Where does the story end?

Mark 16:1-8

The story stops?

It was still dark, and very early in the morning.  It fell to the women disciples to take on the final duty to the master they loved, and so after an emotionally draining and grief struck Sabbath rest they set out before dawn to the tomb.
They are going to tend the body of their dead master – that’s all that is in their mind.  They are not going to witness the resurrection; they had no idea that any such thing was even thinkable.
They were taking spices to perfume the body and lessen the smell of decomposition, because other bodies would be put in this tomb in the coming years.  Ultimately Jesus’ bones would be collected and put in an ossuary, a kind of second burial.
They have a load of spices and are concerned about mundane matters, like who is going to roll away the stone.  Presumably they are going to ask some of the guards they heard would be stationed there.
They get the shock of their lives.  The stone is rolled away and a young man dressed in white calmly explains that Jesus has been raised from the dead and they would see him in Galilee.
The women are told to go and tell the other disciples all about the good news.  Sadly the gospel of Mark probably ends there – there were later additions, but the original text ends with the women rushing off in disarray and telling no one.  The gospel ends in silence and dark uncertainty.

The story goes on to the disciples

It's an unusual ending for a gospel – the good news about Jesus – to leave us hanging there unclear about what happened next.  Is that really what Mark intended?
The gospel of Mark is full of mysteries, people are told to keep silent about Jesus and that’s just what happens now - silence.
The gospel of Mark shows us how Jesus told his disciples all about the need for him to suffer and to die, and that he would be raised again on the third day (9:9), but they didn’t believe him.  Maybe they thought he was speaking in parables, or just couldn’t believe that anyone could rise from the dead. 
We know what that is like – we too are puzzled by Jesus’ sayings, and it is hard to believe that someone can be raised from the dead – it doesn’t happen every day, does it?
But surely God doesn’t want us to remain puzzled or not believing this good news.  He wants us to know for sure that Jesus really didn’t stay dead, that he really did rise to new life, just like the young man, or Angel, told us. 


The story must go on?

I believe there must have been another ending where Jesus meets the women and confirms that he is alive, and commissions them for service – then the women tell the other disciples. 
After all, God wants us to be sure, and to allow this good news to change our lives, to change the way we look at this world, and how we live in it.
This is what changed the disciples’ perspective as they met together in their locked room that Easter evening and received the women’s message, and finally met with the risen Jesus.  The dawning realisation that a great victory has been won, that God is in control, and that through Christ we too can be raised to new life.
In some ways nothing had changed - Rome still occupied their country with soldiers patrolling the streets and demanding taxes, the Jewish religious authorities were still looking for them, death and evil still reigned outside. 
But in other ways, everything had changed, and gradually the shock of recognition gave way to a deep sense of joy. 
If God could raise Jesus from the dead, then he could do anything.  The story had not ended with silence and darkness, wonderfully, the story continued for those disciples, and changed their lives.
With those first disciples we have the victory, new life, a fresh start in life with Jesus, all the fears and worries of life gone, and the assurance of God’s love and power for our lives. 
We too have been set free not to worry about death, but to live life in love and service to everyone.

The story continues…

Is this where the story ends?  No, wait a minute.  The angel told the women, “go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'"
Just sitting in their room and enjoying the victory of Jesus Christ is great, but it isn’t the end of the story.  The disciples are sent out to Galilee to find Jesus – because he is always out there, ahead of us, calling us to follow him.
The story continues in our lives, and it must be passed on to others, not kept to ourselves.  If this is good news we will want to talk about it, and let his new quality of life shine out in our lives for all to see. 
The disciples were called to Galilee to see the Lord; we too will see the risen Lord, out there, in Galilee, in Crewe, amongst ordinary people we meet on the streets and in our homes. 
This story is ours now, it never ends, so lets celebrate it and pass it on.   Amen.


What about the Resurrection?

April fools day is upon us again, and we will have to run the gauntlet of practical jokes and pranks aimed to embarrass us or send us on a fool’s errand.  It's a tradition that has gone on for hundreds of years, and is still going strong.

As Christians we are quite used to being made fools of – and it was always so.  Even two thousand years ago most believed that the humiliating death of the ‘King of the Jews’ on a brutal cross alongside common criminals was foolish.  To suggest that God would actually come to earth to die in such a way is just ridiculous!

Saint Paul spoke to the people of Athens about the story of God, and he was listened to politely, until he came to the cross and the resurrection of Jesus.  This was just too foolish for them, and they stopped listening. (Acts 17.15-32).

