Monday, April 30, 2007

Champagne for Breakfast

Here's the text of yesterday's sermon on Acts 9 - 36-43 : Peter Raises the Dead

A couple of years ago I went to hear the Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright talk about the afterlife. Naturally enough, he talked about Easter, and the importance of the resurrection as a sign to all of us, that as we sang in our first hymn this morning, “Jesus lives! thy terrors now can no more, O death, appall us”.

Tom Wright has champagne for Breakfast during all the eight weeks of the Easter season! That is not because he is a bishop with too large an expenses account - and I’m sure it is a very modest glass of champagne. But he does it as a reminder to him and his family that we are Easter people. Wright complains that we Christians tend to get the balance wrong between Lent and Easter. Lent lasts for 40 days, and is of course a time of penitence and preparation - a time when we focus on the awfulness of the Cross, and of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. The season of Easter, on the other hand, lasts for 50 days - and is a time of celebration and joy at the news that death has been overcome...that we have the sure hope of eternal life.

But, we do rather tend to forget that, don’t we? We get through Lent, have a celebration on Easter Day...and then slip back into our routine. That’s why Tom Wright advocates champagne for breakfast. It’s his way of reminding himself that the Gospel is primarily about good news!

And that is also why we have been given this morning’s New Testament reading to focus on. In Acts chapter 9 Peter demonstrates the continuing power of Jesus, to raise one of the faithful new Christians from the dead - just as Jesus himself had done to Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter. This resurrection, and the healings that have gone before, serve to establish Peter’s absolute authority to act in the name of Jesus. And it shows, in word and deed, that Jesus is still alive.

We consider this story during the Easter season to help us understand that Jesus did not simply live, die, rise again, and then disappear back to heaven. We live in the days of Easter - we live with the sure hope of eternal life, bought for us by Jesus. And we live in a time when Jesus remains active and alive among us. Peter powerfully demonstrated that fact by this dramatic enactment of Jesus’ authority over life and death.

But perhaps you have a nagging doubt in the back of your mind. Perhaps you are wondering, ‘if Jesus gave the power of life over death to Peter, why do none of us seem to have this power?’. Why is it that each of us is destined to die without any realistic chance of being brought back to life on this Earth?

Well the first thing to say is that we do hear, from time to time, dramatic stories of people being raised from the dead, even today. But unfortunately, most of them take place in circumstances which are hard to verify - often in far away places. So it is difficult to be sure that God still does act in that way.

So I think we need to understand the very special circumstances in which Peter and the first Apostles were operating. Jesus had been raised from the dead, and had now commanded them to set about establishing his church. The church was to be Jesus’ means of connecting to the world, from his heavenly throne, by the Holy Spirit. It was established to be a means of his amazing grace being poured out on the world. It was to be the vehicle through which we could become, as we say in our Communion service, the very members of Christ’s body - his hands and feet to a dying planet.

It was important, therefore, that the church should be established with authority and power...but not so much that the very rules of nature would be overturned. Imagine what the world would be like if every time someone died, they were instantly brought back to life again. Suddenly, all the consequences of our actions would be taken from us. I could murder someone, without consequence. I could greedily amass as much wealth as possible, so that my neighbour starves...without consequence. What would it matter if someone dies of poverty, sickness or violence as a result of my selfishness? It wouldn’t matter at all...because just a prayer would wake them from the dead.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could be sure that just a simple prayer would heal very sickness, and even restore our deceased loved ones to us? That might be a wonderful idea in principle. We might yearn for it to be so...but how in fact would that help us to understand the importance of sin? It is sin, most usually expressed in some form of selfishness, which creates a barrier between us and God. Sin, in all its forms, is essentially about us wanting to live life on our own - without God who is the source of that life. When Adam and Eve first ate from the tree, they were essentially saying that they didn’t trust God anymore. When we acquire excess wealth, we say that we don’t need God to sustain us. When we use violence to settle our arguments, we are saying that we do not believe that God can act in human affairs.

Faith, on the other hand, is exactly the opposite. Faith is the act of putting our trust in God precisely because he is able to supply all that we need to help us on the road to heaven. Faith is the understanding that everything God is, is bent towards our salvation - not our destruction. Faith is the act of saying “Thy Will be Done” not “My will be done”.

And so I think it was to stimulate and nurture such faith that Jesus gave to Peter the ability to perform such amazing feats as the one we’ve heard about today. Not because such feats were meant to be normal for the church - but to establish the roots of faith in a real, living reality...the reality that Jesus was alive, and that he holds the power over life and death.

