In both the stories we have read from the Bible this morning, there is a real sense of excitement. And today, for us, that is good. Because there is a real sense of excitement in our service. What we’re doing today is very special. A baptism is always special, but I think this one is especially so, because, as a congregation, we have a long connection with this family and have been with them in dark times and in times of joy, of which this is one.
From Luke’s Gospel, we read about two disciples, one called Cleopas, the other very possibly his wife, Mary. They were on their way home, saddened and confused by the death of their friend Jesus. They’d heard, from some of their friends, some story about Jesus possibly being alive, but they didn’t really know what to make of it.
But greatly to their surprise, over dinner at their home, they realised that the stranger with whom they had been walking and taking, whom they had invited in for supper, was Jesus. In great excitement, they hurried back to Jerusalem, saying, “It’s true, Jesus is risen!”
One of the people to whom they told this was Peter, one of the most senior of the disciples, though probably he was still quite a young man. Within a few weeks, he had taken on the leadership of this little group which believed what Cleopas and his wife and others had witnessed and were saying – that Jesus was risen.
On the day of Pentecost, Peter became the chief spokesperson and found himself speaking to many people about Jesus. It is a big transformation for Peter. So often in the gospels, he’s confused by what Jesus was saying. So often he declares himself bold and courageous, only to beat a hasty retreat when things got tough.
Not now. He has good news and he is going to share it. And he has a big audience. He has them in the palm of his hand. He’s speaking so compellingly and with such conviction and authenticity. And the people he’s addressing see that he is someone just like them. He’s an Israelite, speaking to an audience of Israelites.
I’m emphasising that because, where we have joined in listening to his speech or sermon this morning, we’ve got to the point where he makes a startling accusation. He tells his listeners that they are the ones who crucified this Jesus about whom he is speaking. But because he is one of them, the accusation is as much against himself as it is against anyone else. And rightly so. He’s remembering how he failed to stand by Jesus when he was on trial, how he denied even knowing him. He’s profoundly ashamed of what he did, not many weeks ago.
The people listening are deeply affected by what they hear. Rather than being offended by the accusation, they accept its truth and ask, “What should we do?” To them, this is all entirely new. But Peter has had time to think – not much time, but enough. He has an answer.
Repent, and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
With these words, Peter describes what the church, in services like this, has done ever since. Jesus commanded it – now Peter is enacting it. This is the beginning of baptism as we know it.
People responded in huge numbers that day, and people are still responding to these words, seeking baptism for themselves and for their children. These words contain the seeds of all we have come to understand baptism as meaning.
Baptism is a call to a new life of following Jesus. Passing through the waters of baptism portrays death to the old ways and birth into new life in Christ.
Baptism marks all who are baptised as belonging to Christ, and belonging to the church, the body of Christ.
Baptism sets us on the way to lifelong participation in Christ’s mission of reconciliation and justice, transforming our lives and, though our transformed lives, transforming the lives of others.
Alongside being a call, which can be heard at any point in life, including in the early months of childhood, baptism is also a promise.
Baptism is the sign of the promise of forgiveness.
Baptism is the sign of the promise that God will always love us. Baptism is not a precondition for the fulfilment of these promises, but a sign, a recognition that they have already been made to us by God and that nothing we have done or nothing we will do will ever change that.
Finally, baptism is the sign of God’s promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit, that spark of the divine, that little bit of God which is in each one of us.
It is all these things that we celebrate today. It is all these things which give cause for excitement. We celebrate the promises of God in the life of Miles Cawkwell, remembering with gladness that the same promises have been made to us all. And we look forward, with joy and hope, to the life that is before Miles, knowing that because God is in him and with him, he will be able to fulfil the call of God to live his life for him.
There was only one person who knew the whole story. Only one person who was there at the beginning and at the end too.
Matthew leaves open a tantalising possibility. Could the “other Mary”, who went to the tomb with Mary Magdalene, have been Mary the Mother of Jesus? The woman who had been the first to wash and dress Jesus, preparing to do this thing for the last time.
Mark and Luke tell us that it wasn’t, that it was Mary, the mother of James. But John tells us that Mary, the mother of Jesus was a witness to her son’s death, that she was with him on Golgotha, that he spoke to her from the cross, making arrangements for her care. Christian tradition holds that she cradled his body when it was brought down from the cross. Some of the most moving Christian art depicts this scene, the Pietà.
On Friday evening, we listened to the imagined voices of women, witnesses to the last days of Jesus’ life. We noted that the stories of the faith we have were written by men, and most prominently featured men, often doing things men do, seeking power, striving for advantage, resorting to violence. But occasionally, these masculine narratives are interrupted by women, often subtly challenging the way men do things.
The faith, as we have received it, has been profoundly shaped, and sometimes misshaped, by men. But perhaps, on a deeper level, it has been formed by women, and by one woman in particular, Mary the mother of Jesus. We have to retune our eyes and our ears to see and hear how deeply she is the mother of our faith. For she was there at the beginning. As a young woman, it was she who had been approached by an angel, telling her that she had found favour with God, that the Lord was with her.
She was the first to hear that God was about to inaugurate the never ending reign of his son on earth. It was she who, after the initial shock, had rejoiced that God was about to do new things in the world, lifting up the humble, filling the hungry with good things, extending his mercy to all the descendants of Abraham. It was she who heard from the shepherds that her son was born to bring peace to all humanity, with whom God was well pleased. Luke tells us she remembered these things and thought about them often, long, long after.
Is she the source of these early stories of Jesus? No one else is more likely to be.
Why does this matter? Why talk about annunciation and Christmas on Easter morning? Because you can’t properly understand the end of the story without understanding the beginning. And if you hold the beginning together with the end, and the middle, as one story, it leads to quite a different understanding of Easter from one which is, perhaps all too often, offered.
It has become standard to say certain things about the events of Good Friday and Easter and to offer particular interpretations in a way that implies they are beyond question. Such as that the purpose of Jesus life was to die. Such as that there was no other way to save sinful humanity. Such as that the cross is the culmination of the gospel. Many people sincerely believe these things, and these beliefs nourish their faith, but they are not the only way to understand the gospel. Others find them profoundly off-putting, a barrier to faith; because they start from the premise that God is angry with humanity and needed a sacrifice to mitigate his wrath.
