Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Death of Jesus (Part One)

The following is the transcript of the first part of a podcast talk I have posted for Easter.  I hope to post the second part in time for Easter Sunday.  

The Death of Jesus (Part One)

At Easter, and especially on Good Friday, we think of the death of our Lord on the Cross. For most believers at Easter, however, this is not their main focus. Their main focus at Easter is the celebration on Easter Sunday of the resurrection of our Lord. But this does raise the question of what our Lord’s death was all about. Ask most ordinary believers and they will struggle to give an answer. They are not alone. A quick glance through scholarly works on the crucifixion will soon show that professional theologians also find it hard to explain. The death of our Lord has been understood in a variety of ways. Indeed, different ways of understanding the death of Jesus have dominated the Church’s thinking at different times in the Church’s history.

In the present time, the understanding of the death of Jesus that is most common in the Church, and which most believers have in mind when thinking of our Lord’s death, is one that combines belief in the love of God and what can best be described as the historical inevitability of Jesus’ death.

There are four basic ideas which are central to this understanding.

1. God saw that we as humans are in a mess for all sorts of reasons. While some of them are our own fault, many of them are not. God, out of pure love, sent his Son to help us get out of the mess we are in, regardless of how we got into it, and to show us how to live so as not to get in a mess in the future.

2. God sent his Son knowing that most people would not listen to him and, worse still, knowing that even when they did listen, they would not like what they heard. God knew that people would turn on his Son and try to silence him. God realized that many, especially the powerful, would find his Son challenging and threatening. But because God loved us so much, he still sent his Son to us.

3. Jesus himself knew that if he did what the Father asked of him there would be those who opposed him and that his death would be inevitable. Jesus could have avoided his death on the Cross, but he chose instead to accept the mission that God had given him. He did this to reveal God to us and God’s love for us. By his teaching and example, Jesus shows us the way to have rich and satisfying lives ourselves and inspires us to work to make it possible for others to have them too.

4. Although he knew that his death was inevitable, Jesus trusted that God would not let him down and that his death would not be the end. Jesus believed that God would raise him from the dead and bring him back into the Father’s presence. The resurrection, then, shows that Jesus was who he said he was and that his teaching was true and should be accepted by us as coming from God himself. The resurrection of Jesus points us to a new way of living.

So, then, although there was a historical inevitability to Jesus’ death, God still sent his Son to us and his Son came willingly out of love for us. God not only sent his Son so we could find forgiveness - after all God could have just gone on forgiving us as he had been doing all along - but so we would know God understands us, accepts us, and forgives us when we need forgiving. What is more, Jesus came to show us by his life and teaching how we can live fulfilling lives and create a society in which others can live fulfilling lives too.

The death of Jesus, while foreseen by God, was accepted by him in order to accomplish God’s goal of revealing himself to us and showing us how to live. The resurrection is both the proof and guarantee that God is on our side and will one day raise us too. We need have no fear of death. We can get on with our lives and building the sort of world God wants, secure in the knowledge that when we die, all will be well.

The wonderful thing about this understanding of the life and death of Jesus is that it can accommodate the various opposing beliefs that Christians have and disagree over.

So, for example, if you want to believe in the Virgin Birth, you can, but you don’t have to; nothing is affected by it. If you want to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus you can, but if you prefer to think of it in more spiritual terms, that’s fine too. If you want to believe in a literal second coming of Jesus, you can; however, if you prefer to see it as more of a metaphor that’s also perfectly OK.

What we believe or do not believe about these various issues, about which Christians have different opinions, do not affect the basic structure of this understanding of what God has revealed to us and done for us and in Christ.

It is an understanding of the life and death of Jesus that makes sense and enables us to explain the death of Jesus in an historically credible way. While Jesus’ death, on this way of understanding it, was inevitable given Jesus’ life, nevertheless in Jesus’ acceptance of his death, he demonstrates the love of God for us.

The answer to the question of whether there was anything else going on in the death of Jesus is quite simply: what more do we need? If pressed about the nature of evil and the existence of the Devil, most of those who advocate this understanding of the death of Jesus will respond that the Devil is not an actual being, but the personification of all that is bad in the world. The figure of the Devil, they say, is a way of representing evil. Jesus, however, by not giving into evil and choosing to die rather than to compromise the truth, has shown that evil can be overcome. And even if we insist on believing that the Devil is real, the message is still the same: it is God who has the last word, not evil or the devil.

The great appeal of this understanding of Jesus’ death is that we can understand it. It not only makes sense of what happened, but gives us a framework for understanding the story of Jesus and for how we should live as followers of him now.

So where does ‘sin’ fit into all this? After all, traditionally the Church has believed that Christ ‘died for our sins’ (1 Corinthians 15:3). Sin, on this understanding of the death of Jesus, is overcome by the love and goodness of God in Jesus. Jesus teaches us how to avoid sin in our own lives and shows us how to free others from it in theirs.

I call this way of understanding the death of Jesus, the LEGO model of the atonement. (Atonement is the word given by theologians to how we understand the death of Jesus.) So, taking the word LEGO, L-E-G-O:

(L) A Loving God, (E) Enters our existence as one of us, (G) Gives us freedom and forgiveness, and (O) Offers a new way of living. Jesus’ death on the Cross shows just how much God loves us.

It is a model that explains and accounts for much that we read in the New Testament. It answers many of the questions that people have about the life and death of Jesus. Take the following three questions for example:

1. Was there no other way? Answer: There was certainly no better way than for God himself to become one of us and to reveal himself to us in the person of his Son.

2. But did Jesus have to die? Answer (again, on this way of understanding Jesus’ death): Jesus had to die, not because his death was desirable, but, again, because it was inevitable given what he taught and how he lived. Jesus’ message was such that there would be people who would want to get rid of him as they have many others who have stood for what is good, right, and true. Take Gandhi, for example.

3. Couldn’t God just have forgiven us? Answer: Yes, he could and, indeed, God has been doing so for all our history. However, God wanted to do more than forgive us; he wanted to demonstrate how much he loves us and to show us the way to live that enables us to be the people he made us to be and motivate us to create the sort of society where all his children can flourish.

The attractiveness of the LEGO model of the atonement is how it answers, explains, and accounts for so much in the story of Jesus and gives a rational and plausible reason for his death.

It is like someone making a model with actual Lego. The bricks are all there; it is up the person making the model to put them together. The LEGO model of the atonement takes various parts of the Gospel story and puts them together to create a model for understanding both the life and death of Jesus.

So, what’s the problem? It seems a perfectly good way to understand the death of Jesus. The problem with it, to change the metaphor, is what I call the IKEA problem.

Much of the furniture that you buy at IKEA is self-assembly. It’s often not easy making sense of the instructions, and frequently, even when you think you have understood them and have put it all together, you still discover that you have bits left over.

These left-over bits fall into one of three categories:

1. Bits that shouldn’t have been there in the first place, and so can be safely ignored.

2. Bits which are not really needed, and so you don’t have to worry about them.

3. Bits which are essential, and so if you try to use what you have assembled without them, what you have assembled will all fall apart.

The LEGO model of the atonement quite deliberately doesn’t use all the bricks in the set. There are statements in the New Testament that don’t easily fit into the model. So, using our IKEA analogy, which category do they fall into? Are they bits of the New Testament that can be ignored, perhaps because they are incidental to the story? Are they bits that aren’t needed because they were only relevant to the particular time and culture in which they were written? Or are they essential so that our model, nice though it is, is the wrong one?

The majority in the Church, I would suggest, have decided that the LEGO model of the atonement is very much the right one. If you listen to the various Christian leaders talking about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus this Easter, you will soon see that the LEGO model of the atonement is behind much of what they say and preach. The question, then, is: are they right? You will have probably gathered by now that I don’t think they are. In fact, I not only think they are wrong, but dangerously wrong.

I realize that this leaves me open to the accusation of arrogance. Who do I think I am to disagree with people who cleverer and more important than I am? I would, to begin with, say in my defence that while I may be in a minority at the present time, I am not in a minority historically. The LEGO model of the atonement, while it has been around for some time, has never been the dominant model in the past in the way it is in the present. But, in any case, God’s truth cannot be decided by majority vote. It was the majority vote that got Jesus crucified.

It is, then, perhaps worth asking why the LEGO model of the atonement is so appealing at the present time. The answer is that it fits with other ideas that have now taken centre stage in the Church.

