Monthly Archives: April 2017

Letting yourself be loved?

John 13:3-15 (CEB)

Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God. So he got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing. When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.”
“No!” Peter said. “You will never wash my feet!”
Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.”
Simon Peter said, “Lord, not only my feet but also my hands and my head!”
Jesus responded, “Those who have bathed need only to have their feet washed, because they are completely clean. You disciples are clean, but not every one of you.” He knew who would betray him. That’s why he said, “Not every one of you is clean.”
After he washed the disciples’ feet, he put on his robes and returned to his place at the table. He said to them, “Do you know what I’ve done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am. If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do.

I’m a day behind in Holy Week, I know, but I have been wrestling in my mind for words to express this feeling I have about this foot-washing scene, unsuccessfully!

On Maundy Thursday many ministers and bishops and priests and people recognised in positions of christian leadership will make an attempt to imitate Christ in some kind of public setting.  I have seen people do shoe-shine duty in shopping centres, others will wash feet at Maundy Thursday services – often joining with ecumenical colleagues in various states of embarassment and awkwardness about drying betwen the toes, some have washed hands in an effort to find a modern day Western-world equivalent to this old Middle Eastern custom.

This is ENTIRELY appropriate – please don’t read this as a criticism of any of that.  Jesus quite clearly says “I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do.”

But there’s more here.

Peter.  Peter at first refuses.

I think this is significant.  At first, Peter cannot accept this from Jesus.  Peter’s response is that HE should be the one offering service – he should be the one to do the loving (if you like) – and Jesus should be the recipient.

Jesus says no.

This is the thing I am struggling to put into words – but I’ll try my best.

There is, I think, something important here about learning to receive love – specifically – learning to receive God’s love.  There is something here about recognising that I am not the one DOING things for God – God is the one doing things for me.  I am not the one loving or serving God – God is the one loving and serving me.  I have nothing to offer God – God has everything to offer me.

There is a certain humility about accepting that you are not the one GIVING – but you are the one who is in need – you are the one RECEIVING.

When Peter realises this – he grasps it fully and says – not just my feet then – ALL OF ME!! 

I imagine Jesus laughs with him. 

Of course this isn’t the only lesson to learn…  Mary “washes” Jesus’ feet with her tears… she has something to offer – but that offering is simple and honest gratitude for that which she has first been humble enough to receive. 

Biblical smear campaign…

Matthew 26:14-25 (CEB)

Judas betrays Jesus

Then one of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I turn Jesus over to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. From that time on he was looking for an opportunity to turn him in.

Passover with the disciples

On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover meal?”
He replied, “Go into the city, to a certain man, and say, ‘The teacher says, “My time is near. I’m going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.” ’” The disciples did just as Jesus instructed them. They prepared the Passover.
That evening he took his place at the table with the twelve disciples. As they were eating he said, “I assure you that one of you will betray me.”
Deeply saddened, each one said to him, “I’m not the one, am I, Lord?”
He replied, “The one who will betray me is the one who dips his hand with me into this bowl. The Human One goes to his death just as it is written about him. But how terrible it is for that person who betrays the Human One! It would have been better for him if he had never been born.”
Now Judas, who would betray him, replied, “It’s not me, is it, Rabbi?”
Jesus answered, “You said it.”

John 12:1-11 (CEB)

Mary anoints Jesus’ feet

Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Lazarus and his sisters hosted a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was among those who joined him at the table. Then Mary took an extraordinary amount, almost three-quarters of a pound, of very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She anointed Jesus’ feet with it, then wiped his feet dry with her hair. The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume. Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained, “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would take what was in it.)
Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it. You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.”
Many Jews learned that he was there. They came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. The chief priests decided that they would kill Lazarus too. It was because of Lazarus that many of the Jews had deserted them and come to believe in Jesus.

I have always been deeply disturbed by these Judas accounts – it’s a grim tale.

