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 – Good Friday: John 21

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You’ve been following a guy around for about three years, learning from him, eating with him, travelling with him. You gave up everything to follow him, put yourself in danger for him, saw him perform miracles you could never have imagined, heard him say things which changed lives all around you. You accepted him as the long awaited Messiah, God’s own son. You watched him arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, tried before those who wanted him dead and die a death he didn’t deserve. You also saw him again, miraculously raised to life, and worshipped him as you now, finally understood who he really was.

So, when you’re out fishing and he shouts to you from the shore, you’d recognise him.

Right?

“Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.” (John 21:4 NIV)

Oh, ok. Maybe not.

It’s not the only time this happened. When he encountered two followers on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) they didn’t recognise him either. It took him breaking bread in front of them for them to realise.

So, if these people who spent time in his company when he was on Earth struggle to recognise him, what chance do we have? We encounter Jesus every day. Every single one of us, whether we realise it or not, whether we believe in him or not, encounter Jesus every day. It may be an opportunity which seems almost too good, it may be someone who unexpectedly comes to our aid, it may be the prick of conscience guiding us, it may be an opportunity to do good for others. We encounter Jesus every day.

But, so often, we don’t recognise him. We may be too wrapped up in ourselves, or in the world. It may be that we don’t want to recognise him, it would be an inconvenient truth which we wouldn’t want to handle. We may have a particular belief system which discounts the idea of Jesus. We may be expecting something more supernatural or spectacular. But it’s him, and we don’t recognise him.

The thing is, the signs are always there. He gave us the commands about loving each other. He gave us the teaching that, when we help others, we are helping the Father (Matthew 25). He gave us directions for our lives in the Sermon on the Mount, in his parables and in his actions. He told us that he would be with us, always, even to the end of the age. He told us where he would be and how to recognise him. It should be easy.

If you choose to ignore, disbelieve or mock, that’s entirely prerogative. But if you want life, love, fellowship, freedom and wisdom beyond anything this world has to offer then he simply has two words.

“Follow me.”

Lent Day 39: John 19-20

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Do you ever get the feeling that you’re missing something? It’s not Good Friday until tomorrow, but here I am writing about the crucifixion and resurrection already. And it’s in a blog post entitled “Lent Day 39” when it’s only day 38 ( I missed a number out near the beginning!).

When the film “The Passion Of The Christ” came out I, like millions of others, went to see it at the cinema. It is a brutal, uncomfortable, but probably intensely real telling of the story of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, torture and crucifixion. It’s not a film for the faint hearted as you see Christ’s flesh being flayed by Roman whips, his head bleeding from the crown of thorns, his hands and feet have large nails driven through them and his agonising death on the cross. It is incredibly visual, bloody and emotionally draining.

What looks like being the last shot, just before the screen goes dark and the credits roll, is of Jesus’ lifeless body, having been taken down from the cross, laying in the arms of his grief stricken mother, Mary. Through her tears, she looks directly at the camera, breaking the fourth wall with an angry, accusatory look at the audience. In her silence she seems to be saying “This is your fault. You did this to my son. Your sin, your arrogance, ignorance, greed and selfishness have taken him from me.”. And you sit, looking back at her, dumbstruck. Trying to comprehend what you have done to deserve such a look, such a charge.

Then, as all seems lost, there is one last shot. A closed, rocky tomb, filled only with the body of a young man, suddenly radiates with intense light. As the light dies down you see a glimpse of Jesus, no longer dead, stand up and walk.

When I saw the film there were maybe 100-150 people in the cinema with me. You could have heard a pin drop as we walked out in silence, stunned by what we had just seen. The silence was finally broken by one young lad piping up,

“Wow, they’ve really set that up well for a sequel, haven’t they?”

It’s a comment which still amuses me now. But he’s right. The film concentrates only on part of the story of Jesus’ last few days on Earth; the pain and suffering he went through. And rightly so, because he did it for a reason. Mary’s accusatory look towards us at the end is justified because it is our fault. We have let our sin, our pride, arrogance, greed, lust, hatred and all the other self-centered feelings of the world to take over our lives. He went through that agony to break that.

