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The resurrection that no one can stop

Acts 4: 5 The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, 6with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. 7When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’ 8Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, 9if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, 10let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. 11This Jesus is
“the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.”
12There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’

(Plus John 10:11-18)

I’m continuing to ask, as I asked on Easter Day, what is the Good News for us this morning?

So this is what we’re considering this morning. First, the fact of the resurrection: it’s happened – it’s OUT THERE and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. Second: some people are going to come up against it. Third: What happens today when that righteous power that raised Jesus from the dead, meets injustice? Fourth: What is the challenge for us who live 2000 years after the resurrection? And Finally: What is the Good News for us?

Today we continue in Acts and we see Peter and John brought before the religious authorities after encountering a man who couldn’t walk, begging at one of the entrances to the temple. It’s always awkward to see somebody begging so close to a religious building. It makes us feel bad. One can hardly ignore it. It makes me recall a time when Chris and I were in Chartres Cathedral on Easter Morning. On the way into the cathedral, just at the door, there was a man begging and taken by surprise, I filed pas like everyone else, and did nothing.

But it played on my mind, and as we went out, overcoming my inward battle, I parted with the large slice of home-made pizza we had bought at the nearest boulangerie before the service had started.

Peter and John do something a whole lot more useful though. “Silver and gold I have none, but what I have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ, stand up and walk!” At once the man’s feet and ankles are made strong; he jumps up and begins to walk. He enters the Temple we are told: ‘walking and leaping and praising God’. As a healed man he can now take part in Temple worship; he can get a job and make his way in the world. His begging days are over.

The power of the resurrection coupled with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the believers is OUT THERE and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. That’s the picture we see here this morning. It’s like something’s been let out of the bag and it cannot be put back in again.

The healing of the crippled man is the very next thing recorded after Pentecost. So, the resurrection life – the life of the Spirit is OUT THERE and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. But some will try, and this is what we see in the reading from Acts.

Peter and John heal, in the name of Jesus, the man at the Beautiful Gate. When the people hear what’s happened, they run towards the scene utterly astonished, and Peter gives an impromptu sermon. At this moment, the priests, the captain of the Temple and the Sadducees come out ‘much annoyed’ (for this, read ‘steaming with fury’). They’re annoyed because of two things: Peter’s teaching the people and claiming that in Jesus there is resurrection. Not just Jesus’ resurrection but the possibility of resurrection for all.

So the religious authorities react in the way that people of power do when they’re threatened, which is: to use force and try and put the lid on it. They arrest Peter and John and put them in jail overnight. Meanwhile, the number of those that come to faith as a result of Peter’s sermon, is 5000. The following morning the prisoners are made to stand in front of the ruling elite, who enquire how they have done this healing. And we are talking about The Elite of the Jewish religion. We hear a lot about elites these days. Elites do whatever they want, with minimal regard for the consequences on ordinary people.

Many harmful readings of this episode in Acts have led to condemnation of the Jews as a people – but the New Testament shows that it is the powerful Elite, who claim to know God, whom Jesus stood against and who now stand against his followers. This is about a power struggle and about the powerful Elite sensing that something greater than them is afoot. It is difficult not to call to mind here the verdict against Derek Chauvin, the police officer who this week was charged with the murder of George Floyd, a black man who was arrested and forcefully pinned down until he literally expired.

Which leads us onto a question for today. What happens when the righteous power of the resurrection is out there, and no one can stop it, and that power encounters injustice? The short answer is: conflict. Nick Page, in his book Kingdom Fools, about the unlikely rise of the early church, says that ‘the resurrection is a political message. The early church preached resurrection. That is what Peter and John are saying to the temple powers: the man you killed came back from the dead’ (p.32).

The Roman Empire was built on the premise that if you dissented, you were got rid of. Some societies work like that still today – we know who they are; we often mention the people who live in societies like that in our prayers. But here are two disciples of Jesus, who are not theologically educated, preaching to rapt crowds and performing an astonishing sign, like the ones performed by Jesus. And it is seen as a direct challenge to the Elite.

