Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Fourth Sunday of Easter.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Reading: John 10:11-18

Our Gospel reading contains one of the most familiar and best loved images that our Lord uses to describe himself. ‘I am the Good Shepherd’, he tells his audience. The problem with this image is that it has been cut loose from its context and from the reason why Jesus originally used it with the result that we fail to understand what Jesus himself meant by it. Instead, we have a rather sentimentalized idea of our Lord as the Good Shepherd.

The images used to depict Jesus as the Good Shepherd usually show a perfectly manicured Jesus with flowing and beautifully conditioned hair, in sunlit fields, surrounded by woolly sheep and often holding a cuddly lamb. Living in cities, it is perhaps understandable that we have allowed ourselves to be conditioned by romantic and idealized images of sheep and their shepherds. These images of Jesus, however, somewhat miss the point, and because they are so removed from reality we fail to grasp what our Lord is wanting to tell his audience and us by using this image.

To understand what our Lord meant then and what he would say to us today, we need to go back and begin by asking who Jesus’ audience was. Who is it that he is speaking to? Yet again, the chapter divisions encourage us to separate Jesus’ words from their original context. The people Jesus is talking to in chapter 10 of St John’s Gospel are the same people he is talking to at the end of chapter 9 of the Gospel.

In chapter 9, Jesus has healed a man born blind. The Pharisees, rather than being happy that a blind man can now see, are upset that this is just encouraging more people to believe in Jesus as the Messiah. They end up turning on the blind man himself and casting him out of the synagogue. This was about more than preventing the formerly blind man from attending services on the sabbath, but about isolating him from the community. He is like a sheep cast out from the flock. Jesus says that his coming into the world is for judgement. Those who are blind will see; but those who see will become blind. In other words, those who reject him show their spiritual blindness.

Some of the Pharisees, generally considered by the people to be spiritually insightful, hearing Jesus say this, ask him:

‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ (John 9:40)

Jesus’ reply to this question starts with the last verse of chapter 9, and then continues in chapter 10. Jesus begins his reply by saying:

‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.’’ (John 9:40-41)

Jesus doesn’t stop there, however, but continues by telling them what is effectively a parable about the sheepfold, the gate and the shepherd. St John tells us:

‘Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.’ (John 10:6)

In explaining his initial response to their question, Jesus draws on two different images from the parable to describe himself. His use of these two images has caused some confusion amongst interpreters. However, seeing them as two different, albeit related images, helps us to understand what Jesus is getting at.

Firstly, in verses 7-9, Jesus describes himself as the ‘Gate for the Sheep’. Then, secondly, in verses 11-18, Jesus describes himself as the ‘Good Shepherd’. It helps to understand what Jesus is saying if we read the parable through once seeing Jesus as the Gate for the Sheep, and then a second time, seeing him as the Shepherd of the Sheep. In his use of both images, Jesus describes the people of God using the image of sheep. In his relationship to the sheep, Jesus is both the Gate of the sheepfold and he is the Shepherd of the sheep in it. The two images describe two different aspects of Jesus’ relationship to the sheep.

But how does this answer the Pharisees’ question about themselves? As I said last year in my sermon on the first part of chapter ten, a passage in the book of Ezekiel helps us to understand what Jesus is getting at in his answer. In the book of Ezekiel, God, speaking through the prophet Ezekiel, condemns the leaders of Israel, who have failed in their care of and responsibility for God’s people. God himself is compared to a shepherd and his people to the sheep who have been badly let down and badly treated by those who should have cared for and looked after them. God will punish the leaders who have let down his sheep and made them prone to danger. God says:

‘I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep. And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken.’ (Ezekiel 34:22-24)

To begin with Jesus focuses on the image of himself as the Gate. The only legitimate way of gaining access to the sheep is through the Gate. Anyone who tries to get in another way is a thief and a bandit. The Pharisees, by refusing to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah sent by God, are trying to gain access to the sheep, that is, to God’s people by another way. There is no other way. By trying to gain access to the sheep another way, the Pharisees are more like the thieves and bandits who steal the sheep and cause them harm. Jesus came that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).

Jesus then answers their question focusing on the image of himself as the Shepherd of the sheep. And so, in verse 11, Jesus says the famous words, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’.

What is that makes for a good shepherd? If we were advertising for a good shepherd, what would we be looking for? The truth is that being largely urban dwellers, with little or no experience of rural life of any kind, we wouldn’t have a clue what to look for. If I were to ask what makes a good teacher or a good doctor, we would at least have some idea of what to look for. But shepherds? We wouldn’t know where to begin. One thing, however, is for certain: the manicured Jesus of popular imagination wouldn’t last more than five minutes in the job.

For us, the word ‘good’ in the phrase ‘good shepherd’ means ‘gentle and kind’. Doubtless being gentle and kind are good qualities in any job, but they are not the first qualities you would look for if you were looking for someone who would make a good shepherd.

The people Jesus spoke to, however, would have known exactly what to look for in a good shepherd, regardless of whether they owned sheep themselves. Sheep were everywhere. Even urban dwellers couldn’t miss them; they were surrounded by them. The Pharisees themselves would have been very familiar with them. After all, literally thousands of sheep were sacrificed in the Temple.

