Sunday, 20 April 2014

Raise your eyes above the horizon

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Easter Day, 20th April 2014, 11.00am

Colossians 3:1-4  So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,  3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

Daniel 7:9-14
    As I watched,
    thrones were set in place,
        and an Ancient One took his throne,
    his clothing was white as snow,
        and the hair of his head like pure wool;
    his throne was fiery flames,
        and its wheels were burning fire.
    [10] A stream of fire issued
        and flowed out from his presence.
    A thousand thousands served him,
        and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
    The court sat in judgment,
        and the books were opened.

 [13] As I watched in the night visions,
    I saw one like a human being
        coming with the clouds of heaven.
    And he came to the Ancient One
        and was presented before him.
    [14] To him was given dominion
        and glory and kingship,
    that all peoples, nations, and languages
        should serve him.
    His dominion is an everlasting dominion
        that shall not pass away,
    and his kingship is one
        that shall never be destroyed.

Historians will tell us
          that in order to understand the present
                   we have to have an understanding
of the past,
and that this is why it’ so important
          to study history.

because, they will say,
it’s only through the study of where we have come from
          that we will truly understand where we are now

And despite those who might echo Henry Ford’s assertion
          that ‘History is Bunk,
nevertheless, I think that there is some truth in this…
          after all, none of us live in a vacuum,
          isolated from all that has gone before.
Rather, we are, each of us, the sum of our past,
          and the way we understand ourselves
          is informed by where we have come from.

Of course, this doesn’t mean
that we are necessarily condemned by our past
          into certain courses of action
          or certain ways of living.
Each of us has some choice as to what life we will construct
          with the building blocks of our history
          as they have been handed to us

But the raw materials of who we are
          come from the past,
and to properly understand who we are today
          we need a proper understanding of our history.

For example, there are too many of us
who spend our adult lives
weighed down with low self esteem,
seeming utterly unable to shed
our feelings of poor self-worth.

But it may well be that such a person,
if helped to journey back into their memories of their past,
might discover events which have contributed to
their ongoing experience of crippling self-doubt.
Of course, an understanding of our history
          doesn’t automatically solve the problems of our present.
However, it can at least provide us with some insight
          with which to work as we try to re-build our lives differently.

Sometimes people will speak of their experience of therapy
          as analogous to a rearranging of the pieces
          of the jigsaw that makes up the picture of their history.
Taking the events of the past and fitting them together in new ways,
          to see if greater sense can be made of their experience of the present.

And so I could go on, giving other examples
          of how it’s important to understand the past
          in order to properly understand the present,
not only at a personal level,
          but also at a communal level,
          as we seek to understand the communities of which we are a part,
          whether they be churches, families, or even nations.

And it seems that Paul, in his letter to the Colossian church,
          written nearly 2000 years ago
          had a similar insight.

In this letter, Paul starts off by seeking to remind the Colossians
          where they have come from,
in order that they can better understand their present.

In our reading today, from the beginning of chapter three,
          we’re joining Paul about half-way through the letter,
and we’re skipping over the bit where he reminds them
          that they used to be people
                    who lived lives directed and controlled
                    by earthly desires and passions.

In the opening two chapters,
          he reminds his readers
                   that they used to be people
                              who were weighed down by their actions
                              and distant from God

And, above these things,
          Paul also reminds them
          that through their faith in Jesus Christ
                   they have died to this old way of life.

Just listen to these few verses from Chapter 2

God set all your sin aside, nailing it to the cross (v.14)

Therefore do not let anyone condemn you… (v.16)
          do not let anyone disqualify you… (v.18)

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe,
          why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? (v.20)

Do you see what Paul is doing here?
          he’s trying to help the Colossians understand where they have come from
          so that they can better understand their present situation.

He’s trying to show them that they were once a people
          who lived by the world’s rules
But that since turning to Jesus they have died to that way of living
          and that therefore in the present
                    they should not be living as people
                   who are ruled by the things of this world,
          but rather as people who live in obedience to the things of Christ.

Through the second chapter,
Paul has been trying to free his readers
          from the legalistic religion and damaging philosophies
                   that they had inherited,
by reminding them of the truth of the gospel they have received,
          and of the effect that the good news about Jesus
          has already brought about in their lives.

But just in case they haven’t got the point,
          Paul tries a different tack in the short passage
          that the lectionary takes us to this morning:.

