Ascension Sunday

20 May 2012

When the relational evangelism course “Gossiping the Gospel”
was being put together in the 1980s,
one of the important inclusions was a workshop on how Christians can respond
when non-Christians ask a pretty good question:
Why would I ever want to get involved with Christianity,
when you see all the time the way that Christians do such horrible things.

Richard Dawkins – in a somewhat extreme and un balanced view –  talks of the church as “the greatest force for evil in the world”

And if any of us wanted to pause for a few minutes this morning I don’t think we would have too much trouble creating a list of areas and specific egs where the church and its leaders have failed. Profoundly. Embarrassingly

And surely, the church’s most profound failures are those times when it hurts or prevents hurts being caused to the innocent, the vulnerable.

And we should never downplay, or deny or avoid the pain that is created by people acting in the name of the Church –  especially when that action breeds hatred, or abuse or alienation.  

When the church’s role in the stolen generation, or with forced adoptions is highlighted we have to be honest, caring and responsive.

When leaders fail, through abuse – whether it is physical, emotional or spiritual –  of people for whom we have a responsibility of care the church’s role is to be open, honest, caring and responsive.

For the times when my leadership here has been less than you had hoped and when you are quite sure I have let you down,  I want you to hear my most sincere apology.

And this morning’s reading – although it doesn’t really fix any of that –  has something to say to us in this area. Right at the beginning of the Christian Church – in its very earliest of days –  the leadership of the church had to confront and work out how to deal with failure. And the failure was a profound failure in the group of core leaders – a guy called Judas.

We’re not really sure of the motivations of Judas. Some suggest it was greed.    Others suggest it was self protection Still others suggest it was trying to force Jesus’s hand. But whatever the motivation, the failure was pretty clear: he had betrayed Jesus and had been involved in the plot to have him killed. Pretty big failure

I remember many years ago,  back when I was young and getting involved in church leadership seriously for the first time, I was involved in a mission planning conversation at St Andrew’s UCA Brighton le Sands. And I remember the leader asking us to write down how long we thought the church would survive. With the dramatic flourish that came with my youth – and maybe much youth –  I remember that I wrote down “10 years”. And we were asked to spend some time talking with someone else at our table. The person I got to speak with – Jim –  was not youthful, and had little dramatic flourish about him.

I went first – I told him my answer and listed all the failures of the church to keep up with the modern age, and trends.    I pointed out the church’s failures in social and political areas  and I rested comfortably with the thought that I had made clear how I was obviously right.

 Then it was Jim’s turn.

He slowly and quietly answered that the church would go on forever. My guess is that I tutted out loud and quite possibly rolled my eyes, as I waited an explanation

And he continued in his calm voice to say that if the church really relied on us for its future, it would have died out ages ago But the church is the creation of God and not a creation of the people, or its members.

And as a creation of God, we can be confident that it will continue – in some form –  for God’s time.

Judas abjectly failed.    And Matthias was chosen to take his place. Not through an elaborate process of interviews and profiles and committees as it turns out but by a basic sense of fitting the character of leadership and then plain dumb luck

One of the most important lessons for us to learn in the church Is that ultimately Jesus is running the show.  Not us.  Jesus.   When early church needed someone to round out the Twelve, God provided.   When the apostles died, Jesus provided others, and He multiplied their office.   Now, God may well use things like congregations and profiles and ads and committees.   And there may be for the day to day ministry and service staff, and congregational members, and volunteers, and Government contract.s

But in the end, it’s God’s church,  God’s ministry.

And one of the surest things that I can offer to you is the knowledge that the church is going to continue to fail. Its leaders will continue to let people down.

My hope and my prayer is that it wont be in some of the horrendous abusive ways that it has happened recently and that the church will be open, honest and courageous enough to respond in caring pastoral and just ways if it does.

But as a people we are called back time and time again to waiting, praying, discerning and responding to God’s movement in the future of God’s church, as part of God’s mission to all the world.

