We went to see Elbow last night… I like Elbow. A lot. I know they aren’t everyone’s musical cup of whatever, but I like them… and I’m in charge of this bit… so there.

Guy Garvey, their lead singer and songwriter is an associate professor of song writing. He takes his words seriously. I want to share a song they didn’t even play last night… but it’s one of my favourites. It’s a song about a returning prodigal son, sort of.

So, the song begins:

You’re a law unto yourself
And we don’t suffer dreamers
But neither should you walk the earth alone

So with finger rolls and folding chairs 
And a volley of streamers
We can be there for tweaks and repairs
Should you come back home

We got open arms for broken hearts
Like yours my boy, come home again

There comes a point where the Gospel is presented in all its simplicity and complexity. For me it is in John’s Gospel when Jesus says:

Love one another as I have loved you.

It’s that simple… and that complicated.

Jesus asks his disciples to do just one thing. Obey his commands. But perhaps, like us, the disciples didn’t quite get it?

Perhaps the conversation went a little like this…

And they asked Jesus, 
‘What shall we do when you are gone?’

And he asked them, 
‘What have I asked of you?’

And they asked Jesus, 
‘You have asked many things of us.’

And he asked then, 
‘Well tell me what you remember.’

‘Well we remember the loaves and fish and the 5,000 fed,

A vine and the branches and the bearing of fruit.

We remember the daughter ‘asleep’ then woken and eating and at the same time the bleeding woman, renewed in community.

Then there was the beaten up man taking the Samaritan’s help, the tables being turned and the poor being set free

And the woman in adultery sinning no more

There was the calling of the fishers onto a journey unknown

Sending of twelve with only faith as their staff

You talked of being salt and the light in a world too cosy

Throwing tables about in the Temple

There was walking on water and the call to step out

The breaking of bread and the sharing of promise

We remember the parable of sowing and a harvest of plenty

There was the time they tried to throw you off a cliff in Nazareth and questions about miracles

The faith of a woman who ate from the crumbs

And so much more.’

And Jesus said to the disciples, 
‘You have remembered well.’

And the disciples said to Jesus, 
‘But what is your command when you are gone?’

And he said to them, 
‘Go and live out these stories again and again. Make yourself at home in my love. That’s it. That’s my root command.’

We can, and we do, argue about what Jesus means when he speaks. We can, and we do, discuss the deeper meaning of parables and sayings. We can, and should, debate how the Bible informs how we should live. But what seems to me to beyond debate is that Jesus is really very clear about what he expects from his followers. Love one another. If you love each other then you love me.

That seems so simple doesn’t it? Love each other.

But we are human. Loving doesn’t come easy to us. We can all love people who love us back. We can all love those who are like us. What is hard for us is to love those who aren’t like us. It is hard for us to love people who won’t love us back. It’s hard for us to love people when there is nothing in it for us.

It’s hard for us to go beyond our boundaries.

Tables are for pounding here
And when we’ve got you surrounded
The man you are will know the boy you were

And you’re not the man who fell to earth
You’re the man of La Mancha
And we’ve love enough to light the street
’Cause everybody’s here

We got open arms for broken hearts
Like yours my boy, come home again

Isn’t that the way of life? The man or woman you are will always know the boy or girl you were.

It’s a fact that sometimes the hardest person to love and forgive is our self. The people we have been are always with us. It’s hard to love other people when we’re not even that sure we can love ourselves or that God could possibly love us.

And yet that’s what we read in the Bible. Again and again we read of the followers of Christ being challenged to love those outsiders, to love those who aren’t like us, to love those who are different; lepers, prostitutes, the sick, the possessed, the blind and the lame. And it’s not just a challenge to love people who are outcast in our societies. The followers of Jesus were challenged to love Samaritans and Gentiles. The exiles in Babylon were challenged to think that God could be the God of their captors too.

In short, God’s love has no boundaries. No matter how we might want to limit God’s love we are challenged in the same way that the disciples were. Every time we come up against people we find hard to love we need to remind ourselves of Jesus commandment, love one another.

But we are human. Surely that can’t be right? Surely Jesus means we just need to love each other?

And yet when we read again that list of stories and sayings we see exactly what Jesus means.

We remember the loaves and fish and the 5,000 fed, people who had turned up to hear Jesus. They had walked for miles and brought no food. Idiots.

The vine and the branches and the bearing of fruit. But surely that means people like us? Those others, how can they bear fruit?

We remember the daughter ‘asleep’ then woken and eating and at the same time the bleeding woman, renewed in community. Yes but that was different.

Then there was the beaten up man taking the Samaritan’s help, but there are people who just don’t deserve our help.

The tables being turned and the poor being set free. They should get a job, stop sitting about all day. That would set them free.

And the woman in adultery sinning no more, well as far as we know. A leopard doesn’t change its spots!

There was the calling of the fishers onto a journey unknown. But it’s not like they gave up much is it. Fishing was hardly a decent job with big prospects.

And so we go on. We find so many excuses not to love people. That’s because love costs more. Love means giving of ourselves. Love means caring. Love means being open to being changed by people we least expect.

Everyone’s here
Everyone’s here
The moon is out looking for trouble
And everyone’s here

The song is about a man returning to his hometown, the place he had been a boy. Years have passed since he was last here and he’s different. He’s come back home with a reputation to a place where everyone knew him. Some liked him, some didn’t.

Everyone’s here. Such a human experience. Never quite knowing how people will react, how things will work out. We all know these events. A wedding, a birthday, a funeral… or whatever the occasion, there’s always a bit of tension. Who will turn up? I hope they don’t come… Who does she think she is? I wonder what the story is with him is?

Nowhere to hide. No anonymity here. People know you. People know me.

Do you ever wonder about the disciples? I mean they were hardly the brightest or the best, were they? Fishermen, tax collectors, political activists…

I wonder how Matthew and Simon got on. Matthew was a tax collector. He worked for the Romans. People hated the tax collectors. They were dishonest and they collaborated with the occupying force. Simon was a Zealot. The Zealots were an extremist political movement who wanted revolution. Can you imagine these two ever being friends?

I can imagine Jesus telling them to sit next to each other at dinner. I can imagine the tension.

What about James and John or Peter and Andrew? Two sets of brothers, and we all know that brothers get on with each other all the time… I wonder if Andrew was annoyed that Peter got all the attention?

Everyone’s here
Everyone’s here
The moon wants a scrap or a cuddle
And everyone’s here

What’s it going to be? Are you going to see the good in each other or let the difference, jealousy, fear and anger consume you?

It’s a question we can ask ourselves every day. What’s it going to be? A scrap or a cuddle? Loathing or loving?

Jesus left us one instruction. Just one.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”

We have a choice. We can remain or not. We can obey or not. We can follow or not. We can love or not.

To choose not to moves us away from the life God wants for us. It doesn’t make God love us any less but it makes us less loving. From the very beginning this whole project has been a partnership between God and us. God gave us this world and let us name it and build it and grow it and look after it, just as He has given us this church to name and build and grow and look after.

We know which is the better way…

I wonder if the refrain of the song should be the refrain of our church?

We got open arms for broken hearts
Like yours my child, come home again

Love one another as I have loved you.
We’ll have open arms for broken hearts,
like yours my child,
come home again.


Open Arms by Elbow 2011

Written by

Craig Potter, Guy Garvey, Mark Potter, Pete Turner, Richard Jupp

Produced by Craig Potter


My primary 7 teacher wasn’t very tall, but that didn’t make her any less imposing. On the rare occasion that someone dared to do something wrong she took an interesting approach to discipline. She would stand very close to you and as she poked you in the chest with her finger she would ask what I think was a rhetorical question… ‘Who do you think you are?’

Once someone replied, why miss, have you forgotten? He regretted it instantly.

But it always seemed a strange question. Why not ask the usual what or why questions? ’What do you think you’re playing at?’
‘What on earth possessed you to do that?’
or ‘Why did you think that was a good idea?’.

But no… she always asked the same question…
‘Who do you think you are?’

The accompanying frown and poke in the chest made it pretty obvious that she meant the question as a reminder that she was in charge. That our part in all of this was to do what she said and to behave. The end of her question was unspoken… who do you think you are… misbehaving in my classroom. Causing problems. Daring to question my authority.

But as we grapple with this passage about a vine where Jesus is telling us about who we are, I wonder if my teacher’s question wasn’t actually the best question of all because what we do, how we behave, what we value and what we respect are very much a reflection of the answer to her question… who do you think you are?

