Thirty-Fifth Day of Lent

Luke 22:1-6
22 Now the Festival of Unleavened Bread, called the Passover, was approaching, 2 and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some way to get rid of Jesus, for they were afraid of the people. 3 Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve. 4 And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus. 5 They were delighted and agreed to give him money. 6 He consented, and watched for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them when no crowd was present.

There’s something deeply sacrilegious at the beginning of this passage.

At a time when one of the great Feasts of Jewish tradition was approaching the religious leaders of the community were not preparing for the feast, but for murder. And the chief motivation for this activity was that they were afraid of the crowd. Despite providing religious leadership for the people they were frightened of the opinion of the crowd.

The relationship between leaders and the crowd is always a complex one. We see it in Parliament in all the difficulty of Brexit. According to our Parliamentary system MPs are not our delegates, they are our representatives, and they are required to go to Parliament and vote according to their conscience as opposed to voting according to the wishes of their electorate. This requires a special kind of leadership ability, and often it requires people who are not afraid of the crowd.

During the Passover upwards of 100,000 people would pack into Jerusalem and many, many of them would be fascinated to see and hear this maverick preacher Jesus. How much they believed what he was saying is open to question but nobody could deny he was quite a spectacle. But he was a threat to the powers of the day and they were desperate for a way to get rid of him and so I’m sure that the crowds didn’t know that they were plotting. To preserve their status and their power though, they were willing to contemplate the unthinkable.

Did Judas see an opportunity in the crowds to advance his political ideology of rebellion against Rome? Get rid of Jesus and force an uprising? Once again the crowd was a central feature of the plotting that was going on but they were probably unaware.

And at the centre of the whole drama was the one man Jesus. He seems particularly isolated at this stage. He’s safe in the city during the day when he’s surrounded by the crowds who are whipped up to a religious frenzy anyway at this time. But every night he has to sneak out of the city when the crowds melt away, because he knows his life is in danger.

The leadership sees this one man as a threat to their power. The revolutionary sees him as the spark to ignite a revolution. Either way Jesus has been dehumanised by both parties and his death is a price worth paying to uphold complementary ideologies.

And so a plot is hatched in secret, to do something in secret when there are no crowds around.

Jesus is threat or spark, whose death will further the aspirations of others, and so he can be treated as a nothing.

Everybody is using everybody else in the story. The leaders are using Judas, Judas is using the leaders and everyone is keeping the crowd in the dark but preparing to use them for their own ends. Everybody is using everybody in the story….except for Jesus.

He is the centre of attention for everybody, but he has no say in what is happening.

This is such a toxic form of violence. People are reduced to tools or instruments or weapons without their consent. People are to be used or abused to advance my cause or to further my ambition. This kind of thing happens all around us in all sorts of ways. It’s what the so-called corporate ladder was invented for—I climb at the expense of colleagues. We do it every time we tell a lie or a half truth to protect ourselves at the cost of damaging someone else.

It also happens every time we put our institutions, like the church, above the needs of people. So when we lie or dissemble to protect the institution and someone else suffers, we are following in a long, dishonourable line of plotters who, when they should be getting ready for worship, are committing murder.

Here are all the bible verses which reference Judas Iscariot, Matthew 10:4, 13:55, 26:14, 16, 25, 47-49, 27:1-5; Mark 3:19, 6:3, 14:10, 43-45; Luke 6:16, 22:1-4, 47-48; John 6:71, 12:4, 13:2, 13:26-30; 14:22, 18:2-6; Acts 1:16-18, 25. Why not take time to read all of them and reflect on his life and actions.

When you read and reflect think about how the deeper aspects of his life and motivation might find some parallels in your own. Are there any ways in which you feel compassion for Judas?

So here I stand again Lord,
In the opening days of Holy Week,
Facing into the heart of faith.
And what I see is deception
And violence.

I see it in the religious leaders
I see it in Judas

And I am conscious of it in myself.

Thank you that even now
There is forgiveness.

