certainly not in the bread and the wine! The bread and the wine are ‘visual aids’ to help us remember him and what he has done for us. They are valuable as visual aids to remind us of his death, but as that and no more. 

The problem is that in Churches that think like this about the Lord’s Supper, many Christians don’t feel the need to be reminded of Christ’s death. Christ’s death is something very real to them, and not something they are ever likely to forget.

So, given that nothing else is happening, although we should still do it because Christ told us to, it doesn’t really matter how often we do it. What matters far more is something which actually makes a difference for us here and now. That something for many Christians is the preaching and teaching of the Word of God. Churches that think like this consequently place a far greater emphasis on the sermon and learning God’s Word than on anything else.

The second approach to the Lord’s Supper sees things very differently. At the other end of the spectrum, Roman Catholics and those in other churches who think like them, still hold to the belief that something really happens to the bread and wine in the Mass. 

Most Roman Catholics have seen the need for the reform of some of the practices that surrounded the Mass in the past. In particular, Roman Catholics now believe that all believers should share in the bread and wine and not just the priest. Nevertheless, for Roman Catholics, something special is happening during the Mass, so that it offers something important that can’t be obtained elsewhere. 

On this approach, the bread and wine are more than symbols, although they are of course also that. They are above all else, Christ’s real body and blood. Through regular participation in the Mass, we receive Christ’s body and blood to enable us to serve Christ in our lives.

These are very different approaches. At the moment, however, both Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches all over the world are shut. Services are cancelled. For many Protestants who take the first approach to the Lord’s Supper, this is sad, but not the end of the world. They miss being able to meet together, but happily, thanks to modern technology, they can still hear the word of God being preached and taught online. It’s an adjustment, but they can still get what they need.

For those such as Roman Catholics who take the second approach, the present situation is more of a challenge. Ironically, many have gone back to pre-Reformation days when believers simply watched the Mass being celebrated. And again, thanks to the wonder of modern technology, this is something that we can do from the comfort of our own home. It is even possible to watch the Pope himself celebrate the Mass every day! 

However, in the present situation there has emerged two other groups of Christians altogether. The first group is of Christians who have been used to going to Churches where the Eucharist is celebrated regularly and who are used to receiving communion on a Sunday.

They are sad that services have been cancelled, but not receiving communion has not made that much of a difference to them. They miss the worship and seeing their friends, but they don’t feel they are being deprived of something vital and essential to their spiritual life.

To be brutally honest, the cancellation of services due to the coronavirus has shown that for many in our churches, the Eucharist itself was simply not that important after all. 

In the UK, for example, churches cannot even open for private prayer. In the present situation, this may seem reasonable and highly responsible. We desperately need to find the way to contain this virus. But then, supermarkets are still open. Off-licences selling beer, wines, and spirits are classed as ‘essential retailers’. So, in the UK, you can break a lockdown more severe than Hong Kong’s to buy wine, but not to receive the sacrament.

Again, you may feel this is entirely right and justified. But what does it say about how important what we are thinking of this Maundy Thursday is to us? I hope we will talk more about this once the present situation is over. For tonight, I just want to ask you to pause and think how important what Jesus gave us the night before he was crucified is to you.

Why did Jesus think it so important that giving it to us was one of the last things he felt he had to do before his death? And if it was so important to him, how important should it be to us?

This brings me to another group that has emerged from the present crisis.

While there are those, on the one hand, who are happy to listen to sermons and, on the other, those who are happy simply to watch, the people who most have a problem in this situation are those who see the Eucharist not as a mystery to watch and marvel at, nor as a visual aid to help us remember. For us, and I am one of them, the Eucharist is above all spiritual food and food to be of any use must by its very nature be consumed.

And so, while COVID-19 is a terrible crisis threatening our physical health, it is also a terrible crisis threatening our spiritual health, depriving us as it does of the body and blood of Christ.

Our Lord told us:

‘Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.’ (Matthew 10:28).

