Monday, 13 April 2015

Sunday preview: 'I don't believe it'

Continuing our Easter theme...
The story so far:
That first Easter morning, Mary heads to the garden tomb and finds the stone rolled away.
She heads off to tell the rest of the followers.
Peter and John race back to the garden, followed by Mary.
P & J see the empty tomb. The investigate further and find neatly folded grave-clothes.
What on earth can this mean?
They head back.
Mary stays behind and, looking into the tomb, encounters strange creatures - could they be angels?
Turning, she finds herself face to face with what she thinks must be the gardener...
but discovers, to her amazement, that it's Jesus.
How can this be?
Later in the day, two disciples head back to their village, and encounter Jesus.
Astonished, they head immediately back to Jerusalem to tell the waiting disciples.
And there, in the midst of them, Jesus appears.
But wait.
Where's Thomas??

Join us this week as we rescue Thomas from all the doubters.
That would be Thomas the disciple as opposed to Thomas the Tank Engine.
Just so there's no doubt.
This Sunday.
UCPC Abington.  10.30
See you there.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Sermon: 12 April 'On the 3rd day, in the evening...'

Last week, we foucused upon the morning of that first Easter Day, and of Jesus' appearance to Mary of Magdala in the garden.  But it didn't end there.  Jesus kept appearing to various followers over the course of that day, and so this morning, we turn our attention to the later part of Easter afternoon and early evening...

1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24:36-48

Let’s pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

It’s approaching evening on that first Easter day.
Strange things are afoot
and it all centres upon Jesus:
the man they’ve seen beaten, mocked,
and tortured.
The man they’ve watched
being lifted up onto a cross.
The one who, after having cried out in agony,
breathed his last
...and died.
The one whose body had been
wrapped in grave linen
and put into the tomb several days before.
As sure as night follows day,
his life    had finished.
Hadn’t it?

But today, they’re beginning to wonder.
Odd things have been happening.
Wild words from Mary earlier in the day:
a stone rolled away,
an empty tomb.
Grief surely unhinging her mind?
But then, an investigation:
Peter and John go and see:
confirm the story of the stone, the tomb,
and tell of grave clothes, neatly folded.
It’s all   very odd indeed...
And suddenly, Mary’s back,
her face transformed from grief to joy.
It’s as if she’s lit up from the inside, radiant.
‘I have seen the Lord!’ she says, in awe and amazement.
How can this be?
What can it mean?

The gathered followers talk for hours after that,
puzzled and frightened.
As the day wears on, some of their number leave,
heading back to Emmaus,
unable to make sense of the strange
events of the morning.
The dead do not come back to life.
...Do they?

The conversations continue,
fear and bewilderment grow.
As the darkness of evening begins to take hold
the two followers from Emmaus
burst back into the room.
Like Mary, their faces are alight
with wonder and joy -
they, too, have seen Jesus,
have walked with him, talked with him.
The group watches them,
as they tell the story of their encounter
with the risen Lord.
They’re animated, excited,
bursting with new enthusiasm,
new life.
Surely these are not the same men who left several hours ago -
the ones who left looking...   
so dejected,     so afraid?
But... death can’t be overthrown,
can it?

There, in the locked room,
fear and anxiety increase amongst the ones
who have heard of, but not seen, the risen Jesus.
They are troubled:
where is the body of the one they’ve followed?
What of the stone,
the grave-clothes,
their transformed friends
now making outlandish claims?
And then, in the midst of the conversation
he appears.
The one who is supposed to be dead.
They are startled out of their speculation,
and even more afraid.
Having heard,
they now see...
but what is it that they’re seeing?
And because it’s simply and utterly impossible
for the dead to rise again,
they think it more probable
that the one standing before them
must be
has to be
can only be
a ghost.
Because that’s the only possible explanation.
Isn’t it?