Firstly, I have talked much in previous sermons about the ‘ideology of self’. This is the belief, central to our age that life should be about self-fulfilment and self-realization; that our goal in life should be to believe in ourselves and to realize our potential. The LEGO model of the atonement tells us that this is what God wants for us too. Why else would he have sent Jesus? By his life and death, Jesus shows us that God is on our side and wants to help us to be the person we want to be. God wants to help us achieve our dreams and Jesus shows us how to.

Secondly, the ‘narrative of oppression’, which I spoke about in the sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent this year, describes what prevents people from living fulfilled lives. It is not because there is any deficiency in them that they need saving from, but because of unjust structures and systemic evil in society, which they need liberating from. These are structures such as patriarchy, which oppresses women, and evils such as racism, which privileges those who are white. The LEGO model of the atonement shows us how Jesus in his life sought to free people from what oppressed them and how it was precisely because he opposed such structures and evil that Jesus was killed by those who had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

The LEGO model for understanding the death of Jesus is demanded by both the Ideology of Self and the Narrative of Oppression. Indeed, it is the only way of understanding the death of Jesus that fits. Together these three are three legs to the stool that is contemporary Christianity. It is why, as I explained in my ‘Thought for the Week’ on March 7, that I no longer call myself a Christian. These three ideas are now so central to how many understand Christianity that to call oneself a Christian is to identify with a philosophy that I believe to be both demonic and deceptive.

But to return to the LEGO model of the atonement itself. Just because it is associated with these other ideas doesn’t in and of itself make it wrong. It may sound a note of caution about accepting it, but we still need to explain why it is wrong.

In trying to understand what is wrong with the LEGO model of the atonement, we need to see which parts get left out. Are these parts, using our IKEA analogy, parts which can safely be left out or are they parts that are essential? What is there in the New Testament about the death of Jesus that the LEGO model of the atonement leaves out and does not include? How important is what is left out? And does it matter?

In the next part, I want to identify 4 areas that the LEGO model of the atonement does its best to ignore. Each area needs at least a sermon on their own, but, at the least, I hope I can show why I think that this common understanding of the death of Jesus both fails and misleads, so much so, that it is not only inadequate but false.

I also hope at the same time to suggest a way of understanding the death of Jesus that is truer to how Jesus himself understood his death and to what the New Testament teaches us about it.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Palm Sunday

Here is the transcript of my sermon for this week, Palm Sunday.

Palm Sunday

Reading: John 12:12-16

In St John’s Gospel, Palm Sunday brings Jesus’ public ministry to a conclusion. Somewhat confusingly, we read last week what happened immediately after Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem. Last week, we saw how ‘some Greeks’ approach Philip, one of Jesus’ disciples, wanting to see Jesus. When he is told, Jesus sees this request as signifying that ‘his hour’ and the time for him to be ‘lifted up’ has arrived. We now go back to when he actually rode into the city.

In his account of the event, St John describes how, as Jesus rides into Jerusalem, a crowd go to meet him. They greet him as their King, waving palm branches, symbols of Jewish nationalism. There is clearly a feeling of great excitement. The Pharisees, in some despair, say to one another:

‘You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!’ (John 12:19)

It is a triumphant moment. Jesus is at the peak of his popularity. St John tells us that even among the authorities there are those who believe in Jesus (John 12:42). Having described all this, St John’s conclusion to Jesus’ public ministry comes as something of a shock. St John writes quite simply:

‘Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him.’ (John 12:37)

This is something of a puzzle. At first sight, it doesn’t seem to fit with what St John has just described and told us. One moment St John is describing how everyone turns out to greet Jesus as the King of Israel and that everyone has gone after him; now, having described Jesus as such a success, St John concludes from it that no-one believes in Jesus. What is going on?

At the risk of repeating what I have been saying in the past few weeks, we need to go back to the beginning. Three years or so earlier, a group of people who were disciples of John the Baptist had, with John’s encouragement, left John to follow Jesus. They believed Jesus to be the One whose coming John had been preparing people for by baptizing them in the River Jordan. It was because these disciples were eager for the Messiah and the Kingdom of God to come that they had first joined John the Baptist and then left him to join Jesus.

These first followers of Jesus were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah and Jesus confirmed them in this belief. Jesus, during his time with them, revealed his glory to them by the signs that he performed. The first of these signs was at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, the village that one of them, Nathaniel, came from. Over the next three years, they were to witness Jesus performing many more amazing signs and teaching the people about the Kingdom of God. All of which reinforced their conviction that he was the One whose coming they were looking for.

While many other people were also convinced, the chief priests and Pharisees were not. There were many arguments between Jesus and those in authority, and, on more than one occasion, they want to get rid of Jesus. But why did they want him killed?

I don’t think we pay enough attention to this question. The common picture of Jesus makes it hard to understand why anyone would want to get rid of him. We have been told so often that the Pharisees are the bad guys in the story that we have just come to accept it. However, is it likely that they were so bad that they would conspire to kill someone whose only offence, in this picture of him, was to go round blessing children and telling people to love one another?

This image of Jesus or some variant of it is one that many people have of Jesus. It simply isn’t historically credible. The popular view of Jesus can’t be right because it doesn’t explain why anyone, let alone deeply religious people, would want to kill him and why they would seek the support of the Romans, the very people they hated the most, to do so.

The Greeks at the festival say to Philip, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’ (John 12:21). We need to see Jesus. Jesus, that is, and not the person he is commonly made out to be, even in our Churches. It is only when we see Jesus as someone that good people would be prepared to kill that we have truly seen Jesus. The real Jesus, that is, and not the Jesus of popular imagination.

The first puzzle is why St John says that people did not believe in Jesus when they were all waving palm branches and cheering him. The second puzzle is why people and the leaders of the people, in particular, wanted to kill him.

It is perhaps worth examining why they said they wanted to kill Jesus. Leaving aside for a moment their hidden motives, imagine if there had been the equivalent of the BBC at the time and a reporter had interviewed Caiaphas, the High Priest, or his father-in-law, Annas, who had been High Priest before him. Imagine our reporter asking them why they had ordered Jesus’ arrest and lobbied Pilate for his crucifixion. How would they have answered?

We have a very good idea how Caiaphas would have answered. Immediately before Jesus entered Jerusalem, on what was to become known as Palm Sunday, St John describes how the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem are in a state of some panic:

‘So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”’ (John 11:47-48)

Caiaphas says to them:

‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ (John 11:49-50)

Caiaphas is being a political realist here. Politically, it made more sense for them to have one man killed than to risk what the Romans would do if there was even the suggestion of organized rebellion.

Annas and Caiaphas, in their answer to our imaginary reporter, would have pointed to the real threat Jesus seemed to pose to the nations independence and security. People genuinely thought that Jesus was the Messiah. At a previous Passover, many had wanted Jesus to lead a rebellion against Roman rule. Jesus had refused to go along with it (John 6:15). But there was no knowing whether that was just because he was waiting his moment. After all, Jesus kept talking about when ‘his hour’ would come.

The governing authorities, like Caiaphas, were realists. They knew how the Romans would react to any suggestion of rebellion. It would be ruthlessly and mercilessly crushed. What is more the Jewish authorities were given quite a lot of independence by Rome. They were entrusted by Rome to govern responsibly and to keep order. Any rebellion would be seen as their fault. They stood to lose what freedom they had and their own power and influence as a result.

Caiaphas, Annas, and their fellow leaders preferred, then, to keep what they had, rather than risk it all on some unknown figure from an obscure village in Galilee. Caiaphas, as the High Priest, was right to think like this. 40 years later, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were to support rebellion against Rome and lost everything as a consequence including the Temple, which the Romans set fire to and destroyed.

While we may now know that this was not what Jesus planned and that Jesus was not a political threat in the way that Caiaphas and the other Jewish leaders feared, the Jewish leaders themselves could not have possibly known this. Indeed, even Jesus’ closest followers thought that rebellion was precisely what Jesus was planning. We can’t really blame, the Jewish leaders for thinking the same. Furthermore, Jesus himself had done nothing to make them think otherwise. By entering Jerusalem so publicly and choosing to do so in the way the prophet Zechariah said the Messiah would enter it by riding a donkey (Zechariah 9:9), it must have seemed to all who witnessed it that a Messianic uprising was exactly what Jesus had in mind.

Politically, the Jewish authorities must have felt they had no choice if they wanted to preserve some Jewish independence and avoid massive bloodshed. Again, the Jewish War 40 years later showed how the Romans would punish rebellion. Jerusalem in AD 70 would be soaked in the blood of its inhabitants. Far better, as Caiaphas said, that one man should die even if it meant collaborating with the Romans to make it happen (John 11:50). From the Jewish leaders’ point of view, Jesus had only himself to blame.