Sheep were an important part of Israel’s life and history. Shepherds and their sheep feature prominently in the Bible. The first shepherd was Abel whose offering of a sheep was accepted by God, while his brother Cain’s sacrifice was not (Genesis 4:1-16). Cain murdered Abel because God accepted Abel’s sacrifice rather than his. But not only the son of Adam, but many other figures in the Bible were also shepherds. Abraham and the patriarchs, Moses, and David were all shepherds. It is because sheep and shepherds were so much part of Israel’s story that God himself is described in the Scriptures as the shepherd of his people. We are all familiar with Psalm 23, for example, where the psalmist describes God as his shepherd who leads, protects, and provides for him.

There is a programme on British TV called ‘Our Yorkshire Farm’. It follows the life of a present day shepherd, Amanda Owens, who lives with her husband on a 2,000 acre remote farm in Yorkshire, looking after a flock of 1,000 sheep. Amanda also has nine children. To give you an idea of the sort of person she is, you only have to read her description of how she gave birth to her eighth child.

As she lives 70 miles from her nearest maternity hospital, when she went into labour she decided it wasn’t worth trying to get to the hospital. She decided instead to have the baby at home. Rather than waking her husband, who was asleep upstairs, she went downstairs and had the baby in front of the fire with just her dog as company. Having safely delivered the baby herself, she then went upstairs and woke up her husband with the baby.

A good shepherd, then as now, has to be tough. Shepherds have to be out in all weathers, and have to put the needs of the sheep above their own needs. It is not a job for wimps but for people willing to get their hands dirty. At times, it could be dangerous. Jesus talks about the threats from wolves who seek to snatch the sheep and threaten both the sheep and the shepherd. The good shepherd needs to know how to protect the sheep despite the danger to himself. Jesus’ audience would have known all this. Jesus is using images drawn from their faith and experience.

As well as having the right character, there is something else that you need, again then as now, to be a good shepherd. You have to care for the sheep. Again, we mustn’t get overly sentimental about this; as I have said, many of the sheep at the time of Jesus were being reared for sacrifice in the Temple. You aren’t going to get far as a shepherd, however, if you don’t care what happens to the sheep while they are in your charge. While they are in your care, you have to be willing to put the sheep’s safety and needs before your own.

It is amazing in schools how many candidates when you are interviewing them for a job as a teacher manage to get through the interview without actually mentioning the children. As a teacher, being ‘child-centred’ shouldn’t in the first place be about teaching method but about the teacher’s motivation and focus. Shepherds for their part have to be ‘sheep-centred’.

Jesus describes those who are not ‘sheep-centred’ as mere hired hands who run at the first sign of trouble. They are in the job for the money and not because they have any interest in the sheep. As Jesus says:

‘The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.’ (John 10:13)

So, what is it that Jesus thinks distinguishes him as a good shepherd of God’s sheep and what can we learn from it? Jesus says twice that he is the Good Shepherd.

Firstly, in verse 11, Jesus says:

‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’ (John 10:11)

In the sermons and podcasts during this Easter season, I have been stressing how Jesus laying down his life, that is, his death for us, is at the heart of what Jesus came to do. His care for the sheep is to be seen primarily in his willingness to die for them. St John, in his letter, explains that Jesus’ death is as a ‘sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 2:2); it is the way we find forgiveness and find God himself. In his use of the image of the Gate for the Sheep, Jesus makes clear that there is no other way we can find forgiveness and no other way we can come to God except through him.

The significance of Jesus’ laying down of his life for us, however, doesn’t stop there. It is never less than that, but it is more. Jesus by laying down his life for us also gives us an example of how we too are to live. We too are to die to sin, but more than that we also are to lay down our lives for those who Christ laid his life down for. St John writes in our reading this morning:

‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.’ (1 John 3:16)

Jesus’ willingness to die in obedience to the Father’s command (John 10:18) is an example for all who seek to follow him. It is also meant as an example especially to those who would lead Christ’s flock on his behalf. At the end of the Gospel, in chapter 21, Jesus restores Peter’s relationship with himself after Peter has broken it by denying Jesus three times before Jesus was crucified. After his resurrection, Jesus famously asks Peter, again three times, whether Peter loves him. Three times Peter says he does, and each time Jesus tells him that he is to look after his sheep: ‘feed my lambs’ (verse 15); ‘tend my sheep’ (verse 16); ‘feed my sheep’ (verse 17).

Those who are entrusted with leadership in the Church are to be ‘pastors’, that is, shepherds under Jesus. The word pastor itself comes from the Latin word for shepherd. St Peter writes to leaders in the Church using this image and language (1 Peter 5:1-4). They are to care for the flock and be examples to it. St Peter describes Jesus as the ‘Chief Shepherd’. The Church leaders are shepherds under him. St Paul uses the same image and language, particularly in the letters that we now know as the ‘pastoral letters’. These are the letters to Timothy and Titus in which St Paul gives guidance to his two trusted co-workers on how they are to behave as leaders in the Church of God.

It is worth remembering in all this that Jesus is talking about being the Good Shepherd in response to the Pharisees’ question about themselves. Jesus is saying all this because they are bad shepherds. We can get an idea then of what being a good shepherd is by seeing some of the ways the Pharisees are bad shepherds. Throughout his ministry, Jesus makes some severe criticisms of the Pharisees. He describes them as ‘blind guides’ (Matthew 15:14). A good shepherd is one who has seen the truth and who knows the Shepherd and what his will is for his people.

