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Sunday, 27 April 2014

Thomas Gives Permission

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Today is one of those rare Sundays when we have the same Gospel reading every year;
the story of Thomas.
Doubting Thomas, we call him in the West, which is really rather unfair of us, as if it were the only thing about him that mattered!

This story, of course, begins on the evening of the Resurrection.
According to John's account
and yes, it does differ a little from some of the other accounts, as he puts in far more detail
the first person to have seen the risen Jesus was Mary Magdalene.
She had gone to the tomb very early,
and found that it was empty.
And while she was weeping quietly in the garden,
Jesus had come to her and reassured her.
Peter and John had also seen the empty tomb,
but had not yet met with the risen Jesus,
and the account isn't terribly clear as to whether or not they realised what had happened.

Anyway, that evening the disciples are together,
and Jesus comes to them, as we heard read.
He reassures them,
and reminds them of some of his earlier teachings,
and then, apparently, disappears again.

But Thomas isn't there.
We aren't told whether he hadn't yet arrived
or whether he had just left the room for a few moments,
gone to the loo, or to get pizza for everyone,
or something similar.
But whatever, he misses Jesus.
And, of course,
he doesn't believe a word of it.
The others are setting him up.
Or it was a hallucination.
Or something.
But it couldn't possibly be true.
And for a whole week he goes round muttering,
while the others are rejoicing.
Goodness, he must have been cross and miserable,
and the others must have been so frustrated that they couldn't help him.

And then Jesus is there again,
with a special word of reassurance,
just for Thomas.
He gets his side out, showing the wound.
Perhaps Thomas would care to touch it?
This isn't ectoplasm,
it's proper flesh.

Thomas can take Jesus' hand again,
just as before.
And Thomas bows down in awe and worship.
So what can we learn from the story of Thomas?
I personally find the story a very liberating one.
From Thomas,
I learn that I have
permission to wait,
permission to doubt,
and permission to change my mind.

Firstly, then,
Thomas tells us we have permission to wait.
That sounds odd,
but don't forget it was a whole week until Jesus put him out of his misery.
It must have been a pretty endless time,
feeling sure that his friends had got it wrong,
wondering who was going mad,
them or him.
But Thomas put up with it.
He didn't abandon his friends,
he didn't run off and do something different.
Instead, he stayed with them and put up with the pain and confusion and bewilderment,
and ultimately Jesus put everything right.
The Lectionary celebrates this every year on this Sunday;
it is the anniversary of the day when Jesus came to Thomas and put it all right for him.

A whole week, though.
Imagine that.
It must have felt like an eternity of doubt,
of confusion,
of bafflement.
The others were all totally convinced they’d seen Jesus,
and as far as Thomas was concerned, they’d all run quite mad.

So often we want things now.
If we are unwell, or grieving,
we want instant healing –
we want the confusion to be resolved.
What was that old prayer:
"God, give me patience, and I want it now!"
An addict trying to give up cigarettes or drink or other drugs
wants the craving to go away.
Someone who is ill or injured feels terrible and longs to feel better.
We don't like to experience bad feelings, obviously,
and we want them to go away. Now.
We also don't like to watch someone else experiencing bad feelings.
We might try to deny their feelings,
telling them they don't feel like that.
Or we might try to tell them they are wrong or wicked to have those feelings.
I’ve heard people say that if we have asked for healing,
we should then proceed to deny we feel ill!
When you are grieving the loss of a loved one, I'm told one of the most difficult things is when friends want you to be “over it” by now.

It is hideous horribly difficult to watch someone else suffer,
and we develop these strategies of coping so that their suffering doesn't rub off on us.
Also, of course, we don't like to have negative feelings because somehow we think we are failing as Christians when we do.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s gone to Church in a bad mood but with a sweet smile pasted on, and a “Fine, thanks!” in response to anybody who asks how we are.
We don’t like to admit we aren’t feeling wonderful –
in fact, we may even have been told, as I have in my time, that it’s a sin to feel less than one hundred percent on top of the world one hundred percent of the time!

