Saturday, 22 April 2017

Jesus appears to his disciples

John 20:19-end (NRSV)
Jesus Appears to the Disciples
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
Jesus and Thomas
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin*), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
The Purpose of This Book
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe* that Jesus is the Messiah,* the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

To begin with, and with the aid of Barclay and Ryle I reflect on verses 19-23; Jesus appears to his disciples:
To the modern reader, these opening verses present some difficulty. John takes care to include the detail that the doors were closed and securely locked and Jesus was still able to enter. Ryle comments:
“Like all the events which followed our Lord’s resurrection, there is much in the facts before us which is mysterious, and requires reverent handling.”
To try to explain them – according to Ryle – and this leads to ‘… unprofitable speculation. … We shall find it safer and wiser to confine our attention to points which are plain and instructive …’
The disciples returned to the upper room where they had shared the Last Supper with Jesus. Now, however, they were terrified because they knew that the Jewish authorities were on the warpath to eliminate even the memory of Jesus. Would it be the rest of them next? Barclay writes:
“So, they were meeting in terror, listening fearfully for every step on the stair and for every knock at the door, lest the emissaries of the Sanhedrin should come to arrest them too.”
Into their midst Jesus suddenly appeared and greeted them with the words: “Peace be with you …”
These would have been loaded with meaning for the disciples gathered here. Ryle comments:
“He spoke, we may be sure, with special reference to the events of the last few days, and with special reference to their future ministry. ‘Peace’ and not blame, - ‘peace’ and not fault-finding, - ‘peace’ and not rebuke, - was the first word which this little company heard from their Master’s lips, after He left the tomb.’
This is entirely in keeping with our Lord’s ministry. ‘Peace on earth’  was the song sung at Jesus’ birth, and peace and rest for the human soul was the essence of what Jesus had taught over the past three years of the disciples’ experience. Ryle suggests that it is ‘peace’ that Jesus intended to be the key-note to the Christian ministry and Jesus wanted this to be central to the Christian message of the Gospel.
The Apostle Paul reminds us that what Jesus came to earth to give is peace between humankind and God as he wrote in the opening verses of chapter 5 of his letter to the Romans:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
This is indeed the essence of the Gospel. We, like the disciples who met in the Upper Room on this occasion, so often get things terribly wrong and we find ourselves fearful and full of guilt as a result. Just as Jesus entered into their presence in a miraculous way on this occasion, so he miraculously comes to meet us where we are and gives us the same message. “It’s okay, I forgive you, peace be with you…”
It is interesting to note how Jesus provided this gathering with excellent evidence that it was in fact he who had risen from the dead: he showed them his hands and his side. He invited them to see with their own eyes that he had a real, material body and that he was no ghost or spirit. Ryle comments:
“… great … was the principle which He established for the use of His Church in every age until He returns. That principle is; that our Master requires us to believe nothing that is contrary to our senses. Things above our reason we must expect to find in a religion that comes from God, but not things contrary to reason.”
And then Jesus commissioned them: “As the father sent me, so I send you …” And he equipped them for the task as he breathes on them and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit …”
The Church is now the presence of Jesus in the world – as Paul explains in Ephesians 1:23 and 1 Corinthians 12:12) - we are ‘… the Body of Christ …’ It is our task to take the message of peace to all people. The Church is the mouth of God to speak and reveal God’s message to the peoples of the world. But we need to remain united with Christ for without this we have no power, no support, no strength. We need to nurture our relationship with God through the study of the Word and the faithful offering of the Sacraments. It is this relationship that matters and here it requires obedience and perfect love. Barclay writes:
“The Church must never be out to propagate her message; she must be out to propagate the message of Christ. She must never be out to follow man-made policies; she must be out to follow the will of Christ.”
To fulfil our commission we must always rely on the witness and testimony of the Holy Spirit which is that which makes us – transforms us – into the image of Christ, both as individuals and as a gathering of the Church.
John reminds us that at creation what gave humankind the image of God was God breathing into them (Genesis 2:7) Ezekiel (37:9) saw the  same thing in the valley of the dead, dry bones until God breathes life into them. The coming of the Holy Spirit is like the wakening of life from the dead and when it fills the Church she is recreated and equipped for her task. Without it, the Church simply does her own work and dies.
We have the lovely message of peace and with it comes the essential message of forgiveness. Only God can forgive sins, but we are given the power and authority to act as God’s agents and thus able to say to those who are truly penitent: “Your sins are forgiven!” Barclay concludes: “This sentence lays down the duty of the Church to convey forgiveness to the penitent in heart and to warn the impenitent that they are forfeiting the mercy of God.”