We should probably start by reminding ourselves that we are in John’s Gospel today, not Matthew. I say that because this feels like a Matthew passage with it’s pruning. It sounds like Matthew’s stories about wheat and chaff and burning. Or refining silver. Or stripping out impurities with the fuller’s soap. This isn’t that. Not at all. It’s something quite different…

But here’s the thing… we’ve changed.
All of us have changed.
We have changed because we have all experienced a traumatic event,
an event that continues to shape the world around us,
an that event and many others we have experienced together and on our own have changed us all.

And that’s a similar context for today’s passage from John’s Gospel. The trauma of Jesus’ trial and execution is just hours away and it will be awful, both for Jesus and for his friends. These are words of comfort to them. Words for them to find hope in for the dark moments to come.

Abide in me.
I am the vine.
Stay connected to me.
Rooted in me.
It is only in me that you will be fruitful.

But the next few days of the story aren’t the only ones that will be difficult for the disciples. They will face hardship, controversy, expulsion from their religious communities, difficult decisions, big calls on the way forward, persecution and even arrest and death. Things won’t be easy for them, just as they haven’t been easy for any of us over the last months.

The word we so often use for getting back to normal is ‘recovery’. But we all know that while recovery might mean healing, it doesn’t ever mean everything will be the same. We know that we might have scars, we might have different or limited abilities, we might have pain, both physical and emotional, and we might have to change all kinds of things about our lives because of what has happened. At the very least we will have the experience of living through the problem, the injury or the event. That changes us. There’s an old proverb that says you can never stand in the same river twice. The water that you stood in the first time has gone, but also the plants on the bank have grown, the stones on the riverbed have been worn over time. The change may be slow, but it is constant.

As we are recovering the world changes around us. We age. We experience. We learn. And so does everyone else. A colleague of mine was always keen to remind us that not changing isn’t an option because even if we stay the same everything around us changes, so our place in the world is changed, whether we want it to be or not.

When we use phrases like ‘new normal’ we’re talking about that reality of what recovery really is… that we can never go back to the world as it was because that world doesn’t exist any more.

There’s a lot going on in today’s passage in John’s Gospel. It’s the last of the I AM statements, I am the true vine. It’s part of the long farewell discourse where Jesus tries to explain what is about to happen both to him and to his disciples so it’s an intensely pastoral moment. But in the middle of all of that Jesus talks about something I think we find really difficult to get our heads around, both in out own lives and in the life of the church… fruitfulness.

When Jesus speaks in this way it seems clear that he’s not just being pastoral, not just showing concern, but he’s also issuing a bit of a challenge.

Remain fruitful.
In fact… be more fruitful.
Despite all that is about to happen…
Actually, because of all that is about to happen…
remain in me and bear much fruit.

We’ve become almost immune to the litany of statistics that tell us what trouble the church is in… how many members have left this week… the point at which we just won’t be viable as a congregation or a denomination anymore.
It’s depressing.
And so we just don’t pay any attention to it.

And to a certain extent the numbers are pointless.
Numbers aren’t everything we tell ourselves.
Fruitfulness is about more than counting heads.
And, yes, ok, that’s true. There are many ways to be fruitful.

But numbers are something…
Pruning is about promoting a higher yield of fruit.
Branches that don’t produce fruit are cut off and thrown in the fire because they just use up energy that could be going into the growing of good fruit. More fruit.
Quality and quantity are both desirable, and preferably both together.

So, why is it that we we get so worried about conversations about fruitfulness?
Is it because we feel the judgement is about us?
What if the thing we need to stop, the branch we need to cut off is ours?
I mean, who wants to be thrown away, or worse, thrown in the fire?
I don’t want this thing that I have worked so hard for to be taken away.

Oddly, we can be much more attached to that kind of idea than we are about doing some pruning in our own lives. We all know that there are bits of our lives that aren’t what they should be. We could all do with a bit of gardening to get rid of the things that are unhelpful or take our own attention and energy away from serving God as we know we should.

So why is it so different in a different context?

Just three years before this conversation recorded in John’s Gospel Jesus was alone as he set out on his ministry. He went to see John for baptism by himself. He went out into the wilderness alone. And then, when he was ready, he starting to gather disciples. 12 of them. So, sure… numbers aren’t everything. At least that’s what we tell ourselves when they are low. But it’s also true.

I visited Cuba some years ago and met a minister who met with one member of his congregation each week for worship for years because it was just too dangerous for others to join them. We might have closed that church saying it was unviable. That it hadn’t grown. That it had no plan for mission. But they met. And they prayed for those who could not meet and pray. And the people of that community knew they were loved, knew they were prayed for, and when the time came they were able to return safely they did. They returned to what is now a thriving church. The fruit from those two faithful people was, and still is, bountiful.

What marks out the disciples is their fruitfulness. That’s the evidence of their connection, their dependance on Christ. They, and we, can do nothing without him as our root. If we are not bearing fruit then surely we need to ask ourselves some serious questions about how connected we are to Jesus?

Here’s the thing… we know what good fruit looks like. And we know what an empty branch looks like too. We know that some plants like sun and others like shade. Some like dry and other need damp conditions. The right kind of plant in the right place makes all the difference. Sometimes it’s just that the plant needs more food or water or that the sun hasn’t shone or it has shone too much. Or the fruit has spoiled because there were no workers to gather it in.

Our role in all of this, I think, is about discernment. Working out prayerfully what God wants from us. Finding out where God is at work in the world and joining in. After all Jesus tells us that God is the gardener. He’s the one who does the pruning. But sometimes he needs us to help.

Pruning is painful. Our church building has been closed since the first lockdown, and that has been hard on many people. But by being thrown into creating online services we have reached others who have never been in our church building or who can’t ever get there. New growth. Fruit from something that was a painful cut and one we would never have made willingly. It certainly makes you think… doesn’t it?

One final thought… when we complain that others should mind their own business and tend to their own plants we are failing to recognise that we are all part of the same vine, rooted in Christ. We don’t have separate vines. In fact, vines only grow and bear fruit if they are grafted onto good roots.

So, go and be fruitful. Put all your energy into the places that God is bringing growth. And don’t be afraid to prune. To relocate even. But to always… always be grafted into the root that is Christ.


In the flesh!

The first time Jesus appears to anyone in Luke’s version of the story is on the road to Emmaus. Two of his followers, Cleopas and his friend, don’t recognise Jesus as he walks along with them, but when he breaks bread they see that it is Jesus… and then he’s gone.

They rush back to Jerusalem to tell the others. But can you imagine hearing that story?

We were just walking along and this stranger appeared and we started telling him all about what had happened to Jesus and he talked to us about the scriptures. When we got to our home he was going on further, but it was almost dark so we invited him in for a meal. When he broke the bread it was like… it was… well… it was Jesus!!!

So where is he then?

Well… He vanished.

And there’s where the story falls apart, isn’t it?
You can just imagine the prosecutor in a court room turning and smiling at the jury…
‘He just… vanished…’
No further questions, your honour.

That’s the context for our story today. A sketchy story about meeting a stranger who turned out to be Jesus and who vanished as soon as they recognised him.

The disciples are still in the upper room wondering what on earth to do and what to make of Cleopas’ story and Jesus appears.

He’s right there, all of a sudden. In the midst of them.

“Peace be with you”, says Jesus.

And they are terrified. Scared out of their minds. And who wouldn’t be?

“Peace be with you”. The Hebrew word is “Shalom”. As with most words like this Shalom means so much more than ‘peace be with you’. Shalom means peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness… Shalom means reconciliation with God. What greeting could be more appropriate in these circumstances!

All that denial and betrayal. All the hurt and guilt and loss and shame… all of it put aside. Shalom.

I was listening to a podcast from Carey Nieuwhof and the topic was how we change our minds. Adam Grant was the guest. Adam teaches at Harvard and is a organisational psychologist and writer and as part of the conversation he asked Carey about his preaching style. There’s an assumption that’s kind of baked in to preaching; that most of the people listening to a sermon like this already believe in Jesus. I’m not really trying to change anyone’s mind…. It’s more about explaining or opening up something new. Or is it?

It turned into a great conversation as they explored together the ways in which we all have things we believe… and things we don’t. And of course we all have the things we try hard to believe but really struggle with. In our world of fake news and conspiracy theories they talked about how you can engage with people who still hold problematic views, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

One of Carey’s preaching tips was to always try to anticipate the objection. So, when he’s writing his sermon he’ll be mindful of the points people will be thinking, sure… like that really happened! Or… but that’s not what I’ve been told that means!