But for us - we live in an in-between time. There is, as I’ve said before, a sort of ‘now and not yet’ quality about the Kingdom. We are people who live with the sure hope of heaven, but not yet in heaven. God is still at work in his church and in the world. Many people here can testify to his gentle healing power - and the deep inner healing that he willingly offers to those who turn to him. That is why we continue to offer prayers for healing at the Communion rail - as I shall do later this morning. But only rarely do we seem to see the kind of dramatic acts of healing and resurrection that were witnessed by the early church. Because that, as I’ve theorised today, would turn the world upside down, and take away our understanding of the nature of sin, and of our desire to do things on our own.

Jesus demonstrated his power when he was on earth. And he showed that he was still alive by continuing to demonstrate his power through Peter, Paul, and the other Apostles. But it is interesting to note, I think, that healing, and resurrection, were not the most important features of Jesus’ and the Apostles ministry. Often, Jesus only healed people because they sought him out. He didn’t seem to go in search of opportunities to heal. And on occasions like the healing at the pool of Siloam, he seemed to step over many sick people to just heal one. He only raised two people from the dead. It is as though his healing and resurrection ministry was something he did purely out of compassion and love - it was by no means all that he was about. Instead, the main thrust of his ministry was to announce the coming of the Kingdom, and to call people to follow what the early church called “The Way”. Ultimately, Jesus - as he demonstrated through his life and resurrection - was much more focused on our eternal life.

So what does this story of Dorcas’ resurrection mean for us? It means, first of all, that we can have confidence that Jesus is very much alive and still active. Peter demonstrated Jesus’ power - and was therefore a reliable witness for Jesus, both in word and deed.

Secondly, by understanding the context in which this and other dramatic stories were written, we should be wary about making dramatic claims for what God will and will not do for people in this life. God does still act in dramatic ways - and we are entirely right to pray and hope for healing and dramatic intervention. As Jesus demonstrated on earth, God is full of compassion and mercy...and sometimes just can’t help being full of us what we don’t deserve. But that is not the would be too chaotic if it were, and the human race would never be confronted with the reality of the sin which separates us from God and neighbour.

Thirdly, this story might encourage us to follow Peter’s missionary example - to tell our neighbours and friends that we worship a God who has reliable witnesses, and who is alive.

Finally, by understanding this story in its context, we might be encouraged to believe, and know, that Jesus whole being is bent towards giving us the gift of eternal life - a gift which he has more than amply demonstrated he has the power to bestow. That gives us what the New Testament calls a ‘sure hope’ of heaven - and is surely something to be celebrated - why not with a little glass of champagne during the Easter season?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Amazing Grace

Here's a link to a video I created for last Sunday's family service. We were thinking about the subject of Amazing Grace - in the light of the new film. If you have Windows Media Player (or any other player that can read wmv files), Click Here (Please be patient - its a 1.5mg file, and will take a little while to download...depending on the speed of your connection!)

Grace can be defined as "Being given what we don't deserve" - whereas Mercy can be defined as "NOT being given what we DO deserve". Both are important concepts to get our heads around when we think about how God interacts with us.

On Sunday, I tried to explain those ideas like this...see if it makes sense to you:

1) God is perfect. Absolutely perfect. By definition.

2) Anything that we do, or anything we think, which is less than the perfection of God, can be described as sin. (For example - are you feeling a little lazy, or a little greedy, or a little self-centred today? God is never lazy, or greedy, or self-centered. Never.)

3) Being perfect, God cannot be in the presence of non-perfection. If we were to be absorbed into God while in our imperfect form, that would dilute the perfection of God - he would no longer be God. Sin therefore gets in the way of us being able to exist with God. One way that the Bible talks about this is to say that God is angry at sin. (Angry, in the sense of an implacable opposition to it).

4) So we have a problem. And we, being imperfect, can do nothing about it.

5) But God is merciful - and does not punish us as we deserve...especially for our deliberate and willful sins.

6) And God is full of grace; reaching out across the barrier of sin, and dealing with it Himself, through Jesus.

That's what the former Slave Trader John Newton's famous hymn is all about. He recognised God's amazing grace, in being prepared to reach out to (or in his words 'save') a wretch like him (and me, and, I suggest you!).

Hopefully, that helps you to get your head around the doctrine of Grace - and to understand the video. Let me know if I'm right!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

When in doubt...

Here's this morning's sermon...preached at St James' Church.