In St Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 23, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for wanting to be looked up to and to be seen by men. They are concerned about their reputation and position and about what people think of them. They love titles, getting the best seats, and being treated with respect. Jesus tells his disciples that instead the greatest amongst them is to be their servant. There is no place for hierarchy and special titles. The one who humbles themselves is the one who will be exalted.

I don’t want here to say too much about the Church and clergy today. I will let you decide whether or not you think that in the Church today we have a hierarchical system in which people seek advancement and love positions of honour and the titles that go with them. What I would say is that it has most certainly characterized the Church in the past to its great shame and loss.

What we certainly should be doing today is seeking to rid ourselves and our Church of all practices and models of ministry that encourage such thinking and behaviour. I have always hated it when people talk about having a career in the Church. One comment I will allow myself on the present-day Church is that we have largely abandoned the image of ministers as shepherds of the sheep for one that sees them as managers of an organisation. The dominant model of ministry is the managerial one. It is inevitable if this is how we see our church and clergy that this will be how clergy behave and think. We shouldn’t be surprised then when the Church looks less like sheep led by a shepherd and more like a business run by an executive.

Secondly, in describing how he is the Good Shepherd, Jesus says:

‘I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me …’ (John 10:14)

Jesus repeats after this, in verse 15, that he ‘lays down his life for the sheep’.

Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep and whose sheep know him. This too has a message for those who would be pastors in the Church. It is a reminder that, first and foremost, we should be more concerned in the Church with our relationship with each other and with God than with all the other things that are we urged to take an interest in and spend time on.

But there is an important message for each one of us, whoever we are. It is that that being one of the sheep who follow the Good Shepherd is about knowing the Shepherd and being known by him. As St John tells those he is writing to in his letter, what we believe and how we live does matter. But what matters more is whom we know. Do we have a relationship with the Good Shepherd? If we don’t, then we are not part of the flock, but just an outsider looking in.

So, if today you want to be a follower of Christ, the Good Shepherd who leads his sheep, then you need to meet and get to know the Shepherd. There is no other way to become part of God’s people than through him who is both the Shepherd of the Sheep and the Gate to the sheepfold.

No Other Name (Christina Rossetti)

'None other Lamb; none other name,
none other hope in heaven or earth or sea,
none other hiding-place from guilt and shame,
none beside Thee.

My faith burns low, my hope burns low,
only my heart's desire cries out in me,
by the deep thunder of its want and woe,
cries out to Thee.

Lord, Thou art life, though I be dead,
love's fire Thou art, however cold I be:
nor heaven have I, nor place to lay my head,
nor Home, but Thee.'


Sunday, April 18, 2021

The Third Sunday of Easter

Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Third Sunday of Easter.

The Third Sunday of Easter

Reading: 1 John 3:1-7

In my podcasts during this Easter season, I have been talking about the death of Jesus. I have wanted to communicate just how central our Lord’s death is to the New Testament writers’ understanding of what Jesus came to do, and how important it is for us and for our faith today. St Paul tells the believers in Corinth:

‘For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures …’ (1 Corinthians 15:3)

This understanding of Jesus’ death is to be seen in all three of our readings for this week. St Luke, in the Gospel reading for this week (Luke 24:36-48), describes how our Lord appears to the disciples on the day of the resurrection. Our Lord explains to them that his suffering and death were in fulfilment of the Scriptures. Our Lord says:

‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’ (Luke 24:46-47)

The disciples got it. In our first reading (Acts 3:12-19), St Peter and St John have just healed in the name of Jesus a lame man who was begging at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple. St Peter is speaking to the people who gather to see what is going on. He tells them:

‘Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.’ (Acts 3:19)

And, then, in our second reading, which is the focus of my podcast for this week, St John writes:

‘You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.’ (1 John 3:5)

This emphasis on the ‘death of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins’, so central to the New Testament, is not popular today. We can understand it not being popular in society in general. After all, Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sin goes against people’s desire to believe in themselves and to believe only good about themselves. The tragedy, however, is that it is also rejected or ignored in the Church.

I have spoken at some length in previous podcasts about how the Church today understands the death of Jesus. But how do people in the Church, and especially leaders in the Church, respond to the New Testament emphasis on the death of Jesus as a sacrifice for our sins. For whether you like it or not, believe in it or not, it is something that is there!

There are two main approaches to the New Testament emphasis amongst those who adopt the popular understanding.

Those who take the first approach simply dismiss any suggestion that Jesus died as a sacrifice for sin, and see it as an understanding belonging to an earlier, more primitive time, when people thought like this. Of course, they argue, this is not how we think today. Those who take this attitude basically filter out all references to Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sin. They accept that the references are there, but they don’t think they are of any relevance to us today. We know better.

Apart from being incredibly arrogant, this attitude fails to face up to the reality of evil in both society and in the lives of individuals. Evil is real, and we are all affected by it. We all do things that are not simply undesirable, but which are wrong. Evil and wrongdoing in our lives can’t just be explained away by talk of systemic and institutional evil in society in general.