I think one of the things the story of Thomas gives us is permission to have bad feelings.
Permission to feel confused, or angry, or bereaved, or muddled, or ill, or craving, or whatever.
Permission to wait to feel better, to allow it to take its time.

Thomas also tells us we have permission to be wrong, and to doubt.
Thomas was wrong.
He thought that Jesus had not been raised.
But it wasn't the end of the world that he thought so.

All too often, I think that if I am wrong,
if I am mistaken,
if I make a nonsense of something,
it is the end of the world.
I confuse making a mistake with a deliberate sin,
and think that God and others will condemn me for it.
But no,
look what happened to Thomas.
Far from being condemned,
Jesus comes to him specially to prove he is alive.
To show Thomas that the others hadn't gone totally mad.
Jesus was extra specially kind to Thomas.

It is encouraging, isn’t it?
We’re allowed to doubt –
it’s not the end of the world if we find something difficult to believe!
So often we try to suppress our doubts,
to pretend that we believe everything we’re supposed to believe, all “our doctrines”,
feeling that if we wonder for one minute we’ll be condemned.
Or maybe our experience of Christ’s love is so very different from that of our neighbour’s that we wonder if it’s really valid at all.
The thing is, when that sort of thing happens,
when we suddenly wonder whether our faith is all a big nothing,
or when we wonder if we’ve got it right,
then the story of Thomas tells us not to worry.
As the prophet Isaiah tells us,
“Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying,
‘This is the way; walk in it.’”
“This is the way; walk in it.”

It’s okay to experiment with our faith, with our expression of our faith, and even, sometimes, with our whole lifestyle.
After all, if our faith doesn’t actually affect the way we live, it’s not much good –
but maybe we have allowed it to affect us to the point that the only people we know are Christians,
maybe even Christians who think exactly the same way we do?

The point is, if we get it wrong, Jesus will come to us, as he came to Thomas, and help us get back on track.
The Good Shepherd doesn’t hesitate to put on his Barbour and Wellies and go to find us if we get ourselves a bit lost.

So Thomas gives me permission to feel awful and
permission to make mistakes and to doubt.
But it would be wrong to leave it at that,
without looking briefly at the third permission Thomas gives us,
and that is to change our minds.
The thing is, Thomas was mistaken when he believed that Jesus had not risen from the dead.
Okay, fine.
But as soon as Jesus showed him he was wrong,
he changed his mind.
He fell down and worshipped the risen Jesus.
He felt ghastly for the whole week between Jesus' appearing to the rest of them, and Jesus appearing to him.
And that's okay.
But when Jesus did appear,
he forgot all about feeling ghastly,
he didn't get cross and go "Where were you?" or anything like that.
He just fell down and worshipped the risen Lord.

It doesn't matter if we feel awful for any reason.
It doesn’t matter if we get it wrong.
What does matter, though,
is if we are given the opportunity to correct ourselves,
or to put things right,
and we fail to take it.
Thomas didn't do that.
Thomas admitted he was wrong,
and he fell down and worshipped the risen Lord.
When we are shown, as Thomas was,
that we have made a mistake,
the thing to do is to put it right.
They do say that the person who never made a mistake never made anything, and that's very true.
But the point is, it is only by correcting our mistakes that we can make progress.
If we stay stubbornly convinced that we are right, and everybody else is wrong, we won't get anywhere.
We won't be freed to go on with Jesus.

Thomas is supposed to have gone on to found the Church in India.
He couldn't have done that if he had gone on being convinced he was right and everybody else was wrong.
He admitted he had been wrong,
and thus was free to put it behind him and go on with Jesus.

Are you able to do this?
Are you able to wait for clarification when things seem to have gone wrong?
Can you wait, trusting God that you will feel better in due course?
Can you live with your doubts and confusion,
perhaps opening the door to becoming a bigger person through them?
And can you put it all behind you and say, with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” Amen.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Bones and bandages

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“Son of man, can these bones live?”

Today’s readings are, of course, about resurrection.
About returning to life.
Ezekiel in the valley of the bones,
and Jesus with his friends in their distress.