Help me to walk in newness of life
Help me to walk in peace
Help me to walk in truth
This Holy Week
And forever more


Thirty-Third Day of Lent

Luke 12:49-53
49 “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

O dear! This is not the Christian message as we have imagined it. What has happened to gentle Jesus meek and mild? I wonder have I misunderstood his message and impact? “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth?” (Luke 12:51). Well…….yeah? The bible tells me so. You are the Prince of Peace. When you were born the angels sang “peace on earth and goodwill towards all.”

So who is this Jesus who says “No, I tell you, I am here to bring division,” (Luke 12:51). And then goes on to explain how he will cause splits within and between families…utterly and completely. This is not the kind of Jesus we’re used to.

Jesus certainly seems to be under some pressure here. The phrase “what constraint I am under” could be literally translated “I’m struggling to hold this together,” (Luke 12:50). Indeed it seems he wishes that it was all over (“I wish it were already kindled,” Luke 12:49). Undoubtedly this stress would add pepper to the tone of what he says.

I wonder is Jesus talking about primary loyalties here. The Gospel will demand of disciples that they make a choice about their primary loyalty either to the relationships of friendships and families or to the Gospel. The images of fire (12:49) and water (12:50) are both forms of cleansing and purifying. Motives and commitments will need to be purified and cleansed and this will cause division. And sometimes, in the process of purifying conflict is necessary. When we try to avoid the conflict then relationships can never be purified. When we set up our families, our churches and institutions with a view to avoiding conflict it’s a recipe for unhealthy division.

And here’s something else about division: human life would not be possible without it. It is the process of cell division that enables an organism to grow and mature. You would not be you without this developmental process of cell division.

If you can remember your teenage years, or you’ve parented teenagers, then you know about the conflict that often comes between teenagers and their parents. This is about identity development and what’s known as separation-individuation by which the teenager is gradually developing their own separate identity apart from their parents. This is also a process of division and can be creative if navigated well (though it may not feel like it at the time).

Not all conflict is to be avoided, and it’s possible that Luke was also addressing his contemporary audience here who were experiencing their own family divisions as the church expanded and came into conflict with the surrounding Roman culture.

Conflict is necessary for the growth and the maturing of any living organism; a person, a family, a community, even a congregation! But it should also be said that the presence of conflict is not a guarantee that growth is happening. Some conflict is unhealthy and works against the process of cleansing and purification. Often in families, the conflict styles learned in adolescence are repeated in their own families with their own children. If that conflict was characterised by raised voices, heightened emotions, lots of drama, hurtful name-calling and re-directing blame, and the process is repeated generationally, it is a recipe for broken relationships.

Unfortunately positive and negative conflict can look the same on the outside, so what do we look for and what do we avoid? 

If a person’s conflict style prevents people talking meaningfully about their disagreements, or if someone rapidly makes conflict personal, what we call ad hominem, thereby diverting a conversation from the matter in hand to the person, this will only cause people to get defensive and is an unhealthy form of conflict. Where people argue without rationale, seek to undermine others or constantly deflect from their own shortcomings this is unhealthy conflict.

Instead, healthy conflict should be about developing a shared understanding and is characterised by disputants who are able to separate people from the problem. The issue at stake is de-personalised and people can talk directly to one another because they understand that they are on the same team. In the give and take of discussion people are able to address the issue without having to bring up past hurts and recognise that the problem needs settled now and not later. And people avoid red lines but demonstrate a willingness to be flexible in the interest of cooperation and collaboration.

Think about the last argument you had with someone. How did it happen? How did you respond? What changes did you notice in your body and your emotions? Recognising your conflict style can be very helpful in navigating conflict in family or church. Google the Thomas-Kilman Conflict Modes to learn something about your own style.

God of our borders and our belongings,
In these days of incivility,
So much of our talk to one another is hard.
Talk of breaks and splits and broken relationships.
Of cliff edges, and disorderly withdrawals.
Even words which should be soft

Our union is disunited. Our Community is coarsened. 

I confess that it’s hard to rejoice in the richness of your blessing
If my enemy isn’t impoverished at the same time.
I confess it’s difficult to celebrate my freedoms won in Christ
If my opponent isn’t permanently disadvantaged.

So forgive me if my face is flushed with anger 
And the hand of my friendship
is twisted into a cold fist of opposition.