This political reason for wanting Jesus killed was genuine, and would of itself probably have been enough to persuade the Jewish leaders to act. The Gospels, however, all suggest that there was more to it than this. In addition to the political reasons for their fear and hatred of Jesus, there was a real personal dislike of Jesus. Some of this was just sheer arrogance on their part. Jesus was not one of them. He wasn’t from one of the well-connected families. He wasn’t a priest or even from Jerusalem. He was, in their terms, an uneducated teacher from a remote part of the country. Who did he think he was? When Nicodemus, the Pharisee and member of the Governing Council who came to Jesus by night, seeks to get a fair hearing for Jesus, their reply to Nicodemus is completely dismissive:

‘Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.’ (John 7:52)

Secondly, worst still, apart from political reality and their personal dislike of him, Jesus was popular. This was not just because he was believed to offer a way to political and religious freedom, but because he was genuinely a charismatic figure. He was believed to be able to do amazing things and his teaching wowed his audiences. St Matthew tells us that Pilate knew it was out of jealously that they had handed Jesus over (Matthew 27:18). It was not simply personal jealousy; there was much more to it than just personal rivalry and animosity, but personal jealousy was a part of it.

The reality is that people in power don’t just want power, they want to be popular and for people to admire and look up to them. As humans, we crave popularity. That’s Facebook’s not so secret, secret. We like people to like us. Jesus’ popularity was personally upsetting for those who were in power, who were not nearly so popular. In addition, Jesus’ personal popularity made him even more politically dangerous as well. People were willing to follow him. What the authorities saw as Jesus’ political ambitions and his obvious personal popularity were to prove a fatal combination.

Thirdly, apart from the political and personal reasons that led the Jewish leaders to want to get rid of Jesus, we need to see that Jesus could himself be a provocative person. Jesus didn’t go out of his way to make people like him. He seemed to take delight in doing things that he knew would upset people, particularly people in power. Jesus’ attitude to the sabbath is a case in point. He not only healed people on the sabbath, he appeared deliberately to choose the sabbath to do so knowing it would upset people. The synagogue leader has a point. St Luke writes:

‘But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”’ (Luke 13:14)

The people Jesus healed had been ill or disabled for a long time, what difference would one more day make?

To make matters worse, the comments Jesus makes about his opponents are often deeply and personally insulting. Jesus says to the Pharisees, for example:

‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.’ (Matthew 23:27-28)

These were certainly not the sort of comments to win friends and influence people!

Jesus’ behaviour itself also was at times shocking even scandalous. He kept strange company and did things that he must have known would be offensive. He gained the reputation, in his own words, of being ‘a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’ (Luke 7:34). Letting a known prostitute wash and kiss your feet in public, for example, isn’t exactly going out of your way to avoid controversy (Luke 7:36-37). If we heard of a Church leader today allowing it, we would certainly ask questions.

It was, of course, the provocative nature of what Jesus said and did that only served to increase his popularity with and appeal to the masses. This, in turn, only added to the problem he posed as far as those in authority were concerned.

All this helps to explain why the Jewish leaders decided to collaborate with the pagan ruler to have Jesus killed. A combination of political expediency, personal animosity, and direct provocation by Jesus himself led them to act decisively at a time of the year, when because of the Passover, tensions were already high and when it wouldn’t have taken much for a charismatic and popular figure to start an uprising against a foreign power occupying the Holyland. Again, as we have seen, the chief priests and Pharisees were sure that this was where it was all heading and Jesus himself was doing nothing to discourage such thoughts.

While, however, we may be able to offer a plausible explanation of why the religious leaders wanted to get rid of Jesus, it doesn’t explain our first puzzle of why at the moment Jesus is at his most popular and people are hailing him as the Messiah, St John concludes that ‘they did not believe in him’.

St John tells us that he wrote his Gospel so that we ‘may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing’ we ‘may have life in his name’ (John 20:31). If anyone believed Jesus was the Messiah, it was the crowds who hailed as their King on Palm Sunday, so how can St John write that they didn’t believe in Jesus?

Interestingly, everyone at the time seems to be agreed on who Jesus thinks he is. The disciples, the crowd, and the Jewish leaders. They are not completely wrong. Jesus is the Christ. He is the Messiah, the Son of God, the King of Israel. The problem is that they assume that this must mean him behaving as they think the Messiah would behave. They cannot see beyond their own prejudice and understanding. The disciples and the crowds want him as the Messiah to be their kind of Messiah and the Jewish leaders assume that this is the sort of Messiah Jesus must want to be.

And this leads us to the most important message in all this for us today. Unless we believe in Jesus on his own terms, we do not believe in Jesus. Turning out to cheer Jesus does not make someone a believer. Very often the person we are cheering is not Jesus, but our own image of him. Putting this in today’s terms, going to Church and joining in the worship is not enough. We need to make sure that the person we are worshipping in our church services and in our lives is Jesus himself not Jesus as we want him to be.

Palm Sunday challenges us to ask whether we are following our own Messiah or Jesus. And, of course, that immediately raises the question of how we can know? Last week, we saw what Jesus said to the crowds immediately after entering Jerusalem. It is what he said then that helps us to get our ideas about Jesus sorted out. Jesus said:

‘Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.’ (John 12:25-26)

A good question to ask if we want to know whether we are believing in Jesus or in our own image of Jesus is this: what do we want of Jesus? What do we expect from following him? Someone to make our life easier? Someone we can turn to when we come across problems and difficulties in life? Someone who can lead us in the fight against injustice in this world? Where many of our pictures of Jesus go wrong is that they focus on what Jesus can do for us in this world. Jesus himself specifically and repeatedly told those wanting to be his disciples that was not what being his follower was all about. Following Jesus, as we are going to see in the next few days, is about following someone who became ‘obedient unto death even death on a Cross’ and who now asks us to carry our Cross too, if we want to be his follower. The more we are focused on what Jesus can do for us to make our life easier in this world, the less likely it is we are focusing on Jesus.

It was because they were following their own image of Jesus that the disciples were shattered when it turned out that he was not who they thought he was. We have allowed ourselves to believe that the disciples were weak people, who abandoned Jesus at the end because they were cowards. This won’t do. The disciples had known for some time that the authorities were out to get Jesus, and there had already been several attempts on his life. Peter drew his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane when they came to arrest Jesus. He had told Jesus that night that he was prepared to die for him and now he would.

Peter denied Jesus, not because Peter was a coward, but because Jesus was not the Messiah Peter thought he was. So too us when following Jesus is not what we expected it to be, when all does not go as we thought it would, when being a believer is tough and hard and makes us unpopular, when Jesus doesn’t come to our aid and give us everything we want. Palm Sunday challenges us to look at who it is we are cheering in our worship: is it Jesus himself or, like the crowds, the Jesus we want?

A question I ask myself is this: if I had met Jesus during his earthly ministry would I have liked him? The answer is not quite so obvious as it might seem. I hope I would have. I hope I would have joined with the tax collectors and prostitutes in seeing Jesus for who he was.

My fear is that I might instead have sided with the Jewish leaders. Jesus was challenging and at times offensive – ask the Pharisees what that felt like (Matthew 23:1-39). He didn’t give easy answers – ask the rich young man who went away sorrowful what that felt like (Matthew 19:22). He demanded an unquestioning obedience – ask the man who wanted to bury his father before following Jesus what that felt like (Matthew 8:21). Jesus said that only the few find the way to life (Matthew 7:14), listening to Jesus you can see why.

On Maundy Thursday, it is traditional for priests to gather to renew their ordination vows. The priests in Jerusalem rejected Jesus. If Jesus was here now, would we let him join us on Maundy Thursday? Or even more worrying, would he even want to?

Jesus was demanding and disturbing. He still is. So, we might ask: why believe in him? This was the question many of his disciples asked themselves when Jesus told them that believing in him meant completely identifying with him and depending on him (John 6:53-59). They answered by abandoning him. Jesus asked those who remained:

‘Do you also wish to go away?’ (John 6:67)

Peter answered for them:

‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ (John 6:68)

Jesus is the One who has the words of eternal life, but the Jesus who has the words of eternal life is the Jesus that the Gospel writers show us. ‘We wish to see Jesus’, the Greeks said to Philip. If we wish to see Jesus, we will see someone nailed to a Cross, dying because of our sin and for our sin: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29).

