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.