The verdict against the police officer who killed George Floyd is a landmark moment. What was going on when the largely black crowds gathered outside the courtroom heard the verdict of guilty? They couldn’t help shouting and pumping the air because although the power of God is OUT THERE, the struggle against injustice is slow and often feels brutal. With regards to racism, the struggle is particularly highlighted at the moment. The world is crying out for justice.

This is where a lot of us might begin to squirm, because the Church of England has put its own hand up this week and the Archbishop of Canterbury has said the Church is ‘deeply institutionally racist’. Some of you will have watched the Panorama programme on Monday about this and heard the stories of Black and Ethnic minority priests in the Church of England and some of their depressing experiences. And this at the same time as a Government appointed commission has reported that the UK doesn’t have any institutionalised racism, apparently. I’ll leave you to decide what’s going on there.

The scenes of jubilation outside the courtroom where Derek Chauvin was convicted were not about glee at his suffering, but about a sense that justice had been done, and against the odds. The Black community is used to justice not being done, because the system has often let them down. I was caught up in those scenes of joy because justice is at the heart of God, and the resurrection declares that Jesus is Lord, and Lord over unjust white privilege and violence. To say Jesus is Lord, even Lord over death, is to say Jesus Christ has ultimate authority, not anyone or anything else. And that changes everything.

So, what are the challenges for us who live 2000 years after this initial release of resurrection power? I think we have to be honest and say that while the healing of the crippled man is an exciting story, normally we don’t see this kind of miraculous healing in our situations today. Perhaps we should be more expectant. Maybe our lack of expectancy is a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, it is more complex than that in the West. If we think of that first resurrection power spilling out and the transforming effect it had on the first century society we read about in Acts, we can trace a direct line to the kind of Christ-inspired works of charity, mercy and healing that most people now take for granted as being the hallmarks of civilised society. Universal education, healthcare and end of life care flow directly from the ongoing impulse to heal and save that Christ event propelled into the world, and which eventually flowed out of the monasteries and abbeys of Christian Europe into mainstream society.

In addition, in the 21st C we are rightly cautious about how we proclaim Christ as Lord because we need to find to ways to live in peace with our neighbours of other faiths. The kind of Christianity that aggressively defends orthodoxy, whilst dallying with unchecked temporal power led us at one point into the Crusades. Today the Far Right want to appropriate the English flag of St George to nationalistic ends that have nothing to do with Jesus Christ. So we might want to ask ourselves in this context, what does proclamation of the good news look like in a multi-faith society and how do we sit with the verse in Acts that declares ‘there is no other name under heaven, given among mortals by which we must be saved’?

So we have these challenges: we’re a long way historically from the resurrection and things are complicated because Christendom got tangled up with white privilege. In addition, we already have a sophisticated healthcare system and are unused to instant miraculous healing. And finally, although we want to affirm that Jesus is ‘the only name’, we are also called to humility in a multifaith setting.

So, if this miraculous healing feels like a long way off, what, then, is the good news? The Good News is that it’s still OUT THERE. The power of the resurrection is still reverberating through history and we are witnesses to it because Christ lives amongst us. That is the definition of a church – the gathered people of God, the body of Christ. Every time we meet in his name, he is present. He is present in bread and wine and in our worship and fellowship. He is present in our care one for the other; in our giving and protesting, as we try to make a difference in the world.

And he is still calling others to follow him – those who are ‘not yet in the sheepfold’, as he puts it in John 10. ‘My sheep hear my voice’.  We’re still living within the ramifications of the resurrection, both personally, whenever we are faced with loss or a seemingly hopeless situation, and corporately as we seek to work with God’s Spirit in the healing of the world he came to save. He is alive and we are witnesses to his life. As we are formed by his Spirit, others will know that he is alive and so we pray that God will bring us into fellowship with those others he is still calling.

Amen.

(image credit: BBC news website)

waiting picture

MARCH 29th – Psalm 30: How long to sing this song?

As you have read or listened to Psalm 130 – what word or phrase speaks strongly to you right now? What rings true to how you feel, or to your own situation?

