For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. Mark 8:35
When I preach I usually preach on the Gospel set for the day, but today I feel called to preach on this passage.
This week has seen a remarkable transformation in our country, and in other countries around the world. At the start of the week most things were happening pretty much as normal. Then things changed rapidly.
On Monday Lesley and I felt ill, and have self diagnosed with Covid-19 (with current advice no one else is going to do so) and are now self isolating.
On Friday two of the boys came home from uni, so we will be self isolating for 14 days from then (unless the advice changes again).
By Friday most things were shut down.
We read about young people partying because they have no reason to be scared of it (not strictly true – but perceptions matter) .
The Blitz Spirit is invoked, as though standing up to the virus is similar to standing up to bombing.
People with second homes away from the cities are going to stay there, where the risk of infection is perhaps lower, but perhaps the risk of overloading the NHS should the virus spread in those areas (the risk being higher now that lots of people from many different places are moving in).
What do all these have in common? It is people looking at the situation from only one perspective.
My take on today’s reading is that Jesus is telling us that acting on our own selfish wants is not the way to live a fulfilling life.
It will depend on your definition of “the Gospel”, but I believe that the Good News that Jesus is calling us to is “Life in all its fulness“, and that this is achieved by working towards the Kingdom of God, which is working towards making this world the way that God wants it to be.
As a country and a world we have been becoming more and more insular: believing that we control our own destiny. Death is something which is seen as unnatural for people under 70 (or perhaps older) and has become something we don’t talk about (perhaps we should – note the date of the article – factual information may be out of date). Yet only a century ago the Spanish Flu killed between 17-50 million people; the two world wars killed about 20 million and 75 million respectively. Before the creation of the NHS 6% of children were expected to die before they were 1.
For most of history we have known that life was precarious, and that we rely on each other. We have also known that employment could be precarious, until the rise of the unions, and as their influence wanes we are discovering it again.
And yet this myth persists that we are in charge of our own destiny. This myth leads us away from the Kingdom of God, where we care for each other.
John Donne wrote: No man is an island, and during this pandemic we seem to be rediscovering this, and rediscovering the Kingdom of God (to be clear, I am not saying that God sent the virus so that this would happen, but when things do happen God can find some good in them, however bad they may be, as well as comforting those who are suffering). Let us pray that that sense of the Kingdom of God lasts beyond the current pandemic.
Nicodemus was an influential religious man, he belonged to the Sanhedrin, which met every day in Jerusalem. And yet he appeared not to understand metaphor! Or chose not to. The word translated “from above” can also be translated “again” – an interesting aside is when Christians ask if you have been born again, do they mean from above?
The imagery of being born again was common at the time in both Jewish and Gentile culture – it was used for Jewish converts (two sources I have disagree about this!) and for various mystery religions.
It perhaps becomes obvious which Jesus meant when he goes on to talk about being born of the spirit (the aside about the wind would have come about because in both Hebrew and Greek the word for wind and spirit is the same), and the similarity of the two is that they are both only visible by the impact that they have.
So, to paraphrase, Nicodemus goes to see Jesus at night (never a good sign in John’s Gospel which frequently compares light and dark, day and night) and says that “we” recognise your signs as coming from God – but when Jesus tells him that he must be born from above, to be born of the spirit, he wavers.
Of course it is also possible that he was fully aware of what Jesus was saying to him, but was unwilling to take the steps required and was replying in kind – a kind of verbal tennis.
The question then becomes “what about us?”. Are we willing to be born from above – to change our lives?
There are long arguments in Christianity about which beliefs are “orthodox” – leading to excommunication for those who do not conform – but in this passage Jesus appears to more interested in “orthopraxy” – right practice. At least with this we can try to do the right thing. I know of no way to force myself to change my mind if I don’t believe something, but I can make myself do things.
So – the last two verses! I couldn’t resist.
John 3:16 is perhaps the most quoted verse in the Bible – it used to make a regular appearance in the crowd at sporting events, but how was it being used? To me it felt as though it was being used to mean: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who does not believes in him may not perish but may not have eternal life”. And yet the following verse suggests to me that this is far from God trying to catch people out, but trying to help us.
Now surely that is a God worth believing in – and a God worth responding to.
Have you ever knocked on someones door and run away?
Have you activated your burglar alarm without nominating a key holder who can turn it off in your absence?
Have you sung happy birthday to a friend in public without a copyright license?
All of the above are against the law. Congratulations if you have answered no to all of them! But…
Have you driven a car before 1976 without a bale of hay?
Are you a man born before 1943? Did you keep up your longbow practice?
That is the problem with the law – there are so many, including the ones you don’t know about that it is impossible to keep them all.
So what has this got to do with Christmas? What we are celebrating is the coming of God to earth, but more than that, we are celebrating a whole new way of being right with God.
Lots of religions, and I only haven’t said all except Christianity because I don’t know about all of them, believe that you get right with God by doing the right things, by keeping the “law”. This was certainly the case with 1st Century Jews who not only had the 10 commandments, but the 613 laws of Moses and others that the pharisees had created to ensure that none of the others were broken – except it wasn’t possible to keep all the laws.