But is this true? Is God’s predominant feeling towards us a deep and burning anger?
Long, long before Jesus was born, there is a story about God being angry and, at the end of it, God is profoundly sorry for his anger and, with the sign of the rainbow, promises never to be angry to the point of destructiveness again.
And, as we have just seen, the Christian story does not begin with anger. Quite the opposite. The angels say nothing about God being angry, but tell the shepherds, as Gabriel told Mary, not to be afraid. They spoke of good news, of great joy, of rejoicing in God, of peace on earth, of God’s great pleasure in humanity. It seems that God sent Jesus, that God gave us Jesus, not because he was angry with humanity, but because he was pleased. His coming in human form is a gift motivated by the most profound love possible.
It doesn’t stop there. There are all sorts of other good objections to the idea that the purpose of Jesus’ life was to die. The Old Testament tells us that God utterly detests human sacrifice. If the point of Jesus was his death, what value should we place on his teaching? Why did he do so much and say so much that was life enhancing if death was all he was for? And what did Jesus himself say about the purpose of his life? He said, “I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.”
It is time, in the brightness of Easter morning, when Jesus rose and faith was born, to affirm that Jesus came, not to die, but to show us how to live.
And he showed us how to live by showing us God. He showed us that God wants us to live lovingly because that is how God lives. He showed us that God wants us to act justly because that is how God acts, and there can be no justice in killing your own entirely innocent son. He showed us that the ways of God are truth and beauty, kindness and compassion, gentleness and meekness. He showed us that God is love, not anger.
Jesus calls us to live godly lives, lives in imitation of God. Never once does he tell us to do something but that God will do the exact opposite. He showed us that we are not to repay evil with evil, not to retaliate when we are sinned against, to be kind to the ungrateful and wicked. He shows us that God can stand with sinners and say, “Neither so I condemn you,” because that is what Jesus actually did. He shows us that God can forgive even those who try to destroy him, because that’s what Jesus did, praying forgiveness for those who nailed him to the cross.
Yet the fact is that Jesus died. He died because too many people, jealous of and fearful for their own power, opposed him. He died too because death, like birth, is an inescapable part of being human. Jesus’ birth and death equally show God’s commitment to entering completely into humanity.
But death could not have the last word. Resurrection had to follow so that humanity could enter into divinity.
Early that first Easter morning, two women, two Marys, approached the tomb. Twice over, they hear the words that Mary, the mother of Jesus, heard, back when it all began. Do not be afraid.
They were filled with joy as, in the emptiness of the tomb, they began to glimpse the very truth of Jesus, the reason he came to us.
They saw that love is stronger than death. They saw that life was triumphant and death was vanquished. This morning of resurrection, they were the first witnesses to the ultimate truth of God, that God is the God of life, that God will always overcome death with life, that God will always overcome evil with good, that God will always overcome hatred with love, that God will always overcome violence with peace. The resurrection of Jesus confirms the truth first demonstrated by his birth, that the Christian story is a story of love, not anger.
The killing of Jesus was the most hateful act humanity could commit against God. The raising of Jesus was the most loving act God could perform towards humanity, the ultimate non-retaliation towards being sinned against, for it says to us, even if we do our absolute worst, God will still love us, God will never abandon us, God will always come back to us and for us.
I have already wasted too much of my life looking for things which haven’t actually been lost. As I get older, it only going to get worse. A typical scenario would go like this. It is Sunday morning, and I am about to leave for church. I can’t find my keys. I run around the house looking high and low. Often, Alison will say something helpful like – “You’ve got the biggest bunch of keys I’ve ever seen. I don’t know how you keep losing them.” There is some truth in that. Eventually, I’ll find them, often sitting openly in plain sight. But in my anxiety at being late, I haven’t been able to see what’s right in front of my eyes.
Today, we have read a story about people who couldn’t see what was in front of their eyes. As we’ve been reading stories from John’s Gospel over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been stressing the relational aspects of them. I’ll admit that that’s a bit harder to see in this story. This is not so clearly a story about relationship. But there are many different relationships in it, and they are complicated relationships, and that imparts a level of reality, a level of authenticity to this story. There are no easy relationships here. This is a story about real life.
The central character is a man born blind. In a very literal sense, he cannot see what’s in front of him. A bit like in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, which we looked at last week, this is an apparently chance encounter, though I think it is most likely that there was intention on Jesus part. The man is not expecting anything. He knows nothing of Jesus. He asks for nothing. Jesus could have passed by as so many others must have done.
But he didn’t. He stopped. But he doesn’t approach the man directly. Rather, he stops because his disciples ask him a question. A question about sin. Who sinned? This man or his parents? Jesus seizes the opportunity to teach. Physical impairment is not caused by sin, he tells them. God loves rather than punishes. God suffers along with those he loves, rather than meting out suffering. It was a radical message for the disciples. And it is a message that we still need to hear, because the assumption of a link between sin and suffering still lingers. We still sometimes think that suffering must have been deserved. But that’s not what Jesus teaches.
After this conversation, Jesus, embodying the love of God, responds to the humanity of the blind man. He reaches out to help. It is the beginning of a profound change for the man. First, he gains his sight. That, you might think, was enough. I think we often, rather naively, assume that when Jesus healed people, everything was sorted out, that everyone rejoiced and said how marvellous it all was. But this story tells a different tale, a much more nuanced, complicated tale, and, in doing so, it tells us quite a bit about how difficult it can be if, or when, Jesus makes a difference in our lives. And it challenges us to ask if that’s why we resist changes, and often keep Jesus at arm’s length.
The first thing that happens is that the man’s neighbours don’t recognise him. Is this the blind man, or just someone who looks like him? It is as if he had been reduced to just one recognisable characteristic – his lack of eyesight. They only know him for one thing. Without that, they didn’t know him. I think that must lead us to ask if we also think so reductively about others. I suspect we do, and know people only for one thing. God, though, knows the fullness of our characters, and calls us to do likewise.
