Easter 4: Want?

Psalm 23
Acts 4:5-12
John 10:11-18

Easter 4

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want.

But I am.

Looking around here this morning, watching the news and social media and listening to people around me tells me that there is a lot of want in the world. What do you find yourself wanting this morning?
Who do you want your wants from?

We are presented with some challenging readings this morning. Peter and John have been arrested and thrown in prison. We can assume they did not want to be there. Jesus is explaining to the disciples that his leadership looks like that of a shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. A dead shepherd leaves his flock alone and exposed. What good is that?!

The Good Shepherd Jesus is often portrayed in a white robe with a fleecy white lamb on his shoulders. Gentle and mild. It is a nice picture even if far from reality. Shepherds lived on the margins of society, uneducated, rough and tumble types looking after animals that cannot look after themselves. What kind of shepherd do you want? What kind of sheep are you? The Christian writer Max Lucado, ‘Now sheep are pretty dumb! Have you ever seen a sheep do tricks? Know someone who has taught a sheep to roll over? Not only dumb – but sheep are defenceless. They have no fangs or claws. They can’t bite you or outrun you. What’s more – sheep are dirty. A cat can clean itself. So can a dog. We see a bird in a bird bath or a bear in a river. But sheep? They get dirty and stay that way.’

Shepherds needed to be robust, strong and able to manage living outdoors in harsh conditions. Maybe the shepherds in the fields of the nativity story comes to mind. They were not strolling beside still waters and green pastures. Shepherds were constantly having to look for pasture and water to keep the sheep alive. A fight for survival in harsh conditions is not what Psalm 23 brings to mind.

In John 10, Jesus starts by telling off the false shepherds of the day for looking after themselves instead of the sheep. Jesus then announces that he himself will search for the sheep and look after them. Jesus, the Good Shepherd will rescue the scattered, search for the lost sheep, take care of those sheep who have been injured and strengthen the weak sheep. Jesus is the gate for the sheep and is here to bring abundant life. I came across this description of the ‘gate’ for the sheep. ‘In ancient times the sheepfold was a circular stone corral with a single narrow opening. After the sheep were inside, the shepherd would lie down across the opening, using his own body to form the gate or ‘door’ of the sheepfold. Nothing could enter or leave the fold without the shepherd knowing about it.’

Jesus is the shepherd who knows everything. How does the shepherd know his own and his own know him? This sounds very straightforward but I have found that a life of faith is often not so certain and straight. We all have fears and doubts, there are things we do not understand. We might question if we even believe at all sometimes. There can be barriers between Jesus’ assurances and my/our faith; barriers of pain, doubt, guilt and doctrine. The shepherd is the gate for the sheep and he is also the undoer of the barriers I build. Maybe Jesus is as straightforward as this passage is saying. I know you and you know me. You belong to me. The conviction of this goes as far as laying down his life for us.

What a beautiful image. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, using his body for our benefit. He did this once for all on the cross of Good Friday. This is not a vision of a gentle shepherd nor of a hired hand who deserts the sheep when the wolf comes. He does it still, day by day as our Good Shepherd who leads us to salvation.

This is Peter’s message to the rulers, leaders and scribes the morning after his and John’s arrest in Jerusalem. A night in jail may chasten some people, but not Peter. He comes out swinging! Jesus had been rejected as the Messiah and Peter wants the crowd to know this was the wrong thing. Jesus’ work carries on in his name and Peter will not deny it. It is only through Jesus that salvation comes by which we are saved. For some people this is hard to swallow, it begs many questions and makes some shy away not wanting to push into what this means.

There are no better alternatives. Left to our own devices we can easily get lost, distracted and end up in a mess. There are the hired hands (think political or social leaders, influencers, people with loud voices, conspiracy theorists) who will run away at the first sign of trouble. The hired hands are temporary at best. There are the rulers and elders of our day who rule with power and greed.

If these are the who the world has to offer, The Lord is still my Shepherd and I shall not be in want is far more attractive. It is a messy world. Let us not pretend that it isn’t. I need a Shepherd that calls me by name and knows me. I want to be able to hear his voice from the masses of others that claim I should listen to them.