 

I’d like to share some brief thoughts on three of the words or phrases in this psalm and how they might speak to us in the times we live in. In almost all societies around the world you’ll find three kinds of songs – there are lullabies, songs for weddings and laments. Today we are going to look at Psalm 130, one of the so-called Psalms of Lament. These songs have been used for hundreds of years to help people navigate through personal or national suffering. I hope you will find these thoughts helpful as we navigate our own unique situation.

 

Out of the depths

The first is the extraordinary phrase we read at the beginning of the psalm: ‘Out of the depths’ – ‘Out of the depths I cry to you’. It comes from the Latin phrase ‘De Profundis’ and is from where we get our English word profound. Many poets from Lord Tennyson and Christina Rossetti to Federico Garcia Lorca have been inspired by these words and written poems entitled De Profundis. For some of us, we might be feeling (or might later feel) a profound sense of loss, despair and anguish. For me it’s the basic things that I took for granted that I miss and long for: being able to hug my sons and my parents, playing music with my friends, sharing the peace and communion with my church family.

The laments remind us that we can be honest in how we feel, to God and with each other. It’s a cry out to God as we struggle to live with unanswered questions and unexplained suffering. I find it soothing that within the Bible we are given words that can be shockingly brutal and brutally honest in expressing how we feel to God.

 

I’ve recently been reading a book on the psalms called ‘It’s ok to be not ok’. It’s written by a Philippine Christian who was caught up in 2009 in Tropical Storm Ondoy, where over 700 lost their lives. He speaks of how he went to church the next Sunday and was struck by how the church had no songs to help express the grief the congregation were feeling. There were many ‘happy’ songs of praise and thanksgiving sung, but he went away with the question ‘Why is there nothing in our worship about what we have experienced?’ The theologian Walter Brueggemann in his book The Psalm & The Life of Faith calls it ‘the costly loss of lament’. If we are not allowed to lament, then all we have in times of trouble is an empty celebration of joy and well-being, completely disconnected from our present reality. The lament states that things are not right, that they should not be as they are now, and that there is a longing and hope they won’t remain so forever. They are a plea to God for help in a time of intense trial. They also suggest perhaps controversially, it is God’s obligation to change things.  ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord: O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.’

 

Waiting

The second word that stood out for me is the word ‘wait’. It’s perhaps not surprising, as it’s repeated five times in just two sentences: ‘I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.’

There is one question that is repeated time and time again in the lament psalms: How long? How long must this go on?’ In this psalm there’s a sense of yearning and longing that you can see in how the psalmist repeats that phrase ‘more than watchmen wait for the morning’. A longing we may feel as we yearn for an end to this isolation.

You might have read a Facebook post by our vicar Claire on Wednesday, celebrating the feast of the Annunciation – when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she was to be with child and to give birth to a son, called Jesus. Alongside the painting of Botticelli’s Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, Claire posted these words:

‘Today the Church marks the Annunciation by the angel to the Blessed Virgin Mary – I guess because today is exactly 9 months till Christmas Day and that’s the length of a pregnancy. The planting of a seed, in silence and obscurity, that will bear the most amazing fruit later. I’m wondering today about how this could be a message of hope for us in these weird and difficult times when we just want it all to be over as soon as possible. But it’s always in the waiting that we grow, and then always (and only) through great love and great suffering, such as Mary underwent.

It’s always in the waiting that we grow, and then always (and only) through great love and great suffering, such as Mary underwent.

 

Hope

The third word that stood out for me in this psalm is ‘hope’.

You might have noticed this word appears twice in the psalm.

‘I wait for the Lord, my soul waits and in his word I put my hope.’

And then the focus at the end of the psalm in the words:

‘O Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.’

I don’t know about you, but I’ve found myself often waking up early in the morning, just before dawn and being amazed by the sound of the birds heralding in the new dawn. There are signs of hope around us, in the natural world, in the kindness of friends and strangers, in the amazing work of our NHS and front-line services. But, of course, the greatest hope we have is in our Lord that we serve. In our gospel reading we heard the story of the raising of Lazarus. I was particularly struck in reading this next to Psalm 130 how Jesus embodies the answer to the lament – that Jesus experienced the sorrow and pain of loss and the longing for it all to change. In him, God has come alongside us. In him there is hope through this pain and the hope of a resurrection of our world from our present sorrows.

