resurrection rollercoaster

Once again we are about to strap ourselves into the spiritual and emotional rollercoaster that is Easter. For me Easter starts with the long, slow Lent ascent towards Palm Sunday. The shouts of “Hosanna!” at the top begin to turn into shrieks when we swoop downwards as the authorities tell Jesus to quieten the crowd and we are thrown into a series of unexpected corkscrews as Jesus clears the Temple of the traders. 

From there we have a series of small undulations and curves as the authorities question and challenge Jesus and he tries one last time to prepare his followers for what is about to happen. 

Suddenly there’s another steep drop as Judas agrees to betray Jesus and then another slow ascent to a profound peak as we experience the Last Supper. From there we experience a stomach-churning maelstrom of emotion as Jesus is betrayed, arrested, abandoned, betrayed, tried, flogged, sentenced and condemned. 

And just when we think things can’t get any worse the rollercoaster plunges into a tunnel of pitch-black darkness with Jesus on the cross, his death and burial. At this point, in the darkness, we are disorientated and unaware that the rollercoaster is actually climbing again. 

On Easter Sunday it emerges triumphant into the glorious brightness of the new day of resurrection, restoration and recommissioning.

(I did wonder whether on Easter Sunday we should find that we have emerged from the darkness and find ourselves on a completely different rollercoaster, but that would be stretching the analogy too far!)

One of the miracles for me as a Minister at this time of year is that I have yet to run out of new things to learn and discover about Jesus. I was ordained 23 years ago and each Easter there is more for me to learn, understand, appreciate and experience and there are more reasons for me to worship the Risen Saviour. I find that it is easy to fall into the trap, however, of looking for that ‘new thing’ rather than simply stopping and reflecting on what I have already experienced and know to be true. Let me give you an example:

“Jesus is alive!” This phrase trips off our tongues so easily. Familiarity with that does not so much breed contempt as complacency. But stop for a moment. Think about it. Allow the words to sink into your heart and mind. Jesus was dead and now is alive! Don’t go off into the theological implications of that just yet – Jesus is alive!!!! The dead, executed, extinguished, disposed-of, rejected one is now the surprising, greeting, living, breathing, walking, locked-door ignoring, breakfast-eating, risen and very much resurrected ONE. Doesn’t that send a shiver down your spine?

My hope and prayer for each one of us is that Jesus will meet each one of us afresh this Easter in significant ways that will revive our faith, and through us and our churches so that the Good News is proclaimed loud and clear in our communities.

Be blessed, be a blessing 

Maunding

(This is another ‘Thought for the week’ that is being shared with EBA Ministers today)

diaryYou may have heard or read Tony Campolo talking about how he was preached off the platform by an old Minister whose theme was “It’s Friday…. but Sunday’s coming!” Tomorrow that theme comes to life (and death). But today it’s Maundy Thursday… but Friday’s coming.

“Maundy” might be derived from Latin ‘Mandatum’ via Old English to mean ‘commandment’ as in ‘A new commandment I give to you: that you love one another as I have loved you.’ Or it might come from Latin ‘Mendicare’ meaning ‘to beg’ – relating to the alms given out by the King before Mass on the Thursday before Easter. The origins of the word are shrouded in mystery. Whatever the origins of the name, Maundy Thursday can seem like a poor relation to the brutal love shown on Good Friday and the resurrection joy of Easter Sunday. It’s can be seen as a prelude to the main event.

And yet…

It was the night when Jesus washed the feet of his friends – feet that had trodden on the palm branches and cloaks on the rode as the accompanied the King on a Donkey, but which were attached to people who were too proud to take the role of a servant (or just thought someone else ought to do it). A night of humility.

It was the night of the Last Supper when Jesus fulfilled and gave new meaning to the Passover – when unleavened bread and wine became a costly feast. A night of remembrance.

It was the night when he ate alongside those who would run away from him, deny knowing him and even betray him with a kiss. A night of fickleness.

It was the night when Jesus sang a hymn with his friends – maybe a setting of Psalm 22? A night of haunting melody.

It was the night when Jesus and his friends went to the Garden of Gethsemane – where he asked them to ‘watch and pray’ and they slept as he agonised. A night of blood, sweat and fears.

It was the night when Jesus prayed in the way that he had taught his friends – honestly, humbly, heroically: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” A night when the cost was counted.

It was the night when Jesus carried out another healing – repairing the damage Peter had caused with his sword in a valiant but misguided attempt to defend Jesus. A night of grace in the face of hate.

It was the night when he was arrested in secret for fear of the crowds, when the mockery of a trial process began and the trials of a mockery process began. A night of humiliation.

Today, whatever activities you and your churches have planned, don’t discount Maundy Thursday as the warm up act to the main event. It’s when Jesus began to show us how much he loves us and how much we are to love one another. It’s when the King of kings begins to extend his arms for us and to us and offers us his body and blood.

