The Story of Jesus at Easter

(John 18:1 – 19:42)

This week someone asked me about Judas in the story of Jesus’ death.  Is Judas a bad guy or was he a puppet required to make things happen as they were required?  What place does Judas have in the story?  He betrays and is cast out of the group and then either takes his own life or falls over a cliff and dies, depending on which account we read.

This question set me thinking.  I could respond is a variety of ways.  I thought about the range of answers I might have given over the years.  At one point I might have said that he was plain bad, evil, greedy.  At another time I may have said he was the one who pushed Jesus into the hands of those who had to kill Jesus because that was how the events were foreordained.  Over the years there are points in which my answers would have been more black and white, definite and concise.  As I contemplated my answer to this questions I realised that it is messy.  Who was Judas?  What motivated him?  What did he actually do and was that different to either the various authors’ accounts or even what he thought he was doing?  Was his role in the story as clear in actuality as it seems when we read?

At the same time I contemplated my response I also listened to the awful news of terrorist attacks in Brussels.  Bombs in airport and railway, killing innocent people.  It seems unsurprising these days but always awful and chilling.  There are events across our world that continue the disturb and even strike fear into us.  We feel helpless before the world’s ugliest moments of evil and hatred.  We feel angry but overwhelmed because these events are so much bigger than we are and there is little if anything we can do.  Perhaps world leaders may have some capacity to act but we are helpless.

When I held these kinds of events and questions together – terrorism and Jesus’ death – I felt the overwhelming helplessness of life in the world.  I cannot contain or change these things.  Sometimes I look at Jesus’ death through eyes that see the political context of it.  When Rome crucified people it was for political reasons – treason or their own form of terrorism.  Jesus was killed as a political prisoner because his way threatened the integrity of the Empire.  Jesus’ death was also in response to the very threat hi way posed for the religious authorities of his time.  His teaching, his life and his way of God challenged the structures and heart of Jewish faith in the 1st century.  These kinds of explanations offer some insight for me into the world and the church.  The powers and authorities of the world feel the threat of God’s way of love in the world.  Think Martin Luther King jr (or Romero in El Salvador and many others) who champion the way of God which is love.  The world rejects them and often has killed them.  The church and other institutions in our society are often threatened by Jesus’ way because it challenges structures, power and welcomes vulnerability, community and love.  People don’t always like this.  I don’t always like this.  It is hard to love people all the time.  It is hard not to feel judgement or fear before some people.  It is a courageous and profound thing to embrace other people and love them.

Judas entered my ponderings here.  Judas is a confusing character who isn’t clearly defined within the various accounts.  He has actions ascribed to him but what is his motivation and what did he actually do?  Peter is another.  He is described as having denied Jesus but what place do wither of these really have in the story?  Did the authorities need Judas to betray Jesus?  Surely he was known – they knew who they wanted to take down. They tried to trap him and he attacked them with his stories and words.  So why Judas?  Why Peter?

I’m not completely sure but they offer me a way into a story that is deeper than politics or religion.  They offer me a way into a story that takes me into my own life and how I struggle with right and wrong, good and evil.  There are moments when good seems bad or right seems wrong.  There are times when a greater good seems to require a short term bad action to get there.  Sometimes I feel like I’m in the ocean being thrown around in a wave, disoriented and lost in the puzzling context of questions and events of life and the world.  Every time I think I have a grip on what is true and right something changes and I am again disoriented.  The change may be slight but even that enough to change perspective.  The events and experiences of my own life merge into the experience of the story of Jesus and lends interpretive movement to the journey.

As I get older the journey becomes more about mystery and wonder.  I am happier to ponder the questions rather than demand black and white answers.  So Judas lends me another way into the story and poses more questions that break the story of Jesus open to challenge, confront or inspire me.  I can’t shut it off with the simplistic answers of yesteryear.  Who was this man?  Why did the writers write as they did?  What was in the collective memory of the aural/oral society that spoke of Judas as they did?  What did he think?  In Jesus Christ Superstar there is an intriguing possibility that Judas was concerned that everything had escalated out of control and Jesus began to believe the rhetoric that others offered about him.  Judas couldn’t see through his limited vision; he couldn’t believe but was fearful for Jesus.  He was fearful of what this movement was building towards and where it would go.  Everything was changing and he felt lost.