The Christian writer and speaker Elisabeth Eliot: Experience has taught me that the Shepherd is far more willing to show His sheep the path than the sheep are to follow. He is endlessly merciful, patient, tender and loving. If we, His stupid and wayward sheep, really want to be led, we will without fail be led. Of that I am sure.
As we go from here today, let’s make sure we are following the right leader. The one who we can dwell with forever.

Easter Sunday: Encounters


Isaiah 25:6-9
Acts 10:34-43
John 20:1-18

Risen Christ,
for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred:
open the doors of our hearts,
that we may seek the good of others
and walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace,
to the praise of God the Father. Amen

There is an urban myth in the Church of England about a Curate who was asked to preach on his first Easter Sunday in the Parish. He got into the pulpit, announced that ‘Jesus is Risen. There is nothing more to say’ and promptly sat back down. While tempting as that may seem, I do have more to say than that.
Jesus is Risen. That is the message of today.

This morning we will look at the life changing encounters four people had with the Risen Jesus. If you have heard this story a thousand times, I urge you to approach the tomb with fresh eyes and ears this morning.

If we believe that on the cross of Good Friday Jesus took on all our sin, shame, fear, anxiety, doubt, loneliness, grief, disappointment and everything else that is wrong, and it died with him, then what does the empty tomb of Easter Sunday look like for us?

In the other Gospel accounts there are a variety of Marys and other women at the tomb that first day. Only Mary Magdalene is named in all of them. John records her as being the first one there while it was still dark. Darkness in John’s Gospel was his way of indicating confusion, misunderstanding and unbelief. The first trip she only got close enough to see that the stone had been removed.

Mary had come to know Jesus and the disciples; it appears that she travelled with them, spent time with them. Mary Magdalene was at the cross when the others had gone. Mary has seen all that has happened in the last few days; yet she doesn’t understand it and she is emotionally overwhelmed.

Mary goes back to the tomb a second time after she gets Peter and John. She is still weeping; still not understanding. So disturbed is she that the two angels do not phase her. Everyone else who encounters angels in the NT reacts with fear; even Mary and Joseph. Not Mary Magdalene.

Mary is so distressed that she does not even recognise Jesus when he appears to her and He is the one she is looking for! Until He says her name. Mary. Then it all clicks. She heard the voice of the good shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep, who knows and calls them by name.

Mary has not been abandoned. Jesus is alive. She is still looking for the body and calls Jesus ‘rabbouni’ – teacher. Jesus is more than that. He sends her away with the gift of new sight; being able to see the old with the new. Jesus then sends her back to the disciples to explain to them what has happened.

Then we have John, the disciple whom Jesus loved and also the disciple that wrote this account. He tells us twice that he got to the tomb before Peter. Yet John stops short too as he hesitates. John goes further than Mary. He at least looks in the tomb even though he does not enter.

John’s struggle is a deep disappointment. John was loyal, faithful and obedient to the end; he being the only male disciple left at the foot of the cross. All that loyalty, all that faithful service, was it all for nothing? Maybe John could not face one more disappointment. Maybe John got as far as he could but not one more step.

Maybe like John you keep praying, serving, doing the stuff but maybe there are not as many victories as you would like. Not willing to risk any more disappointment with life, with people.

John’s encounter with the Risen Jesus is to believe in Jesus’ resurrection, believe that a new creation had begun and believe that the world had turned a corner. The placement of the grave clothes for John was all the proof he needed. Why is this important?

If you remember the story of the raising of Lazarus, he needed someone to untie him; a bit like a mummy needing to be unbound. Lazarus came back into the world and would have died again. When Jesus came out of the tomb, his strips of linen remained on the bench where he was laid as though his body passed through.

Jesus has gone on through death into a new world, a new creation, a new beyond where death had been defeated and life in fullness could begin at last. This meant that John could leave his disappointment behind, all that he had done, all the loyalty, faithfulness was all for something, someone.

In keeping with his personality Peter runs right into the tomb. Got there second but the first one in. Peter goes further than Mary and John. Peter is spurred on by guilt and shame. Peter is hoping that it is all true because he needs one more chance, needs to be redeemed and start again.