So I pray, 

Bring comfort to troubled spirits Whose futures are uncertain
Bring peace to conflicted hearts Whose loyalties are torn. 
Bring wisdom to confused minds Whose decisions are momentous 
Teach all of us grace and generosity
in this time of discourtesy

Guide us in how to enjoy the liberating work of Jesus
Without the need to see God’s vengeance worked on others. 
For the sake of our witness to You
For the sake of our neighbours.
For my sake. 


Thirty-Second Day of Lent

Luke 11:37-54
37 When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. 38 But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal.

39 Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40 You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.

42 “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.

43 “Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces.

44 “Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.”

45 One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.”

46 Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.

47 “Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. 48 So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. 49 Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ 50 Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, 51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.

52 “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”

53 When Jesus went outside, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, 54 waiting to catch him in something he might say.

In recent years scholars have begun to re-evaluate the treatment of the Pharisees in Christian tradition. So much so that today scholars would describe Luke’s presentation of the Pharisees as puzzling, complex and often inconsistent. For instance, Luke doesn’t mention the Pharisees at all in connection with the narrative around the passion of Jesus, and mentions Pharisees as members of the early Christian community (Acts 15:5). Yet the first words attributed to them in the Gospel of Luke show them totally misunderstanding Jesus—at best (Luke 5:21).

They grumble at the disciples, accusing Jesus of inappropriate table fellowship (Luke 5:30 and 15:2) and question Jesus about his disciples’ failure to fast (Luke 5:33). On and on they argue about John’s baptism (Luke 7:29-30), about Sabbath obedience and even Sabbath violation (Luke 6:6-11).

And yet Pharisees regularly host Jesus at table (where they seem to be always arguing).

Yet in the culture of the day the Pharisees were often beloved by the ordinary people, particularly the poor. They were frequently poor themselves, and not many of them were wealthy. They were also intensely loyal to the nation and to their faith. Indeed, after one uprising the Hasmonean King Alexander Jannaeus ordered the crucifixion of 800 Pharisees and ordered the throats of their children and their wives to be cut before their eyes. This incident would conceivably be within the memory of some who were still alive in Jesus day.

Indeed some would even argue that Jesus was a member of the Pharisees.

But he departed from them in their interpretation of the Law. It seems to be that for the Pharisees the keeping of the Law was the way to assert identity and insider status. Indeed it got so complicated that keeping the Law was completely outside the capacity of most people. Jesus stood vehemently opposed to this notion and understanding of the Law.

We should not imagine however, that Jesus came to do away with the Jewish Law. Not at all. He came to fulfil it, and he says as much in Matt 5:17. By this I think he meant that he saw his role as restoring the proper place of the Law. Jesus objected to an attitude to the Law which permitted someone to be compliant in all their external behaviours an activities, yet have a hardened and unloving heart.

His very graphic illustration in this passage drives this point home. You can wash the outside of the cup until it is spotlessly clean, but inside be filthy and unhygienic (Luke 11:39). What is the value of such a cleaning regime?

But the evidence that a person has understood the true intent of the Law is that this person is generous towards the poor (Luke 11:41).

In our day things are slightly different in that we have different laws, but similar attitudes are still to be found. For instance, some would tell us that true Christianity is about professing certain beliefs and ideas about God and Jesus. That holding firm to certain doctrinal formulations of the Trinity or the Atonement marks us out as a proper orthodox Christian.

I suspect that Jesus might confront this approach to faith very vigorously. It’s the kind of faith which measures orthodoxy by right belief rather than right behaviour. We could perhaps update Jesus harangue of the Pharisees here to say “Woe to you because you profess the right doctrines, attend the right churches, are seen in the correct company but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.”

It might be that Jesus cares less about our profession than he does about our practice of faith.

And I, for one, wouldn’t want to argue with him about it!

This is a risky one, but think about the culture of belief you live in and about the rules for what’s right and what’s wrong. For instance, maybe you’ve been brought up to believe that Catholics aren’t real Christians (or vice versa). Why not try breaking the rules just for this occasion (blame me!). Buy a book, or hunt down youtube videos of Thomas Merton, Joan Chittister or Richard Rohr and seek to learn from a different tradition.

Draw near, draw near Lord Jesus
And examine me inside and out.
Preserve me from self-righteousness
Or petty outward rule keeping.