In the first four verses of chapter three,
          Paul doesn’t point them to the past
                    to help them live properly in the present.
Rather, he turns it around
          and says that his friends can only truly understand where they are now
          if they have an understanding of where they’re going.

Listen again to how he puts it…

Col. 3:1-4 NRSV
    So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. [2] Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, [3] for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. [4] When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

Up until this point in the letter, Paul has been concentrating on the negative…
          he has been saying, in essence,
          that the Colossian Christians should try and get a handle
                   on the fact that they have died to their old selves,
          and that this means that they have also died
to certain ways of behaviour
which are no longer acceptable
in the light of the change that Christ
has brought about in their lives.

Well, if in chapters 1 and 2 Paul has been concentrating on the negative
          here in chapter 3 he begins to show the positive alternative

Rather that saying “Don’t live like that”
          Paul starts to say “Do live like this”

The dominant image which Paul had been working with
          when he was looking at the past
          was that the Colossians had died with Christ
                   to their old way of living
It was, if you like, a very ‘good Friday’ way of thinking,
          focussing on the significance of the death of Jesus for the Colossians.

But here in chapter three
          where Paul starts to look to the future,
          the dominant image changes
          and becomes the fact that they have been raised with Christ
                   to a new way of living:
he moves from good Friday and the crucifixion,
          to Easter day and the resurrection.

And so the positive, future orientated way of living
          that Paul starts to put forwards here
          is one that is rooted in the resurrection of Christ.

Now, of course, you can’t have resurrection without death
          so it was appropriate for Paul to spend the first couple of chapters of his letter
                    showing the Colossians
          that they are free from their old ways of living
          through their unity with Christ in his death.
But what it’s important to get hold of here
          is that dying to our old selves
                    is not the whole of the gospel of Jesus Christ
                   - because it misses out the resurrection.

I worry about some of the attempts to present the Christian gospel
          that I have heard some people putting a lot of store by

I’m sure you know the kind of thing I mean…

The evangelist starts off by highlighting the nature of sin
          and showing how it can wreck lives
                   and weigh us down with guilt

Then he goes to say that sin also separates us from a God who loves us
          and that it prevents us having a relationship
                   with the perfect God in whom there is nothing sinful.

So, the evangelist asks, is there any way
of crossing this sin-induced divide
that exists between us sinful humans and the God of love?

Of course there is!
          explains the preacher…

The bridge is crossed by the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross
          because when Jesus, God’s son, the perfect human being
          died unnecessarily on the cross
                   he took to the grave with him
                   all the burden and consequences
          of all the wrong things we have ever done wrong
                   and therefore we can be united with Christ in his death
                   and our sins can be lifted from us
                             and our relationship with God can be restored
                             and we can be free to stop living our old lives
                                      and start living as the children of God

Which is, of course, all very well and good.
          But it is not, according to Paul, the whole story.

That kind of presentation of the Gospel
          is a gospel based on chapter two of Colossians,
          without going on to include the insights of chapter three.

It is a presentation of the gospel
          which is focussed entirely on the events of the past.

It’s a negative gospel,
          based on what we once were
          and what we are not any more.

It is also a very contractual understanding of the gospel,
          based on who is going to pay for what and how
          and who is going to take whose punishment.
It is, as I said, a very ‘Good Friday’ understanding of the Gospel.

All very logical, all very neat
          but, in and of itself, lacking something.

And what it lacks, and this is why I worry about it,
          is any mention of the resurrection.
It is a gospel that is stuck at Good Friday
          without moving forwards two days to Easter Sunday.

And any presentation of the gospel
          which is informed entirely by the death of Christ,
          but which doesn’t need to mention the resurrection,
                   is only telling half the story.

Because it is only in the re-creative and disruptive act of the resurrection
          that the way is opened for us to start living the new life in Christ.

The death and resurrection of Jesus
          are two sides of the same coin
          and you can’t have one without the other

The message of the cross, without the resurrection,
          is not gospel, it is not good news.
It is, at best, a mechanism
          for addressing the consequences of human sinfulness.

And a call to embrace the implications of the cross,
          without a call to also embrace
the implications of the resurrection,
          is, frankly, inadequate.