There’s an Anglican Church in the Dorset village of Moreton – The Church of St Nicholas and St Magnus – which has a fantastic set of engraved windows by Sir Lawrence Whistler.  Me and the missus have been there – the windows are fantastic…

In the words of Jim & Julia Binney:

Over a period of 30 years the church or donors commissioned Whistler to replace all the windows with designs of increasing complexity, engraved from both sides of the glass creating a spectacular three-dimensional effect that changes in every light. The result today is the creation of a spectacular church interior that is well worth a visit. Not only are the windows themselves world famous, and a sight to see in their own right, but the transformation of the inside into a place of light and space is magical.
In February 1987, when Laurence Whistler had completed 12 full sized windows, he wrote a letter to the then Rector offering to create and donate a ‘thirteenth window’ to the church – an engraved window depicting Judas Iscariot. In his letter he made the point that many mediaeval churches often had uncouth and unholy figures sculptured on the outside, as if in contrast with holy scenes on the inside. He went on to refer to the thirteenth window near the south-east corner which was glazed but walled up. Adding that Judas was (in his opinion) ‘the thirteenth disciple’, Whistler went on to say that he would like to engrave on that window, to be seen only from the outside, ‘a shadowy figure, not clearly defined but sketchy, of Judas hanging with the thirty pieces of silver falling from his hand and turning into flowers on the ground.’ That would be the point – a hint that possibly even Judas might, at the moment of death, have sought and found God’s forgiveness?
The reaction of the Rector and the Parish Church Council at the time, however, was far from encouraging. Whistler’s treatment of Judas was seen as so startling that it divided the Parish Council and the village, with some regarding the window as unacceptably ugly, and others genuinely shocked. The PCC was split, the Rector opposed it, and the Diocesan Chancellor (who could have granted the necessary permission) appeared indifferent. The original objection, from 44 parishioners, backed by their vicar and eventually the local bishop, was because they didn’t want Judas darkening the doors (or windows) of St Nicholas, since the theme of the other dozen designs was ‘light’. Judas represented darkness. He was the devil’s henchman, the human face of evil. More particularly, they didn’t like Whistler’s image, as it suggested that there might be hope for Judas after all. Back then, many people also regarded suicide as an ‘unforgivable sin’. Even though Whistler, dubbed the window the ‘forgiveness window’, and showed the silver coins turning into flowers before they touched the soil, church authorities at the time deemed the subject of suicide unfitting. The Roman Catholic Church refused to bury suicides. The Jesuit theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles argued that the gospel descriptions of Judas ‘could hardly be true if the traitor had been forgiven’!  Sadly, these views were shared by Anglo-Catholics and many others within the Anglican Church and other Protestant Churches at that time.
Undaunted Whistler put his idea into effect and by September 1993 had engraved the panel which he subsequently called ‘The Forgiveness Window’. Whistler renewed his offer of the gift and meanwhile put it on view in an exhibition in Salisbury. After considering the offer once again, the PCC was still divided and, when it looked as though the issue would go to a church court, Whistler shelved the whole project rather than cause further unhappiness. He loaned the window to the county museum in Dorchester but insisted that if the church ever changed its mind it should go to Moreton.

The window is now installed:

“Judas” is a shorthand for someone who commits the ultimate betrayal – it is chanted from football terraces when a player or a manager signs for a rival club.  I remember Burnley fans chanting and pointing “JUDAS! JUDAS! JUDAS!” at the first game between them and my club, Bolton, after we (misguidedly, as it turned out!) poached Owen Coyle from them…

Worse – Christianity long used the name of Judas to scapegoat the Jews. For centuries it was commonplace in the Church to refer to “Judas the Jew” – largely because his name in Hebrew, Yehuda, from the verb “to praise”, was so close to Yehudi, the word for “Jew”. Preachers exploited this overlap to scapegoat the whole Jewish race with the traitor’s characteristics – greed, love of money, untrustworthiness – and present them as the enemy within Christian society. St Jerome wrote elsewhere of Judas as “cursed, that in Judas the Jews may be accursed… Whom do you suppose are the sons of Judas? The Jews – Iscariot means money and price.”

(It was John’s Gospel that smeared Judas with the “thief” tag – see above.)

Judas’s role in scapegoating the Jews continued through the medieval period – when he was depicted with stereotypical Jewish facial features, dressed in yellow (which the Church had designated their colour), and grasping his swag-bag of silver coins – right up to within living memory, with horrific effect in the Holocaust. “As little as Judas Iscariot can be understood without the Lord whose community he sneeringly betrayed,” said the Nazi ideologue Walter Frank in a 1939 radio broadcast, “that night side of history called Jewry cannot be understood without being positioned in the totality of the historical process where God, Satan, Creation and Destruction confront each other in an eternal struggle.”