But it wouldn’t have worked had the last bit, only tantalizingly glimpsed in the film, not happened. Jesus rose again! He defeated death and the power it had over us because our sin was killing us all. The resurrection is where the real triumph comes from and where our real hope comes from.

So, that young man in a cinema in Dorset was spot on. They did leave it open for a sequel. The thing is, the sequel has been and is being made. We are all living it, right now. Every moment on Earth has been changed as a result of what happened that weekend 2000 years ago in Jerusalem and is all geared towards a happy ending beyond anything even Hollywood could dream of. We have the script, we just need to take part in the film, because it is more real and wonderful than we ever imagined it could be.

Lent Day 38: John 17-18

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Back in 1998, the Welsh rock band Manic Street Preachers released an album entitled This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours. It was an album title which always intrigued me as it seemed to show truth as a fluid, subjective concept which was almost personal to the individual or specific circumstances, rather than an undeniable fact which is set in stone. The idea that two people can have a different truth is one which throws the whole idea of truth into question.

However, there is no doubt that truth is different for different people. Look at people’s views of certain politicians or parties. You may see a politician as benevolent, hard working, successful and good because, for your specific circumstance, their actions have improved your quality of life and that of your friends, neighbours and family. Someone in a different part of the country or the world, however, May think that particular politician is uncaring, unfeeling, unsympathetic and evil because their actions have brought deprivation to their area and great financial and social hardship to them and their loved ones. Both, to those individuals, would be true. But they would, in isolation, only tell part of the story. They are only a glimpse of the truth.

So, when Pontius Pilate asks Jesus “What is truth?”, he is asking a question we all need to ask.

Jesus’ followers saw him as a great teacher and God’s own son. The Messiah.

The crowds welcoming him into Jerusalem saw him as a great leader who would save them from oppression. The king.

The chief priests saw him as a dangerous subversive who threatened their power base and their legalistic approach to worshipping God. The revolutionary.

To those who saw Jesus, read the scriptures and interpreted the signs of the times, there was a different view of what the truth about him was. They all thought they knew the truth and acted accordingly.

So, which “truth” was Jesus speaking of when he said,

“You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 18:37 NIV)

Well, he meant all three.

Jesus is the revolutionary. He has come to sweep away the self interested, legalistic approach to worshipping God with one easy idea. Love. Loving Jesus means loving God. Loving God means loving each other. Simple. He invites us to love and to live I’m that love. In his love. This isn’t about not helping people because of what day of the week it is. It’s not about condemning and stoning people for doing wrong. It’s not about ignoring groups in society because you see them as being worth less than others. It’s about loving and being transformed by that love.

Jesus is the king. Not in the way the Palm Sunday crowds though. He wasn’t the military ruler, come to overthrow the evil Roman occupation and free Israel. He is bringing God’s kingdom on Earth. Showing us how to live with him as our king, free from the shackles of the world and able to live alongside each other in him.

Jesus is the Messiah. He is God’s own son, come from the Father and part of the Father. He fulfils the roles of revolutionary and king by being Messiah, and the disciples were gradually learning this. They still had a way to go before they fully understood, that would happen over the next three days. But they knew that he came with the power, authority, love and grace of the one who created everything and is in everything. So much more than the nearest man in the sky of popular culture. The father, God, is all around us and inside us. Jesus came to show us and to help us to connect with that and have a relationship with the Father through him.

Finally, we see God. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

This is our truth. The only truth we need.

Lent Day 37: John 15-16

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I have come across a lot of anger towards religion, particularly the Church recently. Anger caused by the actions of people down the ages who claim to be acting in God’s name. To be fair, I can fully understand where these views come from, after all, religion has been used as the justification for much evil; holy wars, witch hunts, persecution, brainwashing, legal control, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, slavery, racism, greed, subjugation of women, terrorism and many other horrendous acts have been perpetuated by the Church or those acting on its behalf for centuries.