The story of the death and resurrection of Jesus is strange to many in our society, but it's a story nobody would have made up, and there is plenty of historical evidence that it actually happened – so what does it mean for us?

Like those first disciples, the resurrection gives us a new perspective on our lives,  we have a new purpose in life now and hope for life that goes on after we die.

The resurrection shows us that Jesus’ death on the cross was not a tragic defeat but a victory over sin, death and Satan, ‘But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him’ (Acts 2:24).

The resurrection confirms that Jesus truly is the Son of God as he claimed to be.  It gives us a confident hope for our own bodily resurrection, rather than a vague wish that everything will be alright.

The resurrection ensures that we can know the reality of Jesus’ risen life today.  Millions of Christians around the world share this foolishness with us, and are proving by their way of life that Jesus Christ is alive and lives in them, and in us.


We look forward in April to explore the meaning of the resurrection for each of us, and to celebrate the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. God hasn’t finished with us yet!  He’s still working in us!  

He has given us his Holy Spirit!  And he will bring us finally to completion, to resurrection, to glory and to be with him for ever!

Waiting and Hoping

They say that Christmas is a time for children – the Christmas lights are up around town, the TV adverts have been going on about toys and games for months, and the excitement is building up for the big day.

My children were actually very good at waiting patiently for Christmas to arrive.  They wrote their lists, and then waited expectantly for all the presents and food and parties to arrive, confident that Santa, or their parents, were going to deliver just what they wanted and waited for. 

I think adults have a lot to learn from children at this time of year, after all, Jesus did call us to have a childlike faith.  I know how easy it is to be worn down with the busy-ness and work of Christmas, to lose sight of the real meaning, wonder and awe of this time of year. 

That’s why I think the season of Advent is so important.  It is a time of waiting and preparing ourselves for what is to come – and I do believe that we cannot really appreciate the wonder of Christmas unless we have held ourselves in the in-between time of Advent. 

Week by week we will be reminded of how God spoke through the prophets of the arrival of the promised King, and God’s great plan of salvation.  This child will be no ordinary human – he will be God with us, Emmanuel.  And while we wait, we make ourselves ready for the coming King, in repentance and perhaps by spending more time with our Bibles and in prayer.

Finally – after all our waiting, Christmas arrives; and just like our children we can be confident that we haven’t been forgotten.  There is a present ready for us – a gift of God for us and the whole world – Jesus the King.

I hope we can make an effort to enter into the season of Advent, to be as a child, waiting open hearted and expectant for the real present, Jesus, to arrive.  We know that where meek souls will receive Him, still, the dear Christ enters in.

Have a happy Advent, Christmas and New Year.