There – that’s why it makes me feel uncomfortable – this whole story…

Chronologically, among the earliest of the writings to be found in the New Testament is St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Here, he writes simply of Jesus being betrayed (or “handed over”, depending on which translation you favour) to a hostile authority and put to death. Quite who did the betraying is treated as irrelevant. It was the death and resurrection that mattered – the founding events of Christianity.

It seems that the scapegoating of Judas emerged later – Paul didn’t seem to be aware of it or didn’t seem to think it worthy of mention…

Of course – there have been attempts to rehabilitate Judas.  Perhaps most famously, Thomas De Quincey, suggesting that Judas is merely trying to force Jesus’ hand – to back him into a corner so that he would have to act and fulfil his mission…  This is often preached today – I have preached it myself.

But I think that won’t do, it’s a good start, but it’s a bit too easy.

I think we need to face up to what this story IS.  It is an example of biblical smear and scapegoating.  The early Christian community smeared Judas – perhaps it is easier to blame one man than to accept that it could be any one of us?  Perhaps when you have decided to blame one man – then it is easier to further blacken his character and call him a thief as if that explains it and “distances” him from “us good people” – well, he was always a wrong’un.

The more genuine-sounding vibe from the accounts of the Last Supper – when Jesus declared that that very night one of them would betray him – is the startling revelation that each of the disciples said “Oh, God, please don’t let it be me.” (or words to that effect.)  They each knew it could have been any one of them.  And they were right.  Peter denied even knowing Jesus – the rest of them ran off, leaving Jesus to face the music.  It could have been any one of them – it could be any one of us…

So, Whistler’s haunting figure, swinging from a rope in a window not visible from inside, but only from the graveyard…  I am glad it has finally found its place.  Whistler’s window has the traitor dressed in Everyman’s clothing as he hangs at the end of a rope. His back is turned, with a shaft of light from heaven illuminating both his face in side-profile and the ill-gotten coins as they fall to the ground. Flowers spring up to mark the spot where they land. This is Judas redeemed. However terrible his sin of betrayal, it can still be forgiven.

A cathedral gift…

I went with very good company last night to see Bach’s St John Passion at Exeter Cathedral. The choir and orchestra and soloists were fabulous, it was introduced well and set in the context of a devotional offering for the beginning of Holy Week.

The libretto (or “the script” if you prefer!) is anonymous – but obviously has big chunks of John’s Gospel (Luther’s translation) plus a couple of gratuitous extra bits from Matthew’s  Gospel (Peter weeping after his betrayal and the temple curtain being torn.)  It also has bits from Der für die Sünden der Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus by Barthold Heinrich Brockes – a free, poetic meditation on the passion story.

It must have been Brockes who was responsible for some of the remarkable poetry which I shall reproduce for you in English translation lest you find the original German a stretch! 

Peter, who does not think back at all,
denies his God,
but then at a look of reproach
weeps bitterly.
Jesus, look at me also
when i am reluctant to repent;
when i have done evil
stir up my conscience!

(presumably Bach’s librettist wanted this in which is why he included that Matthew bit!)

And this is strong stuff…  (after Jesus is cruelly flogged…)

erwäge wie sein blutgefärbter rücken…

Ponder well how his back
all over is like the sky –
where after the deluge
from our flood of sins has abated
there appears the most beautiful
Rainbow as a sign of God’s mercy!

or – sung thus:

Brockes finds in these scenes of brutal violence a tiny flowering of redemptive hope – a sign of God’s promise – even when coloured in with blood and bruising… That’s powerful and emotive stuff…  but this is the journey through Holy Week, and the life we will celebrate on Easter Day means nothing if the journey through death has not been followed.  Jesus walked that path – that’s what this week is about…

Heartfelt thanks to Exeter Cathedral (and Bach and Brockes and anonymous librettist and choir and orchestra and soloists) for this gift in music and words.

PS…  St John’s Passion also has the longest word I have heard sung in a serious religious work:  

Betrachte, meine Seel’, mit ängstlichem Vergnügen,
Mit bittrer Lust und halb beklemmtem Herzen
Dein höchstes Gut in Jesu Schmerzen,
Wie dir auf Dornen, so ihn stechen,
Die Himmelsschlüsselblumen blühn!
Du kannst viel süsse Frucht von seiner Wermut brechen
Drum sieh ohn Unterlass auf ihn!