He’s noticed that when you make a point that raises some of those kinds of questions people get stuck there with their question. They don’t hear the next bit. Carey has found that even just acknowledging those questions as they arise helps people not get stuck there, but to follow on to what comes next, which is often the answer to the question that people wouldn’t hear because they are stuck.

He’ll say, Sure, I know what you’re thinking… but go with me on this because there’s something helpful coming along in a minute….

Or, as Jesus says, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.’

Don’t get stuck at this bit. It’s one of the biggest questions about the resurrection, isn’t it. What is Jesus like? Is he a ghost? Is he flesh and blood? This is one of those stories that’s an account of what happened but also an encouragement for all those who were not in the room, like you and me.

Luke wants to answer the questions that we get stuck with and this is a question that perplexed the disciples, the early church, and it’s a question we are still puzzled by. What was the risen Jesus really like?

Luke answers the question. Flesh and blood. See, he even eats! Ghosts don’t do that! And that should be enough. But we still puzzle over things like whether Jesus has wounds, or scars or was completely healed. It’s hard for us to wrap our minds around something so unusual. But when we get stuck there we miss the next part… and the next part is important. Really important.

Jesus wants to listen to their questions and to explain what has happened, but more than that, he puts it all in a much greater context.

Understanding all this stuff is important.

He takes them through the scriptures and points to all the things they have heard before but this time he helps them to connect them all together. To see where the story was heading… and to realise that the conclusion, the Messiah, is sitting there among them. he helps them to rethink.

And then… then he tells them this:

‘This is what is written: the Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things.’

The story isn’t over.
This isn’t the final chapter.
It’s not enough that the Messiah had suffered
and had risen from the dead…
there’s more.
So much more.

I mentioned the podcast I was listening to about changing minds.
That’s what repentance means.
To think again.
To change your understanding.

Repentance is important because this all sounds like too much, doesn’t it?
A dead man who is alive?
That just doesn’t happen.

But resurrection is more than resuscitation. This is a story where that flesh and bone reality is at the centre of everything. And that matters!

But Jesus is also more than that. He is God’s son. Fully human and fully divine.

The big question for us, I think, is what does it mean to live in a world where resurrection is a reality?

To get our heads around that we’re going to have to do a lot of re-thinking! Just like those disciples did!

Perhaps one way to help us to understand is to see what happens to the disciples next because the reality of resurrection is as much about us as it is about Jesus…

Luke was so interested in what happened next that he wrote a book all about it… Acts. The Acts of the Apostles. The sequel… part 2… The what happened next…

In chapter 3… just weeks after this encounter with Jesus, Peter and John healed a man. I know, right. The people didn’t believe it either. They couldn’t understand how it had happened. How could two fishermen from Galilee heal a man who had been unable to walk his whole life?

Peter tells them: “By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see. Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord”

There it is… witnessing. Telling the truth about what happened. Preaching the forgiveness of sins for everyone. Helping people to rethink. To repent.

When people hear that resurrection is real it allows them to see things in a new way.
To rethink.
To leave behind some stuff that they have been carrying for too long.
To step into a new world where guilt and shame and regret and fear don’t hold sway and don’t have the last word.

That’s why resurrection matters.
It matters to you and to me.
It matters because it changes us.
It matters because it changes everything.

Hold on!

We’ll get to the much maligned ‘not very doubting at all Thomas’ shortly, but just look at the other disciples. Afraid and locked in a room. Hardly a bunch that seems like they believe in the resurrection, are they?

It was evening on that same day that they had found the empty tomb and they are gathered together in the upper room and they are afraid.

And that’s mostly true. Ten of the male disciples are there. Judas has gone and Thomas isn’t with them. Mary Magdalene isn’t mentioned, but then she’s not scared. She’s seen Jesus and told the other the joyful news… and they don’t seem to believe her. The disciples are unbelieving. That’s an important word in this passage. It’ll make another appearance a bit later.

We’ve seen before in John’s Gospel that night is a time of fear and worry and that’s how it is now for the disciples. The door is locked. They fear the authorities. They must be worried about what happens next. How do you go back to your everyday life after all this?

Mary said she met Jesus in the morning at dawn and it’s been a whole day and now it’s getting dark and there’s no sign of him. And didn’t she say that he looked different? She didn’t even recognise him at first. Maybe it wasn’t him at all. I mean, how could it be?

And I think that’s the whole point of this passage. Actually that’s the point of the whole Gospel. The clue is in the last couple of verses:

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

This is the disciples ‘come and see’ moment. Because all through the story, even though they are with him all the time and see everything that happens and are party to a whole load of teaching that nobody else gets the disciples often seem just as much in the dark about who Jesus really is and what following him is really about as everyone else.

They need their own ‘come and see’ moment… But this one is different from the others.

The blind man… the samaritan woman… even pilate’s judgement… all happen in the middle of the day. But evening has come and it’s getting dark. And bad things happen at night. Judas betrayed Jesus at night. Peter betrayed Jesus at night.

And they are afraid because it’s getting dark.

Suddenly Jesus is there, standing among them.

He greets them with the usual Hebrew greeting, Shalom. We translate it as ‘peace be with you’ but Shalom means a whole lot more than that. It does means ‘peace’ but in the sense of wholeness, completeness and wellbeing found through being in relationship with God.

Jesus has spoken to them about this peace before in one of the passages we missed out from what’s called ‘the farewell discourse’. It’s chapter 14 and we often hear it at funerals. In my Father’s house there are many mansions… It’s that part. It’s where Jesus talks about leaving, but not leaving the disciples orphaned.

Peace I leave with you;
my peace I give to you.
I do not give to you as the world gives.
Do not let your hearts be troubled,
and do not let them be afraid.’

In that same chapter Jesus promises the disciples that he will leave them a helper, the Spirit.

But they are afraid so Jesus stands amongst them and speaks what they need to hear, what they need to believe… Shalom. Peace… NOT an absence of threat but rather peace in the midst of what they find most difficult. And they are given the Spirit. Just like in Genesis 2, Jesus, the Word of God, breathes the Spirit of life into them. The promise Jesus made is fulfilled. Peace is given to them, made possible because the Holy Spirit is present within them.

John’s whole point is that the resurrection is ongoing. It’s not just for Easter Sunday, resurrection is an everyday occurrence. The new creation happens again and again, made possible because the gift of the Holy Spirit is for all of us. Every Sunday is Easter Sunday. Every day is resurrection day. That’s who we are. God’s resurrection people.

People often ask, ‘What’s the role of the Holy Spirit? What’s it for?’ Well, for the writer of this Gospel the Spirit is a gift from Christ to bind people to Christ.

Faith is deeply relational. Last week we talked about Jesus’ saying Mary’s name. That she was known, just like we are know. The Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, exist in perfect relationship, each showing us an aspect of God, inviting us into that relationship.

The Holy Spirit helps make the presence of Christ known to us when Jesus is not here in bodily, physical form. One of the big questions of this Gospel is raised when we are told God so loved the world that he sent his only Son… But now Jesus is gone. So how will God continue to love the world?

The answer is twofold. Through the Spirit, the gift of God to all of us… and though us… The kingdom of God relies on YOU. God’s love for the world is made known through Jesus and also by the Spirit working in us. We are an integral part of God’s mission to the world. The instructions given to the disciples are also our instructions for our own discipleship.

But there is a problem. We have misunderstood the instructions.

Firstly, I’m not sure we really believe that we are disciples. That first and foremost, that the most important thing in our lives is following Jesus. I know that for me that’s a huge struggle.

The second problem which makes the first one worse is that we read the instructions as a some kind of giving of power.

‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

That sounds like an awful lot of power for any person to have. I think most of us don’t want that kind of power. I certainly don’t. And the church throughout the ages has vested this power in it’s priests and ministers. We talk of confession and absolution and for 1,500 years that confession was made through a priest. And absolution was given by a priest. That’s one of the things that was at the centre of the Reformation, because that responsibility was being abused.

But there’s a bigger problem… what we just read is a bad translation.

The word translated as ‘sins’ is not used in the second part of the sentence in the Greek. Sandra Schneiders suggests that the translation should be something like ‘Of whomever you forgive the sins, they (that is the sins) are forgiven to them; whomever you hold fast [or embrace], they are held fast.

There is no ‘not forgiving of sins’, but instead an instruction to hold fast or embrace. And that changes everything.

The hold fast bit is vitally important because there is actually no word for ‘forgive’ in Greek.

The word we translate as ‘forgive’ actually is a pair of concepts;

’to let go’ and to ‘retain or hold fast’. And you can’t have either part alone.

