It’s Friday…

 

I work in pensions…

No, don’t go yet! Please!

Thanks. Now, as I was saying, I work in pensions. Specifically, I work in the new business department of a wealth management company which processes new pension applications. In the UK it is currently the end of the tax year and, as a result, my place of work is currently busier than the person changing the list of candidates on the UKIP website. People are desperately trying to put as much by as they can for their old age without being hit for a big tax bill, something especially this year as the amount you can put in over one tax year is about to reduce. It’s amazing how many people leave these things to the last minute and, as a result, we have an immense amount of applications in which we need to process before 6th April. The whole thing is pressure and stress; the stress of not having enough put by for retirement, the stress of getting in before the deadline, the stress of keeping on top of the work, the stress of worrying what happens if things aren’t done on time…

Stress is a fact of modern life. I guess it was probably a part of life for many in days gone by as well. Some stree about work, some are stressed because they have no work. Some stress that they don’t have enough money, some stress that they have none. Some stress about friends and family, some are stressed because they are alone. Some stress about their home while others are stressed about not having a bed for the night. Some are stressed about their weight whilst others are stressed because they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. It can consume you, leave you feeling isolated and hopeless, as if there is no escape from your circumstances.

So, we rush around, hurrying about to try to get as much done in the shortest time possible because we worry what’ll happen if we don’t. We cram our lives so full of stuff that we don’t give ourselves time to stop, take stock and think. Being busy, doing things, making money, these are things we are expected to do, things we expect of ourselves, so doing nothing except thinking and reflecting are somehow seen as lazy and counter productive.

However, stopping and being still is exactly what we need to do much of the time, just to a low us to cope with what we have to do.

This is Holy Week, the time when Christians remember the sacrifice of Jesus’ death and resurrection. That death is something Jesus knew was going to happen. He knew how he would die and the suffering and shame that it would entail.

Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you will not fall into temptation.’ He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’ An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. (‭Luke‬ ‭22‬:‭39-44‬ NIVUK)

Now, over the last week I have felt like putting my head through a computer screen, snapping at people who don’t deserve it and throwing all the paper on my desk up into the air in despair. I haven’t at any stage, though, prayed that the work be taken from me and sweated blood! It really is one of those events which makes you take a step back and realise that Jesus went willingly into this situation, but he was utterly terrified of it at the same time.

It’s not death that scared him. He knew that, ultimately, he would be reunited with the father. However, the sheer pain, anguish and humiliation he was about to endure was mind blowing. David Instone-Brewer wrote this insight into crucifixion for Premier Christianity Magazine. It tells of the pain and humiliation from a physical and psychological perspective. It would have been unbearable, and Jesus knew this. This came through in the fear of this prayer; to take the burden from him if there was another way. He knew, though, that there was no other way, and he said that he still submitted to his father’s will.

This is the first point of hope in a semmingly hopeless situation. Luke tells us that an angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. I don’t know how that looked or how Jesus was strengthened by this, except for one thing. Jesus was still in anguish, but he kept on praying. Sometimes the times we most need prayer are the times we least feel able to do so. Jesus found the strength in the depths of despair to keep his eyes fixed firmly on his father in heaven, praying for strength and, as we read in John’s Gospel, praying for hid disciples and all believers, knowing what they will go through after his death.

Suddenly, I feel utterly self centred and ridiculous. I have felt under, what I perceive to be, immense pressure at work, then I see Jesus praying for others as he knowingly and willingly approaches the hardest thing any human being has ever had to face. This is astonishing, more so because he is doing this for each and every one of us.

The reason he is able to do this is the reason he is doing it. His arrest, his beatings, his flogging, his mocking, his walk to Golgotha, his hands and feet being nailed to a cross, his shame, his pain and his death were not the end. He cried out that “it is finished”, but it was only his sacrifice for our sins which was finished. There was still one more unbelievable act.

The fact is that hoplessness is temporary. In the case of Jesus’ followers it wAs only a couple of days long. Hopelessness was replaced by hope. The hope that only a miracle can give. Hope that only victory over death can give. Hope that is only there in the risen Jesus, talking to the women by an empty tomb.

Therein lies the whole point. Sometimes things feel hopeless, or just difficult to bear or too stressful to take. They aren’t, they never can be, because Jesus lives.

It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!

http://youtu.be/sB2en_C4KGk 

Lent Day 40: 1 Corinthians 15

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Yesterday was Good Friday. Today, nothing. Nothing but a dead body in a tomb and a bunch of desolate, defeated followers. Hope is lost. Everything is lost.

Easter Saturday is a dark day for the early church (I guess, in part, because it’s not really born until Pentecost, after Jesus’ ascension). The disciples have seen Jesus die and all their hopes die with him. Their faith was in him, their dreams were in him. But that all disappeared on the cross.

And it would have stayed that way, too. If Jesus’ body was still lying, undiscovered and undisturbed  in a first century tomb in Jerusalem then hope would be dead too and there would be no church. The disciples would have scattered, nothing left to fight for or believe in, and the status quo would have  remained.

But one thing changed. One thing which, had it not happened, would have seen Jesus and his followers forgotten quicker than they came to prominence.

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance : that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8 NIV)

Jesus rose again!

When he said that he would rise after three days, the disciples didn’t really know what be meant. Now they did, they saw him. Paul didn’t believe it had happened and persecuted the early church, but he, too, saw Jesus.

Jesus rose again!

He overcame death, as the Old Testament prophets had written. He overcame death so we wouldn’t have to. This isn’t wishful thinking or mindless acceptance. I agree with Paul when he says,

“And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:17-19 NIV)

If Jesus hadn’t been raised from the dead then what is the point in following him. If he hadn’t been raised then he is simply a good teacher telling us common sense stuff about how to live and how to treat each other.