I wish we were as concerned for our spiritual health as we are for our physical well-being and that we feared God more than we feared the virus, if I may paraphrase the words of our Lord in this way.

We should, of course, care for our bodily health, but we should care even more for our spiritual health.

St Paul wrote:

‘The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.’ (1 Corinthians 10:16-17)

Whatever St Paul meant by these words - and good, committed believers often disagree with each other over their meaning - they sound as if St Paul thought we are doing more than simply remembering; we are participating, sharing in the body and blood of Christ sacrificed for us on the Cross.

The question we have to answer tonight, we who so willingly allowed our services to be cancelled, is this. Why did we regard so lightly and abandon so willingly, something so precious, that was offered so freely, but came at so great a cost?

Our Lord famously said:

‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’ (John 6:53)

Jesus certainly meant more by this than simply receiving communion, but did he mean less? Surely, the bread and the wine of the Eucharist come into it somewhere or else, to ask the question again, why bother going to so much trouble on the night he knew he was to be betrayed?

And so, our Lord goes now to Gethsemane to pray and where he will be betrayed by one who was at the Meal with him. He will be arrested and taken away to be crucified tomorrow. His precious blood is about to be poured out for the ‘forgiveness of sins’: yours and mine.

May we not only remember it, but also participate in it; always value it and never take it for granted, whatever the circumstances may be that we find ourselves in. 


Friday, April 10, 2020

Minutes that Matter: Fridays in April, 2020

This is the transcript of my second talk for RTHK Radio 4 Minutes that Matter on Fridays in April.

Talk Two: Good Friday

This week is Holy Week, the week before Easter.  Yesterday was Maundy Thursday.  On Maundy Thursday in Church we remember the last meal that Jesus had with his disciples.  It is a meal that has been depicted by great artists, most notably by Leonardo Da Vinci.  The Meal itself, however, is notable for a number of reasons apart from being the last one Jesus ate before his death. 

Firstly, Jesus wanted to tell them how they were to behave towards one another once he had gone.  He did this in a dramatic way.  Before the Meal began, he washed each of their feet.  This was a task that no self-respecting person would do and Peter, one of his followers, is understandably embarrassed and protests.  But Jesus insists saying to him: ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’  Jesus was trying to tell them that they were to serve one another.  It was a way of reinforcing teaching he had previously given his followers about not promoting themselves and not seeing themselves as more important than others.  It is teaching, sadly, that has not always played out well amongst his followers since.

Secondly, although this was to be his last Meal with them before his death, he wanted it to be a Meal that they would continue to repeat and eat together.  What they were doing was something of extreme importance to him that went beyond enjoying a final meal together.  He told them that the bread they shared together was his body and the wine they drank was his blood.  After his death his followers made this Meal the central act of their worship and just twenty years or so later we know that pagan converts in Greece were meeting regularly to share in it.

It is, however, one thing doing it and another altogether understanding it.  Christians have come to different understanding of what the Meal’s significance is for them today.  This is not the time to discuss the differences.  What is clear, however, is that Jesus’ first followers saw this Meal that Jesus had given them as something that was both important and significant.  St Paul describes the bread that believers eat as a ‘participation’ in the body of Christ and the cup of wine that they share as a ‘participation’ in his blood.  This, for St Paul, is not just a poetic way of speaking.  He tells them that a failure to appreciate this will result, indeed has already resulted, in some of them getting sick and dying.  The Meal that Jesus gave his followers is not something to be taken lightly.  It is serious.

What Jesus was doing by giving his followers this Meal, was putting his death at the very centre of his followers’ life and worship.  Today is Good Friday.  It is the day that we remember Jesus’ actual death on the Cross.  So why am I talking about what happened yesterday?  It is because it is all too easy to think of Jesus’ death with an eye to Sunday when we will celebrate his resurrection when, as Christians believe, God raised him from the dead.  The temptation is to think that Jesus’ death, while being something we should remember, is now something that is behind us.  We worship a living Lord not a dead one.