Peter loved Jesus but when it really really mattered Peter failed Jesus in his denial. We all have had Peter moments. Guilt and shame is exhausting to carry around. While Peter’s ‘big’ encounter with the Risen Jesus happened on the beach a few days later, his restoration and redemption starts today. He needed the tomb to be empty and for Jesus to have been raised as he said he would be.

Peter comes away from the tomb and it is a new day, a fresh start for him. He could leave his guilt and shame behind. Peter takes this fresh start and founded the church, he speaks boldly and passionately that Jesus is the Lord of all, the healer and the helper. Peter was an original witness who never again denied Jesus.

Mary gets to the tomb overwhelmed by grief and emotion, looking for the dead body. She encounters Jesus and goes away knowing that she has not been abandoned and she now needs to tell the others about Him.

John comes disappointed and goes away believing in the Resurrection and who Jesus is. Everything that he had done had meant something, been worth it.

Peter comes burdened by shame and guilt and goes away with a fresh start. In the Acts reading we see what Peter went on and did with his fresh start. He told people about Jesus with power and purpose and persuasion. He did it for the rest of his life and was eventually crucified for it; upside down on a cross.

The empty tomb proved once and for all that death has been defeated – there is hope beyond the grave. There is Risen life with Jesus for us all. Whatever condition you find yourself in at the tomb this morning an encounter with Jesus can change you, heal you, restore, redeem and release you. This is what today is about.

Passiontide: Knowing and Seeing

Lent 5

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

O God, we give you thanks because,
in the carnation of the Word,
a new light has dawned upon the world,
that all the nations and peoples may be brought out of darkness to see the radiance of your glory.

How has Lent been treating you? Has it been a time of learning new things about yourself and God? At this point in Lent, I think that many people get tempted to give up on the whole thing. Others may think it does not make any difference so carry on as normal.

Whichever way we are marking it (or not) this season of Lent is moving on rapidly. If we take a brief look back at the Gospel readings of the last few Sundays we can see how far we have come.

We began on Ash Wednesday with Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery and the offer to those without sin to cast the first stone. Then Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness immediately after his baptism. The third Sunday saw Jesus beginning to teach his disciples that he was to undergo great suffering, be killed and rise again in three days. This was followed by Jesus’ rant in the temple and the turning over of tables. We lightened up a bit last week for Mothering Sunday!

This Sunday, the fifth Sunday, begins the final push towards Easter. The churchy name is Passiontide and it runs these next two weeks until Easter Sunday. There is a turning in the Gospel reading this morning as Jesus narrows down the time frame with ‘the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’. In the previous Gospel readings there has been no time specified. This threw the disciples and the Jewish authorities into confusion over when things were to happen.

In these last hours there are two serious questions to be considered in the prophecy of Jeremiah and in the Gospel of John. The first question from Jeremiah is: Do you know God?

Jeremiah is speaking to a group of broken, disillusioned people who are far from home and suffering. This happened in the sixth century when the Israelites (God’s chosen people) had been run out of Judah and Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon. Jeremiah had faithfully and persistently spoken to the people and they would not listen.

The exile largely resulted from the Israelites disobedience to God. This in turn made God angry and out they went. A fair follow up question is why would I want to know a God like that?

Knowing God is a choice that each of us have to make and something that needs to be worked out. Like any relationship, it does not just happen. Nor can it be done on our behalf by another person. Sadly many people disregard God completely when He does not act in the way they/we think He should.

God requires very little from those who choose not to follow or believe in Him. There are of course consequences. The ultimate consequence is separation from God when this life is over. This is what Jesus came to save us from.

Life is difficult for many people, too many people. Hardship, war, famine, financial and relationship troubles, health issues, poverty, lack of opportunity, lack of love. Name your own difficulty. It is hard to comprehend that change or improvement will come.

Jeremiah was telling the exiled Israelites that better times were coming; the Lord will make a new covenant with them. God will put his law within them and they will be his people. The new covenant was needed because the old had been broken. The previous law had been written on stone tablets when Moses was on the mountain with God as written in the book of Exodus.