Christ the King - incognito

Readings:      Matthew 25.31-46
Almost all of us in this room have had the experience at one time or another of going incognito. That is, we have pretended that we are someone else. Do you remember those old days when you dressed up in fancy dress parties as a princess, a pirate, or cowboys and indians? We may have simply pulled an old sheet over your heads and gone to the neighbour’s house to scare them. The neighbour then played the game and responded, “Who are you?” Do you remember those days? Those were some of the first times that we went incognito.
It is with this theme of going incognito and wearing a mask; it is with this theme that you would treat me differently if you knew my true identity; that we approach the gospel lesson for today.
The parable today is about the sheep and the goats. Now, this is one of the most famous parables of Jesus, but is not one of the all time favourites. That is, we love the parable of the Good Samaritan and we enjoy the parable of the Prodigal Son, but this parable about the sheep and the goats is more challenging, painful and stinging. This parable makes us feel more uncomfortable.
The setting of this parable was this: the disciples had asked Jesus, “What is it going to be like at the end of the world?” Jesus replied, “I will tell you a story. It will be like this. There will be a king up in heaven and all the people of the earth will gather around him, and this king will divide the people into the sheep and the goats.” Now, if you were a disciple in those days, you understood this metaphor immediately.
Jesus continued, “The sheep will be on my right, and the king will say to them, ‘Come into my party. I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was in prison and you visited me.”
They said, ‘When did we ever do these things for you?’ The king replied, ‘Whenever you did these things for the littlest people, you did it for me?’ Then the king addressed the goats on the left. ‘Depart from me. I was starving and you gave me no food. I was thirsty and you gave me no drink. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me. I was lacking clothing and you did not cloth me. I was in prison and you did not visit me.’
They said, ‘Lord, if we only would have known it was you, we would have treated you differently. If we only had known your true identity, it would have made all the difference. If we had only known it was your face behind the face of the refugees; if we had only known it was your body in the hospital; if we had only known it was your body suffering from Ebola in Africa; if we had only known it was you, it would have made all the difference.’ The Lord said, Depart from me to the punishment of the age to come.”
It was Mark Twain who said it first. “It is not those parts of the Bible that I do NOT understand that bother me. It is the parts of the Bible that I DO understand that bother me the most.”
When Jesus finished that parable, they liked the story of The Prodigal Son and they loved the story of the Good Samaritan, but they weren’t so sure that they liked this story of the sheep and the goats.
One of the first lessons that grows out of this parable is the awareness that our God, the true God, the one God, who created the universe, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead; that our true God is a God who hides himself. God goes incognito. God wears a mask.
Our God hides himself most completely in the faces and places of suffering. The awareness that our God is a hidden God who hides himself in suffering is a stark contrast to other religions of the world. In all the other religions of the world, they talk about their god who reveals himself in the beauty of the sunset, the birth of babies, and in the bounty of nature.
But our God is the only God in the whole wide world who hides himself under the faces and places of suffering.
When our children were young, we used to play hide and seek and the children would go and hide. One would hide underneath the kitchen table. Another would hide behind the door in the bedroom – places like that. And then the time was up and I’d shout “Coming, ready or not” Then I would look behind the sofa, under the dining room table, behind the curtains, and all around, and they would often make noise, and I would find them and shout, “Boo”. The point is: the children would hide in obvious places. 
Unfortunately our modern houses aren't very easy to hide in – but in one old house we had, down in the cellar – where it's dark, damp and full of spiders – that would be a serious place to hide.  I could look and look and I couldn’t find them there.
By analogy, in all the religions of the world, their gods hide themselves in the obvious places. Underneath the kitchen table. Underneath the bed. Behind the back door. These gods hide themselves in the beauty of the sunsets, the birth of babies, and the beauty of temples.
But our God, the true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, our God does down into the cellar. Our God goes down into the cellar and hides himself in a place where people don’t know he is hiding. God hides himself in the midst of suffering.
The place that our God hides is in the bread and wine of the sacraments, but the primary place is in the cross. No other God allows himself to be crucified. When our God is crucified, our God is the most hidden. When our God is being crucified today, he is the most hidden. So, this Bible passage tells us that our God is a hidden God.
But the real point is not that our God is a hidden God. The real lesson of this parable today is an invitation for you and me to SEEK GOD.
To seek God not in the beauty of the sunsets or the birth of babies or the bounty of nature and conclude that there is a God. The real lesson of this parable is to seek God where God is truly to be found.  This parable tells us that God is to be found hiding behind the faces and places of suffering people.
What does this mean for us? What does it mean to embrace a suffering world?
First, it means to have the love of Jesus Christ inside of you. You cannot be this kind of loving person unless the love of Christ is living in you. It is not you. It is not me. It is the love of God living inside of us. You can’t embrace hurting people unless the love of God lives in you.
When Jesus addressed the sheep about going to heaven, the sheep didn’t even realize that they had been generous. They were not even aware. That is the way it is with love, the true love of God. You forget yourself in loving and caring for another person.
This quality of love then spreads from your home. To the neighbour down the street and the man had a stroke. To a person who had a bad accident and is disabled, and for some reason, you become involved in their life.
This love spreads. You begin to realize that your brothers and sisters in Africa or Asia are sick and hungry. This quality of love cannot help but reach out to them.
I love the examples of doctors and nurses going to West Africa to care for Ebola victims.  We also have the opportunity to care for homeless men in the night shelter in January.  In them we may see Jesus Christ, and minister to him.

You see, the truth about the gospel is that our King – Jesus Christ is a hidden King. And more than that, we are invited to seek him where he is to be found – where we least expect to see him. Amen.

Letter from Sargodha - part 2

Dear Friends,
Thanks again for words of encouragement and prayerful support during these days in Pakistan. This will probably be my last email because by this time next week we expect to be almost home.

Last Saturday’s visit to Lahore had some of the characteristics of a scene out of Alice in Wonderland and we are still somewhat bemused …… ask us about it if you want the tale!!
We were back in Sargodha for Sunday Service in the house church which uses our sewing school classroom. A congregation of about seventy sang a welcome to us and garlanded us with roses. The service usually consists of about 40 minutes of worship songs, 40 minutes of scripture and preaching and then another couple of songs before and after an open prayer session. I think I failed the test for 40 minutes of preaching but it was lovely to work with my daughter and grand-daughter as interpreters when my Urdu ran out. A number of people requested prayers for healing and three childless young couples came after the service for prayer for a baby. There was no hiding from the raw pain of their situation – and the Pastor explained that one prayer session each week is set aside especially for childless couples.