Remove from me any trace of judgmentalism
or any narrow-minded fundamentalism
That values the rules over behaviour and action
In the world.

Cultivate in me a heart change
that makes me generous and hospitable towards all
That makes me as clean on the inside as on the outside

That I may more fully follow
In your footsteps.


Twenty-Ninth Day of Lent

Luke 4:23-30
23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”

24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

One of the fascinating things about Jesus in the Gospel of Luke is how much conflict surrounds him. In fact, there are occasions when he seems to provoke it. Today’s reading is startling in that Jesus’ life is threatened after he preaches his first recorded sermon.

Nowadays the idea that a sermon could provoke violence is bizarre. In popular culture the sermon can be the time for some to doze off, and rather than the sound of angry voices what the preacher hears is the not-so-quiet rustle that accompanies the opening of boiled sweets. But that was not always the case.

On August 28, 1748 John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, visited Bolton. He wrote about that visit: “At one (o’clock) I went to the cross in Bolton. There was a vast number of people, but many of them utterly wild. As soon as I began speaking, they began thrusting to and fro; endeavouring to throw me down from the steps on which I stood. They did so once or twice; but I went up again and continued my discourse. They then began to throw stones; at the same time some got upon the cross, behind me, to push me down; on which I could not but observe how God over-rules even the minutest circumstances. One man was bawling just at my ear, when a stone struck him on the cheek, and he was still. A second was forcing his way down to me, till another stone hit him on the forehead; it bounded back, the blood ran down, and he came no farther. “

He came again the following year and things hadn’t improved, "We came to Bolton about five in the evening. We had no sooner entered the main street, then we perceived the lions at Rochdale were lambs in comparison of those at Bolton. Such rage and bitterness I scarce ever saw before, in any creatures that bore the form of men."

We can hardly imagine a sermon so offensive that it would cause such violence and disruption, but such was the offence that Wesley and his message caused that this kind of violence was frequent. There were all sorts of reasons for it, not least was the fact that the Church of England, by whom he was ordained, considered his open air preaching to be offensive. And his ‘method’ of spirituality which was open and available to anyone, especially the poor, was considered to be a threat to the established order. Nevertheless he persisted.

Jesus, in his first recorded sermon in his home town takes a couple of illustrations designed to provoke a response. The listeners want some special treatment because they are his hometown crowd, but he refuses. He tells two biblical stories of the great prophets Elijah and Elisha when they refused to work miracles for their own and instead helped Gentiles. This stirred the sectarian and selfish rage of his neighbours.

Not only will he refuse to bless his own in a special way, he is suggesting a ministry to Gentiles. And so they drove him out of town and tried to throw him off a cliff. I wonder what it was like for Jesus to be driven out of his home town. Was it scary? Was he hurt? How did his parents feel afterwards, were they nervous to show their face about the streets?

It wouldn’t take much to imagine ways in which a sermon could stir real anger today. It might be a sermon on Brexit, that counters the majority view of a congregation, or on LGBT inclusion which in the PCI could see a minister lose their job. Thankfully it’s not so prevalent nowadays but in the not so distant past ministers were driven from their congregations over their views on ecumenism.

The important thing to discern is when an issue needs to be raised and a congregation provoked to consider ideas which makes them uncomfortable. Jesus obviously wanted to provoke his neighbours on the issue of the Gentile inclusion. It wasn’t that he was being belligerent, but that he knew this essential element of the prophetic message was being ignored or dispensed with in favour of a more localised and selfish understanding.

Knowing when and knowing how to provoke conflict requires great wisdom and great courage. Gentile inclusion went to the heart of a Gospel message that began with God assuming human form in a radical act of identification and embrace. Any faith that didn’t have that kind of welcome was a faith worth confronting.

What would have to be said from a pulpit today to get you angry? To what extent is that matter a core element of the Gospel?

Lord Jesus
You are provocative
And confrontative
In a way I’m not comfortable with.

I dare you now
To show me the ways
In which I have domesticated
The Gospel.

The ways in which I have played safe
In how I believe and how I act.
Show me what I have missed
Or what I am blind to
Or would prefer wasn’t part of the message.

I promise not to drive you away.