Can you imagine a field of bones?
We’ve all seen skeletons on television, of course,
and some of us may have visited ossuaries on the continent,
which are usually memorials to soldiers who fell in the first world war,
and they put the bones of soldiers who have got separated from their identity into the ossuaries to honour them.
Robert and I might visit the one near Verdun at the end of our holiday next month – we've been there before, and it's very impressive.

And the older ones among us may remember seeing pictures of a huge pile of bones in Cambodia after the Pol Pot atrocities of the 1970s.

I think Ezekiel, in his vision, must have seen something like that.
A huge pile of skulls and bones….
“Son of man, can these bones live?”

And, at God’s command, Ezekiel prophesied to the bones,
and then he saw the skeletons fitting themselves together like a jigsaw puzzle,
and then internal organs and tendons and muscle and fat and skin growing on the bare skeletons.
I’m sure I’ve seen some kind of computer animation like that on television, haven’t you?
But for Ezekiel, it must have been totally weird,
unless he was in one of those dream-states where it’s all rational.

But once the skeletons had come together and grown bodies, things were still not right.

Do you ever watch those television programmes where they try to build up an image of the person from his or her skull? They are very clever about it – the most recent one I saw was a reconstruction of Richard III's head, but I think it owed more to a famous portrait of him.

The trouble is, of course, that it never looks much like a real live person, but more like those photo-fit reconstructions that the police build up from people’s descriptions of villains.

And I never think the dinosaurs that they show you that they have reconstructed from computer graphics look very alive, either.
They are very much better than they used to be, which wouldn't be difficult, and computer animation has come a long way in recent years.
The trouble is, though, that it is only a computer animation.
They are not films of real animals, and it does show, rather.
I was watching a children's programme with my grandson the other day, and I was impressed with how much these things have improved in recent years, but they are still not quite like real animals.

The difference, in both the head reconstructions and the dinosaur programmes is that there is no life.
No spirit, no personality looking out through the eyes.

And that’s what Ezekiel saw in his vision –
there were just so many plastic models lying there, no life, no spirit.
Ezekiel had to preach to them again, and they eventually came to life as a vast army.

And then Ezekiel was told the interpretation of his vision –
it was a prophecy of what God was going to do for Israel, which at the time seemed dead and buried.
God was going to bring Israel back to life, to breathe new life into the nation, and put His Spirit into them.


I’ll come back to Ezekiel in a minute, but for now, let’s go on to the wonderful story of Lazarus.

The family at Bethany has many links in the Bible.
Some people have identified Mary as the woman who poured ointment all over Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Leper –
and because he lived in Bethany,
some people have also said that he was married to Martha.
We don’t know.
The Bible isn't very clear about which Mary was which,
apart from Mary the Mother of God,
and it certainly doesn't say that Martha and Simon were married to each other, although both of them probably were married.
We do know that Martha and Mary were sisters,
and that they had a beloved brother, called Lazarus.
We do know that on one occasion Mary poured her expensive perfume all over the feet of the Lord –
whether this was the same Mary as in the other accounts or a different one isn't clear
But whatever, they seem to have been a family that Jesus knew well,
a home where he knew he was welcome,
and dear friends whose grief he shared when Lazarus died.

In some ways the story “works” better if the woman who poured ointment on Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Leper and this Mary are one and the same person,
as we know that the woman in Simon’s house was, or had been,
some kind of loose woman that a pious Jew wouldn’t normally associate with.
Now she has repented and been forgiven,
and simply adores Jesus,
who made that possible for her.
And she seems to have been taken back into her sister’s household,
possibly rather on sufferance.

But then she does nothing but sit at Jesus’ feet, listening to him.
Back then, this simply was Not Done.
Only men were thought to be able to learn,
women were supposed not to be capable.
Actually, I have a feeling that the Jews thought that only Jewish free men were able to learn.
They would thank God each morning that they had not been made a woman, a slave or a Gentile.
And even though St Paul had sufficient insight to be able to write that “In Christ, there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile”, thus at a stroke disposing of the prayer he’d been taught to make daily, it’s taken us all a very long time to work that out,
and some would say we haven’t succeeded, even now.