For Thomas, the Cross was what he expected. When Jesus had mentioned that they were going to Bethany after the raising of Lazarus, remember what Thomas had said: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). He was not lacking in courage; he probably just considered himself to be a realist (and a pessimist). There was no doubt that he loved Jesus because he was willing to go with him to Jerusalem and die, even when the other disciples expressed their reluctance. What happened was just as he expected and he was broken-hearted, to such an extent that he felt the need to be alone with his grief. So, when Jesus appeared in the Upper Room, Thomas was not there. When he was given the news, he refused to believe it because it seemed to be too good to be true and he needed more, because he probably could not cope with having false hopes dashed yet again.
A week passed and Jesus appeared again – this time – Thomas was there. Jesus knew just what Thomas needed and repeated the words that Thomas had used himself, inviting him to do as he wanted: ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’(verse 27)Thomas was thrilled and exclaimed: ‘My Lord, and my God.’(Verse 28)
Barclay suggests that we can learn the following from the experience of Thomas:
(i)                  He made the mistake of withdrawing from the Christian fellowship and as a result missed meeting with Jesus. There are certain things that we can only experience when we are an integral part of the Christian fellowship. The modern notion of not needing to go to church to be a Christian is a folly. We can only know God’s blessing when we are part of his body here on earth. Barclay comments: “… we should seek the fellowship of Christ’s people for it is there that we are likeliest of all to meet him face to face.”
(ii)                Thomas was a man of virtue: He refused to claim to understand when he did not and this sort of honesty is good. Lord Tennyson wrote: “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” And when he was sure, he went the whole way exclaiming “My Lord and my God.” Thomas doubted in order to be sure. Barclay comments: “… When a man fights his way through his doubts to the conviction that Jesus is Lord, he has attained to a certainty that the man who unthinkingly accepts can never reach.”
I believe the Lord inspired John to include this because Thomas reflects the experiences of so many. Thomas thought he needed physical evidence, but it is plain from John’s account that he did not accept the offer to touch the wounds of Jesus. As Marsh explains: “He had learnt in the mere ‘seeing’ of the glorified Lord that sense and sight were not the sufficient things he supposed. In a strangely paradoxical way he had found through seeing that seeing was not believing.” So often people today think that if Jesus were to become physically present to them, it would be easier for them to believe. This is not so, because the only way that belief is possible is through the work of the Holy Spirit. There were no real advantages for the disciples in seeing Jesus because (as Marsh adds) “… physical seeing can be as seriously questioned as any other experience of sense …” This is why Jesus concludes with the words: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (verse 29b)
Verses 30 and 31 are crucial in our understanding of the Gospel, because they give us insight into the paradigm of the Gospel writers – their philosophy – as it were. It seems very clear that John (and the others) did not set out to provide a detailed account of the life and ministry of Jesus. They are selective, choosing what for them are some of the things that will give us a deep and significant insight into who Jesus was, what he was like and the sort of things Jesus said and did. The Gospels are not meant to be biographies of Jesus, but documents designed to encourage people to faith – or Barclay puts it – ‘… Their aim was, not to give information, but to give life …’ Their bias is clear and honest. Barclay continues:
It was to paint such a picture of Jesus that the reader would be bound to see that the person who could speak and teach and act and heal like this could be none other than the Son of God; and that in that belief he might find the secret of real life.
This means that, if we approach the Gospels, expecting to find biography or history, we ‘… approach them in the wrong spirit …’ Rather we must come to them seeking God. This does not mean that they are worthless as historical or biographical works, because they are filled with important information and increasingly, people are finding them to be works of massive literary importance as well. All this remains true – but they are also much, much more.
There were many other signs which Jesus did, but John had made a selection to help the reader and informs his readers of the basis of his choice. Marsh suggests that it is highly probable that John knew of the existence of the Synoptic Gospels or at least a source used by the synoptic writers – probably a source of his own as well. He wanted to help people – all people – even those who find belief difficult (the Thomas’ of this world) – to be able to come to faith in Jesus. He wants this to happen because it has been his experience (and the experience of others) that to believe means to have life in Jesus name. John has spoken of praying in Jesus’ name. This means much more than just ending a prayer “In Jesus’ name we pray…” it means ‘… offering prayer in Jesus Christ, as if the believer were his Lord, and his prayer the prayer of his Lord.’ So, to have life in Jesus’ name is to share his life, to become identified with him to the extent that Jesus’ eternal life becomes the life of the believer as well.  Life becomes sharing the life of God – as Marsh puts it – ‘… in his eternal felicity and bliss …’
The events as recorded in John’s Gospel all happened. I do not believe that the Gospel writers simply made them up. But they are not meant to be taken exclusively literally. John Suggit writes:
“The signs – words and narratives – used in the scriptures are what constitute poetry, in the widest sense of the term, not of course in the sense that they are untrue, but because they enable believers to receive the word not simply as an opportunity to participate in it, to become creative (poiesis – creation) in giving it meaning for themselves and for others so as to be changed and transformed by it.”