Think of your fist. You can close your fist and hold fast or you open it and let go, but both are actions of your fist. Neither are possible if you don’t have a fist.

Holding fast in this sense is being held to account. Jesus holds people to account. Not turning a blind eye to wrongdoing. Not letting it slide or letting it go… Confront wrongdoing until it no longer exists and people .

The release part is where the future for all is no longer defined by the wrongdoing of the past. The problem is fixed for everyone and so we are all free from it.

But holding fast has a second meaning. It also means holding on to a relationship or an idea or a person, and that’s what’s going on with Thomas. Thomas is held fast by Jesus until he gets what he needs to enable him to believe. Thomas is another example of Jesus giving people what they need to be able to see who he is.

Thomas isn’t accused of doubt. Again we have a problematic translation that has labelled poor Thomas for 2,000 years with a nickname he doesn’t deserve. It should say ’Do not be unbelieving, but believing’. Unbelieving is different from doubt. Thomas needs an encounter with Jesus, just like everyone else has had. He is exactly the same as the other disciples are at the start of the story. This is the 3rd resurrection appearance and it’s all about showing us that God treats us as individuals with different needs and who relate in various ways to God.

Mary is told not to hold fast to Jesus because he has things still to do. She needs to learn to live without Jesus in the flesh.

Our doubts are the same as Thomas’… not really doubts but the things that keep us from truly and completely believing that Jesus loves us. But each of us gets what we get from Jesus what we need to enable us to see, to really see what life in all its fulness looks like for us and for our world. All we need to do is to be open to that. To be hungry for it. To take every opportunity to learn more and experience more of who Jesus is.

What we then do with that new knowledge is up to us.

The relationship, like every relationship, needs us to play our part.

Theresa of Avila famously wrote:

Christ has no body but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
yours are the eyes, you are his body.

As we end our journey through the Gospel of John, we are sent into the world to invite people to come and see.

All of us. Not just some of us. All of us. Our role as disciples is to invite people into a relationship with Jesus. To encourage our friends and neighbours to come and see.

And we should always remember that we are never alone in that task. We are empowered and accompanied by the Holy Spirit, Christ’s gift to all of us to help us believe that Jesus is Lord, that he is the light of the world and that we are His disciples, held fast in his love, forever.

Alive & Kicking

Mark 16:1-8

Easter without Good Friday is a hollow celebration.

Without the sham trial of an innocent man,
without the mocking of the empire’s stormtroopers
without their purple robe and crown of thorns,
without Pilate’s hand washing abdication of responsibility,
without the religious leader’s plotting,
without the crowd’s baying,
without the torturous execution of the Son of God
without all of that darkness this day makes no sense.

Who will roll away the stone?

Mark’s Gospel tells us of the staggering alliance of all of the powers of the world where the religious leaders enlist the empire to do their dirty work.
Judas has betrayed him.
Peter has denied even knowing him.
Even the criminals on either side mock him.
Jesus issues a cry that echoes through eternity,
my God, my God, why have you forsaken me…
Even God it seems is missing.

It is finished.

But Jesus was not alone.

These are the women who stayed.
These are the women who watched
and who waited.
These are the women who listened
to the jeers and insults
of those who had shouted Hosanna just days before.

These are the women who watched the leaders,
emboldened now as Jesus was nailed to a cross,
mock him,
tell him now to show them some sign,
to come down from the cross they had nailed him to and they would believe.

These are the women who saw Joseph of Arimathea, one of the religious leaders, go to Pilate and ask for the body.

Usually the crucified were left on their cross to serve as a grim warning,
A final cruel punishment.
Denied of the last care of family and friends.
All dignity stripped away.

But the none of the leaders wanted Jesus hanging there as a rallying point.
The crowd were fickle.
It wouldn’t take much for him to become a martyr and for them to be the ones being vilified. So they send Joseph to take the body and dump it in an unmarked grave.
Out of sight… out of mind.

But the women,
these women,
these faithful women
had watched and endured the long Sabbath wait
until they could go and perform one last duty for their Lord.

As these three women, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, they go with no hope, no expectation of finding anything other than a body to tend to. The walk through the morning gloom towards the tomb where the broken body of Jesus was hurriedly left three days earlier and their question gives voice to their concerns….

Who will roll the stone away?

They expect everything to be just as it was when they left.

It has been the sabbath after all. No work was permitted, so any movement of the stone would have been a violation of the rules the religious leaders were so very keen on.

I wonder, as we join here on another Easter Morning, what our expectations really are?

There is much about these women we can relate to, I think.
They have ventured out into the world for a single purpose as the others stay inside.

I wonder, do we share their lack of hope?
Do we come here expecting to find something blocking the way?
Do we journey tentatively, carrying all of our fears, all of our doubts and all of our grief?

When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.

Who could have done that? The Romans? Have they moved the body?

As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.

But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.

Do not be alarmed.
Yeah… sure! Ok.

When you go to embalm the body of your friend and find instead that the stone blocking the tomb has been moved and his body is missing the one thing you are going to be is alarmed!

It had all been bad enough… but now this? They can’t even leave him in peace in death?

You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified.
He is not here.
He is risen.

I wonder what those words mean to us?
He is not here… He is risen.

For these three women it meant more fear and confusion.

It’s important to say what Mark doesn’t tell us.

We could have read John’s account where Mary meets the gardener who calls her name. A beautiful passage that takes us back to the very beginning, to Eden, where God walks in the garden and it is the woman who is there to meet him.

But this is Mark. What Avril read for us this morning is all there is.
This is how Mark’s Gospel ends.

But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

And so they should be.
And we should be too.

Dead men don’t come back to life.
Everybody knows that.

On Friday we stood witness at the foot of the cross with these women.
We watched and waited
as the sky turned black and all the colour was drained from the world,
as the curtain in the Temple was wrenched in two exposing the empty room
while God was hanging on a cross.
We listened to his last words.
We heard him declare ‘It is finished!’.

It was over.
All of it.
Completed. He said so himself.

And even in this moment, where the tomb is empty and an angel declares He is not here, he is risen, there is still fear and confusion.

Why isn’t he here?
Where is he?
Why can’t we see him?

In Mark’s Gospel the resurrection leaves a Jesus sized hole in the story. And the scary part is that we are invited to step in to that space.

The resurrection is an invitation…
To follow in faith.
To journey, going Jesus wherever he might lead us.

Mark doesn’t need to say anymore.
This is all we get… and all we need!
Jesus is risen.
A statement of fact… and a statement of faith…
‘He is not here, he is risen!’

and one huge question…

Do you believe it?

And if you do, then we should be at least a little bit terrified?

Stepping into that gap is called discipleship.

Jesus has gone on ahead…
You have all that you need.
You have heard what he said.
You have watched what he did.
You have seen how he stood in opposition
to oppression,
and even death.

You have seen how all of those powers work,
these kingdoms of the world,
where people grasp at
and greed,
and ambition,
and position
and authority.

These kingdoms of the world
hold no sway over
and over love.

Mark’s story of the resurrection is the start of a pathway,
a compass bearing for us to follow.
It’s the invitation to step into a new way of living,
following a dead man… who is alive!

Now go!
Go because the story is not finished.
Go because
He is not here.
He is risen.
He goes ahead of you…
and invites us to follow.

So go… because hope is real.
Go… because love wins.
Go… because Jesus is alive!

From Palms to Passion

Mark 11:1-11

We’re back with Mark’s story this week. Back to the brief descriptions and the urgency of the story. Back to the tension between the kingdom of God and the Empire where all the powers gather in opposition.

It all seems to be going well.

A crowd is travelling with Jesus towards Jerusalem. There’s a sense of anticipation… that feeling you get as you walk towards a stadium for a final or a gig. Remember those days?

The excitement as the fans mill around outside.
The clicking of the turnstiles and the echo of songs.
That first view of the pitch as you emerge from the stairs.
The colours of the opposing fans.
The sounds as the buzz of the crowd is interrupted as the drums beat and songs start.
Even the smells stick with you. Cup finals smell of the smoke from flares mixed with the beefy aroma of bovril.

It’s in those moments that hope lives.
All those possibilities yet to be realised… or to be dashed.
Of course if you’re an Accies fan you will have no idea what I’m talking about… but take my word for it… that’s what it’s like.

As the crowd come towards the last village before the city Jesus sends a couple of his follower to borrow a donkey. When they just walk up and take it the local neighbourhood watch ask what they are doing! ‘It’s for Jesus’. ‘Oh, ok then.’

