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 

mortal

death valleyEven though it is the holiday season at present, death has not taken a vacation. Over the past few days there have been many reminders of this as well known people have died, and there have also been some tragic accidents that have resulted in death. We must never forget that behind the headlines are people in pain, walking through the valley of the shadow of death. For the friends and relatives of those who have died this is personal pain and benumbing bereavement.

Somewhat dissonantly Jesus said that those who are grieving and mourning are blessed because they will be comforted. He was not being insensitive, even though at face value what he said doesn’t seem to make sense in the face of bereavement and death. But the blessing comes not because of the grieving but because of the comfort. God is always present and he is especially present to those who are bereft when we allow his Spirit to prompt us to be his hands, his voice, his presence, his comfort. It is an amazing privilege to do that. People of faith (and others) will (rightly) surround those who are experiencing the devastation and desolation with prayer, love and support.

Death is something of a taboo subject. That’s why we have so many synonyms and euphemisms for it. We don’t like to think about it or talk about it until we are forced to confront our mortality by what has happened to others. Death is something that our medical profession is constantly fighting: we heard of new developments in vaccination against Ebola last week and I think one of the reasons why it was celebrated was that it looks like it’s humans 1 death 0. But every day in hospitals, doctor’s surgeries, hospices and homes those in the caring professions (and I use the phrase deliberately) do battle with death. And while they may score some victories they are the victories of people fighting a valiant, noble, under-appreciated rearguard action against an invincible enemy.

In the end death wins. In the end we end.

If you read John’s gospel narrative of Jesus’ life you see Jesus’ compassion when he encounters bereavement. The shortest verse in the Bible is an understatement of biblical proportions when Jesus was confronted with the death of a friend and his friend’s grieving family: “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35).

Two verses earlier we read, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” This is rather a sanitised translation. You could equally translate the last section as “he was inwardly angry and became enraged.” It’s a natural reaction: sometimes we respond to death’s intrusion into our lives with anger (especially if it is unexpected or ‘too soon’).

But it seems that Jesus’ anger was not just at the fact that his friend, Lazarus, had died. It was also that death itself had encroached onto the scene. Perhaps for him it was a reminder that he was to do battle with death himself in the not-to-distant future. He himself wept and sweated blood as he wrestled with his impending execution. And when he was crucified and died, it seemed that death had kept its morbid 100% record.

It was a Friday.

But Sunday was coming.

The reason that the cross (a hideous symbol of cruelty, bullying, humiliation, torture and death) is the emblem for Christians is that we know that it represents the moment when everything changed. The Good News of Jesus is that he really did defeat death. He smashed the Ultimate Statistic (1 out of 1 people die). His resurrection is a beacon of hope in the dark shadow of death. It is a defiant shout that this need not be the end.

This ‘song’ was sung in early churches:

 ‘Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?’

And Paul, quoting it when he wrote to his first letter to the church in Corinth (Chapter 15) expands on that theme:

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Death still hurts. Bereavement is still painful. We should still fight the rearguard action with all that is in us. But death is defeated. Because Jesus is alive there is hope. Many times when I visited believers who knew they were in their last days on earth they spoke (with shining eyes) of their faith that although death was to be feared it was not the end. They looked forward to what lay beyond – an eternity in God’s presence. Many said to me, “I’m ready.”

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.

Son rise

After what some of you may consider to have been a surfeit of pomes (sic) last week, when I was in a reflective mood, this week I am returning to the more ‘normal’ style of bloggage. Except that I’m going to cheat slightly and post a reflection based on something I said in Sunday evening’s sermon at our church. So, apologies to anybody who has already heard this.

Sunrise & Sunset 2
To be fair, this is not an image of the sun rising over Horsham!

In my first church, in Horsham, we used to have a sunrise service on Easter Sunday mornings. We would trudge and squelch our way across some fields and up a hill that overlooks the town. Usually it was after the sun had risen but it was still very early in the morning and we would reflect on the events of the first Easter Sunday.

On one occasion I asked some of the teenage girls in the church to interrupt me as I was speaking. The idea was that while I was speaking about the encounter that the women had with the risen Jesus they would rush down the hill through the crowd shouting, “Jesus is alive! We’ve seen him, we’ve met him!” The girls were quite excited about this and sneaked to the back of the crowd to await the cue. My idea was that I would try to bring a little realism to the narrative. I didn’t count on a retired minister who was part of our church.

As the girls started to make a commotion and ran down the hill shouting, “Jesus is alive!” Gordon turned around to them and told them to be quiet and stop messing around.
The girls were a little taken aback by this but thankfully they decided to continue and ran down the hill as arranged. They were not going to be shushed by anyone!