Systemic and institutional evil does exist; it is intrinsic to what the New Testament describes as the ‘world’, a world that St John describes in our reading this morning as ‘not knowing him’. Evil, however, doesn’t just exist in our world; it exists in us, that is, in each one of us. No exceptions. Not only are the structures of society sinful, I personally am a sinner. Jesus died to deal with that sin: my sin and your sin. As St John writes:

‘In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.’ (1 John 4:10)

Secondly, while those who take the first approach simply dismiss what the New Testament says about Jesus’ death for our sins, those who take the second just take little notice of it. The first approach is at least honest about what it is doing. Those who take the second approach choose instead to emphasize other aspects of the New Testament teaching that are more congenial to people today and quietly to ignore those parts they don’t like. Those who take this approach focus instead on God’s love for us and on his revelation of that love in Christ. They direct our attention to Jesus’ life as a living embodiment and example of God’s love. They concentrate on Jesus’ inclusivity and acceptance of people; on his teaching and on his courage in challenging the rich and powerful; on his resurrection, ascension, and rule over all things.

All these things are true and vitally important. St John himself stresses the love of God, but, as St John writes, God’s love is to be seen in that God sent his Son to be a sacrifice for our sin. St Paul says the same. He writes:

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

Many in the Church today want to separate the love of God from the death of Jesus for our sins. It can’t be done. It is in the death of Jesus on the Cross for our sin that we see God’s love. Again, when many in the Church today talk about individual and personal sin at all, it is more about sin as something that happens to people rather than what they themselves do. We see ourselves primarily as the victims of sin rather than as its perpetrators.

St John will have none of this. He bluntly tells those he is writing to:

‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.’ (1 John 1:8)

We may not be as bold as to say openly that we have no sin, but we think and act as though that is indeed the case. We behave as if sin is no big deal. St John wants us to face up to the reality and seriousness of our sin. This is not so we lose hope and end up in despair, but so we will confess our sin and find forgiveness through the blood of Jesus, who is the ‘atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 1:9; 2:2). The blood of Jesus not only brings forgiveness of sins, it ‘cleanses us from all sin’ (1 John 1:7).

This is important. I remember when I first heard the Gospel. Those who brought it to me told me that God didn’t just want to forgive me my sins, he wanted to cleanse me from them. He wanted me to stop sinning. They pointed out that God had been forgiving sins for centuries; in the death of Jesus, however, God wanted to deal with sin once and for all.

God now wants, not only to forgive us our sins, he wants us not to continue to sin. This at first sounds shocking. However, having told those he is writing to that Jesus was revealed to take away sin, St John then writes:

‘No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you.’ (1 John 3:6-7)

These words have caused problems, not to say anxiety, for believers in the past. Having told us that we must not let anyone deceive us into believing that we are without sin, St John now tells us that, if we abide in Christ, we won’t sin. And, for good measure, he tells us that we are not to deceive ourselves about this either. This is not something that is only to be found in this letter. St Paul writes to the Roman believers:

‘What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?’ (Romans 6:1-2)

Does this then mean that once we have come to Christ and have confessed our sins, we are to stop sinning? Well, the simple answer is, ‘Yes’!

The reason, of course, that this causes so much anxiety for anyone who abides in Christ is that rather than becoming less conscious of our sin, by abiding in Christ we become more conscious of it. A true believer knows themself to be a sinner and hates the fact. Some believers have concluded that there must be something wrong with them if, having come to Christ, they continue to sin. Others have tried to convince themselves that they have, in fact, stopped sinning, even when all the evidence is that they haven’t!

St Paul and St John both want us to see that our relationship with sin must change once we come to know God in Christ. Having seen what our sin did to Jesus, having been forgiven our sin, having been baptized into his death, our attitude to sin is to change. Whereas we were casual about it, and even consciously and deliberately did things knowing them to be wrong, siding with sin against God, now instead we will side with God against sin. We will reject sin. We will no longer want to sin, and will do what we can to avoid it.

But how are we weak mortals to resist the power of sin? The answer that both St Paul and St John give is that we can’t, not on our own. We have consciously to ‘abide in Christ’. For those ‘in Christ’, the Holy Spirit – that is, the ‘anointing we are given’, to use St John’s words - is to take over as the controlling power in our lives. As St Paul writes:

‘Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.’ (Galatians 5:16)

St Paul, in particular, uses the word ‘flesh’ to describe us as we are: it is us our-Self. Frequently, you hear it being said that you cannot love God, unless you love yourself. Jesus, however, said that to love God, you have to stop loving yourself. We have actively to die to self and let the Holy Spirit take over and lead and direct us.

This is about every aspect of our life: our priorities, values, and attitudes. It is about our lifestyle and outlook. It doesn’t mean we will always get it right. There will be times when we will fall and fail. Nevertheless, our orientation and worldview will be different; we will be viewing life, not from the viewpoint of sin and the Self, but from the viewpoint of the Spirit and Christ.

There are two sides to this: there is what God does and what we must do. St Paul writes to the Philippian believers:

‘Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.’ (Philippians 2:12-13)

We are to work out our salvation for God is at work within us. It is God himself who enables us to work out our salvation. But notice that we are to do so with ‘fear and trembling’. This is not a drill. It is not a rehearsal. Our life depends on it. Our eternal life that is.