The now formerly blind man may have begun to wonder if blindness had been easier than trying to explain his changed circumstances, his gaining of sight. As we read on in the story, we see he was having a hard time trying to justify himself. He hadn’t asked for this. How could he have known how it had happened? He didn’t even know anything about the person who had done it. He certainly wasn’t asking for trouble. But that’s what he got.
Some Pharisees objected that this had happened on the Sabbath, the day when no work was to be done. Whoever did it must have been wicked, they reasoned. But that didn’t seem right to the newly seeing man. Hadn’t he just experienced something really good? Hadn’t he just received an extraordinary gift? He wasn’t going to go along with the views of the Pharisees who wanted to condemn an infraction of the rules and overlook a great good that had been done. He reasons – this man must be a prophet, a good man – and he bravely tells the Pharisees so. It is the beginning of understanding.
But the Pharisees are having none of that. They try to discredit the man. They drag his parents in
and try to make out that the claim to have received sight was fraudulent. The man’s parents manage to stand up to the Pharisees, up to a point. They are scared of these people in authority. They are scared that if they go against them too much, they will be put out of the synagogue, effectively cast out of their community. It is a powerful threat. It can be really hard to go against religious orthodoxy, whatever that orthodoxy is, even when it is wrong. That’s where cults get their power. Even in normal churches, you can find people who use their own version of right belief to bully and exert power over others.
Though they are not getting terribly far, the Pharisees try again to get the formerly blind man to recant, to disown whoever healed him. They pile more pressure on him. But it has the opposite effect. The more pressure they put on him, the more the man argues back. He argues that Jesus must be from God, because what Jesus did was unambiguously good. Then he goes further. He declares himself to be a disciple of Jesus.
He does this because he has been reasoning, working out in his own mind who Jesus must be and what his actions must mean. He’s on the same journey as Nicodemus. He has seen that Jesus is good. I am standing on the side of good, he tells the Pharisees, no matter how difficult you find that to fit in to your theology and rules.
Sensing that they are losing the argument, the Pharisees resort to temper and drive him out. The truth is too uncomfortable. It is only then that Jesus comes back into the story. The formerly blind man makes his third confession of belief. He has gone from thinking of Jesus as a prophet to describing himself as a disciple, to now declaring his belief that Jesus is Lord. It is at this point that he sees fully what is before his eyes. Sight, both physical and spiritual, has been received.
But not by all. Some eavesdropping Pharisees objected to the implication that they, in some senses, could not see. They couldn’t accept that they were, in fact, unable to see that was in front of their eyes. Because what was in front of their eyes was a big challenge, a challenge to the old ways of thinking, a challenge to their tradition, a challenge to their authority, a challenge to their privileged position in society. They couldn’t deal with challenge of change, of accepting a new and deeper truth. Accepting change in the light of new understanding is a challenge to us all, perhaps particularly in the church. We’d often rather stick with what we think we know, even if what we know is no longer relevant, no longer adequate to the times we now live in.
So the Pharisees, in a sense, could not bear to see what was in front of their eyes. And neither could the man’s parents. They couldn’t see what was in front of their eyes because they were afraid, afraid to accept something different. They were under pressure, pressure to conform, not to do anything that would disturb the established order. It is only the blind man, the man who is given his sight, who sees, not only with his eyes but with his mind, his understanding, who does what we are all required to do, to work out for himself who Jesus really is. It is the blind man who teaches us to see.
How do you know if a relationship is a good one or a bad one? Easy, you might say. If it is loving, it is good. If it is abusive, it is bad. If it is trusting, it is good. If it is controlling, it is bad. If it is supportive, it is good. If it is violent, it is bad.
But stop for a moment. How many decent, kind, sensible people do you know who are in, or have been in, a bad relationship? Maybe you’ve experienced it yourself. Even good, sensible people get it wrong, sometimes many times. It is not that they are stupid, or self-destructive, or hopelessly naïve. It is just that it is often really difficult to know if a relationship will be a good one, or a bad one.
We’re exploring some relationships in John’s Gospel at the moment. We started last week with Nicodemus. He’d observed Jesus and was intrigued. He wanted to come closer, to know more. Jesus accepted him, challenged him, and said things to him which have been treasured by followers of Christ ever since. He told him: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Today, we’re moving on to a different encounter. Jesus is no longer in Jerusalem where he had met Nicodemus. Things had got a bit hot there. He’s been back in Galilee for a bit. But he’s heading back to Judea. The Gospel tells us that he had to go through Samaria. If, like me, your Palestinian geography is a bit hazy, you probably hear that in the same way as you’d hear the sentence: He had to go through Bonnyrigg to get to Rosewell. But actually, Samaria was not necessarily on the way. Jews routinely travelled between Galilee and Judea on a route which avoided going through Samaria. Jesus had to go through Samaria because he had something to do there. He had someone to meet; someone who knew more than her fair share about bad relationships.
It was Nicodemus who sought out Jesus. Now it is Jesus who is seeking out a particular woman. Where did he go? Not to her house. Not to the market where she bought her groceries. He goes to meet her at the well where she draws water.
Wells were great places for young men to meet girls. Traditionally it was the younger women who had the job of carrying water back to the home. In the Old Testament, there are several stories of men and women meeting at wells. Abraham’s servant met Rebekah at a well and brought her back to Abraham’s household where she became the wife of Isaac, Sarah and Abraham’s son. Moses met his future wife, Zipporah, at a well. In both these stories, the man was in a foreign land, just as Jesus was in Samaria. And there’s another story which conforms to the pattern of these boy-meets-girl-at-a-well stories: a meeting which took place at the very well where Jesus was sitting.
This well isn’t just any well. It is a very special well. For it was at this well that Jacob met Rachel, the woman so gorgeous that he was prepared to work seven years for her father Laban to gain her hand, the woman he so adored that he was prepared to work seven more years after being tricked by Laban into marrying her older sister first. This very well is the setting for one of the greatest romances in the Bible. And here’s Jesus, a young, foreign man, sitting by it, waiting for a young woman. A woman he was there to meet. It’s exciting stuff.