Jesus said:

‘Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.’ (John 12:26)

So now, knowing who he is and where following him will lead us, will we still believe in him?


Thursday, March 25, 2021

The Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary

This is the transcript of my sermon for today, the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary

Reading: Luke 1:26-38

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is now nine months to Christmas! There are several Marian feasts in the Church’s year. These are feasts when we think of our Lady. There is much controversy surrounding each of them. With some of the feasts, the controversy is very much on party lines: Roman Catholic divides against Protestant and Protestant against Roman Catholic. With today’s feast, however, the controversy isn’t simply between Roman Catholic and Protestant, but within Protestantism itself. Many in the Protestant wing of the Church today reject the very idea that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus.

Mary has, in other words, become a figure in the Church that people divide over. This division is reflected in the various commentaries on our Gospel reading for today. A commentary, especially by a scholar, is meant primarily to examine and explain the text. It is interesting, however, reading the commentaries, to see how the different writers treat St Luke’s account of the Annunciation. Leaving aside, in other words, all the later developments, arguments, and divisions in the Church over Mary, what can we learn about Mary and the Annunciation from the text itself?

Interestingly, the commentaries reflect the same divisions that exist between believers. They basically fall in two camps.

First, there is the approach of those who, in explaining the text, go out of their way to play down Mary’s role. They stress that the emphasis when the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary is not on Mary herself, but on the child whom she will conceive and give birth to. They point to the words of the Angel Gabriel who said:

‘He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ (Luke 1:32-33)

If the Angel Gabriel, when he spoke to Mary, focused on the child to be born, those taking this approach argue, then so should we. As they are quick to point out: we follow Jesus, not Jesus and Mary.

Secondly, completely opposite to this, is the approach of those who see Mary’s role, not only as important, but as absolutely pivotal. Roman Catholic scholars particularly, but not exclusively, point to what is called Mary’s ‘fiat’. This is the Latin word for what in English is ‘let it be done unto me’. It is stressed that Mary’s is entirely a voluntary act. Mary could have refused or expressed doubt in the way that Zechariah did when the same Angel told him his wife, Elizabeth, would conceive in old age despite being infertile (Luke 1:18). But no, Mary responded willingly and accepted the role that was given to her.

These two approaches to the text itself, of course, reflect the two most common approaches amongst believers to our Lady herself, and I confess to getting more than a little irritated by both.

Firstly, those who take the second approach often talk as if the salvation of the world was entirely dependent on whether Mary said ‘Yes’ to the Angel Gabriel or not. All God’s purposes and plans, everything he had been doing before this from creation and the fall of Adam and Eve, seems to depend on what Mary would say at this one point in time. Of course, if you believe this, it becomes hard not to believe that there was something very special and holy about Mary herself, and once you believe that then much else that many believe about Mary follows from it.

If all God’s plans really are dependent on what Mary says in this single moment, then it is unlikely, to say the least, that God would not have done all that he could to prepare Mary beforehand for this supremely important moment. And given how central her ‘fiat’ is on this approach to God’s plan, then surely God would want to continue to use her afterwards?

In response to this approach, I would look to the words of John the Baptist:

‘for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.’ (Luke 3:8)

To put it in purely human terms, if Mary had not consented, then doubtless God could have found someone who would. Presumably, God did indeed know what he was doing in choosing Mary, but for us to make God’s plans dependent on any human, man or woman, agreeing to them is, quite frankly, ridiculous.

Of course, in our focus on Mary’s ‘Yes’ to God there is something more going on here. Consent, and a woman’s consent especially, has become a big issue with the #metoo movement, and rightly so. We are naturally sensitive to any suggestion that Mary, as a woman, was coerced and forced into a role. It is right that we take the issue of consent seriously. But the concern of many here is not simply about consent, but about credit.

Yes, Mary willingly accepts the role that God has for her, but we want to go further than that and give her credit for doing so. And behind this desire to give Mary credit, there lies our desire to give credit to ourselves when we do something for God. If Mary, who does this amazing thing gets no credit for it, then what hope is there for us? But if Mary gets credit for her service, then maybe, we hope, we will get credit for ours as well. It’s credit for me too that we seek.

We tell ourselves: ‘I have consented to believe in God and follow Christ. I too have consented to serve him. I deserve recognition for the good I have done.’ We reassure ourselves that God will take our goodness and service of him into account and reward us for it.

All I can say is that if we are planning to depend on our goodness when we meet God, then God help us. And before Protestants get all excited and say this is what they have been saying all along and point to how since the reformation they have argued that we are justified by faith, not works, I would just say that, for many Protestants, faith itself sounds remarkably like a work. Many are proud of the fact that they have faith, that they have believed the Gospel, and that they have put their trust in Christ. They thank God that they are ‘not like other men’ who have not. We may not seek credit for what we do, but, all too often, we do seek credit for what we believe. It is as if God should be grateful to us for believing in him and serving him. Jesus specifically warns his followers against this sort of attitude:

‘So you too, when you have done everything you were commanded to do, should say, “We are slaves undeserving of special praise; we have only done what we were supposed to do.”’ (Luke 17:10)

Mary herself, however, rejects this desire for credit and claims no credit for herself. In the first words of the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, words which are printed on our altar frontal, Mary says:

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.’ (Luke 1:46-48)

Mary’s response is a model of consent. God is to be praised for giving us the privilege of being able to serve him, not us for serving him. God, in his mercy, doesn’t treat either Mary or us as robots with no will of our own. Although God has, as Jesus tells us, every right to demand our obedience, he instead invites our consent and response to his call, but more than that he makes it possible for us to consent and respond to him in the first place. Jesus said:

‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.’ (John 6:44)

Knowing that there are those who do not believe in him, Jesus emphasizes what he has said:

‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.’ (John 6:65)

Mary is despised by some for being not only a model of consent, but also for being what they see as a model of passivity. We prefer our role models to be active, independent, spirited, and even aggressive. We hold in high regard people who know what they want and go all out to get it. But that’s our problem, and that’s what originally caused our problem. It is our determined disobedience and rebellion that made it necessary for God to send his Son to die for us.

The same passivity that Mary showed in accepting God’s will, and in her willing obedience to it, was shown by her Son. As St Paul tells us:

‘And being found in human form, he [Jesus] humbled himself by becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross.’ (Philippians 2:7-8)

So, let this be an end to all thought of giving credit to ourselves, let us instead be like Mary who, in accepting God’s will, got on with doing it, not only giving birth to Jesus, but standing with him as he died on the Cross. Like him, she too was obedient unto death.

Secondly, those who take the first approach go out of their way to play down Mary’s role. It is as if all God wanted of Mary was her womb. Not only do they give no credit to Mary, they barely mention her and seek to write her out of the story as soon as they can. If, however, God was willing to honour Mary, so should we. Mary was not special in and of herself. She was simply a young girl living in an obscure village. But although not special, just as we are not special, she became special because of God’s grace and choice of her.

When Mary visits Elizabeth, Elizabeth is overwhelmed. St Luke tells us:

‘And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?’’ (Luke 1:43)

Before this Mary was her relative. Mary was just at child-bearing age while Elizabeth herself was way beyond it. Mary, then, would be expected to defer to and show respect to Elizabeth as the older woman, but, because of God’s choice of Mary to be the Mother of his Son, the roles have been reversed. Now as the ‘theotokos’, the Mother of God, Mary is not only special, but worthy of honour.

Mary, again in the Magnificat, says, ‘Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed …’ (Luke 1:48). We do call her blessed. And in honouring the Blessed Virgin Mary, we honour the God who chose her. But honouring the Blessed Virgin Mary shouldn’t stop there. We honour her that she believed when the priest doubted. Elizabeth, as the wife of the priest who doubted, says:

‘And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ (Luke 1:45)

It is ironic that it is often those who refuse to give honour to the Blessed Virgin Mary who are the very ones who give great honour to St Paul. St Paul should indeed be honoured and respected. We should, as believers, seek to follow his example as he encourages us to (1 Corinthians 4:16). But surely, then, we should honour the Mother of our Lord and seek to follow her example of trust and obedience.

We honour the Blessed Virgin Mary for her faithfulness and service: for the shame and disgrace she suffered as a result, so that initially the man she was betrothed to wanted to get rid of her. We honour her for her commitment in bearing Jesus, raising him, following him, standing by him, and believing in him becoming, as Jesus ordained from the Cross, the mother of those believe in him (John 19:27).