The week proceeded with energetic preparations in sewing school for the Caritas Conference. We were invited to various lunches and teas which reminded us of the huge range of circumstances in which our Rehmat Park Project members live. Monday evening saw us with torches in hand walking along bricked gullies, avoiding the open sewers to reach our hosts house. The regular power cuts meant that but for our torches we would have been sat in the dark. However, along with several other visitors, we shared various dishes not all of which we could identify – and I think we were in competition with the ants!

The following day we visited the home of our former Project Gynaecologist, Dr Shameem, - a home with torches and a battery back-up system for when the lights go out. Dr Shameem now runs her own clinic at home but yearns for a return to the days we all spent together.

During the second half of the week, the local Roman Catholic Technical Institute has hosted the Caritas Women Farmers Conference. Having been allocated seats at the front, we had little choice but to listen to several hours of repetitive speeches – mostly about the hardships and inequality women suffer, and what might be done about it, including education, skills training and a range of micro-economic agricultural and business projects. When we escaped the hall, we were able to spend some time looking at the colourful displays of work being undertaken by women’s projects across Pakistan. Our own students were involved in dance and drama productions and received many accolades for the display of sewing and craftwork.

At the end of the first day we heard news of the death of the 28 year old son of local people we know – a young man who had been an outstanding student at school and college but who had then got caught up in the drug scene. So many of our local young men are at risk and already there are a number of widows with young children to raise because husbands have died from drug abuse. Many of the elders ask “What future for our Christian youngsters in this environment …… in this country?”

Now we have a couple of quiet days with our friends in Lahore. Dr Gill is on his travels selling medical machinery, Martyn is teaching his nephew English and driving and I am learning about Farzana’s hobby – going to beauty parlours!! (with interesting results according to Martyn)

Looking forward to “normality” with you all!!


Jane and Martyn

Rev Jane's Letter from Sargodha, Pakistan - part 1

Dear Friends,

A long journey it may have been and with some anxiety about whether or not we would be allowed into the country, but we arrived to a bright, sunny Lahore morning and the welcome of our friend and colleague, Dr Gill and two of his team members. After a restful few hours at their home we were taken to see our friend and inspiration, Sister Catherine, formerly of the school at village 36, to offer a slightly belated 90th Birthday greeting. She is staying in a convent/hostel assisting with a group of sisters look after some physically disabled children. She's never heard of retirement!

The two and a half hour drive to Sargodha was largely uneventful although having heard about the 40 miles of wonderful new dual carriageway I was somewhat surprised to see a number of donkeys grazing the central reservation, not to mention one or two carts and rickshaws travelling against the traffic flow!

Since arriving in Sargodha we have received welcomes from a stream of old friends - it is hard to believe we have been away for almost seven years except when we see some of the now not so young children. Many have said that our return to Sargodha is an answer to prayer so we hope we may offer  some encouragement in these weeks.

For the churches in Sargodha, this is 'Convention Season'. The Roman Catholic Church began a three day festival for the Blessed Virgin Mary on Friday. On Saturday morning outside the church under awnings, there was a four hour programme which included worship and presentations by the various schools followed by enjoyment at a cross between a church fete and a funfair. I only attended for a short while - in a throng of about 3 thousand people. They tell me there were yet more people at the evening healing service! It was lovely that the news of Milala Yousafzai's Nobel Peace Prize came when it did. There was a huge poster of her next to the stage and many people were praising her both for what she has done for girls' education and for bringing honour to Pakistan.

On Sunday morning we will go a little further down the main road to the Church of Pakistan (it's the only church with pews rather than sitting on the floor), where preparations are afoot for their own convention in a few days time.

Since we don't have our planned transport available for two or three days, Ashi's brother turned up with a car from his workshop to loan us. It's a small, very old and battered vehicle with almost non-existent brakes, no shock absorbers and certainly no power steering. However, the roads in the colony have so many speed breakers ... planned and unplanned, not to mention missing manhole covers, that it is difficult to go fast enough to warrant even second gear. Despite this, I have overtaken one or two donkey carts!!

It is hard to imagine what the days ahead might hold but there is little doubt they will be full to the brim!

Please pray for the safety of the Christian community especially during this time when so many gather together.