The woman arrives. Unlike Nicodemus, she’s not looking for Jesus. She’s surprised that he talks to her. But when she talks to her, she talks back. A bit like with Nicodemus, their conversation is beset by misunderstandings. Her focus is on the mundane, the everyday, the normal. His focus is on the spiritual, the eternal, the things of salvation. But remember, Jesus sought her out to tell her these things, to include her in his work of salvation. He sought her out, knowing, as he did, all about her.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the setting and its history, and that these are two young people in conversation, the talk turns to relationships, the woman’s relationships.
How do you respond to the facts about her relationships – her five husbands and the man she’s now living with – which Jesus mentions? How you respond might depend on your age, your expectations, your particular sense of morality, or on other sermons you’ve heard. The traditional response to her – informed by the kind of Victorian, patriarchal norms most of us have probably inherited and which some accept and others now reject – is disgust. This response says she must have been a loose woman, a woman of low morals. And many interpreters have spoken of how Jesus forgives her. But that’s all wrong. There’s no word of forgiveness in the text. There’s no need.
The most likely reason for her five failed marriages is that she had been abandoned. And the most likely reason for that is that she and her husbands had been unable to have children. It was perfectly normal then for men to divorce their wives, to abandon them, if they did not bear children. All these men would have blamed the woman. No man then would have thought infertility was anything to do with him. Can you imagine what she’s suffered? This woman is a victim, not a sinner. She has no need of forgiveness, and she certainly deserves no condemnation.
The disciples return. Unlike us, they’d have known the history of this place and seen its significance right away. They knew wells were the dance halls, the nightclubs or dating apps of their day.
Is it just their – let’s name it – anti-Samaritan racism, or their culturally conditions sexism that prevents them asking why Jesus is talking to her? Or are they suddenly afraid that he’s going to leave them and go off with this clearly articulate, confident, quite possibly attractive young woman? As it is, he doesn’t.
While I may have been overplaying the sizzling, sexual tension in this story, it is none-the-less, a story absolutely about relationship with Christ. I’m not talking about the unhealthy ‘Jesus-is-my-boyfriend’ kind of spirituality. In its misguided exclusivity, it distorts what relationship with Christ is truly about. ‘Relationship with Christ’ is a phrase I’m aware I use a lot, without defining it. So what is relationship with Christ? I believe we see it in this story.
Jesus told Nicodemus that God so loved the world that he sent his one and only son, not to condemn the world, but to save it. If you want to see the world which God loves, look in this story. Jesus seeks out a woman and offers her a relationship unlike any she’s known before. He offers a relationship of respect, of trust, of support, of esteem; a relationship without judgement, without condemnation, without the wielding of unequal power; a relationship of solidarity in the face of the disapproval of others; a relationship based on justice; a relationship based on genuine love.
What did she do to deserve it? Nothing. What did she do that would mean she didn’t deserve it? Nothing. She, like all people, no matter who we are, where we come from, what we do or what we’ve done, are loved by God. We are in relationship with Christ when we love, as best we can, the way God loves. At Jacob’s well, we see God’s love in action, a love without boundaries, a love unconstrained by conventions, a love unburdened by conditions.
It is a lovely girl-meets-boy story, but with a wonderful twist. It is also a world-meets-God story, which offers not a happy-ever-after ending, but something much, much deeper. It shows us the love which assures our salvation and embraces us in eternal life.
You and I share about 90% of our DNA with fungi. That means that, genetically, we are 90% identical to mushrooms. Genetically, we’re 99% identical to chimpanzees. But no one, not even the most cynical and unkind, could walk in here and mistake us for a mushroom farm, or the ape enclosure at the zoo. Tiny genetic differences make a very big difference indeed. Little things cause big changes.
One of the things that marks us out from all other creatures is story. So far as we know, we are the only creatures who tell stories. Others communicate how to hunt or where to gather food, but no others tell stories. It has been said that culture is the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Story is how we understand who we are and what we are about.
Anyone walking in here should recognise that we are a story telling community, and that our stories are powerful, powerful enough to define who we are, powerful enough to shape how we live. We have many stories: family stories, fictional stories, religious stories, exciting stories, fantasy stories, true stories. Stories pick out what is important in a situation. They help us to understand and make sense. They help us to teach and learn and develop. Stories affect us. Stories make us.
I think that often the stories which affect us most are the stories about relationships. We are relational creatures. Very few thrive alone. We form pairs, and families, friendship circles and communities. No one can pretend that these are ever straightforward. But all sorts of stories help us navigate them, help us understand how we fit with others, help keep us together.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll have the opportunity in church to explore several of the great stories about Jesus which John the Evangelist tells. They’re all stories about relationships, principally about how certain people related to Jesus and he to them, but they each describe or allude to a web of other relationships too. We’ll read about Martha and Mary and Lazarus. But before we get there, there’s a story of a blind man who receives his sight. There’s the Samaritan woman at the well.
And there’s Nicodemus, and the story of the beginning of his relationship with Jesus. Most of the people we will encounter are ordinary folk. The blind man and the Samaritan woman, neither of whom are named, lived with significant disadvantage. In these stories, only Nicodemus is a person of power, a person of importance within his community. This maybe accounts for him coming by night, in secret, unobserved, but it does not explain what he asks and what he learns.
The first thing we learn about Nicodemus from Nicodemus is that he is open-minded. Unlike many in authority, he doesn’t see difference as a threat. He’s more threatened by the conservatism of his colleagues on the Sanhedrin, his fellow Pharisees. He’s open-minded enough to see something significant in what Jesus is doing, to approach him to try to find out more.
It is the beginning of a relationship. But it is not an easy relationship. In fact, as it will be for the Samaritan woman, and for Mary and Martha and Lazarus, it will be a challenging relationship. Jesus expects Nicodemus to think, and, through thinking, to change
So he says this apparently bizarre thing. He says, No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.
The Greek word which John uses can be translated in two ways. It can either be ‘born again’ or it can be ‘born from above’. To me ‘born from above’ makes more sense. It also moves us away from the unhelpful baggage associated with ‘born again’, which has come to be a way of dividing Christians into true believers or nut cases, depending on which side you’re standing on.