Jesus, however, by giving his followers this Meal and making it so central to their identity was seeking to ensure that his death could never be something that could be relegated to the pages of history; something to be remembered once a year and then forgotten.

Jesus followers are to be people of the Cross.  Not simply an empty Cross, but the Cross that has their Lord nailed to it, suffering and dripping blood.  It demands that his followers crucify their own desires and ambitions and renounce pride and the longing for position and power.  To be people of the Cross is to be people who wash each other’s feet.

But this cannot happen until we have experienced the Cross for ourselves.  Jesus went to the Cross knowing that this was the will of God for him and that there was no other way.  The Cross is still the God ordained way that those who want to follow Jesus receive the forgiveness of sins, the promise of new life, and future salvation.  To be baptized and become a follower of Christ is to be baptized into Jesus’ death.

Today reminds us of that and the Meal Jesus gave us makes sure we don’t forget it.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Palm Sunday

This is the transcription of my sermon for Palm Sunday on April 5, 2020.

Palm Sunday

  • Isaiah 50:4-9a
  • Philippians 2:5-11
  • Matthew 27:11-27:54
Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week.  It celebrates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  This was the beginning of a series of events which, over the following few days, were to lead to Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

In our service last week, we read St John’s account of the raising of Lazarus in Bethany near Jerusalem.  St John tells us that 6 days before the Passover, Jesus came back to Bethany where he stayed with his friends Lazarus, Martha, and Mary.  This was to be his home until his death.

While he is there the three friends give a dinner party for him.  Martha, as usual, serves.  Mary, however, does something that is to prove highly controversial and is the trigger for the chain of events leading to Jesus’ crucifixion.

St John tells us:

‘Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.’ (John 12:3)

The cost of this perfume would have been very great.  And not everyone is happy with it being used in this way.  Judas, in particular, questions why it could not have been sold and the money given to the poor.  St John tells us that Judas said this not because he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief and wanted a share of what the perfume was worth for himself (John 12:6).

We need to remember, though, that Judas had been chosen by Jesus himself to be one of the 12, that is, one of his closest associates.  Judas clearly had been committed to Jesus at one time.  Whatever else is going on with Judas, we see in his reaction a growing disillusionment with Jesus.

When, however, Jesus defends Mary and says she has done a good thing that will always be remembered and spoken of, the die is cast and the events leading to the Cross are set in motion.  Judas goes to the Chief Priests and offers to betray him.

We simply do not know what was going through Judas’ mind or what lead him to decide to betray Jesus, but we get in this story of the Dinner Party at Bethany a sense of his disappointment in Jesus.  He is not the only one that Jesus is to disappoint in the next few days.

After Judas has made his fateful decision to betray Jesus, the next day Jesus rides into Jerusalem.  The crowds, who had heard that he was coming, greet him, waving palm branches and proclaiming him King. 

And the King, the Messiah, was what many had been waiting for.  The One who would liberate them from the Roman oppressor and establish God’s Kingdom on earth.  Throughout his ministry, there has been speculation that Jesus was the One who would do this.  He, however, has refused either to confirm or deny it.

Now, though, it seems clear.  The prophet Zechariah had spoken how when the Messiah came, he would enter Jerusalem riding a donkey (Zechariah 9:9).  By entering Jerusalem in this way at Passover when the Jews were celebrating their deliverance from oppression as slaves in Egypt, Jesus couldn’t be clearer as to the meaning of his action.  And the crowds totally get it.

But having raised their expectations to fever-pitch, what does Jesus do?  He absolutely refuses to follow through.  Instead, Jesus goes quietly and passively to his death, like a lamb to the slaughter.  He puts up no resistance.  He doesn’t die fighting for what he believes in.  He allows the Romans not only to humiliate him, but also to humiliate the people who had cheered him as their King.  Pilate mocks them and their so-called King by writing the ‘King of the Jews’ in three languages above his head on the Cross as Jesus is crucified in front of them.  Could ever a Messiah have been more of a disappointment? 