St John writes that there is still much that we do not know. We don’t fully know what we will be or what God’s plans are for us, but, St John writes, we do know that when Christ is revealed, we will be like him. God’s goal for us is that we might become like Christ and the purpose of our lives now in this world is to make us more like him. St John writes:

‘And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.’ (1 John 3:3)

May our aim in this life be to abide in Christ and may our hope for the next be to be like him.


Saturday, April 10, 2021

The Second Sunday of Easter

This is the transcript of my podcast for the Second Sunday of Easter.

The Second Sunday of Easter

Reading: 1 John 1:1-2:2

Last week’s podcast for Easter was in two parts. In it, I looked at the death of Jesus and how it is popularly understood. I argued that, in the New Testament, the death of Jesus is understood very differently to how it is commonly understood, even in our churches.

I suggested that the contemporary way of understanding the death of Jesus uses bits of the New Testament to construct a model for understanding the death of Jesus. On this understanding, the death of Jesus was as a consequence of the life he led and the teaching he gave. What matters now is not that he died, but that he is alive and calls us to follow his example of love and acceptance of people, keeping his teaching as we reach out to those who are oppressed and in need.

I said in my talk that this popular understanding of the death of Jesus leaves out crucial elements, which are essential to the New Testament understanding of the death of Jesus. We can identify four in particular:

Firstly, in the New Testament, the death of Jesus is central to what Jesus came to do.

Secondly, the death of Jesus is seen as a sacrifice for sin.

Thirdly, the death of Jesus is divinely ordained.

Fourthly, the death of Jesus satisfies the justice of God

In the New Testament, the main purpose of Jesus’ life and death is to deal with our sin. Jesus died as a sacrifice for sin according to the plan and purpose of God to satisfy God’s demand for justice. Jesus’ death wasn’t as a consequence of what he came to do; it was what he came to do. Yes, of course, Jesus’ life and death teaches us more, but the more it teaches is based on this understanding of it.

For example, Jesus, by dying for our sins ‘according to the Scriptures’, also gives us an example of how we are to live as his followers by denying ourselves and taking up our cross (Mark 8:34). Jesus’ death in obedience to the will of God shows us that, in our service of God, we are to have the same mind as he had (Philippians 2:5). We too are to become ‘obedient unto death, even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:8).

But we cannot love and serve God or love others as Jesus commanded us to unless sin is dealt with in our lives. The Cross was a one-off event, but it is an event that still has power and relevance in the present. When we are baptized, we are baptized into Jesus’ death (Romans 6:3). We are now to become like him in his death (Philippians 3:10).

I have been quoting from St Paul, but St Paul’s understanding of the death of Jesus is one that is also shared by all the New Testament writers. Indeed, St Paul himself makes the point that the understanding of Jesus’ death that he shared with people when he first preached to them was one that he himself had received from other believers (1 Corinthians 11:23-26; 15:3).

We see this shared understanding in our reading this week from the first letter of St John. St John writes:

‘… the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.’ (1 John 1:7)

St John tells those he is writing to:

‘… he [Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.’ (1 John 2:2)

We resist what the New Testament tells us about the death of Jesus, because we don’t want to be confronted with the truth about ourselves. The New Testament repeatedly tells us that our problem as human beings is our sin and that we are all, without exception, sinners. So why do we find it so hard to accept this plain teaching? As I have said many times, the dominant worldview of people today is one that puts ‘self’ at the centre.

We have an extremely high opinion of ourselves and our abilities. It is an opinion that flies in the face of the evidence. Yet, despite all the evidence to the contrary, we persist in telling ourselves that we are fundamentally good and that there is nothing we cannot do or achieve if we but put our minds to it and follow our dreams. Self-fulfilment and self-realization, doing and being what we want to do and be, is what we are constantly told our life is, or should be, all about.

We simply don’t want to admit and face up to the fact that we are sinners by birth and choice, incapable of freeing ourselves from sin’s power and influence in our lives. Even when we are prepared to admit that we are capable of sin and wrong-doing, we want to minimize and relativize it. We point instead to the good we do and ignore the bad. We see ourselves as more sinned against than sinning.

Increasingly in our age, sin is seen in non-personal terms. So, we talk instead about institutional and systemic sin: sins such as sexism and racism. We prefer to focus on society’s evils rather than our own. This allows us to be angry about sin without having to take any direct and personal responsibility for it. St John explicitly challenges this attitude.

St John tells his readers that ‘if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8). Worse still, St John writes, ‘if we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us’ (1 John 1:10). When we refuse to admit that we personally are sinners, not only are we refusing to face up to the truth about ourselves, we are calling God a liar, because God has plainly and unambiguously told us that we are sinners, so sinful, in fact, that it was only the death of his Son that could deal with our sin.

The Risen Jesus, in this week’s Gospel reading, makes forgiving and retaining people’s sin central to the task he commissions his disciples to do (John 20:23). The Gospel the Church is entrusted to proclaim is the good news that if we confess our sins, that is to admit fully to them without reservation and qualification, God through Jesus will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all that is wrong.

St John tells those he is writing to that he is writing these things so that they may not sin (1 John 2:1). St John wants us to stop sinning, but, knowing our weakness, he also continues to tell us that if we do sin, Jesus is on our side. Jesus understands and forgives. But he cannot forgive what we refuse to admit; he cannot give what we refuse to accept.