The Blessed Virgin’s Mary’s fiat, her response of faith, should be ours too: ‘let it be unto me according your word’. Today, as we celebrate the Annunciation, we think ahead, not to the event that we will remember in nine months at Christmas, but to the one we will remember in nine days at Easter, when, as she watched her Son die, ‘a sword pierced her own soul too’ (Luke 1:35).

As, then, the Blessed Virgin Mary accepted God’s Son into her life, may we accept him into ours, and, by honouring her, honour her Son, our Lord.

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee:
blessed art thou among women
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.


Saturday, March 20, 2021

The Fifth Sunday of Lent

Here is the transcript of my sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent.

The Fifth Sunday of Lent

Reading: John 12:20-33

Our Gospel reading begins this week with some people, whom St John describes as ‘Greeks’, asking to see Jesus. We are in the last Passover of Jesus’ life during which he will be arrested and crucified. Immediately before this, Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, an event we will celebrate next week on Palm Sunday. For us, Palm Sunday is something of a ‘fun day’ for all the family. I am all for fun, but it does mean that we miss what was actually going on and the significance of the events that were taking place.

As St John observes, Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem was in fulfilment of what was written in the Scriptures. The prophecy comes from the prophet Zechariah (Zechariah 9:9). St John writes:

‘… as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”’ (John 12:15)

The crowds who gather to see the prophet from Nazareth as he enters Jerusalem go wild with excitement and make how they are feeling plain. St John writes:

‘So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!”’ (John 12:13)

The crowd’s choice of palms is significant. The palm was a symbol of Israel. In itself, it spoke simply of national pride, but, as a symbol of national pride, it was to be adopted as an image on the coins minted by the Jews during the Jewish war of AD 66 to 70 and the Jewish revolt of AD 132.

With Jesus choosing to enter Jerusalem as the prophet said the Messiah would enter it, the crowds waving a symbol of Jewish nationalism and hailing him as their King, it’s quite clear what everyone expected to happen next, and it wasn’t for Jesus to be crucified.

This was why Jesus’ disciples had become his disciples and what they were following him for. The disciples believed passionately that Jesus was the Messiah, the One who would be the King of Israel. They even discussed what positions they would hold in his Kingdom when it came (Mark 9:46; Luke 10:35-45). The crowds had tried to make Jesus King during the time of a previous Passover when Jesus had again provocatively done something else that it was believed the Messiah would do when he came.

Jesus had provided bread in the wilderness for 5,000 people as it was believed Moses had done when the Israelites were in the wilderness. This event is recorded in all four Gospels. Again, Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 wasn’t just about a nice family picnic after a busy day, it was an event full of Messianic symbolism. The symbolism was not lost on the crowds who were present for it. St John tells us that Jesus had to escape from the crowds to prevent rebellion breaking out there and then (John 6:15).

We know that it was not long after this that many of Jesus’ disciples stopped following him. Those such as Peter, John, James, Andrew, and Philip who continued following Jesus hadn’t stopped thinking of Jesus as the Messiah who would lead a rebellion. They probably just thought that Jesus had felt that the timing hadn’t been quite right at that particular moment.

We can imagine, then, how the Jewish authorities must have felt about all this. St John tells us that, not long before Jesus entered Jerusalem, the Chief priests and Pharisees had got the governing Council together. Their worry was clear. They say:

‘If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ (John 11:48)

The Jewish ruling authorities in Jerusalem were given quite a lot of power and autonomy by Rome as long as they kept good order. If there was even the hint of rebellion, the Romans would intervene to take control and that would be end of their power and influence. The Pharisees feel the situation is slipping away from them. They say to one another:

‘You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!’ (John 12:19)

St John tells us that, even among the authorities themselves, there were those who believed in Jesus, albeit secretly for fear of what might happen to them if they were seen openly to be supporting Jesus. St John has no sympathy for this secretiveness (John 12:43).

Such, then, is Jesus’ popularity that ‘some Greeks’ who have come to the Festival to ‘worship’ ask to meet Jesus. We are not told much about these Greeks. We do know that people came from all over the Empire for the major Feasts and that the population of Jerusalem increased greatly during them. St Luke, in the book of Acts, describes how there were people in Jerusalem ‘from every nation under heaven’ on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:5).

The question, then, is whether these Greeks were Jews or Gentiles. Given the way St John introduces them, it is likely that they were Gentiles, but that they belonged to that group of Gentiles who St Luke describes as ‘God-fearers’. Gentiles, in general, are often referred to in the New Testament as ‘Greeks’. These particular Greeks, then, were Gentiles who were attracted to Judaism, but who had not yet fully converted. It was from this group that many of the first believers were drawn. By wanting to see Jesus, these Greeks are a sign of things to come.

The Greeks speak first to Philip who then speaks to Andrew. St John tells us that Philip was from Bethsaida. St John is repeating what he has already told us in chapter one. In his first mention of Philip, St John writes that Philip is from Bethsaida ‘the city of Andrew and Peter’ (John 1:44). Why, if St John has already told us this, does he repeat it here?

Bethsaida itself was in an area at the north of the Sea of Galilee called Gaulanitis. The name, Bethsaida, means ‘house of fishing’, and was located east of the Jordan, close to where the river flows into the Sea of Galilee. This was a heavily Hellenized area ruled by the youngest of Herod the Great’s sons, who was also called Philip. On the death of Herod the Great, his Kingdom had been divided by the Romans into four with a tetrarch ruling over each quarter. (‘Tetrarch’ means ruler of a quarter’.) Philip was tetrarch from 4 BC to AD 34. It was about this time (AD 30/31) that Philip rebuilt the city and named it Julias in honor of Livia (Julia Augusta), the wife of Augustus Caesar.

Given the extent of Greek influence here, it was likely that people from Bethsaida spoke at least some Greek. This was much as it is here in Hong Kong where many people speak at least some English because of the previous British connection. The Greeks, who want to see Jesus, probably approach Philip because he is one of Jesus’ disciples who can speak Greek. That Philip then speaks to Andrew suggests that Andrew was a Greek speaker too. But why the fuss? Why doesn’t Philip just take them to see Jesus?

Anyone following the sermons since Christmas will be able to work out the answer. Jesus ‘came unto his own’ (John 1:11), that is, the Jews. It was a big thing for Jesus to talk with Gentiles, as we see from his initial refusal to help the ‘Canaanite’ woman from from Syria Phoenicia whose daughter was possessed (Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30). Jesus’ disciples were also very nationalistic Jews. St Peter, in Acts chapter 10, says that he has never eaten anything that is ‘unclean’ (Acts 10:14). He also refused to associate with those who ate unclean food seeing them as unclean too! It needed a vision that had to be repeated three times to overcome his reluctance to have anything to do with Gentiles. St Peter says to the Gentiles that God sends him to:

‘You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.’ (Acts 10:28)

This explains Jesus’ reaction when Philip and Andrew tell him about the Greeks wanting to see him. At first sight, there seems to be no connection with what Philip and Andrew tell Jesus and what Jesus says in reply. Jesus answers them:

‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’ (John 12:23)

Jesus’ hour has been there in the background all the time throughout Jesus’ ministry. In the beginning, at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, Jesus referred to his hour when his mother told him that the wine had run out. And it has been mentioned at crucial points since (John 2:4; 7:30; 8:20). Jesus also told his brothers that his ‘time’ had not yet come when they urged him to go up to the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:8). Now it has.

Now, as Jesus told Nicodemus again at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus must be ‘lifted up’. As Jesus said then, this was so that ‘whoever believes in him may have eternal life’ (John 3:15). ‘Whoever’, that is, and not just ‘his own’. Jesus repeats this now:

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

Jesus views the Greeks coming to see him as a sign that the hour for him to be lifted up and draw all people to him has now arrived - all people, that is, and not just his own. Jesus' public ministry, a ministry to his own people, is coming to an end. After this, Jesus will speak only with his disciples. As we will see, Jesus has quite a lot to say to his disciples, and what he says will occupy 5 chapters of the Gospel. Jesus’ public ministry to his own people, however, has now come to an end.

Now, knowing the moment of his death has arrived, Jesus tells his disciples that anyone thinking of following him must be prepared to let his death serve as the model on which they base their own service of him. Jesus says:

‘Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.’ (John 12:25-26)

This teaching is teaching we have heard Jesus give before during his public ministry. It is central to his teaching about what it means to be his follower. What he asks of his followers is not going to be easy.