Nicodemus is one of those who has come to see that Jesus is of God by what he has been doing. But that doesn’t go far enough. Jesus tells him that he can only fully understand the Kingdom of God, which Jesus embodies, if the Spirit of God gives that understanding, if, through God above, new understanding is brought to birth. Without that, the real meaning of Jesus cannot be seen. He would just be some kind of wonder worker. Only when one is ‘born from above’ can one see that he is the Son of God.
This difficult conversation is the start of a relationship. It starts small, but it is going to grow into something really significant for Nicodemus. He appears twice more in the Gospel of John. In Chapter seven, Nicodemus is heard arguing with his fellow Pharisees that Jesus should be given a fair hearing. And then, after the crucifixion, Nicodemus was one of the two, along with Joseph of Arimathea, who brought spices to the tomb and buried Jesus. These little moments hint at a bigger story, a story leading from enquiry to faith, from conversation to participation, from observation to service. They hint at a growing, deepening relationship, one that took a long time to grow. They hint at a life changed.
And that’s what relationship with Jesus is about. It is about lives being changed. It can happen to the respectable like Martha and Mary and Lazarus. It can happen to establishment figures like Nicodemus. It can happen to the disreputable like the five-times-married Samaritan woman. It can happen to the outcast, like the blind beggar. It can happen to us.
Of all these stories, that of Nicodemus is probably closest to our experience. It tells us about the importance of observation. He saw something in what Jesus did which made him want to know more. Our service of Christ, we noted last week, should never be motivated by a desire to be noticed, but we must be open to the possibility that our actions, probably even more than our words, will cause people to wonder why we care, why we give, why we stand up for justice, why we choose selflessness, why we love our enemies, why we turn the other cheek.
The beginning of Nicodemus’ story ends by Jesus telling him that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world. Jesus did not condemn Nicodemus for his slowness to understand. He offers no condemnation to the Samaritan woman, nor to the blind beggar. He does not condemn Martha or Mary for their lack of faith, even though Martha berates him. In Jesus there is no condemnation.
Lastly, Nicodemus’ story has much to teach us about patience. He only came out as a follower of Jesus right at the end of the Gospel. Not for him a sudden conversion. But it was at night, years earlier, that a seed was sown. A seed which took a long time to grow.
Many of us, as we look around, probably feel that the church we know and love is in its winter. It has blossomed and flourished, but now it is withering and perishing. But there are many things we do not know. We do not know what seeds of faith have been planted. Nor do we know where they might grow. All we can do is trust in God, that, in time, new faith will grow, new lives will be touched, new forms of service will emerge, new relationships with Christ will develop. It may even be our own relationship which will be renewed.
Nicodemus is just one of many whose story tells us that God can touch any life and reveal his kingdom anew to anyone.
Thanks be to God.
In the middle of last week, we entered the Season of Lent.
What are your associations with Lent? Is it a time for giving up chocolate, or alcohol, of meat, a time for spiritual self-discipline, for doing something which is good for the soul? Or maybe you feel that it is not really for the likes of us Presbyterians, that it is a tradition imported from elsewhere. But maybe you have a sense that this is a solemn season, a serious time of year. And if you do, you are probably not expecting to hear anything remotely comic in church.
To be honest, ‘remotely comic’ is the best I can offer. The Bible is rarely laugh-out-loud, hold-your-sides funny.
Here’s a little picture Jesus paints.
A wealthy person approaches a beggar. Quickly, he summons his personal trumpeter. Fanfare please. Everybody looks round. Here, beggar, the wealthy person says. I am bestowing upon you a tiny fraction of my immense wealth. How good I am being to you. See, all these people are impressed by my great generosity. Round of applause, please.
Maybe the disciples sniggered a bit. But comedy works best when it shows us something we recognise, but just a bit exaggerated.
Of course, no one really demands a fanfare when they give. But many do look for recognition. The disciples would have seen that. We’ve seen that too. There are many plaques to prove it.
Jesus then turns to another matter. He starts to talk about praying.
You’ve all seen them, he says, the people who make a great show of their prayers, who use many, many words, whose prayers are a great performance, who go on and on and on.
We’ve seen them too, the people who adopt prayerful poses, who blether on and on, using words that mean very little, who make a great show of their piety. It often feels like those who don’t are being judged as less holy, less spiritual, less likely to be listened to by God.
Not so, says Jesus. And to make the point, he teaches them how to pray. And we say that prayer every week.
Then he turns to another subject. He’s still talking about the expression of faith. He talks about fasting, caricaturing people who make a great show, who tear their clothes, who make themselves look utterly haggard. Fasting is not really part of our tradition, but it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see similar things going on. The people who look worn out doing good works. The people who let you know they are taking on great burdens for the church. It is a temptation all too easy for ministers, in particular, to fall into.
A couple of weeks ago, we thought about what holiness is. We heard how Jesus taught that it was really about how we live our everyday lives, about being generous, non-judgemental, going the second mile, loving our enemies. Here is more teaching on holiness, and this time it is a warning. Holiness is not ostentatious. Holiness is not being showy. Holiness is not being loud. Holiness has no room for pride. Holiness is quiet. It is anonymous. It is discreet. It is never about attracting attention, but it is always about doing God’s work, for God’s sake. If you are holy, and God calls us to be holy, wants us to be holy, expects us to be holy, we shouldn’t be trying to get people to look at us. Our practice of faith, our service in the world, should point only towards God.
Within the church, that’s a really obvious, uncontroversial thing to say. It is something we all know, thanks to Jesus. But it is also actually a really difficult message. We live in a society in which everyone and everything is vying for attention, all the time. We are surrounded by advertising, shouting buy me, buy me! Go and look round your house and see just how much you have which has been designed, not only for function, but to be attractive, to make you want it. And we know that many people in work are under increasing pressure to stand out, in order to gain promotion, or to attract new business, or even just to keep their job by proving over and over that they are valuable to their employer. This is what happens when competition infects every aspect of life. Everyone and everything is seeking attention.
And the church is no different. As members of the Kirk Session know, increasingly congregations are being pitted against one another in competition for ministers, which, we are told, are an increasingly scarce resource. Look at the Church of Scotland’s digital and print publications, from Life and Work to Facebook and Twitter, and you see that the tone is relentlessly self-congratulatory – look at us, how good we are, what valuable work we’re doing, how relevant we are to today’s society we are, despite what anyone else says. There is a fine, and frequently crossed line between good news and boastfulness.
