Monthly Archives: March 2018

Easter Day Sermon. Noli Me Tangere!

(Noli Me Tangere, Paulo Veronese, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Grenoble.)

John 20:17 (King James Version)

Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: 

but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, 
and your Father; and to my God, and your God. 
 “Noli me tangere” – “touch me not”.  It has been a popular subject for artists, and many early examples show Mary Magdelene stretching out to touch Jesus whilst Jesus performs a very impressive side-stepping swerve manoeuvre with an accompanying “BACK OFF!” hand gesture.
It seems harsh, doesn’t it, for Jesus to behave like this towards Mary Magdalene of all people.  She had seen him cruelly crucified; she thought she had lost the only one who helped her make sense of life; she was in the depths of grief over a man she had loved and lost.  And here he is standing before her, close to the tomb where she thought his cold, dead body lay – and she reaches out to touch him to check that he is real, that this is not a dream or a mirage.  Perhaps her tears are making the world a bit blurry and she cannot entirely trust what she sees; perhaps she worries that her lack of sleep and her stress and anxiety and worry have made her prone to hallucination; perhaps, having lost him for ever, she just wants the reassurance of feeling his warm, human, compassionate, solid presence.  Whatever, it matters not, she instinctively reaches out her hand to touch…
Maybe it reminds us of our childhood and those dusty old-fashioned museums where every single exhibit, that was not encased in glass and barrier-ed off with rope, had a sign on it that declared “Do not touch!”  Museums are different now!  Kids of today are positively encouraged to touch exhibits and engage with them.
I recently went on a 25th anniversary reunion of the people I trained for the Ministry with.  We went to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. They have a fabulous geological display of fantastic crystal and rock samples – huge slabs.  One is moon rock.  It is on a plinth – and you are positively encouraged to touch it.  It is fantastic! 
But that is not my memory of childhood – and I suspect it isn’t yours either!
 It seems at odds to hear Jesus saying this to Mary Magdalene, doesn’t it?
Where there is a mystery, there are people willing to explain it!
The internet is a fabulous place – but not a place for the unwary!  All of the following I have found from the keyboards of preachers and christian apologists from around the world.
  1. Jesus tells Mary not to touch because he is still a bit sore after the crucifixion.
  2. Jesus tells Mary not to touch because he has just risen from the dead and left his grave-clothes folded in the tomb and he is naked.  Any touching would be impure and inappropriate at this point.
  3. Jesus tells Mary not to touch because he now has a resurrection body that is different to an ordinary body and can’t be touched.
This is not an OUCH! do not touch!

This is not an OOOH THAT’S EMBARASSING! do not touch!