Rather than on stone tablets, the new law would be written in people’s hearts. They would not be compelled to follow that law; but would desire to follow the law. The Israelites were to become a community that knows God intimately and shared the knowledge of him together. This leads to them becoming a faithful community and the Lord will put the former sins behind them. This is the God that I want to know. This is the kind of community I want to be a part of. We have to desire it and want to stay around long enough to see it through.

The second question is: Do you want to see Jesus? The Greeks that appeared at the festival asked to see Jesus; there is no indication of why. Are they curious about his message and his parables? Are they chasing spectacle and hoping to see Jesus walk on water or heal a blind man? Maybe they are sceptics or troublemakers, looking to pick a fight. There is no way to know. All we can do is guess. I believe that one day everyone will meet him face to face.

Do you want to see Jesus?

If yes, which Jesus do we wish to see? The teacher? The healer? The peacemaker? The troublemaker? Why are we interested? Or if we are not asking and seeking, then the question shifts, and we have to ask it differently: why do I not want to see Jesus? What has been lost?

Many people may not want his presence, his guidance, his example or his companionship but still want things from him. Like safety, health, wealth, immunity from suffering or a life of ease. If we want to see Jesus then we have to see it all. The death, the suffering, the difficult teaching, the call to die to ourselves, to love Him first and everything else second. Those who serve him must follow him.

My heart for Jesus expands and constricts; my desire to see him waxes and wanes, and my motives for seeking him grow purer and coarser by turns.
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” On its face, it is such a simple request, but it cuts to the heart of so many kinds of spiritual growth, stagnation, and defeat. If we, like the Greek Gentiles, want to see Jesus, the place to look is to the cross. Jesus was and is many things: teacher, healer, companion, and Lord, and it is essential that we experience him in all of these ways.

The centre, the heart of who he is, is revealed at the cross. The cross makes true sight possible. Jesus is the one who draws and gathers all people to himself. He is the one who allows himself to be lifted up, so that what is unclear or overwhelming or frightening becomes visible. Jesus wishes to see us far more urgently than we will ever wish to see him. This is not a rebuke. We love because he loves first. We love because the cross draws us towards love; its power is as compelling as it is mysterious.

The cross pulls us towards God and towards each other. Whether or not I want to see Jesus, here he is, drawing me. Whether or not you want to see Jesus too.
In the next two weeks of Passiontide, we are drawn into the drama of the final days of Jesus’ life. We should be drawn to Him; we should want to be drawn to Him. We can be drawn in by reading the accounts of what happened and paying attention to the details and praying. The Hebrews reading this morning tells us that Jesus prayed. Jesus prayed with loud cries and tears, the messy, snotty kind. No stiff upper lip here. Jesus became the source of eternal salvation for all who listen and follow him. This is worth saying a few prayers for and some messy crying.

The waiting of Lent is speeding up; the hour is coming. Those who love their life will lose it. Fruit is born through death. This waiting will come to an end on the cross when Jesus is lifted up. The time is coming when we will see him face to face. Better days are coming to those who follow. Let’s be ready.

Easter 1: The Resurrection Accounts – Thomas

Easter 1

Acts 2:14, 22-32
John 20:19-end

This is an exciting season in the church calendar after having just celebrated Easter. The tomb is empty, Jesus is risen, death has been defeated, love wins, we are a resurrection people, nothing on earth will ever be the same again. Right?

Of course right! This is what we and Jake who is being baptised this morning need to come to understand and embrace.

On the Sundays of the Easter season we explore the events that took place after the resurrection of Jesus. We re-read the accounts of the people who were there and the building of the early church. We look with fresh eyes at what these events say to us today. I also want to look at what this means for Jake, his parents and godparents.

The Gospel for the first Sunday after Easter traditionally features the story of Thomas. We are off to a good start as Jake’s middle name is Thomas. Thomas is usually portrayed as the dogged disciple, often accused of being slow on the uptake, the doubter. Poor Thomas. Not that most inspiring choice for week one. There is very little mention of Thomas in the gospels; he first appears as a name on the list of the chosen disciples. There is no information about what he did for a job, where he came from or his family, only that he was a twin.

Many a sermon has been preached as a warning to not be like Thomas. Thomas the 50% believer; the one who needed everything proved and crystal clear before he could believe.