John 20: 19-30: Doubting Thomas

Typical isn’t it? I get to preach on my namesake - Thomas...the doubter! But you know...I thank God for Thomas! I am grateful that the Bible doesn’t just contain stories of heroic faith, it also contains real men and women. If you want to look for proof that the Bible really does contain truth...then you need to look no further than the fact that it records the actions of real people, who make real mistakes, and have real doubts - just like us. The Bible is not a collection of great doings by perfect beings in a sort of Olympian legend. It is a real, down to earth account of real life...and real real people.

Think of King David - who sent a man to his death so that he could possess his wife. Think of Peter, who denied Jesus three times - but still went on to head-up the Church on earth. Think of Abraham, who failed to trust God and had a son by his wife’s servant. Think of all the churches across the Mediterranean whom the Apostles needed to write to, because they were getting it all wrong! And think of Thomas...who wouldn’t believe that Jesus had risen from the dead until he could see it for himself.

Thomas, and all the doubters of the Bible, call out to us across the centuries. They say, “we know what you are going through. We know that sometimes the way of God is tough...and you can’t see where the road is leading. Keep going...keep pressing on”

By now, thanks to recent movie news, you will all know that John Newton wrote the hymn Amazing Grace, having once been a slave trader. Later in his life, in a letter to a friend, he wrote this:

"The doubts and fears you speak of are, in a greater or lesser degree, the common experience of all the Lord’s people, at least for a time. Whilst any unbelief remains in the heart, and Satan is permitted to tempt, we shall feel these things. They tend to make us know more of the plague of our own hearts, and feel more sensibly the need of a Saviour, and make his rest (when we attain it) doubly sweet and sure. Fear not; only believe, wait and pray. Expect not all at once. A Christian is not of hasty growth, like a mushroom, but rather like the oak, the progress of which is hardly perceptible, but, in time, becomes a great deep-rooted tree."

Newton comforts me, and I hope you too, with the thought that doubt is not only a common experience…but that it is an essential one too.

Our English word ‘doubt’ comes from the Latin dubitare, from which we also get the word ‘double’. To believe something, is to be ‘in one mind’ about accepting something as true; to disbelieve is to be ‘in one mind’ about rejecting it. To doubt is to waver between the two, to believe and disbelieve at once and so to be ‘in two minds’. Being in two minds... between belief and disbelief can be a creative place. It allows us to ask the tough examine our faith, rather then simply accepting it uncritically. And from there, like Newton’s slow-growing oak, it allows us to deepen our roots...not with blind faith, but with real knowledge and experience of God at work in us.

For example - and pertinently for this Easter time, what do we think about the Resurrection? Thomas, clearly, was not persuaded to believe just because his friends told him about it. He needed the space to think things out for himself - to accumulate more evidence.

This is not to suggest that doubt is a preferable way of developing our faith. As Jesus himself said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believed”. That of course includes all of us. None of us has met Jesus in the flesh...though I’m aware of some of us who have seen him in a vision. Jesus encourages us by calling us blessed if we are able to believe without seeing him. He reminds we shall explore a little during this afternoon’s family service...that faith is a gift of God...not something we create for ourselves. We who have received that gift, are indeed blessed.

However, some people are more resistant than others to receiving God’s gift of faith. Some people - and you may be one of them - need to examine the evidence before they can fully believe. It’s the way they are made…they need to work through doubt, and find belief. There’s nothing wrong with that. Let me tell you...if you are in a position of doubt...rejoice! God is at work in you...fulfilling his purpose in you, calling you heavenwards!

Some years ago, an atheist lawyer by the name of Josh McDowell, set out to prove that the Resurrection was a hoax...a baseless story, which should be rejected in these scientific times. He set out to ask lawyer-type questions, examining documents and tradition with his sharp legal mind. The trouble was, that the answers that he got were exactly the opposite of what he was expecting.

At the end of his legal enquiry, McDowell published a book called “Evidence which Demands a Verdict” - and he was forced to conclude that Jesus really existed, really died, and really rose again. For him, that was a life changing experience...brought about through honest doubt…Let’s look for a moment at the evidence he considered.

First, there is the question of whether Jesus existed at all. McDowell discovered that there is substantially more evidence of Jesus’ existence than any other figure of history. No one, for example, doubts that Julius Caesar was Emperor of Rome - but there are many fewer documents of the time about Caesar than there are about Jesus. Everyone believes that Socrates existed, but like Jesus, he never put pen to paper himself. Of course, we have the Gospels - but there are also many other documents - apocryphal gospels, letters to Rome and other histories which give enough evidence for any court of law to be able to say, without doubt, that Jesus existed.