Jesus himself is deeply troubled at the prospect of his own death, but this is the reason that he has come to this moment. What matters to him is that his Father’s name is glorified. A voice from heaven confirms that the Father’s name will again be glorified. Jesus tells the crowd that his death will be the ‘judgement of the world’ and the casting out of the ‘ruler of this world’. The Light of the world will only be with them a little longer. They still have time to believe, but not much.

St John tells us that after he has said this Jesus departs and hides from them. They have had their chance. Jesus’ ministry to his own has ended in failure. St John provides the sad conclusion:

‘Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him.’ (John 12:37)

St John quotes the prophet Isaiah to explain the failure of people to believe (Isaiah 53:1; 6:10). Not only have his own people not believed, but in some way that we can’t understand, it is God who has prevented them from believing. These words of Isaiah are quoted by all the Gospel writers, and it is how St Paul closes his own ministry to the Jews in Rome (Acts 28:25-27). There is both sadness and mystery here that St Paul will discuss in his letter to the Church in Rome.

Chapter 12 closes with the final public words of Jesus. These serve as a conclusion to Jesus’ public ministry and to this part of the Gospel. Jesus says that if anyone believes in him, they believe in the one who sent him. If, however, people reject his words, they have effectively passed judgement on themselves.

Jesus must now prepare his disciples for his departure and the work he is going to give them to do. Jesus will do this during his Last Meal with his disciples in the Upper Room. For the next few weeks, we are going to be occupied with the events of Easter itself. We will, however, return to St John’s Gospel and the Upper Room after Easter to see what Jesus has to say to his disciples.

But for now, what do these last words of Jesus say to us?

Once again, Jesus tells us that if we love our life, we will lose it; but if we hate our life in this world, we will keep it for eternal life. This is fundamental to what it means to follow Jesus. It is not teaching for the saints or for the select few. It is the bottom line. And again, at the risk of repeating myself, this, is diametrically opposed to how our world today thinks and to how many think in the Church itself.

Self-fulfilment and self-realisation are at the heart of the worldview of the age in which we live. Nothing, absolutely nothing, it is believed, must be allowed to get in the way, not only of who I am, but of who I want to be and of what I want to do. Every aspect of life in this world is now judged by this criterion. Alongside this narrative of the centrality of Self goes a narrative of oppression.

It is all too clear that many people cannot become who they want to be. There is much in this world that stops me fulfilling my potential and realizing my goals. There is, for example, patriarchy and sexism if I am a woman; racism if I am black; and unjust economic structures if I am poor. This narrative insists that evil is not about what’s in me or what I do. Evil is what is out there. It’s not me as an individual who is to blame for society’s ills and inequalities, it’s the system. It has now become commonplace to hear people use the word ‘systemic’ when identifying evil: racism is systemic, sexism is systemic. Furthermore, this narrative teaches, it is precisely because these evils are systemic, that is, intrinsic to the society in which we live, that whole groups of people find themselves oppressed.

But what if I, as someone in an oppressed group, don’t feel myself to be oppressed? The answer given is that this is because I have been taught to accept my oppression. I have internalized it and so have come to see it as something normal. If, as a woman, I don’t feel I am a victim of male oppression, well, that’s because I have been socially conditioned to accept patriarchy. When I am educated by those who have ‘knowledge’ of the true state of a woman’s oppression, I will see the extent of my own oppression, find liberation from it, and want to fight against it. It is now common for companies routinely to run ‘awareness’ courses to enlighten people about a previously unrecognized evil that they need both to recognize and renounce or risk losing their job. Failure to ‘take the knee’ of repentance for the evil that has been identified is to be seen as doubly complicit in the evil.

In the narrative of oppression life and history are seen, of course, through the eyes of the oppressed. There is nothing wrong with looking at things this way, and, indeed, there is much to commend it, but it does mean that those who belong to the groups seen as responsible for the oppression are demonized.

We are taught through this narrative that individuals within the groups of the oppressors - white people in the case of racism, men in the case of sexism - need to see that they are themselves, in a sense, also victims of systemic evil in that they have been socially conditioned and taught to see their oppression of others in positive terms. It is because they are caught up in the systems of oppression that they perpetuate them and resist attempts to change them.

It follows, then, that those who belong to the groups of oppressors also need educating and liberating from them or, if they refuse, forcibly be made to change their behaviour. There is legislation going through the Senate in America at the moment designed to do just this.

Many of those who adopt this narrative of oppression are totalitarian in their approach in the same way as those who led the cultural revolution in China or who, under tyrannical regimes, sent people sent to re-education camps, were totalitarian in theirs. While the measures being used to force people to conform today are not yet quite so extreme, increasingly anyone seen to support what have been identified as the systemic evils of our day are now themselves systematically ‘cancelled’. The justification is simple: you wouldn’t let anyone who believed in child abuse teach in schools, so why allow a racist or sexist to do so?

There has been a negative reaction in some quarters to this narrative of oppression or, at least, to some expressions of it. What isn’t always appreciated is that this narrative of oppression is just part of a more comprehensive ideology, or rather idolatry, that has worship of the Self at the centre. This makes the adoption of the narrative that has routinely taken place in our churches so pernicious and frightening. At times, it just sounds common-sense: who in the Church today, for example, would argue for apartheid and the racist practices that were common in some churches in the past? Of course evil affects the institutions and social structures of our world; how can it not?

It is, however, many of the assumptions behind this particular understanding of evil and the ideology of which it is a part, that make them both so dangerous. Jesus warns his disciples of false prophets, describing them as ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing but [who] inwardly are ravenous wolves’ (Matthew 7:15). Today, the wolves are well and truly amongst the sheep.

How, then, as followers of Christ should we react to this lupine teaching?

Firstly, we need to see that evil is indeed systemic. This is why Jesus talks about the ‘world’ so much in St John’s Gospel and in our Gospel reading. We live in a world that is evil through and through and which holds us captive as members of it. This evil affects every aspect of our life from politics and economics to art and music. So, when people today say that injustice and oppression are systemic, they are only saying what the Bible said many years before. It is not, however, simply things that we have come to regard as evil that are systemic; evil itself is systemic.

Secondly, where the narrative of oppression really goes wrong, however, is in suggesting that we as individuals are only guilty of evil by association because we have been socially conditioned either to practice it or to accept it. As Jesus teaches, the world is evil, but so are we. We are not simply a blank slate that evil writes on from outside. We are already evil on the inside. The evil the world writes on us from outside of us only emphasizes the evil that is already there in us. We do things that are wrong, what the Bible calls sin, not only because the world teaches us to sin, but because we are ourselves are naturally sinners. This is what is meant by ‘original sin’. It’s our nature. It is in our very DNA. As Jesus said it is ‘from within, out of the heart’ that evil comes’ (Mark 7:23).

Thirdly, the reason that it is so hard to fight evil in society is not simply because it is systemic, but because behind the systems of evil lies an intelligent controlling power who holds all people, both oppressed and oppressor, captive to the power of evil. Jesus, in our reading this week, describes him as the ‘ruler of this world’. We began Lent by seeing Jesus being confronted by the ruler of this world. His power is real.

Fourthly, we also choose to do evil. The reality of evil in our world and in our lives makes us sound helpless and weak. It should for that is what we are. For some, however, saying that evil is systemic is to absolve themselves of any personal and individual guilt. Evil is always someone else’s fault, not mine. The Bible, however, as well as clearly teaching the reality of evil in our world, makes it plain that we are not simply the victims of evil and infected by it; we willingly choose to do evil. We are sinners socially and personally; collectively and individually; by nature and by choice.

Jesus, in St John’s Gospel, is absolute: we are born as evildoers into a world that is systemically evil controlled by a power who is evil, and we ourselves choose to do evil. Jesus is also absolute about the choice facing each one of us. We either believe in him and are saved or we are condemned by our unbelief; we either come to him who is the Light of the world or we will remain in the darkness.

Jesus said emphatically that ‘everyone who practices sin is a slave of sin’, but he promised that if the Son sets us free, we will be really free (John 8:34-36). St Paul echoing Jesus’ words writes that Jesus:

‘… has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.’ (Colossians 1:13-14)

Jesus sets us free not to be ourself, but to be free from ourself. It is those who, by believing in Jesus, die to self and live in the light, who are truly able to find themselves. They do this not by following their dreams, but by following Jesus.

In closing, however, I want to give a word of warning. We are often all very casual about this. We let Jesus’ words wash over us. We may nod in agreement, but we then get on with our lives as if we have not heard them or as if they are something we can leave worrying about to another day. Sufficient unto the day are our own concerns.