Gathered together, sharing their grief,
puzzling over the strange
turn of events of the day,
the disciples’ encounter with Jesus is one
in which all their senses are engaged.
The initial approach is through sound:
though words.
He invites them to be at peace -
‘Peace be with you.’
Because peace is the very thing that
they are all lacking
at this particular moment.
Their response is a mix of
‘this can’t really be real’
of fear, of shock...
and their reaction is met by Jesus moving from words to touch:
they’re invited to see with another
of their senses:
‘Look...touch me and see
This is an invitation to open their minds
as well as their eyes:
to see and understand
that the impossible has happened.
Feet and hands, marked by nails, are shown -
the resurrected body carries the scars
of the recent past.
Logic, reason, demands that this can’t be happening,
it’s not sensible, rational, or possible it?

Something is happening to the disciples
in this encounter with Jesus:
before, they were fearful at what
they were seeing -
now, although they still can’t quite believe it,
can’t quite take it all in,
they dare to have hope -
they are less filled with fear
and more filled with amazement.
Despair has moved to joy.
Can it really    be?

They now so hope that it can.
So hope that it’s    true.
And in response,
Jesus tries to help them see more fully,
again looking to the senses:
taste and smell.
It seems a strange request to make,
given the circumstances,
but he asks for food:
‘Do you have anything to eat?’
A piece of baked fish is given to him.
As they watch,
he takes it, eats it.
The smell of the fish fills the room.
In the midst of this extraordinary encounter,
perhaps it’s this very ordinary,
every day, simple act of eating food
that reminds them of other meals
they’ve shared with this man -
literally helps put flesh on the bones
of what’s happening here in the room,
and that perhaps grounds this encounter
in the most real of ways:
because ghosts don’t eat,
do they?

As they see him eat,
finally, they see and understand,
that it really is Jesus:
alive and risen.
They make sense of the day’s events at last -
the stone
the tomb
the folded grave-clothes,
the strange things their friends had been saying.

As with Mary, in the early morning,
and the followers on the road back to Emmaus,
Jesus then explains to them:
‘I told you all of this when I was with you’
explains to them through the use of scripture -
the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms -
that all of this was to happen
...that all of this is the fulfilment of Scripture.
That the Messiah would suffer
and rise from the dead on the third day...
And that from this,
the message of God’s great love -
the message of repentance and of God’s forgiveness of sins -
of the restoration of relationship between God and humanity -
...that this message would be preached
in Christ’s name to the world...
and that it would start here, with them:
for the message of this Good News
would first be preached in Jerusalem.

In their unexpected encounter with the resurrected Jesus,
the disciples become witnesses
to the work of God in the world
the work of God for the world, in and through the person of Jesus.
Their way of seeing the world has changed
in the light of the resurrection.
They don’t suddenly become perfect and all-knowing overnight.
As we see in our other reading this morning,
following Jesus,
journeying in faith with him,
is an ongoing, lifetime process:
‘what we will be has not yet been made known.’
In the disciples’ encounter with the
risen Jesus, however,
there is the beginning of understanding,
a process of transformation,
learning a new way of being and living and loving in the world -
of seeing the world through the lens of the resurrection.
Where do we encounter God, I wonder?
Or, an even more basic question:
Do we expect to encounter God?
Or, like the disciples, do we find ourselves
encountering God quite unexpectedly
on occasion in the midst of the
ordinary, everyday stuff of life?
Find that there are times and places
that God seems to suddenly turn up,
unexpected, but very present -
reminding us that wherever we go,
wherever we are,
he is always with us?
Find that the encounter has somehow
changed our way of seeing others,
ourselves, particular situations, the world?

Or sometimes the question is asked
‘how do I connect to God - encounter God?’
Sometimes the answer is given:
‘pray, read the bible,
join with God’s people in worship.’
And I’m not about to turn around and say don’t do any of that -
because all of that is hugely helpful in growing
in the knowledge
of the One who we worship.
But I wonder sometimes if it’s simpler than that?
I wonder if it’s more a matter of realising
that it’s God
who connects with us:
God always making that first approach,
God who, in answer to our lack of peace
and our scrabbling about to find him, says:
‘Peace be with you’
who invites us to see, really see him as he is...
who invites us, in bread and in wine,
to taste and see that the Lord is good;
who, in the words of Scripture
and in the Living Word of Christ,
invites us to expect the unexpected:
to open our minds to the realms of
God’s infinite possibilities -
the God who brought his Son, Jesus,
back from the dead,
and who calls us
to be his witnesses in the world...