Next came the question of whether or not he actually died. Perhaps, as some doubters have wondered, he simply fainted on the cross - and was assumed to have died. McDowell concluded that this was plainly nonsense. If there was one thing that the Romans knew how to do, it was how to kill people.

Next, we turn our attention to the Resurrection itself. Like Thomas, we have not seen the risen Lord Jesus ourselves. So are we to believe the statements of the disciples which have been handed on to us over the years? The undeniable fact is that there was an empty tomb to be dealt with.

Could it be that the Romans stole the stop people from turning the tomb into a shrine? If so...why on earth did they not simply say that...or even produce the body, when Christianity started to gain ground?

Maybe the disciples stole the body and buried it elsewhere in order to make it look as if Jesus had risen? There are three objections to that:

First - the gospel accounts make it quite clear that the Romans placed soldiers to guard the tomb to make quite sure that didn’t happen.

Secondly, even if this band of fishermen and farmers had over-powered the guards, why on earth didn’t the Romans simply say that, and arrest the disciples for grave-robbing

Finally - and for me the most telling piece of evidence of all - why on earth would the disciples steal Jesus’ body, to start a rumour for which they ultimately end up dying? What was to be gained by that? If you are going to perpetrate such an immense hoax, that will lead you to leave your family and job to wander the planet telling a story, and ultimately to die for what you have said...why on earth would you do it? You might do it if you wanted to become rich, or achieve political power. But from all we know of them, the Apostles sought neither of those things. They gave away money...they didn’t accumulate it. They preached peace, and loving your enemies...they never raised an army of fellow believers to spring them from prison and declare them to be rulers.

No - the disciples were either a bunch of totally inept revolutionaries, who failed entirely to grab power and wealth...or they really were who they are reported to and women who had a powerful encounter with the risen Lord Jesus. That was Josh McDowell’s conclusion. But each of us must draw our own. And each of us must come to terms with our own doubts.

But in closing, let me offer you a little gentle challenge: There is no shame in being in doubt. Doubt is not a sin. But there is shame in being content to remain in doubt, and to not seek to resolve the issue one way or another. To be in two minds about anything, is an uncomfortable place - betwixt and between. If one remains there long becomes paralysed by indecision in all aspects of life. Shall I pray? Shall I give? Shall I love? Shall I worship? Life becomes an endless series of unanswered questions.

So let me, finally, make this offer. If you are in doubt, if you want to explore the boundaries of your doubt...why not get in touch? Simon and I would be delighted to explore with you the boundaries of your doubt, and your faith. We can do this on a one to one basis - just book some time with us. (Readers of this Blog can of course contact me via email for an anonymous or open chat!) Alternatively, why not join one of the various home groups that are established in our parish’s life - where people explore faith, and doubt together? Christianity Explored will be running again in the autumn, and in the meantime we are offering Confirmation Classes for those who want to explore their faith some more.

Another thing you can do is summed up in some words of Bishop Wallace Benn, speaking a couple of weeks ago at Spring Harvest. He said, “I am frequently approach by people who say to me ‘Bishop, help me...I’m losing my faith’. To which I reply, ‘Are you reading your Bible’ which point they normally shuffle off in embarrassment.”

My challenge to those of you who lived with unresolved doubt is this: Open yourself to the very real possibility, attested by billions of Christian witnesses over the millennia, that Jesus is alive. Don’t you owe it to yourself to find out whether they are right?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

For Stan

I was offered, today, the immense privilege of preaching at the Thanksgiving Service of a wonderful man...a man who more than any other, first led me to a full commitment to Jesus. In his memory, here is the sermon I preached...

Philippians 3: 7-14: For Stan Whitfield

I am immensely humbled by this invitation to preach a short sermon at Stan’s thanksgiving. (You’ll be pleased to know that Connie and Peter have emphasised the word ‘short’!) I can honestly say that more than anyone else, other than Jesus himself, Stan is responsible for the fact that I stand here today in a clerical ordained minister. He never actually told me what he thought of the fact that I’m a minister in the Church of England!...but I think I know what he would have said. He would have said that I was right to follow Jesus...wherever he would lead.

I first met Stan during his ministry in Totnes - 20 something years ago. I was a student at the nearby college of arts...which was an institution that Stan felt God was calling him to reach out to. It was a God-less place...let me tell you….and most of us students lived pretty God-less lives. During my first year, I was dimly aware of a bunch of students who had been inspired by Stan to pray regularly in our halls of residence. We knew they were at the choruses of Majesty which would float down the corridors. They seemed a pretty odd bunch to me...but they were persistently friendly….and persistently persuasive of the need for me to come and met their minister.