But, if Jesus hadn’t been raised from the dead, why were so many willing to say he had been? Why were so many willing to risk ridicule, violence, arrest, imprisonment and even death simply for saying that Jesus was alive. Power? Influence? Money? The apostles got none of those things. They received something so much more wonderful and eternal than any of those things,

“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:10 NIV)

The grace of God. The knowledge that, whatever they have done in the past, whatever horrendous acts they may have committed, God turns their worthlessness into something He treasures and loves. The knowledge that their sin is no longer what defines them, but something they are able to beat, with God’s help. The knowledge that death of the body is not the end, but eternal life in God is there for them and for anyone who believes in Jesus.

Jesus rose again!

I’m not skilled in apologetics or evangelism. I can’t get into long intellectual debates about the existence of God or the rationality of my beliefs. I’m not great at trying to steer others onto the same path. But I can tell you what I believe and why I believe it. That’s what I’ve tried to do over the last 40 posts as I’ve reflected on the Gospels over lent. I may not convince people, other believers may disagree with me, but I know one thing. One thing which unites Jesus’ followers. One thing which holds faith together. One thing which, despite the almost unbelievable, supernatural nature of it, I believe with all my heart and mind.

Jesus rose again!

Lent Day 28: Luke 21-22

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Every Easter and Christmas millions of people around the world celebrate festivals for a man which a lot of them have no belief in whatsoever. This ends up leading to criticism about the over commercialisation of holy days, taking all meaning out of them.

This is, inevitably, followed by the arguments by secular groups that these festivals are far from Christian. Christmas is timed to coincide with the old Roman festival of Saturnalia and Easter is name after Eostre, a Germanic pagan goddess. The line goes that Christianity has stolen local customs and festivals, changing their meaning to one centred around Jesus and destroying pagan heritage.

The thing is that this is pretty much completely true. The church has always been pretty open about it, too. The reason for it is simple; at their heart these festivals were always about Jesus, they just didn’t know it.

There was a story I heard of a missionary who went to an African tribal village. There, he was told of a great leader who taught peace and love between warring tribes, bringing many of them together. But some leaders hated him. They found war very profitable, in power as well as money, so they killed him. But, this great leader rose from the dead and will come again to unite the tribes and destroy the warmongers.

The missionary listened, then said,

“I know this great leader you speak of. His name is Jesus. Let me tell you more about him.”

Jesus is in everything. John 1, which I’ll get to on Monday, makes that pretty clear. These pagan festivals which Christianity incorporated weren’t destroyed by making them about Jesus. They were fully explained by making them about Jesus.

This has been on going since the last supper. The disciples joined Jesus in celebrating the Passover, commemorating the Hebrews being delivered from slavery in Egypt during Moses’ time. The breaking of the bread and pouring of the wine were already central parts of the feast. But here, Jesus makes these two symbolic gestures suddenly become symbolic of his own coming death. The bread is his body, being broken by Roman soldiers. The wine is his blood, shed as he is whipped, nailed to a cross and has a spear thrust into his side.

These two symbols, already ancient and rich with meaning and significance for the Jewish people, take on their final, fully explained form. They are no longer about lambs being killed and their blood helping the angel of death to pass over Jewish homes, but about Jesus being killed and his blood being used to help us all avoid eternal death.

He started with this, but carries on, even today, showing how he is, and always has been, in the most ancient beliefs, customs and festivals.

As Matt Redman wrote,

“It’s all about you. It’s all about you, Jesus”

Lent Day 13: Matthew 27-28

This feels so familiar to me. The part of Jesus’ life which, ultimately, defines why those of us who choose to follow him do so.

All seems totally lost. Abandoned by the disciples at Gethsemane. Disowned by Peter outside the temple. Condemned by a crowd agitated by the religious leaders. Discarded to his fate by Pilate. Mocked, whipped, beaten, paraded through the streets and, finally, nailed to a cross and left to die the most agonising death you could imagine.

All seems totally lost.

He dies.

Then, drama. The ground shakes. Rock splits open. The dead are raised to life.

And my favourite part. The temple curtain, the piece of fabric separating the holiest part of the temple from the masses, keeping ordinary people from God’s dwelling place, is torn in two.

We are no longer separated from God. Jesus’ death has seen to that. He has taken everything which was killing us, keeping us from God, and it has died with him. He has given us the ability to turn away from the evil which has found its way into the world, into our hearts, and be reunited with God.

But, there’s more. Much more. He beats sin and evil, but that’s not enough. He has to beat death itself.

So there, by an empty tomb, with unconscious Roman guards replaced by an angel, stands Jesus. Alive, as he said he would be.

He returns to the disciples. They react as the world has reacted for the last 2000 years. Some readily accept. Some seriously doubt. But he’s there, they can see him, so they all, eventually, believe.

Then he gives them what has become known as the Great Commission,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 NIV)

As a follower of Jesus (at least, I try to be) I believe that what we read in the last two verses of Matthew is the most important event which has ever happened, both globally and personally. I believe that it really happened, no matter how fantastical it seems. I believe that this gives me, not only the incentive, but the ability to get past everything which is bad about me as a person and to improve. To grow closer to God. To view and treat others with love and respect.

I am not perfect. I do things which I know are wrong every day. Some little things and some really big things, but I keep coming back to this moment at the cross and it helps me to move on. To stand up to temptation and refuse it. To recognise when I’m doing wrong and to do better in future.

I believe that Jesus will come back, because he said so. I believe that God’s kingdom will come to earth, because He said so.

And I believe that, in my own ham-fisted way, which may or may not make sense to people, that I should share the news that Jesus died so that we can all live.

Because he did. And because he said so.