Be blessed, be a blessing

real puppets

There are some things that shouldn’t work. Today I was listening to the Radio 2 Breakfast Show when Elmo came on. For the few of you who don’t know who Elmo is, he is a small red fluffy muppet from Sesame Street who speaks in the third person. Embed from Getty Images

And Elmo was on the radio. It should not have worked. Elmo is predominantly a visual experience and radio is audio-only. But because he has a distinctive voice and because the characterisation is so strong (and funny) it did work. It brought a smile to my face and I reckon that was replicated across the country. And it seems that Elmo was there in full character, not just his voice, which made it all the more real.

20141021_112126 (2)
Stew after having cut a Head Teacher’s tie in half, and failed to restore it

I don’t know what it is about puppets but they seem to have universal appeal, especially if they have a character to which people can relate. I have a puppet friend, Stew the Rabbit, who helped me in school assemblies and also helps me in magic tricks. (He is going to be taking part in the show I am doing on 23rd May (shameless plug) carrying out his most dangerous illusion to date.) There is something about his character that children and adults both love. In fact he was so popular in one school I used to visit that when the Head Teacher greeted me on arrival the first thing that was said was, “Is Stew here?” and only then, “Nice to see you Nick”! (They gave Stew an enormous gift-wrapped carrot when we moved away).

Sometimes clever children (never adults) will say, “He’s just a puppet.” My response is, “Yes, but he’s a real puppet.” That flummoxes them because it is nonsensical and yet seems to be a fair response to their observation. Stew may not work on radio as he only whispers in my ear so I can repeat it to the audience. But even though (speak it quietly) he is a puppet he is able to communicate with people of all ages and they remember it because it was from a puppet and they warmed to him.

“Where’s this reflection going?” I hear you thinking. And I was not sure when I started writing. I guess I was so captivated by Elmo on the radio that I wanted to create a bloggage about it. And I think that’s my point. There are some things we see, some experiences we have, some people we meet who are so captivating that we have to tell other people about what happened.

I find the same experience when I read the gospels and re-discover Jesus of Nazareth. It should not have worked. He was the uneducated, illegitimate son of the local odd job man (aka carpenter) from a backwater town in a Roman-occupied territory. He was a complete nobody for the first 30 years of his life, probably the butt of local jokes. Yet when he started a public ministry crowds flocked to him, astonishing things happened, he gave teaching of a quality and profundity that belied his impoverished background, and he caused such a stir that he became a threat to the powers that be… so much that they conspired to have him executed.

That would be remarkable enough a life for a Hollywood blockbuster. But he claimed to be more than a good teacher, and proved it by his resurrection. His few frightened followers were transformed by their encounters with him after his resurrection into fervent witnesses – and now are numbered in the billions.

It shouldn’t have worked, but it’s even more amazing than Elmo on the radio! Have you met him yet?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

the least I can do

Luke 23:44-56

Darkness fell.

The sun stopped shining.

Was it some sort of solar eclipse? Was it a heavy fog? It was as if the whole of creation was grieving at what was happening to the one through whom all things were made (John 1:3).

The curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple and shielded it from public view was torn from top (heaven) to bottom (earth). Access to God was now possible for all because of Jesus’ death.

The centurion was there to oversee the executions and he was clearly affected by what he saw. We don’t know if before this moment he was a ‘God-fearer’, but he certainly was now. Those who had been mocking now shamefully slunk away. Some of his followers, including the women from Galilee, watched from a distance – hearts torn apart and hopes dashed by what they had seen.

And then there’s Joseph (and Nicodemus with him according to John). He was a religious leader who had not gone with the crowd. He had not agreed with what had been done to Jesus. He did not want Jesus’ body left on the cross as it was forbidden by the law to leave dead bodies out overnight. So Joseph carried out this act of compassion, treating Jesus’ body with respect.

still in secret?

He told me, “No one can enter the Kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit…”

He explained Scripture like no-one I have ever heard before.

He understood God.

He understood me.

I thought he was The One.

But he can’t be. Look at what they have done to him.

He did not deserve that. He never harmed anyone.

At least Joseph and I can give him a decent resting place.

That’s the least I can do for him.

Response:

stained-glass-window.jpgHold on, what about the women? They got spices ready but were too late to do anything before the Sabbath started (at nightfall on the Friday). So they waited.

Good Friday has passed. The Sabbath has started. We wait.

What would it have been like to have been one of Jesus’ followers on that Sabbath? Would you have carried out any of your normal religious rituals? Would you have given up? Would you have run away and hidden? Or would you have cherished the spices ready to go and anoint his body the following day as one final act of devotion?

When all seems lost and all seems hopeless, may God give us the faith of those faithful women.

cross carrying

Luke 23:26-43

Jesus had encouraged his followers to “take up your cross and follow me” (Luke 9:23). He also said, “29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

It was customary for those to be crucified to be forced to carry the cross beam to the place of their execution. Jesus, exhausted from all he had endured, stumbled under the weight and fell. Simon from Cyrene helped Jesus by carrying his cross and taking his heavy yoke upon him.” It is possible that Simon from Cyrene became a believer, which is why Luke mentioned his name as those reading his gospel knew who he was talking about. If this is true Simon’s journey of faith began in the most extreme of circumstances.