I get that because this is sometimes me.  Change all around me and I am pushing more change, trying to build something within the small congregations of our Zone in the Hawkesbury.  Sometimes the people around me and even within myself, there are questions and uncertainty and we want to stop because it seems to be moving too fast.  Isn’t this the case, thought, for all of us?

Such pondering opens the stories to reveal more truth and light.  In this profound story I continually encounter new wisdom and inspiration to engage in life at all levels.  I gain inspiration to believe and to keep going even if it is against the flow of society because this is the way of Jesus.  Over the last few weeks some of us through the Hawkesbury have been engaged with some studies around the theme of ‘When Loves Comes to Town’ (named after the U2 song).  We pondered how when Love (God is love!) comes to town, breaks into our lives, new possibilities and life materialise.  When Love comes to town we see the world differently, hopefully and are filled with the wonder and mystery of God.  May this season give you moments of deep pondering and enlightenment.

By geoffstevenson

The Yearning in the Human Heart…

The older I get the more I am convinced that people are essentially spiritual and yearn for spiritual depth, meaning and hope in their lives.  I think that in an overtly materialistic world it is more so the case.  There is something within the human being that yearns for the spiritual and attached to that yearning is meaning, purpose, hope and love.  When I speak about ‘spiritual’ I am not placing any specific form on that word because whilst there may be a yearning for spirituality, any such search often takes people away from organised religions.  They offer their systems of belief rather than a way of life that runs deep and quenches the inner thirst of spirit.  Perhaps the God of which I speak is actually over there?

In times of crisis, grief and uncertainty, people I have met long for that which touches their inner being and brings hope.  Such moments take us deeper than the more superficial elements of our life – work, house, possessions and bank balance, education, status, power and so on.  Such moments of crisis or ongoing struggle confront us with the non-material realities of life that stir our souls and inner being.  What is real?  What is true?  What is hopeful?  Where is love and joy and peace?  What is really important?

Some people are very clear about these things.  Their lives are lived on the very edge of being, tested and strained to breaking point by poverty, illness, emotional pain or oppressive danger.  They know what is important and what is clearly superficial and transient.  Food for the day, water to drink, a place to sleep in safety, people to share the struggle with – a community or family that can stand together – and something or someone beyond them who might offer liberation and release – hope!  For others of us it is more at points of stress or pain that we confront something of the futility of life as it is lived and what we are told is ‘true and good for us’.  When my world comes crashing down what good is ambition or status or education or money or any other material thing in which I may have placed all my trust and hope?

Beyond the struggles of life, though, there are other ‘symptoms’ of our endless search for spiritual meaning as we seek to be filled with awe and wonder.  I feel awe and wonder when touched deeply in my being, my soul.  I gaze into the sunset as the colours flare through reds, pinks and oranges, burning up the sky in brilliant beauty.  I feel awe and wonder when I look into the garden with its flowers and trees and diverse beauty or into the local creek as it twists and turns to the sounds of bird-song.  I feel awe and wonder when moved by the beauty of a melody or song that lifts my spirit.  The simple meal around a table with family and friends sharing stories and laughter or the occasional tears and pain.  I feel awe and wonder in the profound lives of people who give their all for the sake of others, the common good, justice, peace and the well-being of the world.  The martyrdom of Martin Luther King jr, Romero, Bonhoeffer and others moves me, inspires me and lifts my vision.  When I see the simple smile of the children from the Shalom Orphanage in West Papua, too poor to own shoes and living extremely simply, I am moved, touched and connected to something deeper.  (So it seems to me a little off-putting when we can attach a word such as ‘awesome’ to the more mundane things of life such as the possibility of a fast food meal)

This week we celebrate that which is commonly called ‘Palm Sunday’.  This year we read Luke’s version (Luke 19:28-40).  It’s a strange story as it describes Jesus riding into Jerusalem, the holy city of religious power, on a humble donkey.  As he rides, the people, ordinary crowds of lowly people disenfranchised by the system – both Roman and Jewish Religion – gather and sing a song of welcome to the king.  Jesus is hailed as a King but has nothing of the detritus of kingship.  He has no crown, no sword or spear, no temporal power or authority, no temporal wealth.  He comes humbly on a donkey and the lowly hail him as their king.  He has listened, engaged, healed, and spoken hope into the mess of their lives.  He has told them that God loves them and that this love looks different from what they sometimes imagine because it comes unconditionally.  He told stories where the little ones are lifted up into God’s presence whilst the powerful are cast aside, even as they cast the little ones aside in the haste and lust to gain even more.