That always makes me laugh. Two guys basically car-jacking a donkey, but because it’s for Jesus that’s ok. But that tells us something, doesn’t it? That people know who Jesus is. He’s been here before. His friends Martha and Mary and Lazarus live around here in Bethany. People know him and they know his reputation.

It’s the lead up to Passover so all kinds of people would be travelling to Jerusalem for the festival. People would mostly be walking but the occasional wealthy or important people would be there on the road with their horses or camels and their entourage.

One of them would be the Roman Governor, Pilate. Pilate had a palace in Jerusalem but that’s not where he lived. He spent his time in Caesaria-Maratima by the coast where the weather was more bearable and there was space. He was only in the city because the Passover was a celebration of a time when a bunch of slaves escaped their oppressors. As the latest in a long line of oppressors, the Roman governor knew that Passover was always going to be a time when tensions ran high and revolution was in the air.

He would ride in, as the Empire always does, in a procession that was really a show of force. Horses, armour and lots and lots of soldiers. People would be forced to move aside, held back by swords and spears as the Emperor’s representative looked down on his subjects as they stood in silence, fearful of punishment.

In complete contrast, at the other side of the city here comes Jesus… on a colt. It’s not even a full sized donkey! The people are singing joyfully!

‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

A while back we heard Jesus ask his disciples, ‘Who do the people say I am?’. They thought maybe Moses, Elijah or John the Baptist. It’s Peter who blurts out that he is the Messiah. And Jesus tells him to be quite. Not to tell anyone. And that seems really strange, because he is the Messiah, so why not tell everyone?

This is why. Not the Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord bit. That’s fine. The David’s new kingdom stuff though… that’s a problem. The Messiah was supposed to restore the line of King David and free the people from oppression. The Messiah would be a warrior who would lead the revolution.

But the people aren’t tooled up for a fight. They are waving branches.
Maybe they have actually understood Jesus?
Maybe they finally get it?
Maybe they have realised that violence just leads to more violence?

So, for now at least, it’s all good! Hosannas and palm branches and smiling faces.

But the parade stops at the city walls.

Everyone knows that for a revolution to work you have to control the capital. You have to be in charge of the significant buildings. But the crowd don’t get beyond the gates.

Perhaps Peter would reflect on these strange events later…

The city was busy.
Teeming with Passover revellers.
Why did they all feel the need
to come and welcome Jesus?

We were hoping, for once, to keep a low profile.

Tired of attracting big crowds wherever we went with Jesus
we thought, at least, we’d have a quiet Passover

Thought everyone would be too busy
with their own family preparations
to take notice of ours.

And it was also time that
Jesus got out of the limelight.

We could tell the authorities didn’t like it.
They were getting really antsy

It wasn’t just Jesus
though he kept attracting unwelcome attention
but, all the people, it seemed
were getting pretty feisty
and the authorities were getting nervous,
clamping down on the most minor infractions.

Definitely NOT the time to be processing into the city
even on a donkey!

It was only a matter of time
before a ban would be imposed
on public gatherings
and demonstrations
the kind that had been breaking out everywhere recently.

So we’d hoped to enter the city quietly
to keep below the radar.

But, before we got anywhere near,
we could hear the shouts of the crowd
not angry, insurrectionist shouts
but the shouts of revellers
out for a picnic.

Maybe they were hoping for more miracles
a healing or two
or to be fed some more of those amazing stories
Jesus seemed to
make up as he went along.

Whatever they came looking for
they were not disappointed

There was Jesus
seemingly innocuous
riding on a donkey
but the people saw it
as something different altogether.

They always seemed to read into everything Jesus did,
Saw mockery, even subversion
to the political era of oppression.

Why was it Jesus they flocked to?
Why turn their attention on him?

Surely that day, the people signed his death warrant
as surely as if they had shouted
Crucify him!

When Jesus entered Jerusalem he went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

That’s a strange end to a strange day. But the looking around Jesus does in the temple isn’t a bit of sight-seeing. It’s the kind of looking around where someone stands in the middle of the room and glares their way around meeting every single pair of eyes… Staring out everyone who has been whispering and plotting and planning to get him. It’s the kind of looking that is more of a challenge…

What? Do you have something to say? I didn’t think so…. But I’ll be back soon…

The scene is set.
The events of this darkest of weeks have been put in motion
and there is nothing that can stop them now…

Something has changed in the air
There is some noise lacking
A city scape of sound:
people living,
stalls selling,
children calling,
deals being done.
But in the noise,
silence has broken out.

It’s like something in the city is holding its breath
like the heartbeat at the centre
pausing for a moment,
That was in the silence before,
when the heartbeat paused,
something has just changed…

Without this week, this journey from light into darkness and back into light, our faith means nothing. There can be no resurrection if there is no crucifixion. There is no eternal life if God’s son does not die. There can be no forgiveness if there is no wrong done.

This is Holy Week… and it is everything.

They meet in an upper room before Passover and Jesus starts getting all strange.
He washes the disciple’s feet.
An astonishing act of humility.

Without this moment
there is no gospel.
Without this moment
there is nothing to say
about anything that can be believed.
No doctrine can do this.
No creed makes this happen.
This is gospel:
to love one another,
and there is nothing more to be said…
So keep quiet all you scholars of tradition,
you have nothing to say this Holy Week.
Keep silent you writers of doctrine,
none of your ideas are important.
None of you can say this so clearly:
Love One Another.
Only this,
and this alone,
makes sense this week.

Words hold power only because they describe an idea.

Symbols are something else…
bread, His broken body,
and wine, his new promise.

And then there’s Judas…
he slips out,
sent by Jesus to do what has to be done.

Out in the garden Jesus prays.
He prays so hard that he sweats blood.
Take it away.
Please God, not me.
But I’ll do what you want me to.
Your will be done.

Judas returns with the temple guards.
There is a fight and a healing
and suddenly Jesus is alone with the guards.

All his disciples have deserted him.

Jesus has been here
and gone
the echo of betrayal
still lingers
the darkness seems
a little darker here

there is a gap in the darkness
where the son of light once prayed.
a crease in the air,
like a warped lens
through which we can see
what fear has done
and ghosts of the past
have come to shape our present.

the kiss has been given
and still the ripples distort the scene
where the son of humanity has been betrayed

this may be the first
but it is not the last

the path is now certain
the powers that be have chosen their way
chosen how to complete this story
and Jesus has been stolen from us

yet my friends,
with all that you can believe,
conspire with the light
torn from us now
yet crumpled somewhere
ready to rise again.
conspire to believe
that this turning of events
is not the way love intends to leave things…

The trial is a joke.
Even Pilate can’t see what Jesus has done but the religious people convince him that Jesus is trouble so they hand him over to the Roman soldiers who whip him and put a crown of thorns on his head and a purple robe on his back.

King of the Jews.

And they lead him to Skull Hill and they nail him to a cross and leave him there to die.

It’s almost Sabbath by the time Jesus yells ‘It is finished’.
Hope has gone.
There will be no miracle on Friday.
Just despair
and pain
and grief.

there is a hole now in faith
and the colour seeps from the image
even the sky slides towards monochrome
bird song moves from stereo to tin
and eventually fades altogether

the colour is silent
the sound abandoned

and over this empty background
one phrase is enough
to fill those thousand years
with piercing clarity
lama sabachthani

and empties the memory
of what greying colour there still is
when all light is gone
and the darkness is complete
not even shape is left
just a hole

this is faith

it is finished.

It’s Time

Spring is in the air!

The days are getting longer, the world is waking up from its winter sleep and the sun has even come out.

One of the paradoxes of Lent is that it seems to be opposite to what we experience each day as our journey towards the cross seems to become darker and darker each week. You can almost feel all the light and colour being sucked out of the story. This is the moment in John’s Gospel when that darkness really starts to gather.

John’s story of Jesus is a book of two halves. We find ourselves at crucial moment today, the hinge that holds together Jesus’ ministry in what we call the Book of Signs and the long section of teaching that is known as the farewell discourse.

It’s just after Palm Sunday in the story. Jerusalem is mobbed. People are there from all over for the Passover. We read that some Greeks have come to see Jesus. The assumption is that these are not Jews and that’s important in the story, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

The Greeks find Philip because he has a Greek name.

That bit always makes me smile. It’s what we do when we find ourselves somewhere strange, isn’t it? We look for something familiar. I still remember the first time we went abroad, taking our caravan to France with our friends. The caravans were packed with food because who knew if you would be able to buy exotic things like mince and tea bags there! The first shop we went into had Tetley tea bags and Irn Bru!