We live in an age where doubt has become the predominant form of belief. Fake news, fake images, filters to make photos look better, everything needing to be verified due to a lack of trust. There is more government legislation now than at any other time in history due to a breakdown in trust. Daily we put ourselves in a high number of situations that we should doubt more than do. We doubt both what we see and what we do not see. So often we doubt the wrong things. Misplaced doubt can be a dangerous thing. We and Jake need to work out the right things to doubt, to question.

Maybe Thomas was the disciple who was asking the questions that everybody had but didn’t want to ask out loud. Before his comments that made him the poster-boy of doubt for all eternity, Thomas is quoted on two other occasions.

The first is found in John 11 in the story of Jesus’ friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha. The disciples were trying to dissuade Jesus from going to be with them as it was dangerous for Jesus to be travelling around. The disciples are worried but Jesus is not concerned with the threats to his life. In the middle of this Thomas declares, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him’. The other disciples were ready to run the other way but not Thomas, he was prepared to go wherever Jesus did.

The second account is in John 14. Jesus is explaining to the disciples that he is going to leave them. The chapter starts with the reassuring words ‘do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house…’ Jesus is explaining where is going and what he is going to do there; he also tells the disciples that they know the way. It is Thomas who says, ‘we don’t know where you are going so how can we know the way?!’

Jesus responds to Thomas with some of the most beautiful words ever to fall from his mouth; ‘I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’

Thomas has been told; he has seen the Father in the Son. This doesn’t sound like a man who doubts. Maybe Thomas was the disciple who didn’t say much but when he did everyone else listened? Know anyone like that?

So where was he on the evening of that first day of that week when Jesus appeared? The disciples were together but Thomas was not with them. That following week must have been torture for Thomas. I am sure we have all had to miss events due to circumstances. Then those who did attend the event talk incessantly about it, down to every last detail, the play by play of every moment. And no matter the minutia of detail – you still weren’t there!

It would be reasonable to believe that Thomas became more entrenched in his declaration to see the nail marks and the side wound. Jesus returns again. This time just for Thomas and he invites Thomas to put his fingers in his hands and on his side. The text doesn’t say if he did or not. All it gives us is Thomas’ reply of ‘My Lord and my God.’ In this moment, Jesus firmly but gently reminds Thomas that he believes because he has seen. Thomas is responsible for the blessing that the whole rest of the world gets for not seeing and yet believing.

Thomas was part of a community where he openly voices his doubt. Like I said, Thomas has been portrayed negatively as the doubter, one of weak faith, the cynic, the holdout. These are often seen as spiritual flaws. Thomas was not weak; he was a man who wanted a living encounter with Jesus. Thomas was not going to settle for someone else’s experience of the resurrection. He wanted his own. Thomas was willing to admit his uncertainty in the midst of those who were certain. This is bravery. I hope that Jake will become a brave man – someone who wants living encounters and will work to get them.

In Acts 2, St Peter and the disciples (we can assume that Thomas was there) were standing up and telling the crowds about the wonders of the resurrection. This is what Thomas would spend the rest of his life doing.

Tradition holds that when the apostles were dispersed after Pentecost, Thomas was sent to evangelise through central Asia before he ultimately reached the Malabar coast of southwest India. There remains a large native population there calling themselves ‘Christians of St Thomas.’

Unlike most of the other disciples/apostles who were killed for their faith in quite gory ways, it is thought that Thomas was killed in a tragic peacock hunting accident when the hunter missed the bird and hit Thomas instead.

This is not a man of weakness but rather one we can learn from, even if uncomfortably. The things that make Thomas seem weak or doubtful are what makes him strong, his willingness to press on and ask the questions that others won’t. Thomas shares his doubts willingly and Jesus responds and meets him where he is at.

We can pray today for Jake Thomas, that he too will follow the example of Jesus and Thomas, seek his own experiences, ask questions, learn to doubt the right things, show compassion and love to all he meets.

The good news for us the week after Easter is that Jesus still meets us where we are at too. He is not afraid of our doubts, our wavering or our slowness. We, like Thomas, can hope for more. So let’s.