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Easter Sunday

When I am watching a movie, one of the most frustrating things that can happen is when you get to the end of the movie, and it doesn’t really end. It just sets itself up for a sequel.

Lord of the Rings – The two towers.    The Matrix reloaded Star Wars, the Empire Strikes back (though it is a bad movie for lots of reasons) If you are going to invest a couple of hours of your life in a movie  the least they can do is finish the movie then and there.

But maybe the producers of the movie have all taken their cue from Mark’s gospel People invest time in reading it.    As a congregation here, we’ve invested the last 6 weeks, just on 4 chapters And we get to the end and we get …. just about nothing. Not only is there no body, there is no Jesus. In Matthew Luke and John, you have the empty tomb,  but at least the gospel writers include a story of Jesus being there to prove it’s true. Not Mark.

And in Matthew Luke and John the disciples head off telling others what has happened Not in Mark. The women fled, for terror and amazement had seized them and they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

And there the story of Jesus’ resurrection stops, and no one ever found out about it.

Mark tells us of the life of Jesus, of the teachings of Jesus,  of the revolutionary ways of Jesus in proclaiming the Kingdom of God. And Mark by the end of the crucifixion story has dramatically slammed the story shut.

The occupying forces, the Kingdom of Caesar kill him.     The authorities lay him in a tomb and then seal it shut

And then we get the weird twist of the final chapter in Mark The news greeting the women is that the attempts to seal the tomb shut haven’t worked The body is not where the authorities have put it And the death that the Kingdom of Caesar brought about has been reversed. Even in the resurrection story, Mark’s gospel continues the confrontation with authority.

But still, the women said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. Throughout Mark, the disciples have been spoken about as ‘fearful’ And in every case they have been blockages to the way of God And if fear wins out here, the story does indeed stop.  No one tells anyone. Fear wins.   Fold the cloths up, put them back in the tomb, and roll the stone back.

But the very fact that we are here today means that we cant take the story from Mark as being literally true.   Someone told someone.   Or else we never found out.

So someone somewhere overcame the fear. Mark doesn’t tell us who.    But someone broke the fear cycle. Someone chose not to feed the fears. Go back to Galilee and you will meet him there,  the women are told

And through this story, which is actually for us the readers, the message is the same Go back to Galilee and you will meet him there

The first 10 chapters of Mark are set in Galilee.  And that’s where we have to go again after this weird resurrection story.

In Galilee, Jesus lets people know that the Kingdom of God is right here. In Galilee, Jesus heals people of conditions that were robbing them of life In Galilee, Jesus restores people to their community after they had been cast out In Galilee, Jesus calls someone to leave behind a life based on wealth and exploitation  In Galilee, Jesus enables people to see and people to hear Go back to Galilee and you will meet him there.

There is a novel by Michael Ende called “The Never Ending Story” It was turned into a movie as well in the 1980s. In the story, the main character Bastian reads about the world of “Fantastica” But as he reads somehow the characters ask for his help in their crisis The boundary between the book and the reader is broken and Bastian is terrified. And Bastian realises that the world of the book is doomed unless he takes part in it. Bastian’s fear about what is going on is powerful. But the story somehow re-boots and Bastian finds himself being named in the text. And it is only as he fully engages in the story – himself as a character and not a reader –  that the issues of Fantastica are resolved, and Bastian becomes a new person

I think Michael Ende has studied the gospel of Mark. Mark puts the future of the story that we are reading in the hands of the readers. It is not a story about a dead past, but a living present And like Bastian, we are left with the options of being frozen by fear,  or jumping in to the story ourselves.

Put yourself in the story.    Will you say nothing to anyone because you are afraid? Or where will you find the one who was crucified? You will find him back in Galilee: In the promotion of the Kingdom of God above the Kingdom of Caesar in the healing of conditions that rob people of life in the restoration to community for people who have been cast out and excluded

In the leaving behind of wealth and exploitation of other people in actions which create the ability for people to see and hear how it is that God’s ways are seen

Easter – especially through the gospel of Mark – asks that we not be frozen by fear but instead be people who have seen and heard that there is a better way and it is a way that is worth being completely passionate about justice.