“Consider, o my soul, with anxious delight, 
with bitterly troubled heart, 
thine highest Good in Jesus’ sorrows, 
how from thorns that pierce him 
the flowers of the keys to heaven blossom for thee; 
thou canst pick much sweet fruit from his wormwood, 
therefore look unceasing upon him.”

(The flower in mind is the Primula)

Palm Sunday – dangerous business…

At the start of Holy Week – I am blogging my Palm Sunday Sermon, because this one was actually written down, so it is easy to blog! 

The children were singing in the Temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” A small verse, often overlooked. Yet an immensely powerful verse, and one which brings this Palm Sunday right into the twentieth century. A verse that speaks of life as we know it. The children were singing in the Temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” Jesus gets onto a donkey at the village of Bethphage – the limits of the city of Jerusalem and rides in triumphant procession through the gates of the city. People are cheering and waving, singing psalms and decorating the way with palm branches and with their cloaks. The procession moves further into the city, and towards the Temple. Near the Temple is the Antonia garrison. A legion of Roman soldiers is standing ready. There is always trouble at Passover. Being posted to Jerusalem at Passover time was (for those old enough to remember) like being posted to Northern Ireland during the parade of the Orange Men.
Some of those soldiers – most of them – are conscripts from all over the Roman Empire.  Many of them would have been young men – perhaps teenagers – who had already witnessed the bloodshed and violence that could be unleashed when people opposed Rome.  They don’t really want to get involved in that.
As the procession gets closer, the soldiers get nervous and jumpy. Their knuckles turn white as they grasp their spears. The crowd sees the soldiers and some melt away into the backstreets. They nervously drop their palm branches, cover their faces with their cloaks, and all silent. As they reach the outer courts of the Temple only the children are singing. They are told to by the adults, the adults give them the words and push them forward. You see, the children won’t be arrested.
If you recall news footage that you have seen of the Middle-East over the last 20 years, isn’t it often the children who throw the stones at the army vehicles through the clouds of teargas? Some things never change. The Palestinians assumed that the children wouldn’t be arrested (though quite often children are shot at and killed). Demonstrating against an occupying power can be a very dangerous business you see. Just as the Palestinians of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip today demonstrate against the occupying might of the Israeli army, so the Palm Sunday procession led by Jesus was seen as some kind of demonstration against the occupying might of Rome.
Jesus was walking a dangerous path, and he knew it. There were other Palm Sundays. On one occasion Theodus of Jordan marched into Jerusalem and led hundreds of followers out into the hills where he claimed he would repeat the miracles of Elijah. On that occasion the soldiers rode out and slaughtered 400 of Theodus’ followers. They brought back his head and stuck it on the Garrison wall as a lesson to all would-be Messiahs. Jesus knew he was walking a dangerous path.
“Hosannah, hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” These were words that every Jew knew well. They are from psalm 118 if you want to look them up, verses 25 & 26. This psalm was always used at the feast of Tabernacles and the feast of Passover. At both these festivals the Jews praised God for setting them free from slavery in Egypt. After they had been conquered by other nations, these festivals became times of prayer for freedom. Prayer that God would act again in a mighty and spectacular way – plagues, pillars of fire and smoke, parting of the sea, miraculous food in the desert, water from a rock – and set them free again. In Jesus day the fervent prayer was for freedom from the Roman empire, the occupying power. Freedom from crippling taxes and all kinds of oppression.
“Hosanna ! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” By shouting this, the crowd are saying, “At long last, here comes the one who will lead us in rebellion against the Romans.” You see, the Jews were looking for a Messiah under every rock and stone. At Passover time they were whipped up into a frenzy of excitement. They were ready to follow a leader, they were ready for God’s mighty act of salvation. The Romans were finally going to get what was coming to them.
The palms that they waved were a long-standing symbol of Jewish Nationalism. The Romans knew this and they were jumpy. Things could have got very nasty. Jesus only had to say the word, and a bloodbath would have ensued. At that moment he held in his hand the power of the mob, the power to unite a mixed crowd against a common enemy. I wonder if he cast his mind back to his time of testing in the wilderness when he was tempted to tread the road that led to power and might and military strength. He rejected it in the desert, he rejects it now.
Can you imagine the confusion, the disappointment, the frustration of those cheering, excited followers, when Jesus is led from Pilates palace in chains and with the skin and muscle torn off his back, too weak even to carry his own cross. Maybe some of those who had cheered on Palm Sunday joined in with the soldiers’ mocking and jeering. It must have been a relief to them to see this potential rabble-rouser and trouble-causer now so humble and weak. At least they wouldn’t have to spend the week quelling a riot or a rebellion.
They jeered and spat in derision. “Call yourself a Messiah? What use is a Messiah in chains? Call yourself a prophet? Go on then, tell us who hit you.”
How easily human hope is extinguished. How easily adoration becomes hatred. It might have been easier if he had gone down fighting, if he’d argued in his defence, if he had pulled off some amazing escape, if he had called down legions of angels to free him from his captors. But who respects a man who marches submissively to his death, with no rousing deathbed speech, seemingly with no stomach for the fight? The disciples and the crowds were crippled with disappointment.
On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus had asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And then more directly, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter had blurted out, “You are the Messiah.” At the gates of Jerusalem the crowds took up Peter’s confession, “You are the Messiah, Hosanna in the highest.” And yet all along that long and arduous walk to Jerusalem the disciples had bickered and argued about which among them would have the best seat in God’s coming kingdom. Jesus trod the road weary and disillusioned, he was about to leave God’s work in the hands of a few social misfits who displayed no understanding of the teaching he had given them over the last three years.
Maybe his silence was a silence of resignation. Maybe he had had enough of trying to bring God’s word to a people who would not listen; a people who did not have the ears to hear or the eyes to see this spectacular demonstration of the love of God. His disciples had deserted him in his hour of need. Peter who had promised never to deny him had denied even knowing him. Judas had sold him for thirty pieces of silver. He had no-one in the world to turn to, nobody understood who he was or why he was. He must have been filled with a hollow, empty loneliness. The crowds that had cheered as he entered Jerusalem had melted away, and were probably already out looking for another popular hero to save them from the Romans – what about Barabbas, he’ll do.
And is it so different today? How quickly the words of adoration that we sing here fade away when we encounter life as it is. How soon our words of faith and commitment melt in the heat of difficult circumstances. Who are the Barabbas’s that we turn to to bring us a quick fix, an easy life? Is God confident to leave his work, his mission in our clumsy hands?
Palm Sunday can bring for us a moment of decision. A decision to say yes despite all the doubts; a decision to make Christ count in our lives, in your life; a decision to stand back from the crowd and respond as individuals to the invitation offered to all of us to live as God’s children. As this Holy Week unfolds, watch as the characters play their part. Then be still for a moment and decide how you will respond to this Jesus who came riding on a donkey.