Part of the problem is that we just don’t think there is any urgency. After all, if God loves us (and how could he not?) then everything will be alright regardless of what we do. Jesus himself is completely frustrated that people won’t respond to what he is telling them. Their failure to respond means that they are not only missing out on what Jesus is offering them now, but that they are passing a judgement on themselves that they will have to live with not only in this life, but in the life to come.  Jesus says:

‘The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge …’ (John 12:48)

What Jesus means is that how we react now to his words will determine how we ourselves are judged. Indifference and rejection will have the same result. After Jesus has spoken the words in our Gospel reading this week, St John writes something that ought to frighten everyone who reads them:

‘After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.’ (John 12:36)

They had had their chance. The time to respond to Jesus’ words is now.

May we respond to Jesus’ words now while we can.


Sunday, March 14, 2021

The Fourth Sunday of Lent

Here is the transcript of my sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

The Fourth Sunday of Lent


Numbers 21:4-9
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Our Gospel reading this week is part of the passage that describes the visit of Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Jewish governing council, to Jesus by night. 

[My sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent last year, which is still available online, looks at what has taken place up to the point where our Gospel reading this week begins.]

 Nicodemus has seen the ‘signs’ that Jesus has been doing and, unlike most of his fellow council members, he has an open mind.  He believes that no-one can do what Jesus is doing unless the ‘presence of God’ is with them.

 Nicodemus, though, is clearly still not fully convinced by Jesus, but, by coming to Jesus, albeit under the cover of darkness, he has begun a journey that will lead to him being prepared to identify openly with Jesus after Jesus has died on the Cross.  He and Joseph of Arimathea, another ‘secret disciple’ and also a member of the governing council, will together, after Jesus has died, prepare Jesus’ body for burial.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be ‘born again from above by the Spirit’, something that Nicodemus has trouble understanding.  Our passage this week is a continuation of Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus’ question, ‘How can these things be?’ (John 3:9).

It is not clear where Jesus’ reply to Nicodemus finishes.  Ancient manuscripts didn’t have punctuation.  Some interpreters continue Jesus’ response until verse 21.  However, it is more likely that Jesus’ answer finishes at verse 15, and that we then have St John’s own reflection, as the author of the Gospel, on Jesus’ words.  Whether Jesus’ answer finishes at verse 15 or verse 21, Jesus, in his answer, refers in verse 14 to a famous incident in Israel’s past.  Nicodemus, as a teacher of Israel, would have been familiar with this story as would most Jews.  It is a story told in our first reading for this week.

 In the story, the people of Israel, having escaped from slavery in Egypt, are wandering in the wilderness.  Life in the wilderness, however, isn’t easy, and they have become impatient and fed up.  In their impatience, the Israelites moan and complain to Moses.  God, we are told, sends poisonous snakes as a punishment.  The snakes bite people and those bitten die as a result.  The people realize that they have sinned against both God and Moses by complaining and speaking against them, and they ask Moses to pray for them, so that God will make the snakes go away.  Moses prays to the Lord, and the Lord says to Moses:

‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ (Numbers 21:8)

Accordingly, Moses proceeds to make a serpent out of bronze, and sets it on a pole as the Lord has told him to.  Those who are bitten and look at it live.  So how does this answer Nicodemus’ question?

Nicodemus asks how a person can be born a second time.  Jesus answers by telling Nicodemus that for it to happen, for Nicodemus to be born again from above by the Spirit and enter the kingdom of God, Jesus must be lifted up on the Cross.  In the same way that the Israelites who looked at the serpent lived, those who believe in Jesus when he is lifted up on the Cross will also live.

This is the first time that the phrase ‘eternal life’ occurs in St John’s Gospel.  It is a favourite phrase of St John.  The word St John uses for life (Greek: ζωή - zoe) in this phrase occurs 135 times in the New Testament.  66 of these are in the books attributed to St John: 36 times in the Gospel; 13 times in the letters; and 17 times in the book of Revelation.  The phrase ‘eternal life’ itself occurs 17 times in the Gospel and 6 times in 1 John.  In the Gospel of John, this word for life is always used to describe ‘eternal life’ and not natural, physical life.  St John uses another Greek word (Greek: ψυχή - psuche) for that (see, for example, John 10:15, 17; 12:25; 13:37; 15:13).

This phrase has been translated in the past as ‘everlasting life’.  ‘Eternal life’ is certainly everlasting, but it is more than that.  ‘Eternal life’ describes the quality of the life that Jesus gives.  It is a life based on a relationship with God, made possible by Jesus’ death, and which is given through the Spirit.  Being everlasting is one of its qualities, but there are more as St John will make clear.  Eternal life begins now, here in this life, but it will continue beyond death with God forever.

The answer, then, to Nicodemus’ question about how a person can be born again is that for it to happen Jesus must die.  Those who believe in Jesus as he is lifted up on Cross will be born again from above and receive eternal life.  This takes us to the end of verse 15.

The words that follow, which I take to be words by St John himself, reflect on Jesus statement that he ‘must be lifted up’ if those who believe in him are to have eternal life.  John chapter 3 verse 16 (‘For God so loved …’), the verse which follows Jesus’ words, is often lifted out of this context and made to stand alone as summing up the message of the Gospel and of Jesus himself.  However, there were, of course, originally no chapter and verse divisions in the Gospel and these words belong very much with what precedes and follows them.

St John tells us that Jesus being lifted up, a metaphor for his death, was the way in which God loved the world.  It is because God gave his only Son that the eternal life that comes from being born from above is able to be given to those who believe.  Had God not given his Son, even those who believed in Jesus would have perished.

This is really important.  We will see in a moment how St John describes the judgement that faces those who don’t believe.  But the judgement of God is not what causes people to perish.  We are all perishing already.  If God had not given his Son, we would all just perish; it is the giving of God’s Son that makes it possible for those who are perishing to be saved.

Imagine a building that is unsafe and in danger of collapse.  The Building Department arrange for an architect to visit the owners to tell the owners how the building might be saved from demolition.  The architect has been sent to save the building, but if the owners refuse to do what the architect tells them, then they are effectively condemning the building to destruction.

St John writes that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order to save those who were perishing.  It didn’t need God’s Son to come for the world to be condemned.  However, the result of the coming of God’s Son into the world is that those who do not believe in him and accept God’s loving sacrifice of his Son have effectively condemned themselves.  By refusing to believe in God’s Son, they show that they are condemned.  Their lack of belief says it all.  It is how people react to the death of Jesus that shows whether they are condemned or saved.

The death of Jesus is the defining moment in world history.

But what does St John mean by the word ‘world’?  The ‘world’ (Greek: κόσμος - kosmos) is an important word in St John’s Gospel.  St John uses it 78 times.  It also occurs 24 times in the letters.  This is 102 times out of the 185 times that it is used in the New Testament.  St John uses the word ‘world’ in three different although related ways.

Firstly, he uses it to mean everything that exists.  St John begins his Gospel by telling us:

‘He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.’ (John 1:10)

This includes what we call the natural world that we inhabit.  At the end of his Gospel, St John writes that if all that Jesus did was to be written down the ‘world’ itself would not contain the books that would have to be written (John 21:25).  St John is using poetic licence here, but it is clear that the ‘world’ he is referring to is the physical world.

Secondly, the word ‘world’ is used of the human beings who live in this natural world: us, in other words!  St John can use the word ‘world’ in this way relatively neutrally.  So, for example, he quotes the Pharisees who say, ‘Look, the world has gone after him!’ (John 12:19).  We would say ‘everyone’ has gone after him.  When St John uses the word ‘world’ to refer to humans, however, it is humanity in its lostness and sin, and the society that they create, that he has most in mind.  This includes its culture, values, and attitudes.  Jesus says to his ‘brothers’ who are urging him to speak more openly of himself:

‘The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil.’ (John 7:7)

It is not the physical world we live in that is bad, but we who live in it and what we have made it.

Thirdly, as if this is not bad enough, we learn in St John’s Gospel that this evil world, inhabited by lost and sinful humanity, is also under the control of an evil being.