Sometimes churches are like Gordon: we can unwittingly try to stop the good news of Jesus from spreading. I think everybody is hard-wired not to like change but somehow when we get together in churches we can be even more resistant. Perhaps because God is unchanging we think we ought to be as well.

Gordon also typifies the reaction of the disciples on Easter Sunday when the women burst into their room and told them that Jesus was alive. They were told to stop being so silly and calm down. What did they think they were doing interrupting a serious and important meeting with their excited and exuberant shouting?

Thankfully, just like the girls on the hill overlooking Horsham, those women would not be silenced. They had the greatest news in history and they wanted everyone to have an opportunity to hear it.

Over to you.

Be blessed, be a blessing

B lieve it or not!

Before most people were awake

Beside themselves with grief

Baffled about how they would move the stone

Bewildered about Friday

Bemused about the empty tomb

Bowled over by the angels*

Blurred vision through the tears

Blissful in recognition

Blessed by the impossible

Breathless with excitement

empty tomb

*Some later less reliable manuscripts include these words:

‘Behind you’ chuckled the angel

‘Boo!’

SYLOFTRK*

empty tombOn Easter Sunday evening we going to hold a service that we’re calling “Songs of Resurrection”. It is a sort of Easter Carol Service, where we will sing some of the great hymns and songs of Resurrection and retell the Easter Resurrection narratives to celebrate the fact of Jesus’ resurrection.

*I did toy with the idea of calling the service “Sing Your Lungs out for the Risen King” but decided that ‘Songs of Resurrection’ was a slightly less in your face name.

There are 2 main reasons to do this: one is that inevitably at Easter we will not be able to sing all of the amazing Easter songs and hymns in one service and this will give us an opportunity to sing and celebrate some more. The second is that there is something significant and powerful about retelling the narrative as a whole. Just as at Christmas we are familiar with the story and yet retell it each year to refresh and remind ourselves about it so it will be good to take a similar opportunity at Easter.

I wish I’d come up with this idea a lot sooner so that I could have given our musicians and singers more time to prepare. But I’m sure we will still make a joyful noise and it will lift our spirits.

At Easter I find it very difficult sometimes not to rush to the resurrection because it is such a spectacular event. In my first church I was asked to lead the service at the end of the Good Friday March of Witness. It was a big event with several hundred people gathered in the Market Square and I had arranged for young people from different churches to participate. Because it was such a public event I felt that I could not leave Jesus buried in the grave but we had to finish on a resurrection hymn so that the general public could hear that Good Friday was not the end.

I was fascinated by how many people complained about this. ‘This was Good Friday, Easter Sunday has no business being mentioned’ seems to be the general thrust of the complaints. Every single complaint was from a regular church goer.

Without Good Friday Easter Sunday makes no sense. Without Good Friday God’s gracious act of reconciliation is impossible. It is important that we pause and reflect on that and on the astonishing sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf. But, a little like re-watching a favourite film that I have seen many times before, I know the ending and cannot help viewing Good Friday through the lens of the Resurrection. We know how it ends, or rather how it really begins.

Without Easter Sunday we follow a dead martyr. Without Easter Sunday death is not defeated. Without Easter Sunday Jesus was a liar and a fraud.

But Jesus is alive and that makes all the difference.

if you are in the vicinity of our church at six thirty on Easter Sunday evening you would be very welcome to join us for the ‘Songs of Resurrection’. Whether or not you are able to be with us, however, don’t neglect to reflect on the one that resurrects!

Be blessed, be a blessing

the certainty principle

At the moment I am contemplating Sunday evening’s sermon on the first half of Acts 4.

I am not certain this shirt was a good idea
I am not certain this shirt was a good idea

One of the things that strikes me as amazing is that when the authorities had the apostles in front of them they did not attempt to argue about or disprove Jesus’ resurrection. It seems they knew that the evidence was irrefutable.

So why, if the evidence was irrefutable, didn’t they believe it? One of the reasons is that it did not fit into their theological framework. We know that many of them were Sadducees, who did not believe in resurrection. Because they did not believe in resurrection it could not have happened, even though the evidence all pointed in that direction.

Do we ever find ourselves in the same position – denying what God is doing because it does not fit with our existing theological framework? ‘Of course not’ is my hasty response. But if I take the time to consider prayerfully I need to be less certain.

Only a few centuries ago many Christians were certain that slavery was God’s will. Only a few decades ago many Christians were certain that women should not be ordained. What other ‘certainties’ does God need to address in us?

The certainty I live my life upon is Jesus’ death and resurrection. The further I move away from that central truth, from his teaching and life, the more I end up thinking about things from my own perspective rather than his and the less certain I should be.

Be blessed, be a blessing