What I missed for many years was the story of power that we don’t hear in the Bible, it being more concerned with the counter-story, this prophetic alternative.  The story of power runs like this.  Pontius Pilate, the Governor of Judea, always came into the holy city of Jerusalem at Passover.  It was a time of celebration but offered hope to subversive voices who sought to stir up trouble amongst the plethora of pilgrims flooding into the city.  Pilate was Caesar’s representative and came with the power, might and flourish of Rome.  A great stallion, a war horse, held Pilate high.  He was surrounded by soldiers, on horseback and foot.  The clanging of swords, spears, shields, the weapons of war and symbols of military might.  Trumpets and heralds broadcast his presence and everyone bowed – everyone who valued their life, at any rate.  This was a show of power, a threatening show of power to demonstrate who is boss and to warn troublemakers off.  Pilate represents Rome, the most powerful power in their world.

Jesus’ simple parade with songs of praise looks meagre, although perhaps more people gathered?  Despite Rome’s overwhelming show of power and the demonstration of might, the people yearned for this simple rabbi and what he offered through story and gracious love.  The people longed for what he said and promised even though there didn’t seem to be the remotest possibility of him delivering; this simple man against the might of Rome.  All he had was love and the belief that God was in this and in and through him.  He had passion for the way of God and lived it thoroughly before the powers of the world – and in their faces.  He followed his passion to the end and hung on a cross, dying because of love and hope and God’s Reign in the world.

The people felt it, saw it, believed it but it couldn’t be grasped and held onto.  They could get in line with this One and walk in the Way.  It got into them and filled them with awe and yearning of the spirit for the Spirit.  Eyes become open to another hope, another way, a realm within the world where God reigns in love and grace.  Sometimes we have a name and framework for this awe and wonder that fills our soul and sometimes we just yearn to know it more clearly.

By geoffstevenson

The Challenge of the New…

‘A new thing, I am doing a new thing.’  These are words that ring out at me through the Old Testament reading this week (Isaiah 43:16-21).  What caught me in these words is that a new thing is both good and ominous.  There are times when I want something new, when the thought of a new thing is exciting and energising.  A new appliance, CD (yes I know that I can join Spotify etc but I do like the physical disc with its notes ad photos), a new piece of technology, perhaps a new car…  When we first bought our house and were preparing to move, it was exciting and energising.  We all thought through what we would do in the house and what we were looking forward to.  When we got a new car, we drove it around, playing with the gadgets it had and feeling the newness.  When I commenced a new role last year, it came with new challenges and possibilities that were energising.

New things are good.  We all engage with this sense of newness and find renewed energy and vitality in the new.  Leaving behind things that are perhaps old, worn out or past their used-by date can be a relief.  They are replaced and we move onto new things and even new ways.  Sometimes the newness is a new possibility through work or career, relationship, marriage, the birth of a baby…

New things or possibilities often also mean an ending, that something old is now being set aside, thrown away and lost.  When I went to university, it was exciting and a new experience but it meant leaving behind the security and the known of high school and along with that, many of the friends I had had.  Changing jobs meant leaving something behind.  Purchasing a new car meant letting go of a faithful old friend that had journeyed with me through many places – it was a good old thing that I missed.  When we have gotten new pets it has usually meant that a precious member of the family is no longer with us, one of our pets has died.  When we think about the new, there is also the old, with the attendant grief and loss associated with its passing.

God promises these Jewish people a new thing, a new way and that is a source of hope and peace and joy.  Their lives have been turned upside down over a generation or so.  The Babylonian armies have destroyed their home, temple and everything that was theirs.  They now endure life in the far off land of Babylon.  So this is welcome news.  They will have hope and life.  The prophet is speaking into their hopelessness and promising a hopeful end to their struggle.  The people do eventually return home but home is rubble.  There is newness and possibility but also grief and no doubt the desire to return to the way everything used to be.  Why couldn’t we just have our city, homes and Temple?  Why couldn’t everything be the same as it always was?  There is the struggle between the new thing and what was.  Even though the ‘what was’ can no longer be, it must be let go of in order to embrace the new thing that God is offering.