On that same holiday we laughed as my mum tried to order 4 candy flosses from a stall on the beach in her very limited French. When she had paid she said ‘thank you’ in English and the stall holder said ‘your welcome’. It turned out he was from Manchester!

The Greeks do what we all do. They look for something familiar. A way in. A point of shared understanding. Philip is a name they know so he’s the one they speak to, and Philip goes to Andrew, and then the pair of them go to Jesus.

Em, Jesus… there’s some Greek people who would like to meet you…. Would that be ok? They’re just over there? It would only take a minute.

It’s a pretty straight forward request, isn’t it. It must have been the kind of thing the disciples would be really familiar with by now. People would want to see Jesus. To speak to him, to ask for healing or blessings or just out of curiosity.

I’m not sure what they thought Jesus would say. Maybe, ‘sure, send them over’. Or perhaps, ‘not now, I’m busy with some other stuff’. But I’m pretty sure it wasn’t ‘the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified!’.

Sorry… what?

Where did that come from? What on earth is Jesus talking about? And what has changed? How does he know it’s time?

It’s the Greeks. I told you they were important!

Jesus’ mission is to the whole world. John told us that last week in chapter 3. That most famous of verses… John 3:16… For God loved the world so much…. Not some of the world. Not just a few people in a particular place. Not just people who are a particular colour or speak a particular language or whatever other limits we might want to put on that love.

With the arrival of the Greeks the world is here. The news about Jesus has spread beyond the local gossip and made it into the world at large… and the world has come to see him. And that means it is time.

But time for what?

Time for the Son of Man to be glorified.

That’s an idea we have come across before. There’s a story where Jesus takes Peter and James and John up a mountain and is transfigured… shining… revealed in all his glory.

Glory means true nature. It’s time for people to see who Jesus really is and to understand what this is all about.

I said earlier this is a hinge moment where we move from one part of the story to another. We might call this a crucial moment. A moment where the plot turns. Where a decision is made that takes things down a particular path. Did you know that crucial comes from the Latin word crux. Which means cross. The literal meaning of crucial is ‘cross-shaped’. And this is most certainly a cross shaped moment.

Jesus is tying it all up. Summarising his teaching. You lot… it’s decision time again. Will you follow me? Will you risk it all? Are you willing to put down this life and lead a different one?

And in laying down my life, like a seed falling to the ground, more will grow.

Jesus had only just entered Jerusalem in a bizarre Technicolor palm parade of hosannas. And with just a few words we have turned to something else completely. Jesus knows there is a choice to be made. He knows he could turn away but the route to the cross is his choice. One final act of service. And, here at the the crucial moment, the point at which Jesus could call the whole thing off, a voice speaks from heaven. Confirmation. God says “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.”

Now is the time for judgement of this world. Things are going to be different. Remember, a while ago we spoke about some of the other language of a trial; confession, the telling of the truth, and repentance, the changing of your way of thinking. Judgement is about separating into categories. Right from wrong. Truth from lies. Light from darkness.

That happens so that the things we don’t need,
the things that cause us problems,
the things that get in the way,
the things that separate us from God,
those things, the darkness as John calls it,
can be taken away so we are left with only the good, the true, the right…
so that we can live in the light.

The powers of darkness will be driven out. The world will be transformed.

And the world was transformed….
And it is still being transformed….
All of it, every day.

Here’s the thing we often miss about ideas like judgement.

We think a judgement happens once. Like in a trial. The judge hears the evidence and makes a decision… guilty or not guilty or, here in Scotland, the often controversial option of not proven which means you probably did it but there just isn’t quite enough evidence to meet the burden of proof. And that’s it. Judgement made.

Or we make a judgement. This or that… Left or right… we choose. And that’s it. Judgement made.

But ask anyone who has been judged or who has judged… and that’s all of us in some way or another, and not one person will tell you that judgement is a one time thing. That judgement lives with you forever. Both the good decisions and the bad. A Reminder. A challenge. A warning. But all of them are an ongoing opportunity to keep changing every day. To be better. To strive to more like Jesus.

Church is supposed to transform us by reminding us of that challenge and that opportunity.

Preaching, this bit, the sermon, is supposed to be a transformative event. You and I are supposed to be changed by this. I’m supposed to say something that makes you stop in your tracks… makes you rethink something… makes your heart burn or your mind explode with possibilities.

That’s a lot of pressure… and there are some weeks where I know that I don’t nearly live up to that task. So, I’m glad that I’m just a small part of the process. I’m glad that something else, something much bigger than me, is at work. My job is to introduce you to God and then get out of the way. To plant a seed…

But it’s your job too!

The challenge of this story is that transformation happens when people, the Greeks in the story, see Jesus for who he really is… in all his glory. How will that happen if people like Philip and Andrew and you and me don’t bring them to meet him? How will they see? How will they realise?

What is it that holds us back from that?
What is it that we are afraid of?
What permission needs granted?
What confirmation do you need?

The voice from heaven was for our benefit.
He is the one.
The time has come for things to change.
What are you waiting for?

We’re getting John 3:16 wrong!

John 3:14-21

What if we have got the point of this whole faith thing wrong?
What if the thing we think is the most important part isn’t at all, at least not in the way we think it is? And what if because we’re missing the point we are concentrating on the wrong things?

Sam Well’s asks that very question in his book A Nazareth Manifesto. I spoke about this a bit at our recent congregational conference and I wanted to come back to it because I think this is hugely important for us all, and especially for our church.

So, I want to encourage you to really listen carefully… because this could… and probably should make you rethink a whole load of things.

Sam Wells poses a question that’s been asked throughout the centuries… Paul Tillich calls it the question of ‘our ultimate concern’. The question is simple… What’s the core of our faith? What is the most important thing? What matters most to you?

Wells suggests that our big obsession, our ultimate concern, both as a society and as individuals is mortality. Or to be more specific, avoiding the reality of our own mortality.

We spend billions of pounds on lotions, potions, diets, gym memberships, supplements, treatments, and even surgery to make us look younger. Companies will even freeze you in cryogenic storage until a remedy is found for whatever you’re about to die from and scientists around the world are researching a cure for aging.

But what does that have to do with our reading today?

When Jesus says “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” we’re absolutely in. Live forever? Oh… absolutely. Sign me up for that. It’s not an accident that John 3:16 is the most famous verse in the bible.

The next question then becomes ‘How do I get that eternal life?’ It’s THE question. It’s the question that frames how we think about faith. It’s the question that drives the church’s mission. And it’s the wrong question.

In Luke’s Gospel someone asks that question to Jesus. Love God and love your neighbour is the right answer. But that conversation ends up in a parable we call the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s a story about how loving God in a formulaic, ritualistic way gets in the road of loving your neighbour. It turns out that the key to this eternal life is living well now… but not as a way to earn some kind of reward where we are excused our mortality.

Seeing faith like that is a problem. If I only just believe enough…. If I only just do enough good things…. If I only just behave properly…

Perhaps we need to remind ourselves about what eternity is. Eternity is forever. All of time. Eternity is all the way back and all the way forward… and eternity is now. We are living in eternity. And that means our obsession with mortality as some kind of final end to be avoided at all costs really isn’t what we should be concerned about.

And Jesus says as much in John 3.

Jesus goes on to say ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

The problem has been that our fixation with the mortality problem has caused us to read this in the wrong way. When Jesus says ‘condemned already’ we turn that into ‘they are already condemned for all eternity’. And that’s not what it says or means at all.

It means what it says. That people who believe are not condemned and those who don’t are… but condemned to what? We need to keep reading:

And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.  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.’

Jesus is talking about our response to Christ’s presence in the world. Here and now. This is a conversation with Nicodemus, the Pharisee who comes in the darkness of night to see Jesus.

Jesus is asking Nicodemus why he has to hide his visit. Why can’t he be open about a conversation? What forces is he afraid of? Who stands in opposition to Jesus and why is he standing with them?

This most famous of passages isn’t about solving the mortality problem. It’s about how we react to the realisation that the Word became flesh and moved into the neighbourhood. It’s about the implications of God being present in the world. For Nicodemus that’s a question about whether he can acknowledge that reality publicly. We will see at the end of John’s Gospel that Nicodemus is the one who asks for Jesus’ body so he can be buried before the light fades.

If the key to eternal life is to love God and love our neighbour then the next question is ‘how do we make that happen?’ The answer is only found in relationship with God and with each other. And remember, Jesus stretches the boundary of neighbour way beyond what anyone is comfortable with.