Because the good news of Jesus
          isn’t just about what we have died to,
                    it’s not just about our old way of life,
          rather, it is also about what we have been raised to
                    it’s about our new way of life.

And, as I said, I worry
          that in a desire to appear logical and easily comprehensible,
some of those who offer an explanation for the Christian faith
          are actually only telling half of the story.

And so we end up with death-focussed Christians,
          who remain blind to life-giving power of the resurrection.

I am concerned
          that evangelical Christianity’s obsession
                    with the substitutionary death of Jesus
          has crowded out the life-giving gospel of resurrection.

And this worries me profoundly,
          because I do genuinely believe that without resurrection,
          we have no good news to proclaim…
All we have, if we have no resurrection,
          is a deal to explain.

If our understanding of the gospel
          is predicated on the death of Jesus on the cross
                   then it’s not good news we’re proclaiming
                    it’s a legal deal we’re explaining.

Do you get my point?

Christ is not simply an historical figure
          whose writings we can study
          and whose death we can commemorate
                   as we share bread and wine in remembrance of him.

Rather: Christ is risen, he is alive.
          and is exalted to the right hand of God in heaven.

In our reading earlier from the book of Daniel,
          written a couple of hundred years before the time of Jesus
we heard part of Daniel’s apocalyptic vision of heaven,
          as he turned his eyes away from the earth
          to catch a glimpse of the heavenly realm.

And what Daniel saw in his vision
          was ‘one like a human being’
                   standing in heaven before the throne of God.

It’s this image that Paul has in mind,
          when he offers his own vision to the Colossians,
          of Christ, seated at the right hand of God.

From an earthly perspective,
          it might appear that Christ is in his tomb,
          and the god-emperor of Rome in enthroned over all.
But the visionary perspective
          is that Christ is raised,
          and is enthroned above all earthly powers and dominions.

The tragedy is that so many of us live most of our lives
          as if Christ were not raised and exalted
For goodness sakes, we even present the gospel of Christ
          in ways which don’t require him to be raised and exalted.

And, perhaps worse, when we do turn our attention to the resurrection
          we can end up in danger of reducing it
to some kind of divine publicity stunt
whose purpose is simply to validate
          the real work of God
                   which is Christ’s death on the cross.

After all, some might say, how would we know about the cross
                    if Jesus had not been raised?

          Perhaps this is where the resurrection fits?

          Perhaps it’s God’s way of letting the world know
                    that the cross was effective?

Is that right?

Not that’s NOT right. It might be compelling.
          It might be easy to understand.
          It might even by logical, after a fashion.
But it’s NOT right.

Paul wants his readers to lift their eyes from the earth for a moment,
          and to focus above the horizon of heaven
          to catch a glimpse of the raised and exalted Christ.

Paul wants Christian believers to re-orientate their lives
          so that who they are is not determined
                    by the events of the past,
          but rather, is determined by the lived reality of resurrection.

Paul says, in effect:
          stop looking backwards,
                    and start looking forwards.
          Stop looking down,
                    and start looking up.

And so he presented the Colossian Christians with two alternatives

Either they could live lives firmly rooted to the ground
          looking no higher than the satisfaction of their physical appetites
                   and the social manipulations of power and influence.

Of they could start living with an eye on heaven
          discovering a way of living
          which takes it’s starting point from a vision of the risen Christ
                   exalted to the right hand of God

And we have the same choice.

Are we going to live our lives, even our faithful Christian lives,
          whilst never lifting our eyes above the horizon?
Are we going to be forever concerned with the things of the past?
                    forever occupied with the battles of the present?
          Are we going to let the powers that be determine our identity?

Paul encouraged his readers
          to be a people whose spirituality
          was marked not simply by an appreciation of the cross
but by a total devotion to the resurrected Christ
          who is enthroned above all other powers.

In Colossae, there was a false philosophy
          taking hold in the church

There were those who were peddling a legalistically-based religion
          of “do this” “do that” and “do the other”s!

And these false teachers were trying to persuade the Christians
          that if they wanted to get close to God
          then they needed to do certain things
                   to bring that relationship about

And Paul’s way of countering this
          was to take the believers back to the heart of their faith

He reminded them that they had died with Christ
          to their old way of living,
and that they have been raised with Christ
          to a new way of living.