We are often caught between what was and what can be – the old thing and the new possibility.  This is precisely the situation we wrestle with in so many of our institutions and organisations at this time in history.  As everything changes so rapidly all around us, we are being driven into new places of meaning and relevance to encounter and deal with the world that is our lives.  This is difficult!  In so many ways the new is life-giving and exciting but also harrowing and difficult.  It takes energy and will to embrace the new thing and not sentimentalise the old.  It sometimes takes courage to step out in faith to engage with the new thing that lies before us – that, which God is perhaps drawing us into.

In the midst of the new thing and the change that it represents we need to prepare ourselves and even grieve in order to accept, embrace and engage the new thing before us.  In our Gospel reading this week we are confronted with a strange story that is about Jesus dining with Mary, Martha and Lazarus (the one of resuscitation fame).  During the meal, Mary, out of gratitude and understanding, anoints Jesus’ feet.  She is taken to task by a greedy Judas who would prefer the money to go into the shared purse and ostensibly ‘given to the poor’.   This strange event is about grieving Jesus.  Mary, it seems, clearly understands that Jesus’ time is limited, that he will soon be sacrificed on the Roman cross.  His prophetic and compassionate life is too confronting to the powers that be and the world can’t handle such love and grace.  She takes expensive perfume and anoints Jesus, preparing his body for burial.  This sounds very strange to us but is a beautiful act of love and acknowledgement of what will be.  Mary understands what is to come and what confronts Jesus.  She understands that there is a new era about to emerge and Jesus will not be part of it – he has prepared the way and the Spirit of God will be with the people but Jesus will not be there.  This is a public act of love and grief that recognises what will be; what perhaps has to be.  Mary celebrates Jesus and grieves what she will lose.

There is a curious comment of Jesus after Judas castigates Mary suggesting the money for this expensive perfume could have been used for the poor.  Jesus says. ‘The poor you will have always.  You will not always have me.’  This points to the new thing, the new way that Jesus has begun but will continue on through those who follow, who take up God’s way and carry on his mission.  They form communities of grace into which the poor (and all people!) can belong and find they have enough.  This is a prophetic statement that envisages a new way in the world where all will have enough and learn to share with those who don’t.  It is a new thing where love, courage, faith, compassion, justice, peace and joy will mingle with hope to bring life.

The way of God always calls us into new life, new ways and new possibilities.  God is always doing a new thing because there are always people who need new hope, new life and liberation.  It can be hard to embrace all the change, all the letting go and the unsettling instability that embracing newness can require.  The truth is that we are all in a constant state of change, transition and movement into new ways of life but there is a constant that grounds us in hope and provides security amidst the change.  That foundation and constant is God’s love and grace that can hold us in tenuous moments and sustain us in difficult times of transition and transformation.  May God hold you, strengthen you and energise you through the times of newness and the new things that life offers.

By geoffstevenson

What Limits for Love and Grace?

Stories of estrangement are plentiful. A quick survey on Google shows the multitude of stories where there is conflict and ongoing estrangement between people – within families, between friends and within communities. Combined with this are the numerous accounts of children who run away from families for small and large reasons. Of course there is the point in a person’s life when they need to separate from their parents and move into the world standing on their own two feet. This point is reached in different ways and at different times by different people. Some are pushed, like the mother bird pushing her chicks from the nest so they fly or fall. Others are held back, clung to and hampered from making their own way in the world. Some are forced into leaving home through neglect, abuse, or even the loss of parents. In fact some Jewish commentators had described the Genesis 3 story in the Bible, the one about Adam and Eve and the fruit and snake, as a coming-of-age story. In this understanding the humans become self aware and leave the paradise of naive childhood to live in an adult world with all its attendant struggles and problems to overcome.

Stories that describe the loss of relationship and friendship are filled with pathos. There is emotion and pain within their telling. I can’t remember hearing a story of the breakdown of relationship that isn’t sad or filled with grief and loss. Such stories are often full of remorse, regret, guilt, shame, anger or bitterness, or some combination thereof. There is always the memory of what was and the sense of what might have been; the wondering.