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Good Friday – Who got crucified that day?

Have you ever stopped and thought who got crucified on that Friday?
Historically, it’s seems quite easy:   Jesus and two revolutionaries.
Add the context of history, and it is probably the case that there were others as well by the side of the road, or on the mound called Golgotha.
But in another sense – who got crucified that day?
Who got crucified that day?
            Who do we expect to see on that cross today?
            Maybe by calling today Good Friday we try to tame its ugliness.
            It is good because we get forgiven. 
            Because the God who can’t love us till someone gets killed is pacified
            and we are safe, because nice loving Jesus got killed instead
                        Is that who got killed?
            Does that make it too easy and too nice
            and open the door for lots of chocolate on Sunday?
Who got crucified that day?
            Is it the Messiah – the chosen one of God?
            The Roman soldier tells us that it was the Son of God.
            But is that is a mocking comment – 
            Rome claiming its victory over the occupied people
            Or is it a comment that shows that the
            kingdom of Caesar is acknowledging the kingdom of God?

            In Mark, when other people say that Jesus is the Messiah
            he tells them to be quiet – not to say that.  
            When the high priest accuses him of being the Christ,
            it is not really clear whether Jesus agrees, or whether he evades the question
            When Pilate mocks him and asks him if he is a king
            Jesus replied “You say so”
Who got crucified that day?
            Mark is giving us a picture that we probably don’t like to see
            But if we like what we see on this Friday, we have surely tamed it too far.
            Mark’s gospel tells us of a Jesus who has said that
                        occupation, oppression, exclusion, domination is not the way of God
                        and that the Kingdom of Caesar has had its day
            Mark’s gospel tells us of a Jesus who was passionate about ensuring
                        that the voice of people who could not be heard must be heard
            Mark’s gospel tells us of a Jesus was the voice of peasant protest
            Mark’s gospel tells us of a Jesus who attracted a popular following
                        and deliberately took that movement to Jerusalem 
                        at the busiest time of the religious and political calendar
            Mark’s gospel tells us of a Jesus who challenged the authorities,
                        shut down the temple and confronted powers in debate and action

            Mark’s gospel tells us of a Jesus who was so passionate about the Kingdom of God
                        that it led to what we now call his passion
Who got crucified that day?
            In one real sense there were at least three revolutionaries that got killed that day
            and Jesus was one of them.

Good Friday should also be called “bloody uncomfortable Friday”
We have no right to tame it, or to make it sweet for us;
to reduce it to being about the way we get to heaven, or just feel forgiven.
The fate of the one who was crucified on that Friday is the fate of those
who are passionate about standing for non-violence, for non-exclusion, for non-domination.
Friday is their fate.    Sunday is their hope.


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Lent 5

When you read a book, do you ever turn to the back – or even do a sneak read ahead –  to get a feel for what is going on? Or do you like to take thing in bit by bit and let the story unfold?

If you like a sense of surprise as you read, then you’ll be disappointed with Mark now. There is no surprise.   There is no real sense of anticipating unknown events.

Not only is this a gospel which is written for believers, for followers,  who already know the story and have committed themselves to the story,  by the time you get to Thursday in Holy week, you cant help but know what is happening

Throughout the gospel, Jesus has made it clear he is going to be betrayed and killed

Throughout the week, Jesus has been ramping up the confrontation And on Wednesday, Jesus has been anointed for burial. There are no surprises here.

However it is still a story filled with drama. A final meal – with all the emotion with it.   A betrayal, a denial, arrest, trial and passing of judgment This is all within the next 24 hours.    Much of it we will work with over the Easter weekend itself,  and we wont be jumping the gun this week or next week. We are in Lent and still preparing for Easter, and we want to prepare well.