So, while at first we might snigger with the disciples at the trumpets of the hypocrites, we very quickly see that we’re little different. We reason – why put in all this effort if no one notices?
That’s what Jesus warns against.
He says, be generous, but for the sake of the person you give to, not your own; pray faithfully, but keep it brief. Do not imagine that God pays more attention to longer, louder prayers; align your life to the will of God, just don’t make a great show about it. To lead faithful and faith-filled lives, we do no need public recognition. God will see, and that is enough.
But this still leaves us with a dilemma. A little later on, Jesus says this: What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the rooftops. We might think there’s a contradiction between these two teachings. How can we be both modest to the point of invisibility and be effective witnesses to Christ? Surely that requires that we seek attention.
The answer is by no means clear. It is a fine line that Jesus asks us to walk. We won’t always get it right, and we’ll probably often be accused, often unfairly, of getting it wrong. But true faith is never about self-promotion. Real holiness is never about gaining personal credit. It is always and only about the glory of God.
Let me offer this thought: we must not be seduced by the lure of success. If, in our life of faith we focus on success, we inevitably apply measures which do not come from the Gospels. Jesus was not interested in success. He didn’t count conversions. He didn’t tally up healings to show how effective he was. He was often more interested in being with the people society ignored than he was in influencing the influential. He completed his ministry, not to universal acclaim, but on a cross and in a tomb.
If success is our aim, we are working for something other than what Jesus worked for. We would be working, if we are honest, for ourselves. And we know that that’s not right. We work for Christ.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus said, “Tell no one of the vision until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
How could they not tell of what they had seen? They had witnessed something far beyond the events of normal, everyday life. They had seen something that couldn’t be explained, at least not then. They had seen Moses and Elijah, and Jesus changed, and in that moment were changed themselves, just a little. How could they not tell?
Yet this was good advice from Jesus. They needed time, time to digest what they had experienced. And they needed time, time for subsequent events to happen, time for this experience to be put in context, before it would begin to reveal its meaning.
It is a difficult story for us to get a handle on. It seems so outwith our normal experience. But there are elements which are grounded in what we know. We know about companionship, about communal experience. We know that something experienced together can be so much more powerful than something witnessed alone. And we know that high places can give us a different vantage point, a different perspective on the world from normal.
I’ve never experienced this myself, but I have long wanted to, to climb a mountain through cloud and emerge near the top into sunshine, and look around and see the peaks of other hills floating, as it were in a sea of snow-white cloud. Rather too often, I have experienced the opposite, leaving clear weather in the valley only to climb into fog which obscures all from sight.
It is this sense of clear air and distant views at height, separating off the mountain tops from the valleys and transforming a familiar landscape into something which looks quite different that I long to see. It is that change in perception, seeing something which in that moment is not fully imaginable from the ground that so intrigues me.
That's what the transfiguration of Jesus is about – a glimpse of something that the disciples could not have imagined from the vantage point of their everyday lives.
It was a moment out of time. They had been following Jesus for a while. Some of them, had they been asked, might not have been able to explain why. It seems so unlikely that they would follow just because he said, “Follow me,” or that a man should have left everything behind just because his brother was doing so. There was so little evidence, just a feeling, something, perhaps, like an inner light, drawing people to him. And the years of following had not been straightforward either. There was hardship. There was opposition. There was the difficult process of unlearning all the old expectations of who the Messiah would be and what he would do. There were the spectacular things and the surprising things, but there was no triumph; rather the dark brooding clouds of Jesus’ impending death were gathering. So the disciples, often, were quite uncertain, quite unsure.
But now, three of them were given a vision, a reassurance, but even this was confusing. Even this would take time to understand.
They saw Jesus as they had never seen him. A man they knew so well, now they saw him as unearthly, a confirmation perhaps of Peter’s brave confession – you are the Christ, the son of the living God. And next to him, they saw the two greatest figures of the Old Testament, the only Scripture they knew: Moses, to whom God had given the Law, and into whose care he had entrusted the children of Israel in their escape from Egypt and under whose guidance they had come to understand more fully the nature of their calling as God’s chosen people; and Elijah, the greatest of the prophets. The sight of them confirmed Jesus’ words that he was the fulfilment of the Law and the prophets, that he was the one for whom the children of Israel had been prepared, down through the ages.
With hindsight, with reflection, we can see and understand that, but in that moment, with the light from Jesus’ face and clothes streaming into his eyes, Peter was confused. To be fair on him, he had been on a steep learning curve. When, six days earlier, Jesus had asked, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter had answered, confessing Jesus as the Christ and the son of the living God, Jesus had blessed him and told him that he was going to build the whole community of believers on him, a simple human being. At that moment, Peter can have had little idea of how daunting a task that would be. But Jesus tried to tell him right away what difficulties lay immediately ahead. Though when Jesus spoke of his own imminent death, Peter argued with him, declaring he would never let it happen. He still saw death in terms of defeat and the Messiah as a hero who would conquer. Jesus let rip with some of his harshest words – “Get behind me, Satan!”
On the mountain, Peter struggles for a response. “Let us build some shelters here for you, he offers. His response is both bizarre and mundane. His human instinct is to make some tangible, physical memorial to this experience, to respond, as so many have done since, to an experience of God’s presence, by building a shrine or a church.
But something physical was not in God’s plan, nor Jesus’. A voice, the voice of God, speaks to Peter, James and John, telling them to listen to his beloved Son. Devotion is not to be expressed in building but in hearing and speaking. And, raising them from where they had fallen in terror, Jesus showed them where he wanted his church to be – not in buildings, but in people on the move, walking with him.
It is this walk back down the mountain that provides the connection between the vision and the everyday, between the heavenly and the earthly. Even when a valley is shrouded in cloud and you cannot see the foot of the mountain on which you stand, still you know them to be connected. So it is with this story. The mountain top experience stayed with the disciples as they made their way down, as they lived through the terror of Christ’s passion and death, as they found hope and life reborn in his resurrection and through the gift of his Spirit. It helped them make sense of all these events and it helped them connect their everyday lives with their new calling to lead Christ’s Church and spread his gospel.