So therefore they needed no bolt-on extras to the Gospel
          because the good news of a resurrected Christ
          is complete and sufficient in its own right

It’s only if we present a half-gospel
          of a crucified Christ,
                    but with an inadequate understanding of the resurrection,
that we need the extra’s
          that the modern day equivalents to the Colossian false teachers
          will try to peddle.

And I have to say that these false teachers are just as prevalent today,
          peddling gospels of quick-fix Christianity
                   and feel-good spirituality
          selling gospels of prosperity
                    and healing for all who believe.

These are the false teachings of our day
          and we are susceptible to them
          when we lose sight of resurrection.

But when we orientate our lives to Christ,
          raised and exalted above all powers,
then we gain the perspective of heaven
          on the way we live our lives from day to day,
          in the world of the everyday.

We still have to live in the real world
          but lives lived in the light of resurrection
          are lives lived out of a hidden resource,
                   as we discover our still centre with Christ in God.

And so we find ourselves at the Baptismal pool,
          dying and rising with Christ,
leaving the old behind,
          and learning to live with our eyes fixed above the horizon,
          as we learn to live out the reality of resurrection in our own lives.

And we find ourselves at the Communion table,
          remembering not just the death of Christ,
          but the resurrection that it prefigured.

And we find ourselves at the empty tomb,
          wondering with the women
          at the disruptive power of Christ
                   as he breaks the controlling power of death
                   over the lives of human beings.

And we find ourselves lifting our eyes above the horizon,
          to the one like a son of man,
          enthroned above all powers:
The lord of life calls us to follow him

          and to enter into the promise of new life today, and for all eternity.

Friday, 18 April 2014


Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church.
Good Friday, 10.30am, 18th April 2014

John 18:10-11  Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest's slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave's name was Malchus.  11 Jesus said to Peter, "Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?" 

Today could just be the day when violence wins.

Our reading from John’s gospel provides us with a narrative loaded with tension,
            which ends in bloody murder.

And I want us to spend a few moments now with one small part of this story,
            a cameo of violence that one could so easy lose sight of,
                        in the midst of the chaos surrounding it,
            just as one person punching another might fade into the background
                        if it happened in the midst of a war zone.

The moment I’m thinking of, of course,
            is Peter drawing a sword and cutting off the right ear
            of the high priest’s servant (Jn 18.10).

In a story dominated by terror and death,
            this was hardly the worst thing that happened that day,
and if Luke’s version of events is to be believed (Lk 22.51),
            Jesus immediately reached out and healed the man’s ear.

But it is one of the relatively few stories
            to appear in all four of the gospels (cf. Mk 14.47; Mt 26.51)
and the way John tells it,
            it is laden with significance
            for the terrible events that follow it.

Firstly, John’s gospel is the only version of the story
            to give us the servant’s name – he’s called Malchus.
In the other gospels, he is just a ‘servant’ or a ‘slave’,
            a lowly, insignificant human being
            fit only for identification by the role he plays
            in other, more important, people’s lives.
He is a nobody, who is simply caught up in violence
            that is not of his making:
He doesn’t ask to go to the garden to arrest the leader
            of a group of armed and volatile revolutionaries,
he just has to go where he is ordered,
            at the command of his master.

Just like the Tommys of the first world war,
            he served, and he paid the price.
But, thanks to John’s gospel, we know his name!
            He is not simply ‘a servant of the high priest’,
                        he is Malchus!
            He is a man with identity, with human dignity,
                        not simply depersonalised cannon fodder,
                        or collateral damage.

And this simple act of personifying the recipient of violence
            is one which speaks very powerfully to those
                        who continue to take up their swords in our own time,
            striking out against those who represent the feared threat
                        that unifies us against a common foe.

The Joint Public Issues Team publication,
            Drones: Ethical Dilemmas in the Application of Military Force,
points out that those who operate Armed Unmanned Aerial Devices,
            or ‘drones’ as they’re more commonly known,
flying them by remote control
            from a command base potentially on the other side of the world,
might develop
            ‘an unhealthy familiarity with killing by remote control’.
They become detached from the violence,
            removed from the consequences of their actions.

One British pilot interviewed for the Radio 4 programme ‘Drone Wars’
            acknowledged what he called the ‘strangeness’
            of being involved in killing
                        and then going home to his family at the end of the day.