Jesus died a humiliating death: reserved for hardened criminals and revolutionaries. While Jesus was no criminal, he was revolutionary. It was a revolution of peace and love. The two criminals crucified alongside Jesus deserved their fate, but while one joined in the mockery the other sensed something different about Jesus. Perhaps he had heard Jesus speak about the Kingdom of God, seen him caring for the poor and downtrodden. Maybe he had just heard of Jesus’ reputation. Whatever it was he realised that he really was in the presence of the King of the Jews who was about to claim his Kingdom.

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

handshake 3It was a simple request, with no detailed confession of faith. But it is enough.

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Response:

Try repeating the words of the second criminal as a prayer. Place emphasis on different words each time you repeat it.

Listen to Jesus telling you: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Thank God that Jesus’ death has opened the way for us all to be with him. Thank God that we do not need to understand everything: that faith in Jesus is enough. Ask him to give you Jesus’ yoke, and to teach you how to follow him. Ask for Jesus’ help in carrying your cross today.

passing the buck

Luke 23:1-25

Jesus was kicked around like a football from Pilate to Herod to Pilate. He was kicked to Pilate who tried to avoid the situation by kicking him to Herod, who kicked him back to Pilate, who tried to kick him out but didn’t have the courage. Jesus presented the authorities with a problem: he was not a threat to them but the religious leaders were stirring up a crowd that was a threat to public order.

Pilate’s solution (1): let the Jews handle it themselves; send him to the provincial puppet monarch, Herod.

Herod’s solution when Jesus refused to entertain him: ridicule Jesus and send him back to Pilate.

Pilate’s solution (2): ignore the facts; satisfy the crowd’s blood lust by offering to have Jesus flogged and then satisfy his conscience by releasing him.

Jesus presented the crowd with a problem: do they listen to Jesus or take the side of the religious leaders?

Policeman Pushing ProtesterThe crowd’s solution: demand to get rid of Jesus, demand the release of a murderer. The religious leaders would have been delighted that the crowd which only days before had proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah in defiance of them was now baying for his death and supporting their position.

Pilate’s solution (3): give in; release Barabbas and sacrifice Jesus in the name of political expediency and a quiet life.

In the middle of this mayhem and havoc there are glimpses, albeit distorted ones, of what Jesus has come to do. Luke tells us that “that day Herod and Pilate became friends – before this they had been enemies.” It is a hint, a foretaste, of what Jesus will achieve on the cross: reconciliation is breaking out. Even Barabbas’s release is a hint of what is to come: Jesus died in his place.

Prayer:

Start by telling God the Father how you feel about how Jesus was treated.

Jesus died in your place too: tell God how that makes you feel.

Pray for people who are estranged and in need of someone to help them be reconciled. Pray that we will have the courage to speak the truth, even in the face of significant opposition.

Personal Problems

When I think of my God in agony on the cross I blame Pilate – you just can’t wash your hands of that, buddy.

When I look at the smoking gun in my hand and the corpse at my feet I blame the manufacturers, the government and the police.

When I enjoy watching the images of depravity and destruction on my television I blame the censors and those who project such things into my living room.

When I lie and cheat to save my own skin I blame those who forced me into the corner.

When I lie awake at night worrying about the effects of what I have done I blame God for giving me a conscience.

justice?

Luke 22:63-71

>praying in anguishIt starts to get more brutal from now on. It begins with mockery and grows into beating, bullying and insults. A beaten and sleep-deprived Jesus is then brought before the Council again and questioned further. The religious leaders are looking for any hint of a reason to take him to the Romans: can they portray him as a revolutionary, a troublemaker, or a threat to public order? Jesus would not play their games.

Jesus finally spoke the truth about himself – a truth he knew that they would not believe – and the Council decided that he had condemned himself. He was indeed guilty. He was guilty of being the Son of God. He was guilty of not conforming to human expectations. He was guilty of speaking the truth.

Have you ever been unjustly accused of something? Have you ever felt misrepresented or hard done by? Jesus knows what that is like.

Injustice is still rife in our world. This is taken from the website for International Justice Mission:

Today, millions of lives around the world are in the grip of injustice.

More children, women and men are held in slavery right now than over the course of the entire trans-Atlantic slave trade: Millions toil in bondage, their work and even their bodies the property of an owner.

Trafficking in humans generates profits in excess of 32 billion dollars a year for those who, by force and deception, sell human lives into slavery and sexual bondage. Nearly 2 million children are exploited in the commercial sex industry.

In many countries around the world, paedophiles find that they can abuse children with impunity. And though police should be protectors, in many nations, their presence is a source of insecurity for the poor. Suspects can be held interminably before trials, imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.

The land rights of women are violated on a massive scale worldwide, but with particular ferocity in Africa, leaving widows and other women in vulnerable positions unable to care for themselves or their children. Around the world, women suffer the double trauma of rape – and seeing their perpetrators face no consequences.

Often lacking access to their own justice systems and unable to protect themselves or their families from those more powerful, it is overwhelmingly the poor who are the victims of these brutal forms of abuse.

What can we do? Pray. Campaign. Lobby. Act.