St John doesn’t dwell on this and nor should we.  But nor should we ignore the reality of the personal power who is behind evil in this world.  As St John puts it in his first letter:

‘We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one.’ (1 John 5:19)

The Bible doesn’t have a dualism of powers in which two equal powers, one good and one bad, battle it out.  But the Bible does recognize a real, personal power of evil.  The devil is more than an abstract evil force; he is an intelligent and dangerous being.  We are to take him seriously, but not so seriously that we diminish the power of God.  As St John reminds us:

‘… for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.’ (1 John 4:4)

The predominant idea of the word ‘world’, then, is of lost and sinful human beings and the society and culture that they create. It is in darkness and under the power and control of an evil being.

The tragedy, St John tells us, is that the light has come into the world that is in darkness and people have loved the darkness rather than the light.  Why would this be?  It is because the light shows us what we are like.  It exposes the true nature of our lives and how we live.

It’s like a person who has just got out of bed and who looks a bit of a wreck.  Fortunately, it is still dark, and no-one can see what they look like.  But then, someone else comes into the room and puts the light on.  The reaction of the person who has just got of bed is to tell the other person to put the light off.  They don’t want anyone to see them like this.  People don’t want to come to the light because they don’t want what they are really like to be seen by anyone – often, they don’t even like looking at themselves.

Those, however, who have believed in Jesus, who have been born from above, and who have received the gift of eternal life, are happy to come to the light.  It is not that they themselves have done anything on their own worthy of praise, but rather that what they have done has been ‘done in God’.  It is God who has made it possible for their life to be transformed.

As we have seen, this passage contains one of the most familiar and popular verses in the Bible.  It has been described as the ‘golden verse’ of the Bible.  We read it every time there is a Eucharist at Christ Church: ‘For God so loved …’ (John 3:16).  It is easy to see why it is a verse that believers are drawn to and like to recite.  Sometimes, we are encouraged to recite it by inserting our own name into the verse: ‘For God so loved Ross that he gave …’  I actually don’t think that there is anything necessarily wrong with doing this, but it is all a bit more complicated than this makes it seem.

No matter how hard we try, it is difficult when we read about ‘love’ in the Bible for us to rid ourselves of popular ideas of love.  In the 20th century, love became a defining idea both for understanding how we should think about God and how we should live as a result.  What God wanted from us, we were told, was not obedience to rules and laws, but a life lived on the basis of love.  Love was about wanting what was the best in any given situation.  This was an idea that was revolutionary at the time, but which has now become a generally accepted truth.

We know, of course, that what is meant by ‘love’ in the Gospels and in the New Testament is not the same as the love that is portrayed in popular culture through books, films, and song.  But given how pervasive the idea of love is in our culture, it is perhaps not surprising that the Church has been heavily influenced by our culture’s understanding of it.

‘All you need is love’, sang the Beetles, suggesting that love is something that exists in its own right.  Love has come to be seen as a force that we should seek to let control us and influence our actions and behaviour.  We, in the Church, have embraced this idea and, quoting St John’s first letter, chapter 4 verse 8, we equate God and love.  The words, ‘God is love’, are, for many in the Church, the most fundamental definition of God.  Everything we say and think about God must now be subject to this one controlling idea.

As an aside, it is interesting that the Church Fathers and Councils of the Church never felt the need to include any statement about God and love in the Creeds.  It is hard, however, to imagine any modern-day Council not including it.  Today, it is not God who defines what love is; love defines who God is.

And, of course, if God is love that means that anything that doesn’t conform to our idea of what love is must, by definition, not be of God.  And if God loves us, this also, again by definition, must mean he wants what is best for us.

We are now witnessing the final stage in the argument: if God is love, and God loves us, we should love ourselves too.

We have gone from how love is seen in the Bible, where love is about denying ourselves and putting God and others first, to how most believers now think of love, where love is about affirming ourselves and seeking what we believe is good for ourselves as a precondition for seeking what is good for others.

Love has become something we feel and which is affirming of us and who we are.  And because this seems to us to be so obviously what love is, this is now how we understand the references to love in the Bible.  Anything we read that doesn’t fit with this understanding, we either seek to explain away or we simply ignore.

It comes as a shock, then, to be told that this way of understanding love is the exact opposite of what love is in the teaching of Jesus.  What is more, it is our understanding of what love is that is preventing us from seeing what God’s love really is.

When it comes, for example, to the ‘golden verse’ of the Bible, we understand the words: ‘For God so loved the world …’ to refer to the intensity of God’s love for us.  He loved us so much.  Yet, in context, these words refer not to the intensity of God’s love for the world, but to the way in which God loved it: he loved so he gave.  He did not give his Son because he liked us or was attracted to us; indeed, given what we are, how could he like us or be attracted to us?

Rather, God seeing what we are like and despite being utterly repulsed by us, instead loved us.  God loved us by sending his Son to us, giving him to die to save us.  Love refers to what God did for us, not to how he felt towards us.

It is perhaps significant that we focus a lot less nowadays on the death of Jesus.  What matters more to us is the life Jesus led and the teaching he gave.  Some have even expressed revulsion at the idea that God could give up his Son to death.  This idea is now often described as a form of divine or cosmic ‘child abuse’.  We find the idea of God sacrificing his Son incompatible with our re-definition of love.

Jesus’ death is increasingly seen in a similar way to, say, the death of Gandhi.  Gandhi was assassinated because of who he was.  We don’t, however, think that his assassination was the purpose of his life.  It is not his assassination that we focus on when discussing his significance.  Gandhi’s teaching remains valid regardless of his death.

Jesus’s death, however, is not only an important part of what he came to do; it is what he came to do.  In St John’s Gospel, Jesus describes it as ‘his hour’.  It is his moment.  The Son of Man must be ‘lifted up’ if we are to have eternal life.  Without Jesus’ death, we would not have the possibility of life and would, as St John puts it, have to endure ‘God’s wrath’ (John 3:36).  The giving to death of his Son by God was why the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us.  Without his death, we don’t have life.

Of course, given our understanding of love, it is impossible for us to think that God would ever withhold anything from us, least of all life.  That God would reject us or punish us is unthinkable to us.  And so, everything else that St John says in our reading this week, apart from the statement that God loved us, just gets ignored.  But the verse we love about love has a context and is just part of what St John tells us.

I have said that we are sometimes told to insert our name into John 3:16.  If we are going to do that, then we need to insert our name into all that St John writes, including what he writes about anyone who does not believe being condemned already:

‘For God so loved Ross that he gave his only Son, so that if Ross believes in him he may not perish, but may have eternal life …’ (John 3:16), ‘but if Ross does not believe he is condemned already’ (John 3:18).

We need to give up this fiction that we are really lovely people who deserve to be loved.  St Paul, in our second reading this week, expresses our real condition:

‘You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.’ (Ephesians 2:1-2)

St John is making the same point when he tells us what God’s assessment of the situation is:

‘And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.’ (John 3:19)

This is not what we want to hear.  Jesus tells his disciples that the world hates him and will hate them as well (John 15:18).  We need to see ourselves how God sees us.  When we do, it won’t diminish our appreciation of God’s love for us, rather it will help us see just how amazing it is that, although we did nothing to deserve it and although we were unlovely, God acted to save us.  As St Paul puts it:

‘But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8)

God’s love for us doesn’t mean we should love ourselves, but it does mean we should love God instead of ourselves.  It also challenges us to rethink how we present the Gospel to our world and how we share our faith.  Jesus said to the crowd in Jerusalem:

But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.’ (John 8:45)

In the Church, we naturally want people to believe what we say, and so we tell them what they want to hear.  What they want to hear is not only that God loves them, but that God loves them in the way they want to be loved.  They want to be told that God affirms their life choices and lifestyle, but God doesn’t.  God challenges people to see that they are condemned; that they are living in darkness; and that their deeds are evil.  Everything isn’t going to be alright for everyone in the end.  Anything but.  People can’t expect everything finally to come good, regardless of how they live and what they do.

Telling people the truth, as Jesus has revealed it, won’t make us popular; it won’t lead people to like us; and it won’t fill our churches.  As St John tells us, those who love darkness won’t come to the light.  In fact, we may wonder who will bother coming at all.  Thankfully, St John tells us in our reading precisely who it is who will come:

‘But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’ (John 3:21)

There won’t be many who come, but there will be some.  And who does or does not come is, in any case, not our worry.  It is better that those who do come, come to the truth rather than believe a lie.  It may be a lie that gives some temporary comfort in the present, but it will not survive the reality of life in this world, and it will not give us eternal life in the world to come.

Quite what Nicodemus made of all this, we are not told.  It certainly can’t have been what he expected to hear or wanted to be told, but, nevertheless, perhaps even despite himself, he was drawn to the light.

May we be drawn to it too.