You get some of the sense of the disappointment felt, especially by those who have believed in him, in the words said by the two disciples walking to Emmaus on Easter Sunday:

‘But we had hoped that he was the one to set Israel free.’ (Luke 24:21)

But no, he wasn’t, he let us down.  The Messiah wouldn’t have allowed himself to be crucified.

Jesus was a disappointment.

Jesus was not just a disappointment to the crowds and those who followed him believing him to be the Messiah, but also to his closest friends and associates too.  Peter, after Jesus is arrested, will deny him three times. 

We are often quite hard on Peter for this denial.  We shouldn’t be.  Peter, when he denies Jesus, has just come from the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus had badly let him down.

Peter had been one of the first to leave everything he had to follow Jesus.  And when others abandoned Jesus because his demands were too great, Peter stuck with him.  Then, when Jesus had asked his disciples who they thought he was, Peter had been the one to get it right; to see that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.  Jesus had praised him in the highest of terms, telling Peter that it was God himself who had revealed this to him.

And then, in the Garden of Gethsemane, when they came to arrest Jesus, he, Peter, was willing to die there.  To protect Jesus, he drew his sword to fight, despite being heavily outnumbered.  What did Jesus do?  He told Peter to put his sword away.  Jesus just gave up.  He surrendered.  Jesus denied Peter the chance to save him.

Jesus was a disappointment.

Mary Magdalene was disappointed too.  But her disappointment was different.  Mary was there at the Cross when most of Jesus’ other followers had deserted him and fled.  She did not abandon him.  She was the first to the tomb after he had died.

But there at the tomb, she’s confused and devastated, not because she had wanted something out of him, not because she had expected something of him, but because she loved him.  Her terrible sense of loss can be heard even today in the words she speaks in the Garden thinking she is speaking to the gardener.  Weeping, she says:

‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ (John 20:15)

Even though Jesus is dead, she goes on loving him, but why has he gone?  Why has he been taken from her? 

Mary’s disappointment lies losing Jesus.

So how has Jesus disappointed you?  In what way is Jesus a disappointment to you?

For Jesus continues to disappoint people today.  He refuses to be what we want him to be or to give us what we want him to give.

Many are like the crowds.  They see in Jesus a political figure who they can look to as a role model for their cause.  He has been looked to by both those on the right and those on the left of the political spectrum.  On Palm Sunday, the crowds saw him as one who could bring them freedom.  And so, in our own day, he has been seen as a defender of free market capitalism and as a Marxist revolutionary fighting for freedom from just that. 

In the present day, the crowds, both in and out of the Church, wonder whether he can inspire those who are seeking freedom from social injustice. 

Perhaps Jesus is the role model we need today in our struggle for a more inclusive, equal, and diverse society.  After all, didn’t he welcome everyone regardless of who they were or what they had done?  Didn’t he reach out to the poor and oppressed?  Didn’t he challenge the rich and powerful?  Didn’t he speak out against injustice and exploitation?  If these are his values, then we will follow him for these are our values too. 

But then when we look more closely, he disappoints us too.  For he doesn’t just welcome the poor and oppressed, but also the rich and powerful like the tax-collectors who made their wealth out of exploiting the poor.  His burial and the grave he was buried in were provided by rich, powerful leaders who belonged to the very group of people who had crucified him.

Unlike many of his day, Jesus values and respects women, but then he goes and chooses 12 men to be the leaders and the foundation of his movement after he has gone.  He lets Martha wait on him and Mary wash his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair.

Jesus refuses to fight for any political or social cause.  He won’t submit to any who try to enlist him to their ideology or cause whether of the left, right or centre.  He shocks us by pronouncing judgement on all the cities of this world.

Jesus is a disappointment to us.

Most who are watching or listening to this broadcast, however, aren’t too worried about Jesus’ politics.  Many of us have given up trusting in politicians altogether.  We do not believe that any politician can help us.  No, we became Jesus’ followers for completely different reasons.  Like the first disciples, we became his followers because he seemed to promise so much not for society in general, but for us personally.