I told you I was ill!

John 11:1-46 (CEB)

Lazarus is ill

A certain man, Lazarus, was ill. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This was the Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped his feet with her hair. Her brother Lazarus was ill.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, saying, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”
When he heard this, Jesus said, “This illness isn’t fatal. It’s for the glory of God so that God’s Son can be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was. After two days, he said to his disciples, “Let’s return to Judea again.”
The disciples replied, “Rabbi, the Jewish opposition wants to stone you, but you want to go back?”
Jesus answered, “Aren’t there twelve hours in the day? Whoever walks in the day doesn’t stumble because they see the light of the world. But whoever walks in the night does stumble because the light isn’t in them.”
He continued, “Our friend Lazarus is sleeping, but I am going in order to wake him up.”
The disciples said, “Lord, if he’s sleeping, he will get well.” They thought Jesus meant that Lazarus was in a deep sleep, but Jesus had spoken about Lazarus’ death.
Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died. For your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there so that you can believe. Let’s go to him.”
Then Thomas (the one called Didymus) said to the other disciples, “Let us go too so that we may die with Jesus.”

Jesus with Martha and Mary

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was a little less than two miles from Jerusalem. Many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary after their brother’s death. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.”
Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”
After she said this, she went and spoke privately to her sister Mary, “The teacher is here and he’s calling for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to Jesus. He hadn’t entered the village but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were comforting Mary in the house saw her get up quickly and leave, they followed her. They assumed she was going to mourn at the tomb.
When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”
When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. He asked, “Where have you laid him?”
They replied, “Lord, come and see.”
Jesus began to cry. The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”

Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb

Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”
Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.”
Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”
Therefore, many of the Jews who came with Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.

I’m departing from my normal pattern this week because my thoughts have been dominated by Sunday’s lectionary text – the story of the raising of Lazarus – so I am going to blog about that and see if I can get it out of my system.