This is not an IT’LL BE A BIT WEIRD! do not touch!
This is Mary!  Not long before this she was kneeling, wiping her tears from his feet with her hair and anointing him with perfume.  Jesus is not afraid of physical intimacy with Mary.  
This is Jesus! The same Jesus who later on INVITES or CHALLENGES Thomas to touch.
So, there must be something else here.  Of course there is!
It may not surprise you to hear that the King James Version is perhaps not the best translation of these words.  Scholars would encourage us to hear this nowadays not like a forbidding command, like DO NOT WALK ON THE GRASS! – “don’t touch!” – but as “Don’t cling onto me.”  It’s not a one off gesture – but an ongoing gesture – don’t keep holding onto me – don’t cling onto me.
Jesus saith unto her, don’t stay here clinging onto me; 
for I am not yet ascended to my Father: 
but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, 
and your Father; and to my God, and your God.
Mary has work to do – Jesus wants her to go and tell the disciples – the first evangelist was a woman, the first witnesses were women.  The men won’t believe her and will have to come and check for themselves – but still that is her task – to go and tell the good news.  In one way it is a bit like the disciples on top of the mount of transfiguration.  “Shall we build shelters and stay up here in your presence longer?”  No, says Jesus – don’t cling to this place, don’t cling to this moment, don’t cling to me here – we need to go back down the mountain to a hungry and thirsty world.
If anything it reminds me of those moments at nursery or the primary school gate at the start of a new intake – toddlers clinging to a parent’s leg, parent desperately trying to persuade them that they need to let go – that there is a world beyond the clinging relationship they have now – parent will still be there – parents will assure toddlers that they will always be there – but don’t cling on – you’re growing up, there is more to discover.
But I think it is more than Jesus telling Mary she has a job to do.
It’s also about Jesus wanting Mary to see that what she has so far experienced of Jesus has only been a tiny taster of what is to come – there is MORE.  Jesus wants her to grow and expand and spread her wings and discover everything she needs to discover. So far she has only experienced the earthly Jesus – and great as that has been, Jesus is telling her that he is going to ASCEND!  The Spirit will be poured out – there is so much more to come.  CLINGING on to this limited experience of Jesus – wanting to stay there – wanting it all to be as it was before – that will stop you really being set free.  And all that is condensed into “Don’t cling onto me now, Mary”
I imagine that Mary and the risen Jesus DID embrace – of course they did!!  This isn’t about not touching.  And she understood, even if the King James Version didn’t!
But all of us CLING ON to a limited experience of Jesus.
We might be clinging on to a Sunday School faith that reassures us but doesn’t really help us deal with the complicated issues and decisions that confront us in our adult lives;
We might be clinging on to an expression of our faith that moulded church life in the 1950s or 60s or 70s, but doesn’t see to resonate in 2018;
We might be clinging on to attitudes that were once seen as embodying christian principles, but now have been shown to be oppressive and damaging to human life;
All of us CLING ON to a limited experience of Jesus.
and Jesus is ALWAYS telling us NOT TO CLING ON!
There is ALWAYS more truth and light for us to discover if we will only do as Jesus commanded Mary – “go to my brethren and tell them!” – or as Jesus told the disciples on the mount of transfiguration “we’re going down the mountain and heading for Jerusalem.”
There is MORE to come!
Analogies are never perfect – so take it as it is – but at this moment, it is almost as if Jesus is telling Mary that what she knows of him is a bit like this party-popper.  What she has seen so far is something new and exciting – full of potential.  Wrapped up in this human life – walking, talking, touching, living, breathing is something explosive that will change the world.  She knows that – she has felt that – and she wants to hang on to that – she wants to keep the party popper.
But Jesus says – there is MORE!  Go and tell the disciples – for in a few days time I am going to pull that string and you have no idea what will be unleashed!  Just wait and see what happens at Pentecost!  What you are clinging onto now is just the beginning.
so – don’t cling to me – GO! – run and tell everyone!
(set off popper)   AMEN!

Phil’s Top Five Good Friday Tunes

Good Friday
Good Friday is a highly emotional day and has inspired some of the most emotive and passionate music you could ever want to hear. I have something of a reputation for making people cry on Good Friday at services of meditation and reflection at the foot of the cross – not by reveling in gory details, but in bringing out the emotion of the characters around Jesus – the hatred, the love, the vilification, the tears, the mocking…

I never apologise for this as our experience of the emotion of Good Friday only serves to heighten our joy on Easter Sunday.

Music can be a big part of this, so here I offer five pieces that you might pause to listen to on this painful day. I have tried not to pick pieces from the same work, and I am sure that if I chose again next week I might pick five different pieces – but these are my choices for today.

1. The opening of Bach’s St John’s Passion.
(The opening track “Herr, Unser Herrscher” – “Lord, our Ruler”)

Lord, our ruler, whose glory
is magnificent everywhere!
Show us through your passion,
that you , the true son of God,
at all times
even in the most lowly state,
are glorified. 

2. Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere mei, Deus”, “Have mercy on me, O God”

It was composed during the reign of Pope Urban VIII, probably during the 1630s, for use in the Sistine Chapel during matins, as part of the exclusive Tenebrae service on Holy Wednesday and Good Friday of Holy Week.

Have mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness: 
according to the multitude of thy mercies do away mine offenses. 

3. Handel’s Messiah “Surely he hath borne our griefs”

Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows! 
He was wounded For our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; 
the Chastisement of our peace was upon Him. (Isaiah 53: 4-5)

4. Karl Jenkins, Stabat Mater: “And the Mother did Weep.”

And the Mother did weep.
And the Mother did weep.
And the Mother did weep.
And the Mother did weep.
And the Mother did weep.
Vehaeym bachetah (Hebrew)
Lacrimavit Mater (Latin)
Warkath hahi imma (Aramaic)
Kai eklausen he meter (Greek)

5. The absolutely unmissable Pergolesi setting of “Stabat Mater”

Stabat Mater dolorosa
iuxta Crucem lacrimosa,
dum pendebat Filius.

