Friday, 26 May 2017

Easter 7 - where's Jesus?

Acts 1: 6-11     John 17: 1-11
I think there is a question that many people have been asking this week, and it is relevant to our Bible readings, too. Where’s Jesus?

On Monday night we first heard the news of the bomb going off in Manchester, and all week the police have been investigating and trying to make sense of what has happened. So many lives lost – and so many of them young lives, children ready to be picked up by their parents at the end of a pop concert. And where is Jesus in that? In the carnage and the fear and the desperation – where’s Jesus?

Well, we have glimpsed Jesus in some places, haven’t we – in the story of Steve, the man who is homeless, but was outside the Arena & went to help people who were bleeding, without thought for his own safety; in the speech given by Fawzi Haffar, from the Manchester mosque who said ‘this act of cowardice has no place in our religion – or any religion’; in the cafĂ© which immediately started giving a free ‘brew’ to anyone who needed it. In the midst of terror there is also human kindness and love, and where love is, God is – Jesus has been seen on the streets of Manchester.

And yet… we wonder whether Jesus could not have been more present at an earlier stage: clearing the area before the bomb went off, thwarting the plans of the terrorists in some way, even melting the hard heart of the bomber himself.

There is no satisfactory answer we can give when the grieving heart wants to cry out ‘where was God?’ ‘where is Jesus?’. Anything we say risks sounding like a hollow platitude. But the hope and joy of Easter can bring us the lasting light that God’s resurrection love is unstoppably present, even in the darkness. Because we are at the point of the Christian year when we see the initial thrill that Jesus is alive again begin to mature into a realisation that he is present in a new way.

Last Thursday, 3 days ago, was Ascension day – the day when the church remembers that the resurrected Jesus was seen by his followers going back into heaven – back to the place he came from in the first place.
But Jesus has promised that we won’t be alone, because he will send his Holy Spirit to be our Counsellor and Guide. Yet we know that Pentecost won’t come for another week : we will be celebrating it next Sunday.

We have celebrated the risen Jesus, but now his resurrection body has gone back to the Father and we have to wait for the gift of the promised Spirit.

We wait because that’s what Jesus first followers had to do. It’s what the angels told them to do when they found the looking blankly up into heaven after Jesus had gone.
The book of Acts tells us that they went back to Jerusalem and devoted themselves to prayer – ‘they’ being the 11 remaining disciples plus ‘certain women, including Mary his mother and also his brothers’.

Then Simon announces that they must replace Judas (who has committed suicide) with another man who has been part of the company and seen all that Jesus has done: they draw lots to choose between Justus and Matthias, and Matthias is chosen.

But surely as well as drawing lots and praying there must have been a lot of story-telling or reminiscing, of reminding each other what Jesus had said and done and all the things that had happened – all that they had witnessed from the time of John the Baptist until the ascension itself.

Perhaps one of the things they talked about was that last supper, when Jesus seemed to have so much to teach them. We have been hearing various parts of John’s account of the Last Supper in our Sunday readings since Easter, and we had another chunk of the teaching today.

You might almost feel as if you want to draw a diagram:

Jesus says
Father, glorify your Son, so that your son may glorify you,
since you have given him authority over all, to give eternal life to all
that they may know you and Jesus Christ whom you have sent…
The words you gave to me I have given to them...
They know that I came from you & you sent me…
And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world and I am coming to you.

I wonder if the disciples pondered long and hard about the ascension – they saw Jesus go up into heaven – the final proof that he came from heaven in the first place. Jesus and the Father were one, as he said.
But they now have a task to fulfill – sent out into the world to be the witnesses for the world of what has happened.
Heaven has touched the earth – God has come in human form to visit his creation: how can they possibly convince the world about Jesus?
The answer is, of course, that they can’t ! No amount of trying to explain the relationship of Earth to heaven, of the Father to the Son, of the amazing message of love shared with God’s people; no amount of diagrams or hand-waving is going to convince people that this carpenter’s Son from Galilee was someone unique.

The disciples will be witnesses, but not in their own strength. Before they can go out they have to wait: not just to build up their human strength by getting back to 12 disciples, and remembering the stories of Jesus’ life but they will need the power which will come to them from heaven. The resurrected body of Jesus went up into heaven, and the power of the Holy Spirit will come down.

The disciples must have used this time to change the way they were used to thinking about Jesus. For three years he had been their friend and teacher – flesh and blood alongside them. Then came the seeming calamity of his death, and then a new way to see Jesus with them – the risen Jesus.
Jesus was still with them, but in a new resurrection body – not always instantly recognisable as Jesus – but real, living, touchable. Now they are in a new phase of knowing Jesus – he is the ascended Jesus – his risen body back in heaven with God the Father. But soon they will know Jesus’ presence in yet another new way, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Without the ascension we would always be looking for Jesus as a thirty year-old, bearded man. But now Jesus is released from his body, set free into the world, so that the power of the Holy Spirit can bring the reality of Jesus’ presence into all times and all places.
Jesus is alongside us, within us, empowering us… in Manchester,

Jesus shows his followers that he can be with them in many different ways: as friend, teacher, healer, victim, victor, resurrected one, ascended Lord, power from on high. And Jesus can be all this to us, too.
In our lifetime of following Jesus it may well be that our view of who Jesus is and how we encounter him might change, especially when life’s events challenge or frighten us.

