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!