It is important for us to keep sticking with Mark, and not mix the gospels. They tell the story with different perspectives, and different interests We learn different things from each one.    As Mark tells it, this is a Passover meal.  (In John it isn’t, it is a preparatory meal) And although is a very short narration of it (9 verses) it is a transforming meal. Jesus invests a lot in the meal in Mark, and nothing can get in the way

In Mark Jesus is fully aware of what is going to happen to him.   He has taught it clearly But at the same time, Mark portrays Jesus in a very earthy way.

In John, Jesus knows what is happening  because he has retained a deep sense of God-ness about him In Mark, there isn’t any suggestion that he knows because he has special knowledge In Mark, Jesus can see what happens when he provokes the powers.  Pokes the bear. And he has seen that there is a growing disconnection between powers and the crowd.

But Jesus is not deliberately trying to get himself killed He is living with full integrity and knowing that it will come at a high cost.

The preparation for the meal is, in Mark, done secretly.  In fact it is so secret that only a couple of disciples are involved (presumably not Judas) and the arrangements that are made have an air of a spy novel. There is a secret sign – the man carrying the water jar. Just unusual enough so that the disciples know who to speak with. Not so obvious so that it will draw attention to them

And when we get to the meal itself,  Mark keeps taking us into extra meaning and depth.

You might remember that Mark is filled with story after story of the disciples failing. We will spend more time with this on Easter Thursday,  but for today at least note that Jesus builds his understanding of betrayal into the meal

The other thing to note at this stage is that for Mark,  Jesus death is not about the “forgiveness of sins”.   That’s a Matthew & John emphasis For Jesus the cup is “my blood of the covenant, poured out for many” Other gospels say “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”.  Not Mark.

For Mark, the last meal of Jesus echoes other meals in the gospel. Jesus has been criticised for eating with tax collectors and sinners.  Undesirables For his last meal, Jesus carries this on by eating with the ones who have failed. For Mark’s Jesus, the meal is a sign of inclusion, of the kingdom of God.

And then in the sharing of the meal, Mark uses words that he has used before. Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke and gave it to them In Mark 6, we read that Jesus took the loaves and the fish,  looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves and gave it to the disciples.

This is no accident of editing or laziness of Mark with language. The feeding of the 5000 helps us understand the Last Supper And the Last Supper helps us understand the feeding of the 5000.

It is  the end of a long time of listening to Jesus teaching,  and it is now that it is late the people are hungry Is that Mark 6 or Mark 14.   Or both?

In Mark 6 the disciples have one solution – send them away. But Jesus has a different one – you give them food. Not some calling down of manna or stones into food,  but taking what is there and making the ordinary into the extraordinary.

There are no passengers in the body of Christ as far as Mark is concerned.

Everytime that the disciples want to sit back  and have Jesus be the one who is the magic Messiah Jesus corrects them, and often in no uncertain terms

The movement of God is about getting your hands dirty.  Getting involved. So when we get to his last meal, Jesus is still about having people participate.

This is my body, this is my blood. If you are going to be my followers, pick up your cross and follow me If you are going to experience what God is on about, put yourselves last. For Mark it is not about Jesus stepping in as some substitution to make them special but involving them, having them as part of it as well.

For Mark, Jesus’ meal is the final summary  before we reach the events that he has been teaching openly throughout the gospel He will be betrayed, handed over and killed.   And rise again. And right as the last thing before this,  he reminds his disciples that their call is to be part of this

Mark’s gospel is a high demand gospel. It would be easier if it just meant sitting back and getting forgiven for sins But it doesn’t.

We are invited not to be by-standers or passengers and enjoy some spiritual benefit but to keep going all the way with Jesus.

That is our Lenten calling.

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Lent 4 – struggling to “get it” on Thursday of Holy Week

As I mentioned a couple of weeks back, when we were seeing art in galleries one of the most effective things was when the frame and the art worked together But there were other times when the frame was an obvious clash  A mis match.

Times when the brilliant colour and vibrancy of the art  was surrounded by a stark, solid black frame. That’s what we have in Mark’s gospel on the Wednesday.

After the long section of the gospel dedicated to Tuesday, Wednesday is very brief Just 11 verses.