Many such stories are also quite pathetic as the cause and effect are based on something simple, irrelevant and miniscule that has blown out of all proportion but been held onto grimly. Neither side will give in. Neither side will apologise or make the move because fear, pride and common stupidity get in the way. Children who leave to take on the world and fail are filled with shame. Those who leave on less than good terms are afraid of not being welcomed back. Friends who fall out with each other don’t seem to be able to break the deadlock – perhaps fear of further rejection or pride or hurt feelings that get in the way stop us.

Yet, there is wonderful joy and life in a reconciled relationship. All the stories of reconciliation are filled with tentative steps and courage to face the fears and uncertainties. All are rewarded with relief, wonder and joy at having the relationship restored. It may take time to fully repair and move on but there is a start. Gently and slowly, the bad feelings fall away and the good memories return, overlaid with new possibilities of living and relating. There is hope and joy. There is life!

This week we are confronted with a story from Jesus (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32). It is well-known and generally called the Prodigal Son. A better name is probably The Loving Father because he is the one who holds it together and he is the one who demonstrates the truth of Jesus’ words as they resound with the wonder and reality of God.   In this story a younger son calls for his father to give him his share of the inheritance – now! This is in effect treating the father as if he is dead. In the story, the father complies and the son saunters off into the world to live his life. He leaves the fold of home and family to make his way in the world. His pride and self-centredness are on full display.

In his foolishness he squanders the money until it is soon gone and he is alone and desperate. Famine rages in this foreign land he descends to a low point in his life. Desperate and helpless in the big, wide world he takes a job feeding pigs and yearns for their food in his hunger. As a Jewish boy this is deeply and profoundly shameful – he is lost, alone and cut off from home.

In his despair he realises that his father’s servants are better off than he and so prepares a speech and hopes his father will give him a job. He sets off towards home. Whilst still a way off his father, looking out, sees him and runs to him, hugs and kisses him. He cries over his lost son who was dead and is now alive, lost and now found. The son doesn’t even get his speech finished as his father embraces him into sonship once more – ‘you are my son!’ Clothed and cleaned up he is the focal point of a party to celebrate his home- coming; the whole town, it seems, turns out because they prepare food enough for many people. This is grace and joy. The father humbles himself and is carried away with emotion. He completely loses it in his compassion and joy at having a dead, lost son return.

His older brother isn’t quite so accommodating and on returning home from work in the field discovers a party for his pathetic brother and refuses to go in. The father again humbles himself and begs his son to come in because his brother was dead and lost but now is alive and home. Anyway, everything the father has belongs to the older son and the older son has never wanted for anything nor has he descended to the low places of his brother. The older son doesn’t see it as fair and can’t recognise compassion and grace. The father loves both sons and goes out to both. Both are received as children of the household but one has been dead, lost, gone, cut off and is now back in the family. The other never left but feels angry because the wayward is treated with love and compassion.

There were people who were lost – lost to families, to communities, to the religious institution; lost to God. They were wandering aimlessly until Jesus’ words and action touched their hearts and he invited them home, back into the heart of God’s love. They found their way back and celebrated over meals and laughed, sang, danced and partied because they were dead but now alive, lost but now found. The religious people thought Jesus was over the top and that these people didn’t deserve God’s love and grace – they were disgusting, sinners, outcasts. They were rejected people and didn’t deserve grace, love or a place in God’s house and family. Jesus didn’t agree – he loved them!

There are too many stories of humanity rejecting others based on past actions, appearance, ideology, poverty and lowliness. There are too many situations where religious people reject others based on beliefs, lifestyle or something else. But God loves and is gracious, welcoming everyone home into the heart of God. God is like this loving father who hugs, kisses, cries over the child, dead and lost, now alive and found. God holds in love and grace those who never leave and wander off so that all have a place in gracious, Divine love!

As Jesus told this story there is the sense in which he says: ‘This is what God is like – go and do likewise!’ God becomes vulnerable and reaches out to a world who rejects and shuns God. God is a reconciling God who welcomes all and will do anything to restore relationships. What about you and I? Will we go to any length to restore relationships and to welcome people into our heart and the heart of God?

By geoffstevenson