And it serves to remind us that all things, the earthly and the heavenly, are connected. It is a story of God sometimes visible but always present. It is a story of revelation sometimes coming unexpectedly but always for a purpose. It is a story of the religious experiences of life connecting with the everyday, making sense and giving strength.
Many people want to lose weight. I want to lose weight. But: I want to drink wine. I want to eat cakes. I want to have sugar in my tea. I want to believe that spending summer days off and holidays climbing Munros will make a difference to my waist and the fish and chips in Tyndrum on the way home won’t.
A friend recently told me he’d lost more than three stone. How did you do it? I asked. It’s really very simple, he said. Portion control.
It’s really very simple.
That reminds me of Naaman, the army commander in the Old Testament, being told to wash seven times in the Jordan to cure his leprosy. He was angry at being asked to do something so simple. When something is difficult – and losing weight is difficult – like Naaman, we want there to be something heroic about what we have to do.
Millions of people have devised and followed elaborate diets and demanding exercise regimes to tackle weight loss – all to avoid the simple truth. Eating less is the only thing that works.
Listen to Jesus. He said these things: Turn the other cheek. Go the second mile. Pray for your persecutors. Love your enemies. Be perfect, just like God. If you think losing weight is difficult, wait till you start trying to do these. It is no wonder that Christians have devised elaborate explanations to try to avoid these commands. You may have heard some of them, such as these.
We are told that being slapped on the face with the back of the right hand was a particularly offensive gesture to Jews. Turning the other cheek made it impossible for the action to be repeated. But we’re not Jews, so we’re told this no longer really applies. We are told that going the second mile refers to a particular law in force in the Roman Empire. We’re not in the Roman Empire, so we’re told this no longer really applies either. We are told that Jesus must have meant that we were to love our enemies in our hearts, that surely he can’t have been so unworldly as to tell us not to fight back if necessary. So, we’re told, bombing is ok, then, so long as it is “necessary”, so long as it is done regretfully, so long as, in our hearts, we love those who unfortunately have to be killed.
What a load of nonsense. Worse than that – how false these interpretations are. They are alternative interpretations, like Donald Trump has alternative facts. They’re just wrong. They’re wrong because Jesus makes it clear, over and over and over again, that he says what he means and he means what he says. So when he says, “Turn the other cheek”, he means it. When he says, “Give more than you have to”, he means it. When he says, “Go the second mile”, he means it. When he says, “Give to all who beg”, he means it. When he says, “Don’t refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you”, he means it. When he says, “Love your enemies”, he means it. When he says, “Be perfect, like God”, he means it.
But how can we? We’re only human. We can’t be perfect, surely? We cannot really be like God. People have been saying that for thousands of years.
We should remember that Jesus was not being original when he said these things. How does, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” differ from, “You shall be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy,” the words we heard from Leviticus? They differ hardly at all. They basically mean the same. Jesus was only saying anew what God had said to Moses hundreds of years before. So why repeat them? Why say it again? Isn’t Leviticus enough?
The answer to that is No. Leviticus is not enough. It is not enough for the same reason that all rule books and law codes are not enough. Rules and laws are external. No matter how sensible we think them to be, still we feel they are, in some sense, imposed on us by others. They are not a part of us. What is new when Jesus says these things isn’t the content, but the speaker. He embodies this teaching. No longer do we have only the written word. Now we have the word made flesh. Because of Jesus, these teachings, this ethic for life, is already present. Present in Jesus Christ.
What Jesus was saying was not – you have heard it said: now I’m telling to you to try harder, because you’ve not been trying hard enough. That would be a recipe for despair. What Jesus is saying is that this is how God loves. And I am showing you how God loves because this is how I love.
In his own loving and living, Jesus shows us that: God does not answer violence with violence. God does not answer oppression with oppression. God gives when we ask, when we don’t ask, and carries on giving. He teaches us that: God gives, even when we are ungrateful. God gives, even when we are wasteful. God gives, even when we are sinful. In his own death, Jesus declares that: God loves us, even when we set ourselves up in enmity to him, even when we reject and turn against him. God does all this because God is holy.
I have to confess to a long confusion with the idea of holiness. I’ve thought it to be something only for the Mother Teresas, the Pope Francises, the Dalai Lamas of this world. Not for people like me. Our general discomfort with the idea of holiness can be heard in the phrase, “Holier than thou,” – It’s an expression of disdain.
But God and Jesus, the Father and the Son, make it clear that we, not just they, are to be holy. But how? Well, we can’t answer that without first asking – what is holiness?
In the teaching of God to Moses in Leviticus, and the teaching of Jesus to the disciples in Matthew, holiness is not an ethereal state of being. It is not living on some exalted spiritual plane. It is how one acts in everyday places, in everyday situations, and in everyday relationships. Holiness is not being greedy while others are hungry. Holiness is not stealing, even when we really feel we deserve the thing we so desire. Holiness is not lying, even when the truth exposes our failures. Holiness is treating people fairly, even when it costs us to do so. Holiness is being kind, even when we can’t be bothered. Holiness is acting justly, even when we come under great pressure not to. Holiness is standing up against what is wrong, even when we’re frightened to do so. This is holiness because this is how God is. We are holy by living our lives as God lives his.
And that makes us different. It means we must often swim against the tide of the world. In a world which responds to violence with more violence, the holy ones of God respond with disarming non-violence. In a world which hoards its possessions, the holy ones of God respond by sharing. In a world in which evil often seems to triumph, the holy ones of God respond with truth and compassion, with kindness and care, with what is right rather than meeting wrong with more wrong.
Being holy because God is holy, being perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, is the very goal of our life as disciples.
It really is very simple. But that’s not to say it will ever be easy.
When you come to church, you probably normally expect to hear one sermon. But today is a little different. Yes, there’s the sermon you are listening to, or not, right now. But we’ve already heard little bits of other sermons, much more ancient than this one, in our Scripture readings.