It’s shameful, disgusting and evil.

But it isn’t the fault of religion, or of Jesus. It’s the fault of human beings.

These acts were carried out by people whose motivation was not holy, no matter how warped their idea may be. Their motivations were power, money, control and hatred, all of which would have found another outlet had religion not been there. In many cases these acts have been carried out with no use of religion as a tool at all.

So, I can understand the anger towards religion, towards the Church, for the evil done in their name down the years. But it’s misdirected anger.

The church is not a bunch of power crazed people at the top, controlling the masses (although it has looked like that in points in history and in some parts of the world today). The church is simply the people of God. Each of us who follows Jesus.

Jesus is the founder, focus and direction of the Church. He is the leader and commander, and his command is simple,

“This is my command: Love each other.” (John 15:17 NIV)

Love each other. Not abuse, persecute, control, lie to, hate or kill each other. Love each other. Simple as that.

If we love him, as he says, we will obey his commands. We will love each other. If we are in him and him in us we will bear fruit. We will love each other. If we love him then we will love the Father and do his will. We will love each other.

But, if we don’t obey his command, if we don’t love each other and act accordingly, then we don’t love him. Then he isn’t in us. Then we’re not in him. Then we don’t love the Father. And if this is the case, if we don’t love, but are moved by hatred and self interest, then he will say to us that he doesn’t know us. He will tell us to get away from him. We will be like branches which bear no fruit, are pruned, thrown away and burnt. We are not his Church.

Anyone who acts in their own interest, with their greed, lust for power, hatred and prejudice are not the Church. Even those who are “the Church” as people understand it are not his Church. He doesn’t know them. He shuts them out and cuts them off.

Whenever evil has been, or is, carried out in the name of the Church, then Jesus will say that they aren’t his. They aren’t the Church. They are liars and frauds who the rest of us need to call to account for their actions and refuse to follow.

His church is built on one main principle. Love each other. If we don’t do this, if we don’t live, breathe, eat and sleep this command, then we need to stop calling ourselves part of the Church and look at how we can change.

The church is not a lie, an instrument of evil or control. It’s the bride of Christ. It is steeped in love.

So should we be. Love each other.

Lent Day 36: John 13-14

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When I was at school I played football (soccer, for those who think football is an egg-shaped ball game) in the playground nearly every lunch break. Sometimes it was on concrete with a tennis ball, sometimes on the playing fields with a football. We played as closely to the proper rules of football as we could, but with three noticeable differences.

Firstly, we had no pitch markings. I went to a boys’ grammar school which didn’t actually play football as a school sport, we played rugby (no, I’m really not as posh as that makes me sound). We had some rough markings we could use on the concrete tennis courts, but on grass it was impossible. This meant that determining when the ball went over the line for a corner, goal-kick or even a goal was always a matter of argument. Throw ins just didn’t happen, there was seemingly infinite width to the pitches.

Secondly, jumpers for goalposts. I know that there are people who hear that phrase and are instantly transported back to their childhoods. In truth, we usually used schoolboys. This meant that judging if the ball was wide or not was tough. And as for shots over the crossbar, the rule of thumb was that the crossbar was as high as whoever was in goal could jump with their arms outstretched.

Thirdly, no offside. Now, if you don’t know the offside rule in football I am not about to try to explain it. Suffice to say that, without linesman at the sides of the pitch, offside would have been impossible to police.

This last rule led to me taking up my specialist position. The position of all kids for who being in defence or goal was a liability and midfield was pointless due to a lack of running or tackling skills. I wasn’t a marauding full-back, wizard on the wing or a typical English centre-forward. No, I was a goalhanger. My job was to stand close to the opposition goal, hoping for the ball to break outfield to give me a chance to score.

It’s a position you won’t find in the Premier League, or anywhere else who play to the official Laws of the Game, because you are always offside, so it’s pointless.