Jesus was born to bring Good News to the world – the good news being that it wasn’t keeping the law that made us right with God. Instead God loves all of us – whatever we have done – being right with God depends on God – not us. If you look at the Bible – the only people that Jesus has no time for are those who tell everyone that you have to behave – having created laws which people find impossible to keep, and which they cannot keep themselves, despite perhaps appearing to do so.
Now at this point you might well point me towards a lot of those Christians you hear on the radio telling you about the all the “laws” that you have to keep. All I can say is that I fundamentally disagree with them. Unfortunately the press like conflict and the extremes of the Church of England get more press time than the centre. This parish and the three churches in it are members of Inclusive Church, an organisation whose vision is, in part:
We believe in inclusive Church – a church which celebrates and affirms every person and does not discriminate. We will continue to challenge the church where it continues to discriminate against people on grounds of disability, economic power, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, learning disability, mental health, neurodiversity, or sexuality.
God is not a God who is watching over you, trying to catch you doing something you shouldn’t – adding up the pluses and minuses like some Santa figure trying to figure out if you are “naughty or nice”. God is a God who wants us all to have life in all its fullness – to live this life in a way that is fulfilling and life giving. That is the Good News that Jesus was born to bring to us – isn’t that something worth celebrating?
However, this isn’t some excuse for us all to do whatever we want. If God wants us all to have life in all its fullness then we cannot enjoy our life in such a way that others ability to enjoy theirs is impacted. If we insist on overheating the planet because we want our creature comforts, then others homes get flooded; if we want to pay less in taxes then those without the ability to earn sufficient to live will suffer; if we refuse to look after refugees, and others less well off than ourselves, then what for their life in all its fullness? The Jewish scriptures, based on law, defend the rights of the widow the alien and the orphan – how can we basking in God’s love do less?
Of course, if you believe in a God who is trying to catch you out then you will find that a different set of priorities are necessary and you might start telling people how they should behave to be right with God.
No wonder Jesus birth is seen as Good News – now we can all live the lives that he calls us to – lives that allow us and everyone else to enjoy life in all its fullness. No wonder we are celebrating the incarnation – God with us. If you aren’t already part of it I invite you to join this journey of faith and to share in the Good News.
32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
35 Jesus wept.
36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Jesus Raises Lazarus From the Dead
38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days.”
40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
How many English Heritage workers does it take to change a lightbulb?
Jesus came to change the world, and that is what I want to talk about today.
Today, we are celebrating All saint’s day. Sometimes people think of Saints as people with halos in stained glass windows. They aren’t. Saints in the bible are anyone who follows Jesus. Saints are you and me.
Sometimes people choose to celebrate the lives of those who have gone before us on All Saint’s day, but I prefer to do that at the All Soul’s. Jesus came to change the world, and the church, the disciples, the saints… us… we are the means through which Christ changes the world.
Incredible as that seems.
Sometimes people tell me that Christianity is about being nice.
Sometimes those of us in the Church can give others the impression that the church is all about me, and my comfortable worship space, and the people who make me comfortable.
But it isn’t.. Archbishop William Temple said:
“The Church is the only organisation that exists for the wellbeing and fraternity of its non-members”.
Of course the church exists to bring forward, to bring into existence the Kingdom of God. The place where Love, Joy, Peace exist. The place where people journey towards loving God and one another. The Good News that we offer is that there is a pathway towards light, and not darkness, towards life and not death, towards love and not hate.
This is dramatic, life-changing stuff. Which brings me to the Gospel passage.
Lazarus had been dead for four days. Jesus could have come sooner, but he didn’t. Martha’s words ring like an accusation, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
I guess anyone who has experienced grief has experienced that one.
She is talking about the past, but Jesus is very much in the present. I believe that the resurrection isn’t a historical event on Easter Sunday, it is something within us, we are an Easter people.
And so Jesus came to the tomb, the place of death and called out:
LAZARUS, COME OUT!
And so “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
My old Bishop – Bishop Alan once spoke of the church like the figure of Lazarus – we are brought back to life by the power of Jesus – struggling towards the light, covered in grave clothes, staggering, hampered…
I was a lecturer at New College in Oxford and there was a sculpture of Lazarus by Henry More. A huge thing, grave clothes draped around this half dead, half alive body, head at some rather alarming angle, like some sort of zombie. I rather hated it, if I am honest. But since listening to my Bishop I have become more at peace with it. Yes, of course we are half dead, but we are struggling away from that and towards the light.
It reminds me of a quote from Howard Thurman
Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who are alive.
So for you, for me, for us,
Where is the life?
Where is the fire?
And let us get unbound and let go. I can almost imagine Jesus laughing – for goodness sake let’s take all those bindings off and let poor old Lazarus free.
What is binding us? Individually or as a church?
Unbind our prejudices and let us go with a new view of others.
Unbind our tiredness and let us go refreshed.
Unbind our thinking that the glory days are behind and let us go into a new vitality.
Unbind our fearfulness and let us go trusting God.
Unbind our smallnesses and let us go thinking big.
Unbind our hearts where love stops short and let us go to love everyone.