It is like someone who has got seriously into debt. A friend pays off the debt for them, but the person in debt refuses to admit there was ever a problem and continues to live in poverty. They won’t accept either the reality of their situation or what their friend has done for them.

As long as we persist in the delusion and lie that we are not sinners, we remain in our sin. Jesus has commissioned me as a priest to tell you that if you refuse to accept that you are a sinner who needs forgiving, then your sins are retained, and you face the judgement and condemnation of God (John 20:23).

This really is serious, and we need to start taking it more seriously. It is not a game or something we say in Church because we are expected to but can then forget the rest of the time.

This is a matter of life and death: yours and mine.

For an addict freedom and healing begin when the addict is prepared to admit openly and unreservedly that they are an addict. As addicts to sin, join me today in saying for yourself:

‘I’m Ross and I am a sinner. I’m Ross and God has forgiven my sins and cleansed me from all unrighteousness.’

Thanks be to God that he is ‘faithful and just’.


Tuesday, April 06, 2021

The Death of Jesus (Part Two)

The following is the transcript of the second part of my two part podcast talk for Easter.

The Death of Jesus – Part Two

This is the second part of a two-part talk (podcast) for Easter on the death of Jesus. In my previous talk, I described how the death of Jesus is popularly understood. Jesus’ death, on the common understanding of it, was a consequence of the life he led and the teaching he gave. The resurrection of Jesus is understood as God vindicating Jesus.

God, on this understanding, by raising Jesus from the dead is telling us that Jesus got it right. Jesus is now to be our example and guide and one day God will raise us too. The death of Jesus is a fact of history, but, on this understanding, it is his life both before and after his death that matters to us now. His life shows us how to live our lives and his resurrection inspires us and gives us the strength we need. I called this the LEGO model of the atonement: (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 was historically inevitable given his life, but hardly the purpose of it or the reason why he came.

This model of the atonement uses bits of the New Testament to construct it. The problem, however, lies in the bits it does not use. It treats these unused bits as unnecessary. In this second part of the talk, I want to identify the bits missing from the LEGO model of the atonement and to argue that far from being unimportant, they are in fact essential to understanding what our Lord has done for us on the Cross.

1. The Centrality of Jesus’ Death

St Mark devotes three-fifths of his Gospel to the suffering and death of Jesus; St Matthew two-fifths; St Luke a third. St John divides his Gospel in two. The second part begins on the night before Jesus’ death. What are known as the passion narratives are central to the story of Jesus in all four Gospels.

In St John’s Gospel, as we have seen during Lent, what Jesus refers to as ‘his hour’ is there from the very beginning (John 2:4) and everything builds up to it. The same is true in the other Gospels, St Mark, for example, writes:

‘Then he [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.’ (Mark 8:31)

In St Luke’s Gospel, after the resurrection, Jesus says to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus:

‘Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ (Luke 24:26)

The LEGO model of the atonement is right to stress that in the life and teaching of Jesus, we see God revealing himself. As Jesus says, ‘He and the Father are one’ (John 10:30). The LEGO model of the atonement, however, treats the death of Jesus, not as the central part, but as just one part of the story. While in the LEGO model of the atonement, the death of Jesus may have been an ‘historical inevitability’, an unavoidable consequence of the life Jesus lived, it was not, on this understanding of Jesus’ death, strictly necessary.

Instead, Jesus’ death serves to emphasize what was already there in his life rather than to add anything new as such to it. Yes, Jesus’ death shows Jesus commitment to the truth and to his message. It illustrates the length that Jesus was willing to go to demonstrate his love for us. If, however, we ask if it would ultimately have mattered if Jesus had not been put to death, then, based on the LEGO model of the atonement, it is hard to see how it would. The impact of Jesus’ life may not have been as great; a martyr dying for what they believe in always leaves a mark. There is, however, nothing about Jesus’ death, on this understanding of it, that can’t be explained in purely historical terms.

There is, in other words, a marked difference in the significance that is attached to the death of Jesus in the New Testament compared to how the death of Jesus is regarded in the LEGO model of the atonement. In the New Testament, the death of Jesus is central and significant in a way that in the LEGO model it is not. In the New Testament, Jesus has to die; he was born to die; it’s why he came. At the end of his public ministry in St John’s Gospel, Jesus says:

‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say — ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.’ (John 12:27)

Advocates of the model may argue that this is all about emphasis, but at the very least the difference in emphasis should alert us to the fact that there may be a problem in the way many people today understand the death of Jesus.

2. The Lamb of God and the Sacrifice in his Blood

The last thing Jesus did before his arrest and crucifixion was to have a Meal with his closest disciples. This Meal is described in the Gospels as a Passover Meal to which Jesus gave a new meaning. The original Passover, still celebrated by Jews today, remembered how God told the people of Israel to sacrifice a lamb and put its blood out on the door posts of the houses where they lived, so that the angel of death would ‘pass over’ them and they would be saved from the death that God brought to the first born of Egypt (Exodus 12:1-32).

At the Meal with his disciples, Jesus took the bread with which the Meal began and told them it was his body given for them. At the end of the Meal, he took the cup and told them it was his blood that was shed for them. By doing this, Jesus makes clear that he sees his death as itself a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. It is the new covenant in his blood (Luke 22:20; see also: 1 Corinthians 11:25).