So - having had a church background, but a lot of questions, I agreed to meet this chap they were on about. Stan, frankly, amazed me. He and Connie welcomed me into their home...a lost student, far from his parents...and treated me like a member of the family. Not just me - all of us lost souls of Dartington knew what it was to be loved and accepted by the Whitfield family.

But most importantly, Stan was willing to be grilled and grilled on questions of faith...answering each of my questions with quiet assurance and a penetrating logic. He led by example too...his life of prayerful self-sacrifice was a testament to the possibility of transformation through knowing Jesus...I had never met anyone quite like him. It was not long before Jesus, through Stan, convicted me of the knowledge that I am a sinner...and that only Jesus had the remedy. I was baptised, by Stan, a short while later...and, frankly, have never looked back.

Stan put my feet on the road of faith. Initially that meant his recommendation that I should take a year out to serve as a Christian in the ‘Time for God’ scheme. But more fundamentally, he set my feet on the road of life with God. St Paul followed that road - and, as we heard in our reading just now, he found it to be one that utterly transformed his life.

For Paul, the journey along the road to heaven began on the road to Damascus. Up until then, he had been an important man - a leader among the Jews - who gained great respect for his persecution of Christians. He had status, respect, learning and probably wealth.
But Jesus met him on the road to Damascus. Jesus called Paul to a totally new way of living...a way of hardship, of trials before courts, of travelling from country to country, of prison, and ultimately of an early death.

Now that doesn’t sound very appealing does it? “Give up your life of status, power, wealth and begin one of hardship, poverty and death!” But just listen to how Paul compared his new life in Christ to his old one. I’m reading from a new paraphrase of the Bible called “the Message” - which aims to get the sense of the text over to us in modern language:

“Because of Christ, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant - dog dung! I’ve dumped it all in the rubbish so that I could embrace Christ, and be embraced by Him.”

Yes - folks - the bible really does use language which is that robust. The word which is translated as rubbish in our normal bible, and as ‘dog-dung’ in the actually closer, in the original Greek, to the word we all know that begins with ‘s/h’ and ends with ‘t’! Paul is wanting us to be in no doubt that compared to the joy of following Christ on the path to heaven...everything else is trash, rubbish - muck and manure!

You see, Paul, like Stan, understood that the goal of eternal life with Jesus was worth pressing on for. In the last line of the passage we just heard, he said “I press on towards the goal to win the price for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.”

Being an Anglican, I take a lot of funerals! It comes with being part of the established church. I have to tell you, that I go through some pretty tortuous sentences in some of those funerals, as I try to say something that will offer hope to families of habitual gamblers and drunkards, or those who have never darkened the church’s doors. Everyone wants to hear that their loved one has gone to heaven...but sadly, all that I can often do is affirm that God is merciful, and that we must pray.

But for someone like is wonderful to be able to celebrate, with real joy, that the end of his journey of faith can be in no other place than with God - awaiting, in glorious peace, the day of resurrection. I can hear Stan’s voice in those words of verse 10 that we heard just now: “I want to know Christ and power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in his suffering, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”.

Do you know what Paul means? Do you understand why Stan lived his life as one focused on the goal of heaven? Many people go through their whole lives trying to find the kind of deep peace and contentment that Paul is talking about. We seek new experiences, new possessions, new hobbies and interests, new jobs, new relationships - all in an effort find happiness...deep happiness. But somehow, it never quite works does it?

We buy a new fabulous painting for our wall...but after a while it becomes familiar...and we want a new one. We buy a new car, with all the latest gadgets…(well I do anyway!)...but after a while we find that it gets old and starts to cost us time and money. We buy a new house thinking we’ve found the perfect nest, the place we’ve always wanted...and then we find that the boiler is broken, and the toilet leaks! Suddenly, what we thought would bring us deep inner peace, no longer thrills just becomes another part of every day life.

And ultimately, all of us know, don’t we, that our earthly life will come to an end. Mind you, we instinctively do everything we can to pretend that death won’t affect us...we kid ourselves inwardly that we will live forever. Through the tender mercy of the funeral director and the crematorium, we have professionalised death, and ritualised it. But let me tell you a secret - a secret that Stan knew - we will all die. And nothing we’ve done, nothing we’ve accumulated, nothing we’ve strived for will actually matter anymore. It will be meaningless...unless, as Stan did, we’ve based our lives on the one thing that will outlive us all...our Creator God.