Every blessing,


Jane and Martyn

Faith and Belief - Going against the tide

Readings:  Matthew 16.21-28

Introduction

I once read that inlaid into the marble of the floor in the Vatican is inscribed those famous words from St. Matthew’s gospel, that we heard last week:
“Thou art Peter, and upon this Rock will I build my church”
Of course with the Pope claiming to be the true and lawful successor to St. Peter you can imagine why they chose that particular scripture reference.
It sounds very impressive.  It speaks of the church as a divinely inspired establishment, solid as a rock, on firm foundations.
One critic suggested that the inscription should have been continued with Jesus’ very next words to Peter in chapter 16 of St. Matthew:
“Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men”
Hmm. Not exactly a ringing endorsement - and I can see why the Vatican didn’t take up the suggestion.

Counter Cultural Message

We heard last week of what the Christ, Messiah, the anointed King, the Son of God was expected to be.  We talked about the popular expectations of that title – of a priestly king to bring victory to the people.
Having made such a declaration it would be natural to sit down and plan the campaign of conquest.  Instead Jesus starts talking about death and suffering, gloom and doom.  No wonder the disciples were confused. 
No wonder that they react like you or I would do if a friend starts being a little down or morbid – they try and talk him out of it.
To Jesus this sounds scarily like Satan’s voice in the wilderness, when he tried to tempt Jesus out of his mission to save humanity by the sacrifice of the cross.  “Get behind me Satan”, says Jesus.
The truth is that the Christian message is deeply country-cultural, and always has been.
Let me explain.  We like to be popular today.  We like things to be easy to understand, and easy to do.  This goes for everything – including politics and for religion too.
So it’s tempting to portray Christianity as all about harmless things like love, joy and peace, and being nice to animals...  that being a Christian means smiling at people and being nice to everyone – especially those who are nasty.
Perhaps that’s why most people think that Church is for the nice and respectable – the great and the good – for those who have got it all worked out and have no problems in life.
Instead of a nice religious social club Jesus speaks of Christianity being Following his way – the way that leads to real life – eternal life.  But we need to remember that the way Jesus takes is through self-emptying, self-giving, and self-sacrifice – all the way to death, even death on a cross.
It is through this sacrifice, that we find life – it is through self-giving that we receive – all those things that Jesus spoke about in the sermon on the mount back in chapter 5 of Matthew’s gospel – they are all deeply counter cultural – they are upside down and go against the way our self-obsessed, instant society thinks.
For this reason perhaps the church will always be something out of kilter with the people around it, always a bit ill at ease with the way of the world – perhaps it has always been that way?

Not an edifice as much a way of life

There is also a common misconception that being a Christian means you have to believe certain things - give the nod to a pile of religious ideas and theories. This is simply not so. Beliefs are important; I have lots of them. But I don't think any of my beliefs are going to get me into heaven — or keep me out!
I can't see St Peter standing at the Pearly Gates with a clipboard checking up on people's beliefs. Jesus himself made no requirement that people subscribe to particular doctrines before becoming his followers.
But he did call on people to change their ways: to stop being greedy, to become peacemakers, to love their enemies and so on.
Jesus never wrote a book, never created a creed, never started a church and never intended to begin a new religion. He simply demonstrated the way of love — the golden rule in any religious tradition — and invited people to join him in that.
Jesus certainly didn't invent the term 'Christian', which actually appears only three times in the entire Bible. It was probably originally devised by critics of Christ's followers, at least a decade after his death, as a term of derision. But it stuck — for better or worse.
Before they took the name 'Christian', early followers of Christ were simply known as 'people of the way' — people who identified with the way of life Jesus taught and demonstrated.
I like that, 'people of the way'. It suggests being part of a journey, rather than part of an organisation. And I know lots of people who never turn up at church, who struggle with creeds and doctrines, who shrink from the thought of being religious, yet who are very much in the way of Christ.
Let’s get it clear: Christianity is about faith, not belief.  There’s a difference. Faith is about having trust, whereas belief is more like having opinions.  It’s possible to hold beliefs passionately and to argue about them until the cows come home, without them making a scrap of difference to us.
But trust is not about beliefs, creeds, opinions, arguments; it’s more instinctive, more fundamental. It doesn’t need words; it’s in your belly.
In our first reading we see something of this trust and dependence in Jeremiah’s prayer as he struggles with life and his calling.  He had given up everything to follow God and to speak his words – and it led him to suffering.  Yet even here he knows that God is with him, supporting him and helping him go on – and he trusts God to stay with him to the end.

Conclusion

This is what Jesus came to create – a way for you and I to follow, a way that calls us to trust God for ourselves, and for those we love. A way that calls us to stand out against the crowd, to be a little different from society; a call for sacrifice and giving, which puts others first.

That calls us to take up our cross and follow – living always in the presence of a loving God – knowing that you are never alone and that God’s love for you will never run out.