Witnesses ...
In encountering the risen Jesus, the disciples were
given the task of sharing the
Good News with others about someone
they were passionate about:
who’d taught them about living life abundantly, fully, authentically;
who’d opened up the scriptures to them
and in so doing,
opened up their minds to look beyond the box of ‘it’s aye bin’
who, in living, in dying, and in rising from death
showed them the power of God’s uncontainable, unlimited love...
It is this same God who calls us his children,
who calls us to love in word and in action
and calls us, like the disciples
to be witnesses -
to share the most amazing story
that the world can ever hear:
Let’s go and tell the world of the One who triumphed over death
our Lord of all hopefulness
our Lord of all joy.
And to his name be all glory, praise and honour,
now and forevermore,


Sunday, 5 April 2015

Sermon: Easter Sunday - 'Early on the first day of the week'

This morning's sermon:
John 20:1-18
Acts 10:34-43

Let’s pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts 
be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

‘Early on the first day of the week...’
The beginning of an old, familiar story.
The beginning of a story that cuts to the heart
of the Christian faith.
A story of darkness and light, for John’s recounting of that story begins
in the gloom and dark before dawn.
But we, as his audience,
know that light is coming...

The lone figure of a woman, Mary of Magdala,
makes her way through the darkness
to the garden tomb.
A tomb in which her beloved Lord has been placed 
after his recent, horrific execution.
As dark as it is outside,
Mary’s interior world is darker still.
She’s bereft. 
She’s grief-stricken.
And for Mary, the darkness is compounded
when she arrives at the tomb:
the massive stone covering the entrance
has been rolled away.
What’s going on?
What fresh horror is this?
In shock, she runs.
Actually, there’s a lot of running in this particular story.
She runs to find Simon Peter and the unnamed ‘other’ disciple - 
who most biblical commentators believe to be John.

She’s not sure what’s happened at the grave,
but whatever it is, it surely can’t be good.
Is there some conspiracy afoot?
‘‘They’ have taken the Lord out of the tomb,’ she says, 
‘and we don’t know where ‘they’ have put him.’
Even though they've killed him,
have the enemies of Jesus played one last cruel trick?
There’s no inkling here of resurrection,
of death defeated’,
only shock and maybe panic.
All of this happens, while it is still dark -
and for the writer of this Gospel, darkness is working on several levels:
the darkness of pre-dawn;
the darkness of grief and despair;
and the darkness of confusion.
But we, as his audience, know that light is coming...

More running.
Peter and the other disciple run to the tomb.
The open tomb.
The first disciple peers in -
sees strips of linen,
the burial cloth,
grave clothes without a body.
And Peter, less hesitant, goes inside.
The cloth is folded neatly.
What’s happening here?
Does he think back to Lazarus,
remembering another tomb?
But when Lazarus emerged,
he was still bound in his grave clothes,
and needed help to get out of them. different.
There’s nobody here:
or, more to the point, no body.

The other disciple finally goes into the tomb.
We’re told that ‘he saw and believed’ -
but what is it that he believes?
Mary’s story of an empty tomb, sure.
But are we so sure that he believes
there’s been a resurrection?
Because, in our story, we have a
small editorial comment:
‘they still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead’.
Both disciples leave the tomb,
the rolled stone,
the garden...
and go home.
And, as they head for home,
is there a glimmer of belief, of light -
or are they still in the dark?
But we, who know this story well,
know that light is coming...
Light is already filling the skies:
as the morning sun breaks over the horizon
so too, the Son of God breaks the power
of death and darkness
and brings the light of hope,
the light of eternity into the world.

In the quiet of the early dawn,
the lone figure of a woman can be seen in the garden,
weeping outside the tomb.
Having run back to the garden with the two disciples,
she now dares to peer inside the open tomb.
The open tomb, that’s no longer empty:
Where the body should have been,
two shining figures are seated.
They ask a strangely obvious question:
‘why are you weeping?’
Obvious, because she’s standing there,
inside a tomb,
obvious, because the tomb contains - contained -
someone dear to her.
In the darkness of her grief,
she replies to the shining figures:
‘They have taken my Lord away,
and I don’t know where they've put him.’