I wondered earlier what Stan might have said about me becoming an Anglican minister. But there’s no doubt in my mind what Stan would say to each and every one of you who have come to pay tribute to him today. Even after all that he so gloriously achieved, and even after all that we’ve rightly remembered him for today, Stan would say …”don’t focus on the container, and miss the Spirit that fills it” He’d say “Don’t remember me as a good man without remembering that it is Jesus who transformed me”. He’d say ”If you want to congratulate me for a life lived well, remember that it means nothing compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” And he’d say, “If you honour my legacy at all...don’t leave here today without putting your feet firmly on the road of God. Forget what is behind, and strain towards what is ahead. Press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called us heavenwards in Jesus Christ.”


Sunday, April 08, 2007

Let me tell you a Story...

Luke 24:1-12 - The Resurrection. (A monologue delivered at St James, Emsworth - this morning)

(Hushed)...Hey you. Yes you...come over here. Hello. My name is Peter - and yes...I’m in prison. I’m a prisoner of the Roman in Rome. They’ve put me in jail for the things I’ve been saying about a man called Jesus of Nazareth. And it all goes back to a day, about 30 years ago. Let me tell you about it.

Frankly, that day, I was feeling rather sorry for myself. You see, for the previous three years I had been traipsing along around Judea with this amazing Rabbi, called Jesus of Nazareth. He had recruited me to his band of followers when I was mending my fishing nets one day...and he just seemed such an amazing character, that I had to follow him.

Well, over those three years, we wandered around from town to town, listening to all that this Jesus was telling people. You should have heard him was amazing. The things he said were just so wise that you could hear a pin drop when he started to speak. He told us all about his Father in heaven - God - whom he said wanted to be our Father too. And he told us about how God was setting up a new Kingdom of peace and justice.

The really amazing thing is that Jesus was so plugged into God that he could do the most amazing miracles. We watched him heal people just with a word or a touch. We watched him calm a storm, and walk on water...and even raise people from the dead!

But through it all, he kept telling us that the real reason he had come was not to do miracles, not even to preach especially, but actually to die, and then rise again from the dead. Which frankly I never quite got my head around.

So much so, that when he was arrested by the Chief Priests of the Temple, I got really scared. I didn’t know what was going on. And when someone in the crowd outside the temple claimed to recognise me as one of Jesus’ followers...well...I’m ashamed to admit...I denied that I knew him at all. Three times, they challenged me…”You were one of his followers weren’t you!”. “No!” I insisted…”I never knew him” I slunk away from the crowd...feeling really guilty, and really confused, and really frightened. I ran away and hid…

While I was hiding, like a terrified mouse, some of Jesus’ other followers came and told me what had happened. They told me that Jesus had been taken out of the city, and nailed to one of those crosses that the Romans kept for executing criminals. I couldn’t believe it! Why?! What had Jesus done to deserve that?! All he had done was help people...and teach them to love one another.

‘Well’, I thought to myself, ‘that’s that then’. All we had hoped for, all the things that Jesus had hoped was all over. ‘I might as well go back to my fishing business’. There’s not much point in hanging around in Jerusalem, waiting to be recognised as a follower of Jesus...and risk getting strung up myself.

Now, I couldn’t actually go anywhere on the day after Jesus was crucified. You see, that was a Saturday, and that’s the day that we Jews call the ‘Sabbath’ - a day of rest...and no-one is allowed to go on a journey or carry luggage or anything like that. So I stayed in Jerusalem with my friends, and waited for the dawn - so that I could get out of the city.

Early the next morning, I started to pack my stuff. I didn’t have much...following Jesus wasn’t exactly a lucrative business. But I was just gathering my bits and bobs together, grabbing a handful of dried fish to eat for breakfast, when suddenly there was a loud noise at the door. There were some women outside, bashing on the door with all their might and demanding to be let in.

Well, one of my friends opened the door, and in tumbled these women - Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and a few others whose names I don’t remember now. They had all been followers of Jesus with us. They collapsed breathless onto the floor. John, (one of my mates) went over to them with a cup of water, and asked them whatever was the matter.

“He’s alive!” they said. “He’s alive!”

“What?!” said I. “Who’s alive? Whatever are you going on about?”

“Jesus!” said Mary Magdalene. “Jesus is alive! We’ve just been to the tomb to prepare his body for a proper burial. But when we got there we found that the stone in front of the tomb was rolled away...and there were two men who were sort of shining, standing there telling us that Jesus isn’t dead anymore...he’s alive!”

Another of my mates, Matthew, piped up at that point.