I think Sam Wells is right. Jesus came to end our self-imposed separation from God and from each other. That’s what leads to the darkness. Selfish deeds done in secret and in shame because they hurt or exploit or devalue other people.

Relationship is the key because solving the mortality question is about me. It’s about my behaviour and my belief. Solving the isolation problem is about us. It’s about what we believe and how we behave. It depends on the depth and quality of our relationships.

So, the real question, the thing that should take up all our energy and attention isn’t what the best face cream is or what fad diet I should try next. The real question that should occupy our imaginations is how we end isolation.

Too many people are lonely… and loneliness is caused by a deficit of relationship. And that’s something we can surely help to fix.

When we think that tackling isolation is the most important thing we can do then our activities and the importance of some of the things we already do should change. All of a sudden the coffee morning and the Hope Cafe and Messy Church become models for mission because they encourage people to get to know each other. Lunch after the Sunday service might just be the most important part.

Our invitation to people might sound different too. We find it so difficult to ask people to join us at church. I wonder if that’s to do with not really knowing what we are inviting people into. Come and… well come and what? Be saved? Saved from what?

There’s a strong hint of condemnation in that kind of language, isn’t there. And more than a little judgement. When we hear Jesus telling us that God doesn’t want to condemn the world then we should probably be a bit more hesitant about using those kinds of words… and about doing that judging too.

We should perhaps heed Richard Rohr’s reminder that we “are by nature a son of God, a daughter of God, a beloved of God. That’s not obtained by any exercise, performance, fasting, praying… it is your nature. Your true nature is God’s nature.” He goes on to say that we all have to experience separateness from God in some way to be able to re-chose that nature.

I think that means that we choose isolation. We wander off into the darkness. We focus on that mortality problem and that means we actually don’t really care that much about the fate of anyone else’s souls as long as we think that we and the people we love are ok.

And then we realise that being alone isn’t what we’re made for. That being in the light is a better place to be than being isolated in the darkness.

Light is a brilliant image for what happens to us and how this works. Darkness separates us from each other. It isolates us. It hides us from view. We cannot see or be seen.

But here’s the thing… Any amount of light, even the smallest flicker, makes the darkness disappear.

But where does light come from? Jesus tells us that He is the light of the world and that God’s desire is that everyone should live in that light.

So, as we deepen our relationship with God we rediscover our light. When we enter into relationship with others then our light dispels their darkness, even if they don’t have any light of their own yet.

So maybe that should be our priority? We should embrace our true nature, not as awful sinful people, but as God’s beloved…

And that is true even when we wander off into the darkness, even when we choose separation. Our job for those who choose that is to be their neighbour too. To refuse to let them be alone.

As we learn to embrace our relationship with God and delight in it we see the needs of our neighbours as our own needs, because their need and our need is the same. We all need to be in relationship with our neighbour. How else can we love them. Their concern is our concern because we are all God’s concern. We are all God’s beloved.


What’s your identity?

Exodus 20:1-17 & John 2:13-22

It is passover and Jesus has gone up to Jerusalem to the Temple. And when he gets there he is confronted by stalls and pens and cages full of lambs and pigeons and calves to be sold to the pilgrims to sacrifice. There are also money changers because you’re not allowed to take Roman money into the temple so it has to be changed into local currency… for a small commission, obviously.

And Jesus is clears them all out.

But why? People are required to present a sacrifice at the temple. What’s the problem?

Often this passage is explained as being about two things… the first is confrontation. Jesus is somehow setting himself up in opposition to the Temple authorities. We usually read this passage in Holy Week. The other three Gospels place this story there, so it becomes one of the things that just keeps piling on the pressure. But this is at the start of John’s Gospel.

The second is that Jesus is upset at what the temple has been turned into. A profit is being made from the people’s obligation to present a sacrifice.

Those two understandings are absolutely legitimate, and I agree with both, but I think there’s something even deeper going on here.

I think this is a story about identity, both Jesus’ identity and the people of Israel’s identity.

This happens at Passover.

Passover is the celebration of the liberation of the slaves from Egypt. It’s the day when a group of slaves changed their identity. They were set free. But we know that like many who have been imprisoned or enslaved, the idea of freedom can take a while to get used to. Not having structure, not having someone else tell you where to go and what to do, can be overwhelming, even if your previous circumstances have been pretty awful.

Having to work out a new identity is hard when it’s just you. Imagine what it’s like when a whole nation has to try to come to terms with their new reality.

We’re going to go all the way back to an important moment in that journey because without it none of the rest of this will make much sense…

This is what it says in Exodus 20.

God spoke, and these were his words:  “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, where you were slaves.

“Worship no god but me.

“Do not make for yourselves images of anything in heaven or on earth or in the water under the earth.  Do not bow down to any idol or worship it, because I am the Lord your God and I tolerate no rivals. I bring punishment on those who hate me and on their descendants down to the third and fourth generation.  But I show my love to thousands of generations of those who love me and obey my laws.

“Do not use my name for evil purposes, for I, the Lord your God, will punish anyone who misuses my name.

“Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy.  You have six days in which to do your work, but the seventh day is a day of rest dedicated to me. On that day no one is to work—neither you, your children, your slaves, your animals, nor the foreigners who live in your country.

In six days I, the Lord, made the earth, the sky, the seas, and everything in them, but on the seventh day I rested. That is why I, the Lord, blessed the Sabbath and made it holy.

“Respect your father and your mother, so that you may live a long time in the land that I am giving you.

“Do not commit murder.
“Do not commit adultery.
“Do not steal.
“Do not accuse anyone falsely.
“Do not desire another man’s house; do not desire his wife, his slaves, his cattle, his donkeys, or anything else that he owns.”

We know these as the 10 commandments. They are the rules God gave to Moses on the mountain. But I want you to hear them in a different way today. Not just as a list of things that we aren’t supposed to do, but as a statement about the identity of the people they were first given to.

It starts with an introduction. Hi. I’m God. I’m the one who freed you from slavery. I did that. Nobody else, so you don’t need any other gods. I’m the real deal. But this is about more than me. This is about you and who you are.

In the beginning I created humans. I made them in my image. You don’t need to make statues or icons or anything else to give you a clue what I look like. Just look at each other. Or look in the mirror. You are my likeness.

Imagine hearing that. Who me? I’m just a slave who doesn’t have a master any more. How can I be the creation of the God who made all things?

And God says, you’re not a slave any more. I’m nothing like your Egyptian masters. In fact, the only thing I’m going to command you to do is to have a day off!!!

Also, I want you to celebrate your heritage. Honour your ancestors. There is nothing there to be ashamed of, despite what you have been told. I made a promise to your ancestor Abraham and you are part of that promise.

All that should be enough. You don’t need to be jealous of anyone, angry with anyone or need anything. You are mine and I love you.

Can you imagine being told that?

Can you, even for a moment, wrap your head around what it must have been like for those escapees to be talked to by God like this?

Who us?

Yes. You.

Fast forward one and a half thousand years to Jesus, standing in the Temple in the capital city of the land promised to Moses and those slaves, at a festival celebrating that moment when they were set free telling them that they have forgotten who they are… and they have absolutely no idea who he is.

The Temple is important. It’s a symbol of identity. A place where God is worshiped at the very heart of the nation. So, what the problem? People, including Jesus, travelled for miles to worship in the Temple. Jesus calls it ‘my Father’s house’ so he doesn’t have a problem with the Temple as an idea. His problem is with who the people have become.

Let’s take the sacrifices as an example.

A sacrifice is something that is costly to you. It’s not a tip. It’s not a minor inconvenience. It’s something that is significant. So, there’s a big difference between when you are the one growing or breeding and feeding and looking after a lamb that you then take with you to the Temple as a costly offering than when you turn up and buy one from the shop. Sure, it costs you money, and you have worked hard for that, but it’s not yours. The cost is different.

The whole point of sacrifice is that it is a sign of gratitude. It’s a response to that statement by God that you are his and that all you have has been provided for you by him… because he loves you.

Sacrifice has become an obligation, not a response.
It’s become a business, not an act of devotion.
It’s become an imposition rather than a celebration of freedom.

Remember that amazing statement made to those newly freed slaves? You don’t need to make idols or images because I created you in my likeness. The people have forgotten that. They have gone back to thinking of God as distant, far off, locked in a room in the Temple where they need to go once in a while and make an offering so that God will not be angry with them.

How do you help people to see that God isn’t to be contained? Well, standing among them is a pretty good start, don’t you think?

Tear down this temple.
This body…
I am the temple.
And so are you!