The naming of Malchus by John
            reminds us of the need to keep in view the innate humanity of the other,
                        and of the ease with which
                        depersonalisation creates opportunities for violence.

But let’s stay with this story for a little while longer…
            because it’s not just Malchus who John names,
                        it’s also Simon Peter.
            The other gospels simply say that
                        the person who drew his sword on Malchus
                                    was ‘one of those standing by Jesus’,
                        but John tells us that it is none other than Simon Peter himself.

And the thing that jars for me in this story,
            is the fact that Simon Peter had a sword with him at all!

I don’t know how you normally picture Simon Peter,
            but I’d bet it isn’t usually an image of him
            tooled up and ready for a night of serious fighting and blood-letting.

Simon Peter the fisherman, yes.
            Simon Peter getting out of a boat and walking on the water, yes.
Simon Peter the disciple who denies Jesus, yes.
            Simon Peter the rock on which Jesus will build his church, yes.
Simon Peter the great preacher of Pentecost, yes.
            Even Simon Peter the first Bishop of Rome, if you like.

But Simon Peter the armed and dangerous revolutionary?
            Ready to draw his sword and take aim at another human being’s head?
It just goes to show
            that you never can really tell what depths of violence
            lie in the human heart waiting to be unlocked by anger, fear, or hatred.
Peter finds himself controlled by the events unfolding around him,
            and draws his sword accordingly.
He does that most human thing in the world,
            and reaches for violence as the solution,
            hoping that somehow his embracing of anger
                        and his harnessing of fear
            will somehow make the situation all right again.

In a week where the news headlines have been dominated
            by the escalating tension and burgeoning violence of the Ukraine,
            and by the trial-by-media of Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius,
one cannot help but be brought up short
            by the human capacity to resort to violence
            as the solution to problems
                        from the international to the intensely personal.

I also find myself despairing about the proliferation
            of personal ownership of firearms,
as if this is ever going to be anything other
            than an invitation for evil to enter the human heart
                        and open the gates of hell.

If Peter had not come to the garden armed for the fight,
            he could not have taken aim at Malchus’s head.

And then there’s Jesus.

He knows what’s coming;
            the violence that awaits him is written on the wall, so to speak,
            and he tells Peter to put his sword back in its sheath (18.11).
The cause of the coming kingdom of Christ
            is not one that will be furthered by violence.
The revolution that brought Jesus to Jerusalem
            will not be fought with swords.
Rather, Jesus goes to his cross
            to take into and upon himself
            the violence of the world.

As Jesus says to Pilate, the capricious representative of the ruling Roman Regime,
            ‘My kingdom isn’t the sort that grows in this world.
            If my kingdom were from this world,
                        my supporters would have fought…
            So then, my kingdom is not the sort that comes from here.’ (18.36)

Rather, the kingdom that Jesus brings
            is a kingdom symbolised by a cup.
As he says to Peter,
            ‘do you imagine I’m not going to drink the cup
                        my father has given me?’

Although John leaves the story of the last supper to the other gospel writers,
            the cup that Jesus speaks of here is the cup of suffering,
                        it is the cup of the last supper,
                                    the cup of his spilled blood,
                        it is the cup from last night’s meal,
                                    still unfinished on the table,
                        it’s wine turned bitter,
                                    still waiting to be consumed.

The cup of the kingdom is the hour of suffering and death,
            and Jesus consumes it in all its bitterness
            as he embraces the cross and takes to himself all the violence of the world.

From the garden of Gethsemane,
            to the trenches of the first world war,
                        to the mountains of Afghanistan,
                                    to the plains of the Ukraine,
                                                          to a bedroom in Pretoria.

All the violence of the world finds its focus on the cross of Christ,
            in the death of the revolutionary without a sword;
who died to break the power of death
            and to open the path to a new kingdom of peace.

It was a turning point for Peter;
            he put away his sword, recognising at last the futility of violence,
            and eventually found his way
                        through shame, and cowardice, and fear
            to a new life in the kingdom of Christ.

And so too for us, today:

as we come for our Good Friday worship,
            we find ourselves face to face with the cross of Christ,
and we hear the words of Jesus spoken to Peter,
            echoing down the centuries to us,
inviting us to look within, to recognise the darkness of the human heart,
            and to learn from the prince of peace
                        a new an non-violent way that transforms,
                                    not just the world,

                        but the very nature of our own humanity.