Jesus’ death, in other words, was not just that of a martyr dying for what he believed in, but more like the sacrifice of a lamb in the way the Passover Lamb was sacrificed in the Temple. Jesus’ sacrifice would change things in a way that they could not be changed without it. What is more, Jesus by linking his sacrifice with the forgiveness of sins also implies that without it they would not be forgiven. The first words spoken by anyone in St John’s Gospel to describe Jesus are spoken by John the Baptist who says:

‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29)

St Paul describes Jesus using the same imagery. He writes:

‘For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.’ (1 Corinthians 5:7)

This sort of language is used throughout the New Testament. It isn’t the only thing that the New Testament says about the death of Jesus, and it is not the only image used in the New Testament to describe it, but it is an image that is absolutely central. So central that believers made repeating the Meal the focus of their meeting together.

The institution of the Meal is also described by St Paul just 20 years or so later this time in writing, not to Jews used to celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem, but to ex-pagans in the Greek city of Corinth. The Meal had already become central to the Church’s life there. St Paul writes that he had passed on to them what he had himself received, received that is from the first believers in Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 11:23). St Paul had established the Meal in Corinth when he first came there, suggesting that this was what he did everywhere he went. St Paul writes:

‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’ (1 Corinthians 11:26)

The LEGO model of the atonement passes over this sort of language and imagery. It is an embarrassment to many in the Church that our worship is so centred on sin, death, and the shedding of blood. This is one reason so many, when they celebrate the Eucharist, want to focus instead on the elements of bread and wine as the gifts of creation rather than the body and blood of Christ.

The Eucharist, however, puts Christ’s bloody death at the centre of the Church and of what it means to be his followers. St Paul tells us that we have ‘redemption through his blood’ (Ephesians 1:7). St John tells us that it is the blood of Jesus that cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7). The writer to the Hebrews even goes as far as telling us that ‘without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins’ (Hebrews 9:22). St Peter describes those he writes to as ‘chosen and destined by God the Father’ to ‘be sprinkled’ with Jesus’ blood (1 Peter 1:2). In the book of Revelation, those who have died for Jesus are described as having conquered the Devil by the ‘blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony’ (Revelation 12:11).

The blood of Jesus flows through the pages of the New Testament. In the LEGO model, it is scarcely to be seen.

3. Jesus’ Death Divinely Ordained

As I have said repeatedly now, the common way today of understanding the death of Jesus is by reference to historical circumstances and forces. We are told by advocates of this understanding that Jesus himself, seeing where his situation was heading, could have avoided his death by turning back or escaping while there was time. Jesus, however, remained true to his convictions and provides us in so doing with an example of courage and commitment.

Jesus’ death, then, on this understanding, is understood as being the death of a someone who stood up for what they believed in, accepting the consequences of doing so. In this, Jesus was like those before and since who have also suffered death for what they stood for. Again, as I have said, Gandhi is a good example of such a person, but he is by no means alone.

According to the LEGO model of the atonement, Jesus’ death shows how the powerful will always act to protect their privilege and position. Those, then, who were responsible for Jesus’ death are the Roman Governor Pilate, who ordered it, the Jewish authorities who handed him over to it, and the crowds who called for it.

The LEGO model of the atonement explains Jesus’ death using historical cause and effect, putting the blame on the powerful, who conspired to bring it about. But here it stops. The New Testament doesn’t. St Peter says to the crowds on the Day of Pentecost:

‘… this man [Jesus], 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 shocking message of the New Testament is that ultimately it was God who was responsible for the death of Jesus and the historical circumstances that led to it. The people who carried it out were only acting according to his purpose and plan. As far as we are concerned, the death of Jesus took place on what has become known as Good Friday in AD 30 or AD 33. In reality, it took place before human history even began.

God gave his Son, not simply in the sense that he gave his Son over to historical forces, but gave him in the sense that God was actively involved in Christ’s sacrifice as the Lamb of God. God was guiding and controlling historical events to bring them to this conclusion. That God was in control was certainly Jesus’ own understanding of what was going on. In the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest, Jesus prayed that, ‘if it were possible, the hour might pass from him’ (Mark 14:36). St Mark writes that Jesus said:

‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’ (Mark 14:36)

Then, when they came to arrest him and Peter tried to prevent it, St John tells us that Jesus said to Peter:

‘Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?’ (John 18:11)

The reason that the Son of Man must ‘suffer and be killed’ is that God says he must.

The idea that God was actively involved in the death of his Son is repugnant to many in the Church today. In many ways, the LEGO model of the atonement that I have been describing is a reaction to it. The sacrifice of God’s Son has been described as ‘cosmic child abuse’. It is, however, one thing to reject it and another altogether to refuse to acknowledge that this is how the New Testament writers understand it. It is not the only way they describe the death of Jesus, but it is a way that is integral and foundational to all the other ways that they describe it. Rather than rejecting it out of hand because it offends our present day prejudices and sensibilities, it is better to try to understand it.

As far as the New Testament is concerned, Jesus was not a helpless victim, nor did he simply choose to die for what he believed in. Jesus died because that was God’s will for him; it was the path God had chosen for him.