“What a load a rubbish,” he said. “You’re being hysterical. People don’t just get up from the dead all by themselves! Don’t be so stupid”

But I wasn’t so sure. After all, I remembered, didn’t Jesus tell us that this was precisely what would happen? And didn’t he have the power to raise other people from the dead. There was that bloke Lazarus, and that little girl...what was her name?...Jairus’ daughter.

“Well,” I said, “I don’t know about you blokes...but I’m going to see for myself” So I legged it out of the house, down the street, and out of the city gates to the graveyard. My legs were pumping for all they were chest was gasping for air...but I had to see for myself what the women were talking about. Maybe, just maybe, they were right.

Eventually, I made it to the tomb. And there, sure enough, just as the women had said...the stone had been rolled away...and inside there was no body. Just a few strips of cloth that his body had been temporarily wrapped in. “Perhaps someone has stolen the body?” I thought to myself. “But no...who would steal a body, and leave the cloth that it was wrapped in? That doesn’t make any sense.

I couldn’t decide what had I made my way back to the house. Me and my friends just sat there for a few hours...stunned, and confused. What had happened? Had some lunatic stolen the body to sell? Or could it possibly be true that he had actually risen from the dead.

A short while later, two men came to the door….with another amazing story. They told us that they had actually met with Jesus...that he had walked with them on the road out to Emmaus, and had eaten with them, before suddenly disappearing.

We were all listening intently to what they were saying when suddenly, without any warning, you’ll never believe what happened...Jesus! Suddenly Jesus was standing there in the room with us! “It’s a ghost!” said John - frightened out of his wits. And then Jesus spoke…

“Why are you so surprised?! Didn’t I tell you that this would happen? Don’t you trust me? Look...I’m not a ghost...I’m real flesh and blood. Touch me...feel my flesh and bones. Does a ghost have those? I tell you what...have you got any food here?”

We did...there was a bit of fish left over from breakfast...and Mary brought some over to him. Jesus took that piece of fish, and ate it in front of us. He chewed it, and swallowed it...this was definitely no ghost!

It was true. It was really true! Jesus, who some of us had seen as dead as a door-nail just two days before...was alive! What’s more, he stayed around with us for another 40 days - teaching us all that we needed to know to make sure that his words had been correctly understood. And then, he left least physically. He was taken up into heaven as we watched.

But you know...since then, we’ve realised that Jesus never really left us. He had to take his body away from us, so that his Spirit could be with us always. And that is what all of us followers of Jesus have discovered over the last 30 years. He really is alive! We know, deep down inside, that he is with us all the time...that his Spirit is with us….strengthening us, leading us, helping us to live as he has called us to live.

And that, ultimately, is why I am in prison. You see, SO many people have discovered the truth that Jesus is alive, that we have become quite a threat to the Romans. We are beginning to call ourselves Christians - Christ-ians now...and there are Christians all over the Empire. Most of them never had my good fortune….of actually seeing Jesus while he was still with us. But they’ve all discovered by faith what I saw with my eyes...that Jesus is alive! And he’s with us now...right here.

I just hope that all of you who are hearing my story will be able to meet Jesus yourself. It really is worth it...let me tell you! All you have to do is talk to him. Tell him that you are sorry that you’ve tried to live your life your own way. And tell him that you want him to come into your life, and transform it the way that he has transformed mine. I promise you - you will never regret it.

Let me tell you - life with Jesus...even in a million times better than life on your own.

Anyway...that’s enough from me. You’d better go...the guards will be along in a minute to bring me my bread and water...and they get rather cross if they find me talking to people. Come back another time...and I’ll tell you more!

The Passion of the Christ

(Easter Morning Sermon: Warblington)

I wonder how many of you have seen Mel Gibson’s horrific account of the Crucifixion - “The Passion of the Christ”. Quite a lot of people I know were put off it because they had heard just how truly bloody the whole film was. And I have to say they were not mistaken.

I went to see it, just after its release, with a group of fellow students on my theological training course. Being somewhat of a science fiction lover, I was not too shocked by all the blood. But I have to tell you that some of my fellow students were deeply upset by the whole event. Afterwards, we walked back to our college in total silence...each one trying to come to terms with what we had witnessed.

When that film was released, it was touted as “the greatest evangelistic opportunity in 2000 years”. Many no doubt well- meaning Christians thought that if they could just get their friends to come and see it, they would be instantly converted by seeing what Jesus went through for us on the cross. But...actually...given that it was supposed to be the “greatest evangelistic opportunity for 2000 years”...why haven’t we seen the churches exploding with new members? No doubt, many people who saw the film were not Christians...but very few of them seem to have come to faith as a result of it. I wonder why that is.