Here we have a story with potential to be a REAL help for people like me whose work brings them into regular contact with people who have just lost a loved one and are in the very early, raw stages of grief.  Where better to turn than the pages of the Gospel where Jesus is faced with this very situation.

And yet…

It is my experience that in general (with many notable exceptions I am sure) – men deal with pastoral situations in a way that leans very heavily on wanting to “fix” things so they can go back to normal – or if they can’t do that, to do something “useful” or “practical” to fix another problem.

How many men have you heard by hospital beds as follows…

man: “errr… I bought you some flowers, and these grapes.”
patient: “thanks – they’re lovely!”
man: errr…

(long awkward silence)

patient: “you’re allowed to fetch a chair from over there – why not come and sit down?”
man: “errr… no, I can’t stop…  errr…  can I get you anything?”
patient: “no thanks – I think I have everything I need.”
man: “can I got round to your place and feed the cat? would that help?”
patient: “I don’t have a cat – but that’s a kind offer!  Why not come and sit and talk for a bit?”
man: (looks at watch) “errr…  I really must dash…  I can drop round to your house and water the plants – would that help?”
patient: “no thanks – Edna from next door is seeing to that – she has a key.”
man: “ahhh…  shall I go the the library and get you some books?”
woman: “I have a big pile of these audio books and my ipod – but thanks for the offer!”
man: “errrr….  shall I pop by your house on the way home and build you an extension?”

etc…  (you get the idea!)

Men like to feel useful and to fix things.

When my kids were small I could fix just about anything – I had magic powers!  I can remember the first time I was confronted with Emrys and a thing I could not wave my magic wand over and “fix” – the goldfish died.  It wasn’t as if it died while Emrys was at school – I could have fixed that by buying a new fish and Emrys none the wiser!  It was there – floating, dead.  I had seen some people attempt mouth-to-mouth on goldfish – but I thought it was beyond that.  This fish was not just resting, it wasn’t just stunned – it was actually, properly dead.

It was a HUGE learning moment for me.  I now knew what parenting was about.  It wasn’t about magically fixing every problem that came along.  What Emrys needed was for me to be there while grief worked its way through – while loss was experienced.


I have long been disappointed with Jesus in this scene.  He encounters Martha in her grief – and tries to fix that with some theological gubbins – then he encounters Mary in her incosolable grief – and stands with her at the graveside – a good start – but then it’s almost as if the MAN in Jesus kicks back in and he decides to “fix” things by simply bringing Lazarus back to life.  Bish-bash-bosh – problem solved – job done – let’s crack open the beer!

Of course there ARE some things you could learn from Jesus about being with those who grieve.  He encounters two women – two very different women – and they are both grieving differently.  Martha (we imagine) is distracting herself with business – funeral arrangements don’t make themselves…  Mary (we imagine) is moping and fannying about sobbing and woe-is-me-ing…  (can you tell which I am from my unbiased account?!)

Here’s the thing, though – both say EXACTLY the same thing to Jesus when he greets them: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”

We might speculate about tone of voice or body language – but they both say the same thing – and – to his credit – Jesus responds to each of them in a very different way.  He offers Martha some theology – he knows she will respond to that – he offers Mary some time at the graveside and his own tears – he knows she will respond to that.  (only then does he ruin it all by raising Lazarus from the dead!)

Yes – Jesus is spot on.  There is no “right” way to be with someone who grieves, there is no formula, no magic words, no blueprint of steps to be taken.  That’s a great lesson to learn.

This year, though, I have thought some more about this whole episode.  I still find it unsatisfying and I have tried to understand why.

I think it is this…

There is more to being ALIVE than not being dead!

I used to visit a bloke who would always tell me the same thing.  When I asked him how he was he would always respond “well, I’m not dead!”

Being alive is more than not being dead – surely??  Not being dead is merely the prelude to life – there has to be more to come, doesn’t there?

Yet with this story we don’t get any of the interesting bit.  We only get..

How are you lazarus?
Well – I’m not dead.

We are not told ANY of the important bit – what does it MEAN for Lazarus to be ALIVE?  What does he do with that life?  What is the quality of that life?  How Christ-like is that life – is he actually ALIVE in any real sense beyond simply not being dead?  That’s why this frustrates me.

This is SO different to Jesus rising from the dead for which this is supposed to be a precursor…

Jesus is not just NOT DEAD – Jesus is ALIVE!   Alleluiah!