Anyway, the point is that Mary, by sitting at Jesus’ feet like that,
was behaving in rather an outrageous fashion.
Totally blatant, like throwing herself at him.
He might have felt extremely uncomfortable,
and it’s quite possible that his disciples did.
Martha certainly did, which was one of the reasons why she asked Jesus to send Mary through to help in the kitchen.
But Jesus replied:
“Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Mary, with all her history, was now thirsty for the Word of God.
Jesus was happy enough with bread and cheese, or the equivalent;
he didn’t want a huge and complicated meal.
He wanted to be able to give Mary what she needed,
the teaching that only he could provide.
He would have liked to have given it to Martha, too,
but Martha wasn’t ready.
Not then.

But now….. now it’s all different.
Lazarus, the beloved brother, has been taken ill and died.
It’s awful, isn’t it, when people die very suddenly?
I know we’d all rather go quickly rather than linger for years getting more and more helpless and senile,
but it’s a horrible shock for those left behind.
And, so it seems, Lazarus wasn’t ill for very long, only a couple of days.
And he dies.

It must have been awful for them.
Where was Jesus?
They had sent for him, begged him to come, but he wasn’t there.
He didn’t even come for the funeral –
which, in that culture and climate, had to happen at once,
ideally the same day.
The two women, and their families if they had them, were observing the Jewish custom of “sitting Shiva”,
sitting on low stools indoors while their friends and neighbours came to condole with them
and, I believe, bring them food and stuff so that the bereaved didn’t have to bother.

But Martha, hearing that Jesus is on his way, runs out to meet him.
This time it is she who abandons custom and propriety to get closer to Jesus.
And it is she who declares her faith in Him:
“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ,
the Son of God, who is come into this world!”

And Mary, too, asserts that if Jesus had been there,
Lazarus would not have died.
But it is Martha, practical Martha, who overcomes her doubts about removing the gravestone –
four days dead, that was going to smell rather, wasn’t it?
But she orders it removed, and Jesus calls Lazarus forth.

And he comes, still wrapped in the bandages they used for preparing a body for burial.
When Jesus is raised, some weeks or months later, the grave-clothes are left behind, but we are told that this didn’t happen to Lazarus.
The people watching had to help him out of the grave-clothes.


Of course, I think the point of these two stories –
and the point of linking them together in the lectionary –
is fairly obvious.
Life comes from God.
In Ezekiel’s vision, God had to breathe life into the fitted-together skeletons,
or they were no more than computer animations,
or dressmakers’ dummies.
And it was God who, through Jesus, raised Lazarus from the dead.
Without God, Ezekiel’s skeletons would have remained just random collections of bones.
I think that this was a dream or a vision, rather than something that actually happened, but it makes an important point, even still.
God said to Ezekiel that just as, in the dream, he had breathed life into the skeletons, so he would breathe new life into the people of Israel.

And the story of Lazarus, of course, foreshadows the even greater resurrection of Jesus himself,
a resurrection that left even the grave-clothes behind.
Lazarus, of course, will have eventually died permanently, as it were, when his time had come;
Jesus, as we know, remains alive today and lives within us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

So what have these stories to say to us, here in the 21st century?
We don’t find the idea of a fieldful of bones coming together and growing flesh particularly special –
computer animations have seen to that.
And we don’t expect to see the dead raised –
more’s the pity, in some ways;
maybe if we did, we would.
Then again, that doesn’t seem to be something God does very often in our world.

But I do think that there is something very important we can take away with us this morning, and that is that it’s all God’s idea.
Our relationship with God is all his idea –
we are free to say “No, thank you”, of course,
but in the final analysis, our relationship with God depends on God,
not on us.
I don’t know about you, but I find that really liberating –
I don’t have to struggle and strain and strive to stay “on track”.
When I fall into sin, I am not left all by myself,
but God comes after me and gently draws me back to himself.
I can just relax and be myself!

Our relationship with God is God’s idea.
It is God who breathes life into us.
It is God who brings us back when we go astray.
It is God who helps us to change and grow and become the people we were created to be, designed to be.
It is God who breathes life into the dry bones of our spirituality, who calls us out of the grave, who enables us to grow and change.
Amen, and thanks be to God!