 

I pray for all of us that we would encounter this living God of hope in whatever we encounter in these coming weeks – in the depths, in the waiting and in the hope that is to come.

Keep us, good Lord,

under the shadow of your mercy

in this time of uncertainty and distress.

Sustain and support the anxious and fearful,

and lift up all who are brought low;

that we may rejoice in your comfort

knowing that nothing can separate us from your love

in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Amen.

 

Hamish Bruce – Sunday March 29th 2020

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Living water

St John and St Stephen’s Church, Reading, March 15th 2020, Lent 3

Psalm 46, John 4:5-42

 

 

What a strange time. We can’t go anywhere, talk to anyone, turn on the TV, radio, internet or look at your smartphone without a blaring mention of coronavirus. Now let’s add to that the now visible effects of global heating – flooding, Antarctic melt, rising sea levels, and then the uncertain impact of Brexit (which we’ve almost forgotten now!). I’m feeling a bit like I’m on a ship going through very choppy waters: the ship has been sailing pretty steadily, got a bit rocky in the last couple of years, now it’s going crazy, the deck is shifting under my feet. Where are we going? Which coastline are we sailing to? We have got used to safety and security in our little island for years. But it’s changing. I want to acknowledge all of this, as we are, I am sure, all feeling and thinking it. What do we do? Well, we do the right things – handwashing, reducing physical contact and so on. We also continue to trust in God, that’s why we are here this morning. Not just a pie-in-the-sky hope but trust in his presence here and now.

 

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. (Psalm 46)

This Psalm reminds us that the sensation of uncertainty and fear is not a new one – in fact, it is normal. The Psalm directs us to God. That is exactly where we need to go. To find him, let us go to a small corner of the near East, to a country under a brutal occupation, whose kingdom has indeed tottered and fallen, to Samaria, whose people were neither Jewish nor pagan, but a mixture of the two; to a well at midday; where we can find a woman in her middle age or maybe a bit more, who has lived perhaps a bit too much. She’s feisty, spirited, ordinary, and she has come to draw water: but not at the usual time, in the morning, but at midday, because she’s a bit of an outcast, a pariah, so she has to come when the other women aren’t there. She is a bit socially isolated. She’s ritually unclean to observant Jews: they wouldn’t touch her. Ring any bells? She finds a man sitting on top of the well, a Jewish man, without a bucket, who speaks to her and says, simply, ‘Give me a drink’. She’s amazed. Jewish men don’t talk to Samaritan women, especially women like her. In shock, she blurts out, ‘What? You’re talking to me, a woman from Samaria, and you’re a Jew?’ Then the strange man begins talking about living water, if you knew who it was that asks you for a drink, you would ask him for one! She’s lost. Confused. Thrown off balance. She begins to babble that you haven’t a bucket, it’s a deep well, what are you talking about? where do you get that living water? But the man, (BTW it’s Jesus) goes on – he’s raving now – about how if you drink the water I will give you, you will never thirst again. What, can that be true? Surely not. Well, now I think about it, that would be handy, I’d like some of that! Then, out of nowhere, he asks me to call my husband. I haven’t one just at the moment of speaking. And he goes, no, you haven’t, you’ve had 5 husbands, and the man you live with now isn’t your husband. How did he know that? This is getting embarrassing. Seems like he’s some sort of prophet. Let’s change the subject. We have a bit of a back-and-forth about where the best place is to worship God. At least it stopped him talking about my crap life. To cap it all, finally, he claims to be the Messiah, the Christ. Can that be true? My head is spinning!