In fact, goalhanging is a huge reason for the offside rule being there in the first place. Goalhanging spoils the game as a spectacle, is quite inspiring and encourages those with little or no ability (like me) think they’re better than they are. In short, offside is a rule which irritates, confuses and frustrates, but is there for the good of the Game. It makes the Game fairer and more enjoyable.

The same goes for God’s laws, as taught with such clarity through Jesus. The commandments he gives to us are simple, some would say common sense commands which we don’t need to be told. Loving, respecting, helping others are all things which we “instinctively” know, as are most of his other commands.

They’re not so easy, though, when we’re told not to judge, to love our enemy, to put others before ourselves. Even the supposedly common-sense, instinctive ones seem beyond each of us on occasions, and beyond some most of the time.

Why? Because sometimes we don’t want to follow them. Sometimes our immediate reaction to events is selfishness, vengeance, anger or greed. Following Jesus commands feel far from instinctive, more like hugely inconvenient and restrictive.

But they are there for a reason. Like the offside rule stopping useless cloggers like me barely get by flourish on the football field and, instead, helping football be more like the “beautiful game”, so Jesus commandments do that in life. They curb selfish impulses in order to make life on Earth better for all of us.

It’s not about controlling masses or gaining power over them, it’s about really living life. That’s why, if we love him, we will keep his commandments and help others to do so as well.

No matter how hard that may be.

Lent Day 35: John 11-12

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Why does God allow suffering?

No, I’m not going to give you a definitive answer. Not because I’m bottling it, but because I simply can’t answer it, certainly not with any great authority or confidence.

It’s a question above all others which seems to come up whenever anybody objects to the concept of God. People point to the amount of suffering which God appears to inflict upon people, particularly in parts of the Old Testament, and say that this is hugely incompatible with a loving God. They point to natural disasters, debilitating illnesses which rob people of everything, including their dignity, evils done by people in his name and say that this is the action and behaviour of a despot, not a benevolent God.

Some believers will point to events such as the great flood of Noah’s time and say that these events are the result of God’s wrath for the world’s sins. Some will say that they are all a part of God’s grand, mysterious plan and that all things happen for a reason. Some will say that these things are all, ultimately, caused by human actions due to the free will God has given us.

Me? Sorry, I just don’t know. I wish I did,  it I don’t. I can’t explain why suffering happens, why some of it is directly caused by God’s creation and why he doesn’t appears to directly intervene.

What I do know is this.

Jesus wept.

When Lazarus died, Jesus wept. Not because of the death itself, because he knew that he would raise Lazarus back to life. Even if he hadn’t, surely Lazarus, as Jesus’ follower, would find his place in paradise, so there should be celebrating for him rather than mourning.

No, the suffering was endured by those left behind, Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha. They are why Jesus wept. Jesus loved them, as friends. He saw their pain and anguish at their brother’s death and it hurt him deeply, to the point of tears. He couldn’t stand to see the suffering endured by those he loved and was moved by it.

This is how God reacts to the world’s suffering. I don’t feel that he causes it maliciously and sits on a cloud somewhere, laughing at us. He weeps for our pain. He hates to see us suffering, in pain, in anguish, mourning, sick, tormented. It moves him to weep, because he loves us. He loves us enough to send his son to die for us.

He doesn’t just weep, though. Lazarus’ death did not happen in vain. Jesus raised him back to life to show God’s glory by demonstrating his power over death and by showing the joy that he brings. Imagine the explosion of joy you would feel if you were Mary or Martha here; one minute your brother has been dead for four days, the next he’s walking, talking, living and breathing. Cloud nine wouldn’t be high enough.

God does this even now. When people suffer, others are usually there carrying out incredible acts of compassion, love, healing, justice, bravery or any other number of gifts God gives to each of us, believers or not. He made us like this, put a part of himself into each of us and some of us will, when moved to do so, use that God given abilities and gifts to alleviate suffering where we can.

That’s how God works in suffering. Why it happens, I just don’t know, but I know that he’s always in the aftermath. Picking up the pieces.