“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:19-23)
What poses the greatest threat to the work of any Christian ministry involved in a contested field or controversial subject? I believe the answer is in John 20:19. Most versions translate the sentence as “fear of the Jews”. A few like the NIV translate the sentence “fear of the Jewish leaders” which is probably more accurate. How might we apply that today? I believe we are mistaken if we focus on the “who” instead of the “what”. Then what is it? Look at the text again. It was not the Jews, or the Jewish leaders. What does the text say? It was fear. Why do I say that? Well look at the context. What do the preceding verses say?
I didn’t mean to do it. I know I should not have done it. Every week I carefully avoid looking but this Friday I did. I don’t know what possessed me. I put it down to mid-life crisis. My eyes just wandered and there it was, the most enticing, the most tantalizing, the most tempting job offer I have ever read in the Church of England Newspaper.
“It’s True Adelaide is a great place… No doubt you’ve read about Adelaide’s fine weather, fine beaches, fine food and fine wine. Its all true! South Australia wants people who see their future in its progressive climate. The archbishop of Adelaide welcomes enquiries from clergy wishing to minister in parishes and schools. Find out more about South Australia at www.southaustralia.com. Send your expressions of interest to…” and then it gave the address.
Interestingly, the advert said nothing about what they were looking for in candidates, nothing about what the role required. It didn’t need to. I confess that purely out of curiosity I visited the website of www.southaustralia.com . Yes I did and it is true.
Good news is infectious isn’t it? You can’t stop talking about it. It just comes out. You don’t have to think about it. You don’t need training in how to communicate good news. The more immediate, personal and life changing, the more likely we are to want to share it. Its the same with Jesus. That is why on this, Good Friday, I would like us to spend a few moments contemplating Psalm 22, contemplate the cross of Christ. If people know one passage of the Bible, it is most likely Psalm 23. And yet I believe Psalm 22 is the most precious of all the Psalms, for it reveals the passion of God which made possible the promises of God contained in Psalm 23. No one can read Psalm 22 without being vividly confronted with the Crucifixion.
Around Easter time, a few years ago, I found myself in Bethlehem. I planned to spend the day with a Christian family in a village called Beit Jala near Bethlehem. Their land had just been confiscated. Their beautiful old olive trees are being bulldozed to make way for the 8 metre high Separation Wall. It was going to come within 3 metres from their front door and not only cut off all day light, but cut their whole village in half. The Hafrada or apartheid wall (that is what it means in Hebrew) has been ruled illegal by the highest court in the world, the International Court of Justice. But few are doing anything about it. So we did. But we never got to see the family that day.
As we walked down the hill towards their property we came face to face with a line of soldiers with guns and tear gas and sound bombs. And they were not about to let anyone through. They tried to scare us off by lobbying few sound bombs at us. And they succeeded in scaring us, temporarily. But we carried on walking toward them until we came face to face with these young soldiers. We assured them that we were unarmed and had peaceful intentions. We were not there to hurt them. We disagreed with what their government is doing. We wanted to see our friends on the other side of the road – please. They said no and after an hour or so we went home. I came back the next day with a friend and we managed to see the family and take these pictures.
I am still working through the rights and wrongs of civil disobedience. What do you do when you see people made homeless, widowed, orphaned? When you witness deep injustice, theft, exploitation? When you see a State abuse its power? And Christians justify this theft of land in the name of God? What would you have done? More importantly what would Jesus have done? I can tell you what he would not have done. Would he have picked up stones and thrown them at the soldiers? Would he have taken up a gun and forced his way through? No, of course not. But would he have ignored the suffering? Would he have walked by on the other side? I don’t think so. What was the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan? If you are not sure, you need to watch our film With God on our Side.
“Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father…”
All good Anglicans know the words of the General Confession well, but do we know what they mean? For the Confession contains language and sentiments that have virtually been erased from common usage, they might as well be deleted from the dictionary. It sounds all too negative, critical and judgmental. Surely we believe in a God of love. That is why these first words of Jesus recording in Mark’s gospel hardly seem good news. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). What is good news about repentance? It is not a word we use in polite company.
During my second year at university I made a decision that impacted the rest of my life. I decided not to return to the Civil Service after graduation. The call to full-time Christian ministry was clear. I was excited to be accepted for training for the Anglican ministry. But there was just one problem. I was terrified of being expected to take funerals. But the Lord was gracious. He removed my fears while at theological college in Bristol. Three months after our first daughter was born, Joanna’s father died suddenly. Then, just a month later, my own father died suddenly. At the age of 29 I became the oldest man in either family. In one month I gained all the experience I needed to be able to empathise with others. And a verse from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians took on special significance.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
And that is the purpose of tonight’s service. And that is one of the reasons we are reading Psalm 90 together. This beautiful psalm speaks to us of the brevity of life in the light of eternity. It was the inspiration for one of the best known hymns by Isaac Watts,
“O God, our help in ages past”. Surprisingly, there is not a hint of despair or complaint, simply humble child-like submission and trust. There are three parts to this little psalm. Each tells us something about God as well as about ourselves.
God’s Eternity and our Frailty (Psalm 90:1-6)
God’s Anger and our Sinfulness (Psalm 90:7-11)
God’s Mercy and our Hope (Psalm 90:12-17)
Thomas Jefferson once asked the rhetorical question:
“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?”
In the 18th Century, on both sides of the Atlantic, there would likely have been a consensus that the answer was self-evident – our civic responsibility is but the outworking of our higher responsibilities to God. When the same revolutionary spirit infected the North American Colonies as it had France, it became a more debatable question there also. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which Jefferson helped write, provided one solution – separate church and state. Originally this was intended to protect the church from the state. But since 1947, the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted it to mean that religion and government must stay separate for the benefit of both. Not so today. In an increasingly secularized world, most Americans and Europeans believe the Church should keep out of politics.
It is appropriate then to ask the question, what has religion got to do with politics? I suggest a great deal. From a Christian perspective, that we have responsibilities to both God and the state is clearly implied in Jesus’ enigmatic epigram, ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’ (Matthew 22:21). The religious leaders had tried to expose Jesus as either a collaborator with or rebel against the Roman Empire. Here is the context:
God has created us with meaning and purpose, with dignity and value – in His image. But for what? – We inhabit a world designed, created, nurtured and sustained by Almighty God, to whom we are accountable for the way we steward His good earth.
“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters. Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not trust in an idolor swear by a false god.” (Psalm 24:1-4)
Life is a journey, with a beginning and end. We’re all travelers, somewhere on that journey, forever on the move, learning, growing, changing. The disruption caused by Covid-19, the daily news updates of casualties and the attempts to find a vaccine inevitably lead to a rollercoaster of emotions, highs and lows, hopes and fears. Psalm 23 is probably the most widely known and best loved of them all. In part it is because it addresses the strong emotions we often feel at times such as this. There are two parts to Psalm 23:
23:1-3 “The Lord Is My Shepherd” – What I affirm about God. 23:5-6 “You love will follow me” – What I experience of God.
23:4 links the two together. The Lord is my Shepherd because I know Lord you are with me.
As a young Christian at Sussex University in the early 1970’s, I was enthralled by David Pawson’s biblically-based teaching and coveted his weekly teaching audio cassette tapes, especially on controversial theological and political subjects. He taught me to root my faith in scripture and apply it to every aspect of life. Forty years on, I remember David with respect and admiration. View his website here.