At, the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to Jesus to the last.

Anyway – now I’ve set myself off again listening to all these gloriously mournful and Passion-full tracks… I hope they have moved you somehow today.

Easter Items

I came across this advert today, it made me smile, but it also made me a little bit sad.

I’m not interested in the origins of Easter Eggs and Easter Bunnies or whether Pagans once ate them or dressed up as them, nor whether if we claim they did we are also interested in the religious practices that accompanied them – no! – as you can see there is absolutely no way I could ever get easily drawn into a discussion about that! 🙂

It did make me wonder what MY list of “Easter Items” might look like:

  • Whip
  • Bloodied cross
  • Nails
  • Crown of thorns
  • Spear
  • Empty Tomb
  • Discarded graveclothes

(None of them sealed – though the tomb once was; all well used.)

I don’t know which list of Easter Items is most attractive.  My list looks a bit less fun, I guess.  It reminds me of Steve Turner’s poem:

Christmas is really
for the children.
Especially for children
who like animals, stables,
stars and babies wrapped
in swaddling clothes.
Then there are wise men,
kings in fine robes,
humble shepherds and a
hint of rich perfume.

Easter is not really
for the children
unless accompanied by
a cream filled egg.
It has whips, blood, nails,
a spear and allegations
of body snatching.
It involves politics, God
and the sins of the world.
It is not good for people
of a nervous disposition.
They would do better to
think on rabbits, chickens
and the first snowdrop
of spring.

Or they’d do better to
wait for a re-run of
Christmas without asking
too many questions about
what Jesus did when he grew up
or whether there’s any connection. 

Happy (hoppy?) Holy Week!

Barabbas and Co. speak out.

Three characters, a donkey owner, Simon the Zealot and Barabbas speak their minds about some of the events of Holy Week…

(Written for a Palm Sunday service at Muddiford URC.  Barabbas is included because once again a crowd gets swept away on a tide of emotion…)