And in those 11 verses there is the main section of verses 3-9 – the anointing which is surrounded by a frame of vv 1-2 and 10-11 This is a solid black frame, contrasting with the vibrancy of the art in the middle.

Just before we get to the actual events of the crucifixion and resurrection Mark’s gospel has a very simple and striking contrasting summary of what Jesus has been on about throughout the gospel. What does it mean to be a follower, a disciple, of Jesus.

And the contrasting summary comes with the worst and the best.

One of the things about Mark’s gospel is that it treats “the 12” with low respect. In Mark, the 12 disciples simply don’t get it. They are confused, they misunderstand, they squabble and they are power hungry.

And unlike some of the other gospels that focus on Judas as the failed one,  Mark spreads the blame pretty broadly. Judas comes out of the Wednesday looking pretty poor,  but Mark makes it plain – “Judas was one of the 12 disciples”

So Judas gives us the worst of discipleship,  but in failing, he is actually just following the lead of Peter, James, John & the others Remember Peter is the one to whom Jesus has said “Get behind me Satan” James and John are the ones who have squabbled and demanded the places of glory In one real sense, Judas is just “one of the 12” Judas may give us the worst example of discipleship, but in Mark it is the worst example of a whole series of examples of failed discipleship.

But if Mark is painting Judas’ betrayal as the worst example,  why is it that he portrays the woman’s anointing of Jesus head as the best.

Why not the generosity of the widow, or the insight of the young scribe? Why not the persistency of the mother seeking healing for her daughter?

Throughout the gospel of Mark, there are hardly ANY actions of other people which are fundamentally important.   It is a very Jesus-centred gospel.

And, not surprisingly, we discover that what other people say and do is used by Mark to reinforce the central point of Jesus’s teaching and actions. In the context of Mark’s gospel, people are seen as good illustrations of discipleship if they get what Jesus is on about. And they are portrayed as illustrations of poor discipleship if they don’t.

In that sense Mark is pretty straight forward

And over and over again in Mark when we come back to what Jesus is on about we have his central teaching that he will lose his life and he will rise again. Three times in the gospel there is very clear and detailed narration of this. Three times in the gospel the disciples simply don’t get it Three times in the gospel Jesus responds to the disciples with disbelief and anger.

Sometimes scholars have talked about Jesus in Mark’s gospel  having a “Messianic secret”

It is as if when the disciples recognise that Jesus is the glorious Son of God who has come into the world as the one chosen by God to save the world Jesus winks and says “shhhhh”.   As if they’ve got it, but they shouldn’t tell.

But that may not actually be the best understanding of what Jesus is doing. Jesus isn’t secretive about who he is.   Mark says “he taught these things openly.”

What things?   That the Son of Man will be killed And that his followers must take up their cross. What whoever wants to be the first must be the last.

When Jesus is at other times commanding the disciples to be quiet about the “Messiah” maybe the better understanding of Jesus’ teaching is that he is not winking and saying “shhhh” but instead he is frowning and saying “down talk rubbish”

For Mark, Jesus has come with a very clear understanding of his life purpose He is to speak and live out what the now-present Kingdom of God is all about And there is an inevitability  that to do that in contrast to the now present Kingdom of Caesar means death.

And to be a follower of Jesus, means that we will accept this death is truly inevitable and that we will be willing to walk the same road.

The disciples don’t want to hear that. But the woman in Mark 14 gets it. She has anointed my body for its burial. But why anoint now and not after the death as is customary?

Because she has believed and truly taken on board what Jesus has been saying: I am going to die and I am going to rise again.

There will not be a body to anoint afterwards. The obvious love of and devotion to Jesus is striking. But it is not the reason that this story is to be told in memory of her. In a gospel that is filled with stories of the followers of Jesus getting it wrong and even so wrong that they conspired with the collaborating powers to betray Jesus in a gospel that was probably written for a community of people who were struggling to work out and live out what it meant to be a follower of Jesus this woman understood and lived it out.

She is the first true disciple for Mark.   The first Christian, if you will The first to believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus.


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