Our Gospel reading gave us some verses from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. It is at least arguable that Paul’s letters were a kind of sermon, albeit one delivered at a distance, because it is generally thought that his letters would have been read aloud to the congregations to whom they were addressed. And the book of Deuteronomy is presented as if it were a sermon delivered by Moses in the desert east of the River Jordan, at the point at which the Children of Israel would enter the Promised Land.
If I were to try to deliver a sermon like Moses’, I doubt if any of us would last the course. It runs to thirty-four chapters, and it is packed with teaching. But naturally, it isn’t a sermon in the modern sense. It blends teaching with story with commentary. Modern scholars would not suggest that Moses did actually preach the Book of Deuteronomy, still less that some scribe wrote it all down. Rather, it is a collection of different materials which is given an overarching structure through the voice of Moses.
But this does not make it any less of a sermon. A sermon is not simply a text delivered by a preacher in the course of a service of worship. It can, as we have already noted with Paul’s letters, take a variety of forms. These days, the church is being challenged to explore different kinds of sermons. In all probability, Jesus’ sermons would have been more interactive than we’re used to here. Perhaps we should be exploring that. New technology is offering possibilities to deliver sermons in different ways, well beyond church buildings and set times. This raises challenges to how we understand what sermons are and indeed what worship is. What does it mean to ‘gather in worship’ when people are physically remote and connected only by technology? Is it still worship if you are accessing a recording of something which happened some time ago? These are important questions as we explore new opportunities to communicate the gospel in new ways.
There are several features and characteristics which distinguish sermons from other forms of discourse, and they are to be found here in the text of Deuteronomy. First, sermons should be sacramental. Sermons are should not just be about something, in the way that a nature programme of the television might be about polar bears. Watching a programme like that, we are grateful that someone else has endured cold, discomfort and danger to show us polar bears, and, if we think about it, we are glad that the bears are not present with us. But a sermon should seek to make its subject real for those who hear. It is hard to explain but has to do with taking the step from passive reception to involvement. A sermon does not propose a hypothesis which the hearer can choose to take or leave. A sermon brings God to the people and the people to God, or at least that is what I think every preacher should aim for. It should make past events a present reality.
Moses’ imagined sermon in Deuteronomy does just this, making present to the people waiting to cross the Jordan the events of the Exodus and the giving of the Law. It is saying – these are the things that have made you the people you are, which have brought you thus far, and which will continue to shape you in your new life in the Promised Land. And to subsequent readers, it is making present the act of crossing the Jordan and coming into the promised land, an act laden with theological significance.
Second, sermons are exhortations delivered within communities of the faithful. A whole host of material can make up the subject of a sermon; the purpose of Moses’ imagined sermon is to bring the people to repentance and reform, reminding them of their origins, reminding them of God’s blessing, reminding them of the Law. In the view of Deuteronomy, the people of Israel, the hearers, are God’s own people because of God’s choice and actions, not their own. Through its words, the people are called to live in a manner appropriate for those whom God has chosen and it warns those whom God has chosen not to defy him.
The part we have read this morning comes near the end of the book and it is the point at which Deuteronomy reaches its dramatic climax. The history of Israel has been rehearsed, the Ten Commandments proclaimed, the Law explained and now, for the people listening, comes the point for response, the point for decision, the point for choice. Moses asks the question – will you follow God’s Law, or not?
It is stunningly simple. No one, on reaching this point, could be in any doubt as to what God requires, what his values are, what he offers. Moses puts it very plainly:
See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.
Faced with that, one has two choices, but they may not be the ones you first think of. The first is the choice of whether you believe the whole premise, that there is a God who offers blessing, in whose gift there is life and prosperity but without whom there is nothing but death and destruction. You could walk away, saying it is all made up, and many have, but for those who don’t, for those who believe and know that God is real, there comes another choice – life and prosperity or death and destruction.
Now, to be clear, prosperity in this context is not about wealth. The choice is not about an offer of riches. It is about well-being, accepting what God provides, not just in material terms but more importantly in terms of the love and care he provides though those he gives to love us and care for us.
By any sober assessment, God here is not offering a choice between equal possibilities. Who, knowing that there is a way to life and well-being, would choose the way to death and destruction? Yet the bizarre thing is that that is what we do, all the time.
The Book of Deuteronomy was written at a time in the history of Israel when the people had turned their backs on obedience to God and were chasing after idols and false gods. The immediate historical contest was the experience of exile, not in Egypt, but in Babylon. Those who wrote the book were drawing parallels between these two great experiences of oppression, enslavement, escape and return to the place of promise. ‘Deuteronomy’ simply means ‘second law’ – not because the book contains new law but because it is presented in the Bible for a second time. When it was first written, it was re-presenting the Law to a people who had largely abandoned it and forgotten it.
All too often, we behave like we have forgotten what God desires of us. Our New Testament readings give examples. Paul speaks of jealousy and quarrelling among the people of God. He addresses divisions in the church based on false loyalties. Some people were claiming loyalty to Paul and others to another teacher of the faith, Apollos. But Paul hates this and exhorts the members of the church in Corinth to work together, giving their loyalty not to any teacher, but to Christ alone, not to follow a servant but to follow the master.
Jesus speaks of relationships which have soured getting in the way. The souring of a relationship to the extent that it ends in murder is so obviously wrong that it cannot be accommodated or endured but, Jesus says, we put up with all sorts of soured relationships which divert us from our path to God. Our angers, our jealousies, the things we do wrong to each other, all affect our ability to serve God. They sap our energies; they distract us and ultimately lead us away from our Creator. Jesus says – if you are in that kind of situation, do something about it. He does not say what in detail, because he knows that no situation is beyond our own ability to address. It is all a matter of the choices we have made. His instruction is to make the right choice, to choose the way of God.
Deuteronomy forces us to put ourselves in the shoes of the people of Israel, standing on the banks of the Jordan. And their shoes fit remarkably well. It reminds us that we are on a journey with God, that every day we can choose whether we move forward or stay where we are, and, if we move, which way we go. Do we go on the way of God or do we go on our own way? One way lies blessing, the power of life itself to expand and flourish in all ways. The other way lies the rejection of blessing, literally separation from God.
Moses said: This day I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life. The Lord is your life.
Posts here are by Sandy Horsburgh, Minister of St Nicholas Buccleuch Parish Church.