Meditation of a donkey owner
They were ‘avin away with me donkey!  Two of ‘em, bold as brass, in broad daylight!
OI! You – geroff me donkey!
They looked at me, calm as you like, with smiles on their faces.
The master needs it.
I racked me brain.  The master?  What master?  Whose master?
Then it came back to me – the deep, intense bloke who’d spoken to me a few weeks before  – out Jericho way – they must mean ‘im!
I’d been going about me business, ordinary day, when I’d come across a crowd looking up into a tree.  There was a tiny bloke up there looking embarrassed and wishing the leaves would swallow ‘im up.  Some were laughing and pointing, but others were also watching a preacher-guy who was shouting something up at the tree-guy.
The little guy climbs down and the crowd follows as he and the preacher guy wander off to a house and disappear inside.
The crowd started to disperse – but I got chatting with an olive seller who I knew from years back and he said that the preacher guy (Jesus) had spotted the little guy (Zacchaeus) up the tree while he was preaching.  Apparently Zacchaeus was the local tax collector – scum! – and Jesus had spoken to him and asked if he could go round his house for tea.  Zacchaeus had agreed and had half climbed/half fallen out of the tree and set off with Jesus – and here we were.
We chatted about other stuff for a bit – and then out comes Zacchaeus all in a flap – and he’s promising to give away half his possessions to the poor and pay back anyone he had cheated four times over!  Jesus is smiling and shouts “surely salvation has come to this house today!”
As you can imagine – there was a bit of a scrum – Zacchaeus gets mobbed by folk claiming to be poor and wanting his stash right now!
And as the crowd’s attention is distracted, Jesus picks me out – looks right at me – and walks over.
“I’ll be needing a donkey” he says.  “I understand you can help me.”
How did he know?  I don’t have a rent-a-donkey hat (though, come to think of it – that’s a very good idea!) – he didn’t know me from Adam.
I stammered and stuttered – errr…  when, what, where, how…  errr…  what?
“You’ll know” he said…
And then he was gone.
The master needs it….
Of course – take her – she’s all yours – least I can do!  Err…  bye!!
The master needs it….  The master needs me…  ME!  Wow!  He needs me!
Meditation of Simon the Zealot
They weren’t there by accident, you know – those crowds.  That was a LOT of hard work.
I still had connections to the zealots in Jerusalem, and of course all the old crowd were in town for the Passover – no better time to sign up new recruits.  Judas helped me – he could see it like I did – Jesus needed a push, probably not a big one – if he really wanted to help the poor, then agenda item number one was throwing off the evil yoke of Rome, being our own masters again.
We worked hard – working the traveling crowds – passing on the word.
Jesus had sent two of the others to get a donkey – we knew he’d be coming down from Bethphage and the Mount of Olives and in through the North East gate – so we could make sure there would be a crowd – kick up a bit of a storm – it would be crazy to let the opportunity pass – maximum impact – maximum attention – Jesus would realise that he only needed to say the word…
It worked a treat!  We had palm leaves – they’d make the Romans take notice – Jewish rabble waving palms and singing that psalm “Hosanna!  Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” – the stuff any Jewish nationalist demo was made of!
We’d surpassed ourselves – there were more there than we could ever have hoped – waving palms, singing, throwing cloaks in the road.  Me and Judas and some other guys worked the margins – encouraging a chant here – getting the singing going there… giving out palm leaves to those on the edges – encouraging them closer…
All Jesus had to do was seize the moment.
All Jesus had to do was find the right words and that crowd was his.
I wasn’t carrying – but I knew plenty of guys who were – I saw several Sicarii – the really violent wing of the Jerusalem Zealots – they all had little knives concealed in their cloaks – and they were ready to use them.
But…  no.
Jesus did nothing.
We kept the noise going as long as we could – but as the procession got near the garrison, folk started melting away.  The sight of nervous Roman guards tooled up to the hilt is a bit of a turn-off when it comes to casual demonstrating.
When we got to the temple, only the children were singing…
He’d let us all down, I was gutted, it had all been for nothing.  Coward.
Of course I know different now – but that’s how I felt then – and so at the time he needed me most, I was sulking and resentful.  Judas felt it harder than I did, I think – maybe that’s why he did what he did – I’d never have gone that far – but in the end, it was never Jesus who let me down – but ME who let HIM down. 
Meditation of Barabbas
That’s how I felt!
It was a near death experience!  I’d said my goodbyes – I knew there was no escaping it this time.  Crime: insurrection; Verdict: guilty; Penalty: death.
There were others like me in the jail – some of them caught with knives over the festival – they’d been out at some demonstration at the North East gate – got drunk and caused trouble later that night.  Never try and stab a Roman guard whilst under the influence is my motto – it’s hard enough when you’re sober – believe me – they’ve got body armour and big stabby swords!  I have a couple of notches on my CV, though – folk know who I am.
No escaping this time though…
Then I heard it..
“Free Barabbas!  Free Barabbas!” and jeers and shouts and cheers…
Yeah, right, I thought – very touching and all – but stupid!  You’ll only get yourselves arrested demonstrating for my release – we’ll hang together!  Knock it off!  Muppets!
And then – from the cells on the other side – there’s a prisoner getting dragged out and flogged.  It turns out this was Jesus – the bloke from the North East gate demo.
I’ve no idea what’s going on – I can still hear the chanting – “Free Barabbas!  Free Barabbas!”  As if!  As if the romans are gonna release ME – at Passover of all times! ME! Strewth – folk can be thick as mince!
Then they’re dragging Jesus past my cell and out into the courtyards – he’s barely conscious now – covered in blood – I’ve seen prisoners not survive those floggings…
It turns out that Pilate was offering the crowd some kind of warped choice – as a special favour – a Passover tradition that I’d never heard of!  Who did they want to release – me or him – me or Jesus!
I have no idea how it came down to me or him – there’s other folk in there who have done nowt – but that’s what was going down – a choice – me or him. And they’d chosen me.
But Pilate had given it another go – he’d had Jesus flogged – and now he’d dragged the unconscious, bleeding Jesus in front of them – maybe now he’d get the sympathy vote.
But no! the chants are even louder – “Free Barabbas!  Free Barabbas!”
And then: “Crucify!  Crucify!  Crucify!”  It was chilling – even to a hardened killer like me.
And that was it.  The guards dragged me out of the cell – gave me a kicking and threw me out of the back door.
And the other guy was crucified.
Here’s the thing, though.  Knowing what I know now, I reckon that while they chanted ““Free Barabbas!  Free Barabbas!” – Jesus was probably joining in.  I reckon he’d have chosen to save me with his very last breath.
It’s enough to make a hard man think…