And then, another person enters the scene.
She has no idea who the stranger is,
but he, too, asks the same question
that the angels have just asked:
‘Why are you crying?’
And he follows it with another:
‘Who is it you’re looking for?’
She’s still in the dark as to who this stranger is.
All she wants to know is:
where have they put Jesus, and...
can she get him back?
For, at least if she can recover the dead body,
she can perhaps restore some dignity to him at the last. 
Do one last kindness for him.
But she’s already living in the past:
clinging to it,
clinging to the comfort of the familiar -
for that’s what we do in the darkness of grief.
And, piercing through her darkness,
his voice:
he calls her name -
and, in hearing her name,
the darkness is lifted,
the light pours in,
and she finally sees the Teacher.
Tries to comprehend this staggering truth -
he    is    not dead.
And she is the first to witness this.

Having followed him before his crucifixion,
she’s now sent to be a messenger -
an apostle in the broadest sense,
for that’s what the word means.
She’s sent to tell the other followers -
to bear witness.
As he calls her by name,
so Jesus calls her to tell the news,
the Good News:
to spread the light of hope,
the light of the resurrection,
the light of new life...
of freedom,
and unconditional love.

Having wanted to cling to the past,
she’s shown, in the present,
in the garden of that first Easter morning,
the One who is the light that shines in the darkness:
the light that can never be put out,
the light who even the darkness cannot consume or contain.
Mary goes, as bidden, to the disciples,
begins to tell the story of the One who died and rose again.
A story, which, 2 000 years later, is still being told.

We, who are gathered here on this Easter morning, know this story:
know that the light has come.
That Jesus, through his life, and death, and resurrection,
offers us new life in him -
a way out of the darkness -
the darkness of harmful cycles of behaviour,
the darkness of grief and despair,
the darkness of injustice, hate, and oppression.
He offers us a new way of being of living as his people,
his body here on earth:
a people who live in the power of the resurrection here and now.

Over these last weeks,
we've walked through the wilderness of Lent:
and, in this last week, have journeyed with Jesus through Holy Week,
through the palms and the cheers,
to Gethsemane and betrayal in the garden,
to arrest, and trial, and jeers, and crucifixion.
And in the darkness of that death,
held our breath
as time stood still,
and watched and waited.
And, have dared to hope - for we know how this story ends:
that there shall be no more tears,
that darkness is overcome,
that death is defeated,
that the light of the world can never be put out.

Here, with an empty cross,
grave clothes folded,
and with resurrected alleluias,*
the questions Jesus asked of Mary in the garden echo down through the ages:
‘why are you weeping?’
‘who is it you’re looking for?’
And, like Mary,
he calls each one of us by name -
for in his life,
his death,
his resurrection
he brings us life, and light, and hope.
He calls us not to cling to a dead body -
not to cling to the past,
but to walk in his light here and now
and also to look ahead to the light of eternity.

Like Mary,
he calls each one of us to go,
to tell,
to share the Good News -
to call others,
to watch the darkness lift,
and the light pour in
as they, in turn, see the Teacher
and comprehend the staggering truth -
that he    is    not dead.
He lives still.
And we are his witnesses -
called by name
and brought out of the darkness into his marvellous light
For we are an Easter people
and ‘alleluia’ is our song.
Christ is risen!
Alleluia! He is risen indeed! 

*resurrecting the alleluias: for those not there, on the First Sunday of Lent, we followed an old custom of burying the alleluias - everyone had been given heart-shaped post-it notes.  On one side they wrote 'alleluia', and on the other, something they wanted to praise God for.  We gathered them together, put them in a box, said goodbye to them, and placed them at the foot of the Cross, by the pulpit.  There they remained throughout the season of Lent, contained, yet a visible reminder to us that the Cross is not the end, but the beginning: a symbol of hope, faith, rebirth, and resurrection.
The alleluias were unveiled this morning during the singing of our second hymn, 'Halle, halle, halle' - having been mysteriously 'resurrected' onto a large rainbow. Great fun! :)

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Easter: something's afoot...

A garden.
A stone, rolled away from an empty tomb.
Grave clothes folded neatly...

Something's afoot.
Also, what's behind the massive purple cloth?!
Come and see.


UCPC at Abington.