May the incarnate, resurrected and ascended Jesus be with us and may his Spirit come to strengthen us to grow in knowledge of Jesus Christ, and to be witnesses to his love and to God’s kingdom of peace for all people.
And do not let your hearts be afraid: for Jesus is with you. Here. Here's Jesus.


Saturday, 6 May 2017

Easter 4 - following the Good Shepherd

John 10: 1-10, Acts 2: 42-47

I hope that since Easter you have spent these few weeks celebrating – not just the signs of Spring around us and the chance to enjoy a few days rest, even time away and then the May Bank Holiday - but of course we have been celebrating the resurrection of Jesus from death and all the hope, joy and new life that our Easter faith brings.

But life isn’t all celebration, is it? These weeks since Easter have also brought news of tensions around North Korea, terrible suffering in East Africa, continued killings in Syria: and I’m sure we have friends and relatives who have been unwell, or struggling in some way.
I’ve had a few weeks when I seem to have had one doctor’s appointment after another to try to clear up some medical issues. Life certainly has its ups and downs: so what exactly is this “full life” that Jesus promises his disciples and promises us?

The first part of the Gospel reading seems rather complicated:
Jesus says ‘the man who does not enter the sheepfold by the door.. is nothing but a thief and a robber’ but ‘the shepherd... calls his own sheep by name’. John then goes on to say of Jesus’ disciples, ‘they did not understand’. I don’t really blame Jesus’ listeners for not immediately understanding - it does take a bit of thinking through, as we started to earlier on.

Jesus is saying something about his relationship to those who follow him: he is the good shepherd, the one who cares, the one who can be trusted. He hasn’t come to take hearts and minds by force, like a thief, but to offer a way to go which those who trust him will follow.
Jesus is telling us that he is the one who can be trusted and followed. He is also chiming in with the tradition that the King of Israel was considered to be leader only as a stand-in for God, the true shepherd.

We only have to think of the 23rd Psalm “The Lord is my shepherd” to see that the shepherd of Israel was the Lord God.
Jesus is identifying himself as leader of the emerging church and as the true shepherd of the people, the Son of God himself. He uses the parable of the shepherd to inspire his listeners with confidence that they can trust and follow him and that through him they will gain life in all its fullness.

But ‘full life’ doesn’t mean a life entirely protected from the ups and down – the dark valleys and the green pastures - that ordinary people encounter. Jesus isn’t offering a message to accept God’s care & so be wrapped up in cotton wool, untouched by the pain of the world.
Jesus says these words just before the Passover and his death on the cross. Following a crucified criminal is certainly not a guarantee of safety or security: there will be risk and rejection and what looks, to the world around, like failure. We know that Jesus lays down his life for the sake of his sheep.
I don’t believe for a moment that as Christians we should go out looking for suffering – but that we shouldn’t be surprised if it comes, and that by enduring it we can reveal the love of God, as Jesus did. Full life means a life unafraid, a life lived in the knowledge that whatever the wolves of unhappiness that seem to be circling us, we are safe in the care of the Good Shepherd, and that our lives have meaning and purpose, as his had, and that in the end we will be raised up by the love of God the Father, as Jesus was.

Here in Jesus’ phrase ‘I am the Good Shepherd’ is an invitation to all of us to follow him and become a part of the project of God - the kingdom of God. A full life is one which accepts our role as workers for God’s kingdom: those who will work for a place of love, joy and peace for all people, a place where everyone will know themselves loved and cared for by God.
So the offer of Jesus to be the Good Shepherd is not just about caring for us, his sheep, but also about calling us to follow, and to become truly His.
After Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension the disciples began to realise that they were now called to become the body of Christ, the new agent through which God’s love would work.

You might have felt a little overawed by the description from the book of Acts of the church at that time: “the believers had all things in common, signs and wonders were being done, they were adding daily to their number.”

How we would love someone to be able to describe our church like this!
Signs and wonders,  people added to our number, caring and sharing together…
This is some time after the day of Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit. Filled with the life and power of Jesus Christ, the church is growing and living the kingdom.

So how can we do that? How can we be a church growing and living the kingdom?

The church is called to follow Jesus and to proclaim the glorious truth of God’s love, showing people a route to faith in Jesus which leads to a truly full life – a life of hope and trust and love.
We might think the odds of this counter-cultural message being heard in our world is slim, but our task is to proclaim it faithfully, to model being a people who are living God’s kingdom, and to accept the strength and protection of the Good Shepherd to lead us where we must go as we seek new words to express ourselves and new ways to display God’s love.

In the strength of Christ we can share God’s love with those around us.
One of the greatest difficulties people have in our society is loneliness – the feeling that no-one cares about you, that you don’t matter is a terrible thing. We know that Jesus is the good shepherd who knows all his sheep by name – and we need to share this sense of being known and named and cared-for with our neighbours.

We can also share with others what we know of the power of Jesus Christ in our lives – how Jesus has given us life in all its fullness – a life of love and joy. We should always be ready to tell other people what God is doing in our lives – in small ways and great ways.

And we can add to our number – we can make sure the door is always open for others to come in – that we offer a warm invitation, a real welcome, and open arms for others.

So may we, as a church and as individuals, know, proclaim and enjoy life is all its fullness.
He is risen indeed, he is living and calling us still – let’s hear his voice and follow Jesus – to the glory of God. Amen.