Crucifixion was a brutal business...without doubt. But by focusing too much on Jesus’ death, I think we are in danger of rather missing the point. After all, Jesus death was painful and awful...but we would be wrong to say that he has suffered more than any other human being. There are many people who go through years of agony and torment - mental as well as physical - through sickness, starvation, or holocaust. There have been many more even more painful ways to die that human beings have invented...hanging, drawing and quartering for a start!

Actually, the fact that Jesus was crucified at all is somewhat of a detail. If he had been a Roman citizen...he would have been beheaded. If he had lived in another time and place, he could well have been starved to death, hanged, stoned or shot. If he had lived today in the USA, he might have been given a lethal injection, or been strapped to an electric chair - probably after spending many years on death row.

My point is that the graphic details of crucifixion - whether through the Passion of the Christ, or through paintings, statues and dramatic readings, primarily seem to focus us on feeling sorry for Jesus. The underlying thought seems to be that we therefore that we sort of owe it to him to follow him, because of what he did for us.

There is, of course, a great deal that could be seen as remarkable about the Crucifixion...when seen through the eyes of faith. It is remarkable that the Son of God, the Lord of the Universe, should submit himself to the indignity of being murdered by his own creatures. It is remarkable that although he could have called down the hosts of heaven to defend him, he went meekly to the cross. It is remarkable that Jesus would willingly take our sins, and nail them to the cross along with his own body. It is remarkable that the Son of God would allow himself to be cut off from his Heavenly Father by our sins... severing, temporarily, a relationship he had been part of since eternity.

The fact that Jesus, the Son of God, died at all dramatically demonstrates the depth and meaning of his sacrifice. It does us no harm to remember who Jesus is. He is the Alpha and Omega. The Beginning and the End. He is the one who, as Isaiah and Revelation tell us, has the power to make all things new...a new heaven and a new earth. C.S. Lewis spent some time in his book, Mere Christianity, thinking about what it meant for Jesus to come and live as a human being. He wrote: “The Eternal being who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man, but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug.”

But if it wasn’t for Easter...these remarkable actions on the part of God would quite probably have gone unknown, and un-remarked by the rest of humanity. Jesus wasn’t the first man to die in a horribly painful way...and he wasn’t the last. His disciples knew that, and the historical records of the time - the Gospels - tell us that after his death they thought that the whole thing was over. They hid in an upper room - terrified. Most of them stayed away from the crucifixion itself...afraid of being strung up themselves. If it wasn’t for Easter, they would probably have melted away from Jerusalem, and gone back to their nets and their other jobs...feeling rather foolish that they had followed this rather odd holy man around Israel for three years.

But the fact of the Resurrection...the fact that Jesus shrugged off death, and rose from the tomb, had an incredibly dramatic effect. It transformed the lives of his friends, and from there it transformed lives throughout the whole world.

It is sometimes said that it doesn’t really matter whether or not we believe in the Resurrection. Some free-thinking liberals have suggested that Jesus didn’t actually rise from the was just that his presence with the disciples seemed to live on with them, after his death. Those liberal thinkers suggest that Jesus was only alive in the sense that any dead person is alive to our memories. But I don’t think that interpretation matches the facts.

First of all, people don’t give up their own lives for a memory. Many of the disciples were persecuted, hated, tried and martyred for their assertion...their absolute certainty...that Jesus had got up from the grave. They could not deny what they had seen with their own matter how much they were threatened and beaten.

Secondly, if Jesus had not risen from the dead, why didn’t the Roman or Jewish authorities simply produce his body to disprove it? That would have quickly stopped the resurrection rumour in its tracks. But there was no body to produce.

Jesus calls us to follow him, not only because he died for our sins...not because we feel grateful to him (although of course we should). The message of Easter is that Jesus calls us to follow him because he lives! As one of us, Jesus not only died, but was raised from the dead and now lives with the Father. And he says that he wants to share his joy and his life with us. Jesus isn’t looking for our sympathy; he’s looking for us to come home to the love of our heavenly Father. That’s why he give us life, and to call us home. Not to illicit our pity.

So it does matter what we believe. If we believe that Jesus only lived in his disciples’ memories...then he died there too - when they died. And our faith is based on nothing more than a vague wishfulness - a totally unproveable hypothesis that maybe God exists, and maybe we have somewhere to go after we die.

If, on the other hand - as all the evidence suggests - he really rose from the dead, still lives today, and calls us to life and to heaven...then that is worth something. That is a truth worth hanging on to. That is a fact worth telling our neighbours about. That is something worth celebrating.

Alleluiah...Christ is Risen!