The Temple isn’t about God being in one place and you coming to Him, although there’s nothing wrong with coming to worship God. But the lesson of the wandering in the wilderness was that God was with them wherever they went. They relearned the lesson in the years of exile in Babylon, but they have forgotten again.

This confrontation between Jesus and the Temple leaders is another one of those moments when everything the people believed about themselves and about God is turned on its head.

Tear down this temple…

This temple. This body. This place where God is.

God is there… standing among them, standing right in front of them, not locked in a room where no-one can go.

And when they ask for a sign Jesus tells them that God will show them what he always wanted for them. God will show them that sacrifice is something God is willing to embrace on the cross, but that sacrifice is not the end.

If it all ends at the cross then the whole thing has just been about God keeping us company in our misery. Which is nice. Helpful even. But that’s not all there is…

There’s more… so much more. Tear down this temple and in three days I will rebuild it.

Resurrection. The defeat of death. The end of fear. The sign that this life is not all there is.

And then there is ascension. After the resurrection, when Jesus ascends to heaven, only then is the sign complete. God’s plan is for us all to be united with Him, because we are his and he loves us.

This is who we are.
This is our identity!
And we should never forget it!

Facing your Fears

What are you afraid of? Like really scared of?

For me it’s heights. Actually, that’s not quite true. I’m not afraid of being up high. I’m perfectly happy sitting in a plane at 40,000 feet.

So perhaps I’m not afraid of heights… perhaps I’m scared of falling.

I’m sure there are many other things I’m afraid of but, to be quite honest, being crucified isn’t one of them. I have spent very little time thinking about the possibility because the reality is that me getting nailed to a cross is incredibly unlikely to happen. It’s just not a thing anymore.

And that’s a bit of a problem for us when we come to passages like this one where Jesus talks about his followers having to take up our cross and follow him. And not just because we don’t have any crosses handy to pick up…

It’s a pretty rubbish recruitment plan. Come and join us… and give up your life. Come and join us… and get brutally executed…. Come and join us… and have a life full of suffering.

Em, no, thank’s very much for the invitation… but I think I’ll give it a miss.

But the cross is so important to our faith. It’s the symbol of it. I’ve always thought it was odd that people wear an instrument of torture and execution as jewellery, but at least some of that comes from the importance of the cross to our understanding of who Jesus is and what Jesus came for.

In this season of Lent we’ll do quite a lot of thinking about the cross and why it is so important as we journey through the story to darkness and desolation of Good Friday.

This passage from chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel is an important step on that journey. We should give it our full attention but we should also be a little bit cautious about it, and especially where we put our emphasis.

We need to talk a bit more about the idea and strategies of empire if we are to be able to make sense of this strange and often troubling passage from chapter 8 of Mark’s story of Jesus.

But before we do that I want to say something really important about what this passage is NOT about. The idea of taking up your own cross has been misused to justify all kinds of things for centuries. It has been boiled down to something like ‘well, everyone has problems so you just need to put up with it’. People were basically told to stop complaining and just accept illness, abuse and discrimination without complaint because, well, because everyone has a cross to bear. That’s absolutely not what Jesus is talking about here. In fact, it is pretty much completely opposite.

So, let’s find out why we’ve been sold this lie that we should put up and shut up because it’s what Jesus wants.

Jesus is in Caesarea-Philippi. It’s a city of the empire, in every sense a Roman city with temples and amphitheatres and columns and statues. And it’s built in the middle of occupied Israel.

That’s one of the things you do if you want to occupy another country… you import your culture and privilege it above the native one. That can take all kinds of forms, from banning local languages, religious gatherings, introducing a new currency, making people work in different ways, imposing new laws and enforcing all of this with a very harsh system of punishment.

And that’s exactly what the Romans did.

They operated a very sophisticated carrot and stick system. They made massive improvements to sanitation, water distribution, roads and farming. The Monty Python sketch that asks ‘what have the romans ever done for us?’ is funny because of all the eras in history the Romans might have made the biggest impact across most of Europe and north Africa.

But compliance was required. And the stick was one of the most brutal forms of torture and execution ever devised… crucifixion.

We don’t ever talk about the reality of what that is, so I’m about to. It is unpleasant so if that’s something you might not want to listen to then skip ahead a bit…

It takes a long, long time to die on a cross. You hang there with just enough support to keep you there but also to allow gravity to do the work. The strain is agonising and eventually your internal organs collapse. But not for hours, sometimes days.

Crosses were erected along the main roads and near the gates of cities so that to get anywhere you had to walk past them. It was horrific. And it was effective. It wasn’t a way that anyone wanted to die.

So, when Jesus suggests that people should take up their cross, it’s not hard to see how it is easy to jump to the idea that he must be talking about suffering. That’s what crosses are all about. But I don’t think that he is.

We also need to be really careful that we don’t read ahead and impose our understanding of the cross and Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection onto this conversation quite yet.

This is a bit of a leap… but have you ever seen the Disney Pixar movie, A Bug’s Life? It’s about a colony of ants who are bullied by much larger grasshoppers. The ants are forced to collect grain for the grasshoppers and if they don’t collect enough the grasshoppers do what bullies do… they threaten violence.

It’s a brilliant example of how empire works. There are only a few grasshoppers and thousands of ants, but the whole thing works on fear. One ant could never take on a grasshopper. They are just too big and too strong, and they can fly. But 100 or 1,000 ants… that’s a different proposition altogether. But for that to happen something has to change. The ants have to no longer be afraid. And that’s what happens. It starts with one ant exposing the lie that the grasshoppers are stronger.

I’m going to use the words Government and Empire interchangeably for a few minutes. I know they are not the same. Not every government is also an empire, but our’s is.

Both government and Empire work on the same principles… people are either satisfied enough that making trouble is too much hassle or they are too afraid to bother… or not enough people join in to make it effective. Governments all over the world still spend their days working out how much their citizens will put up with. Will they pay this much tax? Will they wait this long for treatment? Will they put up with this much unemployment and this much benefit support? How many children need to be living in poverty before people start to bother? Will people pick up the slack through food banks and charity?

It takes a lot to change the mind of a government.

But Jesus isn’t inciting a riot. Far from it. So, what is he doing? Because he’s absolutely talking about what we might now call regime change!

Empire is one kind of kingdom. One system. But there’s another way. An opposite way. Jesus calls this other way ‘the Kingdom of God’ and it is in complete contrast to the Empire.

The kingdom of God is based on love, not hate. Joy, not fear. Peace, not violence. Sharing, not greed. Compassion, not selfishness.

But that seems so far away from the way things are. How do you make the change from one kingdom to the other?

Well, the question Jesus poses is this… what is that you are afraid of? What’s the worst thing that could happen? The answer is simple. You could end up nailed to a cross.

The cross is the thing that hold power. It is the symbol of fear, or suffering and of oppression. It’s the symbol of Empire. It’s not for us. Now the cross symbolises something very different. But to make the switch people need to not be scared of it anymore. They need a way to embrace the cross and to take away their fear.

And Jesus gives them it…


So, when Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” he’s talking about leaving behind the selfish system of empire where the measure of the wellbeing of a society is the profit it made and the increase in wealth.

When Jesus says  “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” he means that our lives as we know them will be completely different. We will step away from our self-destructive ways of living and regain the life that God intends for us. Jesus is talking about life and death, or rather living and dying.

He’s talking about the things that matter.  He’s talking about the life that God wants for us.

This is a call to embrace life. To not be afraid of the systems of death and destruction but to step away from them and live a different way.

But that has consequences.

People will point and stare.
People will call you mad or weird or dangerous.
because the system doesn’t like rivals.

People will call you all sorts of names.
People will undermine you and accuse you
because the system can’t stand when someone points out the lies that it is based on.

Jesus will eventually find himself nailed to a cross by the empire.
But in that moment,
even in that darkest of moments,
Jesus show that he was telling the truth.
The cross has no power.
Death is not to be feared.
Life wins because love wins…
love wins every time.

This isn’t easy. I can’t even stay off the chocolate for lent or get myself out the door for a run, even on a sunny day. How on earth am I going to completely change the way I live?

Perhaps by having an example. A role model. Someone to follow who has been there and done it all.

I said earlier that the people hearing Jesus say this didn’t have our knowledge of how the story ends. But the readers of Mark’s Gospel did. The people who believed and started to follow did.

The cross was transformed by Jesus’ life and death and resurrection from a symbol of torture and oppression and death into a symbol of hope, of forgiveness, of life.

Why would you not want to take up that cross, and in doing so step into the life God has prepared for each of us.