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Easter Day

Matthew 28:1-10 (NRSV)
The Resurrection of Jesus
1After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

I am indebted to Barclay, De Dietrich, Argyle, Meyer, Ryle and Fenton for their thoughts on this passage ...

There is something ‘fitting’ about the way that it is Mary Magdalene and the other Mary who are the first to receive the news of the Resurrection and to encounter the risen Jesus. They had been there at the Cross and they had been there when Jesus he was laid in the tomb. They were constant and faithful and so were richly blessed with the truth that death had been overcome, it is not the end; their Lord was risen! This is such a fine example for all followers of Jesus today; God always rewards the faithful follower who has the gift of persistence, even in the seemingly darkest moments of our lives.

Don’t you love the humanness that the Gospel writers capture? Matthew has no record of the women taking any preparations with them to embalm the body of Jesus, because he includes the detail that the tomb was guarded by Roman soldiers that were under strict instruction to make sure that nothing happened to the body. There would be no way that the women would be allowed in. They probably therefore, still decided to go there and just ‘be’ where Jesus had been laid, just like people today like to go to the burial place of their loved ones – just to be there. It is not impossible that they might have gone with some hope; as Jesus had spoken of the Resurrection (12.40 and 27.63). Imagine how they must have been terrified by the earthquake and the bright light, not least by the appearance of the angel. Unsurprisingly, the guards froze in fear and became like dead men!

But then they are lovingly dealt with, with the words: ‘Don’t be afraid ... I know that you seek Jesus.’ The commentator, De Dietrich captures a wonderful thought in the words: “God turns his face of mercy on those who seek him.”

Jesus has revealed to the world what God is like ... God is love and his Spirit fills us with this love that gives our lives meaning and purpose even in the most difficult of times. We do not always understand. While understanding is important and it is vital that we are seekers after truth, something that we are constantly reminded of as we study the sacred Scriptures, but we also know that we will never understand fully the mythos of Christ. We were reminded of this at Christmas when reflecting on the significance of the magi – the wise people who were present at his birth.  What matters more is that we are seekers, those who in their imperfect yet sincere way, are followers of Jesus – just like the women, who even followed him to the tomb, thinking he was dead.

Jesus himself confirms the message of the angel – ‘‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’ We know that Matthew went to great trouble to show how Jesus was the fulfilment of prophecy and Matthew records in 26.32, that Jesus predicted that he would appear to the disciples in Galilee.

Here too, the different Gospel writers have different versions of what happened. Some people think this is a problem, but historians explain how it is these very differences give credibility to their testimony, because, if they were in complete agreement, one would suspect collusion on the part of some later editor. We also know that all of them are authentic witnesses, as, in a court case, in determining the reliability of any witnesses, while one would here too, expect differences, even contradictions, there must be the same golden thread authenticating the same event. In the Gospel narratives of the Resurrection there is the golden thread:
·         The empty tomb
·         Announcement of the Resurrection to the women first
·         The meeting of the disciples with Jesus.

Barclay suggests that three imperatives come to us:

Firstly, they were urged to believe. What they had experienced was so staggering that it could have seemed too good to be true. The angel reminds them of the promise of Jesus and confronts them with the empty tomb. Still today there are many who cannot accept the promises of Jesus because they are ‘too good to be true’. But it is also interesting that when people actually take the trouble to examine all the evidence, few leave the study unconvinced that something special happened to Jesus, and it is best explained by the Resurrection.

Secondly, they are urged to share. When they had discovered the fact of the risen Christ, their first duty was to proclaim it and share the news with others.  Barclay writes: “Go tell! Is the first command which comes to the man who has himself discovered the wonder of Jesus Christ.”

Thirdly, they are urged to rejoice – the word used when Jesus met them as the Greek word translated here as greetings can also be translated as rejoice. Barclay concludes: “The man who as met the risen Lord must live forever in the joy of the presence of Him from whom nothing can part them anymore.”

I now turn to J C Ryle to aid our reflections ... I am often surprised when I read the work of this 19th Century Calvinist – expecting to disagree – but resolved to continue because I will always read those who are dedicated to our Lord but with whom I think I disagree. He always gives me something to think about and is a real source of blessing.

The Resurrection is at the very foundation of our faith and so it is unsurprising that all four of the evangelists deal with it in detail. There is every reason for the resurrection of Jesus to be central to our faith as it is

‘... the seal and headstone of the great work of redemption, which Jesus came to do; it is the crowning proof that He has paid the debt which he undertook to pay on our behalf ... Had He never come forth from the grave, how could we ever have been sure that our ransom had been fully paid?’

But thanks be to God, we are left in no doubt and so ought to be thankful. It is interesting that, while there is space for some discussion about other aspects of our Lord’s earthly ministry, there seems to be no debate here. Ryle writes: “The wisdom of God, who knows the unbelief of human nature, has provided a great cloud of witnesses on the subject.”

The early disciples – yet – were slow to believe, the enemies of Christ were keen to disprove it but it was firmly established. All these things go together to provide us with convincing proof. Ryle continues: ‘... it would be impossible to prove anything in the world, if we refuse to believe that Jesus rose again.’

Ryle is on to something important here. The historical evidence for Jesus (and the Resurrection) is so good that to deny it would bring into question all historical evidence. A case in point: there is much difference of opinion about just about everything to do with the assassination of JF Kennedy, when there were millions of witnesses and the best detective agencies in the world all involved. Yet no one denies that it happened and the golden thread also runs through all accounts.

We can rejoice this Eastertide – Jesus did rise from the dead, and he does bless all those who seek him, in the ways we find we are able to do so, and he meets us where we are and he blesses us with his peace and his love.