Last week Claire spoke about Nicodemus the Pharisee, who came to Jesus by night to try and understand him. He ended up being more confused than when he started, when Jesus told him that he needed to be born again, and poor Nicodemus, this learned teacher, took it all too literally and just couldn’t get his head around the idea of entering into his mother’s womb a second time. Who could? He could not comprehend the metaphor, the idea of re-birth. Jesus was talking, as Claire reminded us, of the inner life. This story of the woman at the well, which immediately follows the Nicodemus story, is also one of confusion. Only this time the character is an unnamed, ordinary woman, not an important man with a name; a Samaritan not a Jew; it’s daytime, not night; and instead of Nicodemus, who came to Jesus deliberately, this woman comes to Jesus ‘by chance’. But the confusion is the same. The woman cannot understand what Jesus is talking about when he offers her ‘living water’. Only when Jesus touched on the matter of all the men she had lived with in her life, she got that pretty quickly, and tried to change the subject.

There is so much that could be said about this wonderful encounter. I am struck by how Jesus asks for help because he is in need – he is thirsty. It is very human. It’s midday, it’s hot, his disciples have gone off to find food and taken with them the leather bucket that you would need to get water. Wells in that part of the world didn’t have a bucket attached to them, you had to have your own. So Jesus asks this woman for help. Quite often, we Christians in an effort to do good like to give help – which puts us, subtly or not-so-subtly, in a position of power; we have something for you. Your job is to receive. In this story, it’s the other way around. The unnamed, socially outcast Samaritan woman holds the cards: or more accurately, the bucket. She has the power to help Jesus. The dynamic of the encounter is inverted.

And what happens? How does this apparently chance meeting play out, in its essence? An unnamed person with a messy life, a social outsider, receives, in exchange for a bucket of water and some conversation, an offer of a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. It’s no wonder she had trouble understanding. Whoever spoke of anything like that to her before? She could not understand the metaphor, the symbol. Why did Jesus use this kind of language? Why couldn’t he be more literal, more concrete, black-and-white, easier to understand? Well, how could he? This is heart language, it’s about something that takes place in the heart, the soul, the inner life: the springing up of living water, gushing up to eternal life, refreshing the spirit, cleansing the soul, bringing joy. When the Spirit of God moves in our hearts, there will be some kind of felt experience. The mind doesn’t really get this, and our Samaritan lady was stuck firmly in her mind with literal thinking about water that you put in buckets and drink. Then, perhaps surprisingly, Jesus asks her to call her husband and she’s on the spot. Her personal life is a wee bit messy. She changes the subject, opening a theological conversation about where the best place to worship God is – this mountain or Jerusalem? Again, this is all in the mind, and she is resisting where Jesus is going. I wonder whether Jesus, in saying what he did, was trying to open up her heart by going directly to an uncomfortable area of her life. A bit of self-examination. Did it work? Maybe it did! He goes on to answer her theological question by telling her that ‘God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth’ (24). Again, this is heart language. Then in response to the question about the Messiah, Jesus tells her straight, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you’ (26). Wow. Well, something has moved her, quite literally. The woman who came to draw water actually leaves her own water-jar behind (28), in her excitement to get back to the city of Sychar and tell people she has ‘met a man who told me everything I have ever done! He can’t be the Messiah, can he?’ (29). Seems like something touched her quite deeply. She becomes the first female evangelist – the story tells us that ‘many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony’ (39).

 

This encounter is one of sheer, undeserved, unsought-for, unexpected grace. It is so like God. Here are some lovely words written by St Ignatius in his spiritual exercises that ring very true, considering all of this: ‘It is characteristic of God and His Angels, when they act upon the soul, to give true happiness and spiritual joy, and to banish all the sadness and disturbances which are caused by the enemy. God alone can give consolation to the soul without any previous cause…It belongs solely to the Creator to come into a soul, to leave it, to act upon it, to draw it wholly to the love of His Divine Majesty’[1] These moments come to us often when we are off-balance, surprised. Something catches us – a piece of music, poetry, a beautiful sunset or a plant, a word of scripture – and we are touched, moved and drawn to God.

Much to ponder on here. Jesus speaking across so many barriers to this woman. Jesus in need, thirsty, asking for help. The promise of living water to quench another kind of thirst. The awkward question. Her messy life. Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. The move from the mind to the heart. Her excitement. Leaving behind the water-jar. Rushing to tell people.

Are you thirsty?

Richard Croft

[1] The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, #329, 330