4. The Wrath and Justice of God

One aspect of New Testament that is resolutely rejected today, and which the contemporary understanding of the death of Jesus refuses to recognize, is that of the wrath of God. The idea that God could be angry with us because of our sin and wrong-doing is completely alien to us. The idea that God could be so angry that he would punish us is seen to belong to primitive and outdated ideas about God. Hell is, for us, a thing of the past not something that faces us in the future. Any suggestion that the death of Jesus was in some way meant to appease an angry God and so enable us to avoid judgement in the future is simply not taken seriously.

That we today should find the idea of God being angry about sin is, when you think about it, somewhat strange and surprising. When an activist such as Greta Thunberg gets angry about climate change and the damage we are doing to the environment, everyone applauds her for it and nominates her for the Nobel Peace Prize, not just once but several times. But when we read that God is angry with us for the damage we have done to his creation that is a different matter altogether. And yet the New Testament is unambiguous that God is angry with us. St Paul writes:

‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.’ (Romans 1:18)

The reason that the creation is such a mess, St Paul writes, is because of our idolatry, our insistence on putting ourselves first and creating our own objects of worship. The New Testament is insistent that one day God will hold us all to account. A day will come when we will be judged. There will be justice.

St Peter, in our first reading, for Easter Sunday writes:

‘He [Jesus] commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.’ (Acts 10:42)

The New Testament writers all look to this Day when God will hold everyone to account for the sin they have committed. It will be a day when evil will be punished, and wrongs righted. The only way, the only way, we can be saved from the wrath of God and the judgement to come, the New Testament writers tell us, is through the blood of the Cross. The death of Jesus is seen as the sole basis for finding forgiveness and on which we can face a just and righteous God. And yet we hear almost no mention of this in our Churches today.

It is the scandal of what passes for Christianity in the present.

The very idea that God will judge and punish people is also simply dismissed out of hand. God is expected to forgive us unconditionally and accept us with no questions asked.

Which is, again, very strange given our present concern with social justice and righting the perceived wrongs of the past. Not only must the statues of past offenders be torn down, reparations must also be made and all wrongs atoned for. The language used is itself all very religious and all very New Testament. The only problem is that you are not allowed any more to use it in reference to God.

At this moment, the trial is taking place of George Chauvin who is charged in Minneapolis of the murder of George Floyd, the black man whose death while being arrested sparked riots and protests the world over and gave added impetus to the Black Lives Matter movement.

On Monday just past (March 29, 2021), the Floyd family gathered outside the courtroom before the trial began to protest against racism and to call for justice. They led those who gathered there with them in a chant of ‘no justice; no peace.’


Without justice, there can be no peace. And God is entitled to justice, which is what the New Testament tells us the death of Jesus is all about. There is nothing in the LEGO model of the atonement specifically about the justice of God and so, for all its fine sounding words, it can offer no peace with God. St Peter, again in our first reading for Easter Sunday says:

‘You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all.’ (Acts 10:36)

St Paul writes that God through Christ has reconciled all things ‘by making peace through the blood of his cross’ (Colossians 1:20). ‘Christ’, St Paul writes in Ephesians, ‘is our peace’ (Ephesians 2:14).

By the death of Jesus, forgiveness and peace with God is now offered to us through faith in Christ (Romans 5:1). This is the good news. This is the Gospel. And this is why the death of Jesus is not something we can pass over and leave behind us. The Cross is not an empty symbol, but a statement of what it cost to settle what we owed. ‘Christ died for our sins’ (1 Corinthians 15:3). When he was crucified, Jesus didn’t simply pay the price of his convictions, he paid the price of our sin. As the famous hymn puts it:

‘There was no other good enough
to pay the price of sin;
he only could unlock the gate
of heaven, and let us in.’

Only the divinely ordained death of Jesus as the Lamb of God, sent out of love by the Father was sufficient to meet the demands of justice and to bring forgiveness and peace.

We are shocked nowadays that St Paul sent a slave, Onesimus, back to his master, Philemon, and didn’t do more to free him from slavery. St Paul, we think, should have used the occasion to teach the Church about the evils of slavery and to right a social injustice.

St Paul didn’t think slavery was a good thing, but he knew that the slavery to sin that we are all in is the very worst form of slavery. It is Jesus himself who describes us as ‘slaves of sin’ (John 8:34), and it is only Jesus who can set us free. Jesus said, ‘So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed’ (John 8:36). It is Jesus alone who can break the power and slavery of sin and release those held captive by it.

The power of sin lies not only in the structures and systems of this world, but also where sin is at its most powerful: in the hearts and lives of each one of us.

‘We preach Christ crucified’, writes St Paul (1 Corinthians 1:23). There is a reason for that. It is because the death of Jesus isn’t about a good man dying for what he believes in. It is about the death of the Son God, dying as the Lamb of God for our sin and because of our sin; the sin that brings the wrath of God on us and demands justice.

The sacrifice of the Lamb of God on the Cross meets the demand for justice and brings us peace through his blood. We who believe in him no longer fear the judgement. As St Paul writes:

‘Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.’ (Romans 5:9)

We know that we who have become one with him in his death, shall become one with him in his resurrection (Romans 6:5).

‘Alleluia. Christ is risen.’

And one day we too will rise with him to be with him forever.