Like James and John, who sought to sit at his right hand and left, we thought there was going to be something in it for us.  We liked the idea that Jesus was on our side that he healed the sick, forgave sinners, promised abundant life, and told us that we would never go thirsty and that we would never die if we believed in him.

And then what happened?  He didn’t prevent our income from falling or save us from losing our job.  We didn’t get the exam results we were hoping for.  Our children didn’t get into the school or college we had wanted them to.  We did still get sick, have accidents, get hurt and injured, and lose loved ones.  Problems, difficulties, tragedy, sickness, and bereavement have come to us his followers just as they come to everyone else.  And more than this, we even get hassle and trouble simply because we are his followers.  Not only are we no better off by being his followers, we are even worse off.

Jesus promised us much but has delivered little.

Jesus is a disappointment to us.

A few, however, and it’s just a few, like Mary Magdalene are not disappointed.  They didn’t become his follower because they saw in a Jesus a political leader with an ideology they could believe in.  They didn’t become his follower for what they could get out of him for themselves.  Like Mary, they became his follower because they fell in love with him.

This was what Peter had to come to understand before he could be the leader Jesus wanted him to be.  And so, Jesus before returning to his Father asks him, ‘Peter, do you love me’.  And Jesus asks him not once, not twice, but three times.  Peter is hurt when Jesus asks him if he loves him, but, finally, he understands Jesus at last:

‘Yes, Lord you know that I love you.’ (John 21:15-17)

This won’t mean it will be easy as Jesus goes on to explain to him.

But, like Mary, Peter knows now it’s about a relationship, a commitment to Jesus; about following Jesus, his way.

It will feel at times that Jesus has left us.  That someone has taken him away and we do not where they have laid him.  He will feel absent.  And we too will feel disappointment, like Mary a different type of disappointment to those who don’t love him, but a disappointment, nevertheless.

This week Jesus will be crucified.  And this is God’s answer to our disappointment whoever we are. 

To the disappointed crowds who seek a political leader they can believe in, the Crucified Christ says it was never about power, success or political causes: did I not say, ‘My Kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:36)?

To the disappointed disciples who followed Jesus thinking he would make their life better in the present, the Crucified Christ says I never promised you it would be easy.  I warned you it would be hard; that you would be persecuted; that you would suffer: did I not say, ‘In the world you will have trouble’ (John 16:33)?

To Mary, however, whose disappointment is not in Jesus but in losing him and finding him absent, the Risen Lord speaks simply a word of love.  It needs no further explanation, ‘Mary’.  Did he not say, ‘My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.’ (John 10:27)?

Jesus speaks her name and Mary hears his voice.  Jesus is alive!  That’s all that matters.  Now she must go and tell his followers he is alive.  Then they too must go.  And so must we.  We must tell the truth that he is alive!

But it is Crucified Christ who is alive.  Not the powerful leader, not the political ideologue, not the spiritual magician who grants our every wish, but the One who was nailed to the Cross and who died for us and because of us.

And the Crucified One still does not promise us seats in the Kingdom; he doesn’t offer us power and position; he doesn’t guarantee safety and security.  Instead, he speaks of hardship, suffering, struggle, misunderstanding, and rejection. 

Who will follow him now?

Not many.  Just as Jesus said, if we but listened to him:

‘For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’ (Matthew 7:14)

It is, however, a way today, Palm Sunday, that we can find if we are prepared to follow him, not just as he rides into Jerusalem with the crowds cheering, but follow him, like Mary, all the way to the Cross, and then with her beyond it to the empty tomb. 

And, at the empty tomb, we will find him not just as the Crucified One, but as the Risen Lord who tells us not to hold on to him, but to go out for him; to be those who believe in him and who proclaim his death until he comes.  He warns us that as people were disappointed in him so too they will be disappointed in us; for indeed, as he said, ‘the servant is not above his or her master’ (John 15:20).

But as we go, we go with his promise:

‘And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28:20)

So, Lord:

Ride on, ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die;
bow thy meek head to mortal pain,
then take, O God, thy power, and reign.