As a Christian, my understanding of Jesus derives from the Creeds.
Or, in other words, from the five centuries of theological debate that led to the Creeds - as the church attempted to understand and codify exactly who Jesus was.
And so, Jesus is ‘the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father and through whom all things were made.’
Which is all good and what we Christians believe. But it doesn’t sound very human, does it?
To quote the Nicene Creed again, however, we also believe that Jesus ‘came down from heaven and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man.’
He was fully human.
Fully divine and fully human.
It’s hard, however, for Christians today – living as we do this side of Easter - not to tilt more towards the divine than the human. To see Jesus as being different from us and other human beings. And not being just like everyone else.
Yet at the time of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus – despite His charisma - must have seemed like an ordinary human being. The disciples did not know that He was going to be raised from the dead on Easter Day. They did not know He was going to ascend and return to them through the power of the Holy Spirit.
When we read the Gospels, we often forget this. And so, I would urge you – when you read Bible stories about Jesus – to try to do this without the benefit of hindsight. Try to forget what you know happens in the end. Try to see Jesus the way people around Him would have seen Him at the time.
When we do this, we realise just how passionate and unpredictable Jesus was.
Jesus was not, as Philip Yancey puts it in his book The Jesus I Never Knew, ‘like a Star Trek Vulcan - calm, cool and collected as he strode like a robot among excitable human beings on spaceship earth.’ Other people affected Jesus deeply. Obstinacy annoyed Him. Self-righteousness infuriated Him. Simple faith excited Him. If anything, He was not calmer than other people; He was far more emotional. And unpredictable.
In fact, if we try to do a personality analysis on Jesus, He is very hard to pin down.
He showed little interest in the main topical debate and concern of His time – the Roman occupation of Palestine. Yet He was incensed by the money traders in the Temple and drove them out with a whip.
He said He did not want to change a dot or comma of the Torah (the Jewish Law of Moses.) But He was often caught breaking the most important Jewish laws pertaining to the Sabbath and ritual purification.
He was moved with compassion for a leper He’d never met before. But He would shout at his close friend Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’
Sometimes He was healing great crowds. At other times His power seemed blocked.
Sometimes He stole away and evaded arrest. At the end of His ministry He deliberately set His face towards Jerusalem – where He knew people wanted to kill Him.
He told His disciples to love their enemies and turn the other cheek. But on one occasion, He tells them it is time to take up swords.
He made great claims that He was one and the same as God the Father. But, on other occasions, He told people not to say anything about the miracles He had performed.
In short, Jesus is such an extraordinary and unpredictable person – that we should be wary about taming Him into a neat and manageable package. As Dorothy Sayers wrote, ‘[We have] very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified Him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.’
I’m not, for a moment, suggesting we reject the Creeds or our understanding of who Jesus truly is – as revealed to us by God on Easter Day. But I think it’s good to see Jesus also in His gloriously human self – as He would have appeared to people around Him during his life.
A man of passion and immense unpredictability.
Which is why Jesus continues to stir us up and surprise us today.
Would you go and watch the same movie over and over again every week – no matter how much you loved it?
So why then should we go to church every week and essentially do the same thing that we do every time we go?
We live in a culture that demands ‘experience.’
We live in a culture that demands ‘experience.’
Shopping is no longer going out to get things we need but it’s an entertainment. We shop for fun.
Similarly, we no longer visit a museum to see the exhibits but to have something like the ‘BODY WORLDS Museum Experience with Unlimited Asian Tapas’ – that was offered to me online earlier this week.
Timothy Radcliffe in his excellent book Why Go To Church? suggests that a church service should ‘take us by the hair and hurl us into the mystery of God.’ Which sounds both exhilarating and painful – but is not something we expect to experience on a Sunday morning at St Michael’s?
So what does he mean?
How can we create and receive ‘the Eucharistic experience’?
How can we create and receive ‘the Eucharistic experience’?
Radcliffe says that the Eucharistic experience does not need to be all about light systems, powerful singing and dancing in the aisles. It works ‘in the depths of our minds and hearts a very gradual, barely perceptible transformation of who we are, so quietly that we might easily think that nothing is happening at all.’
Our transformation by God’s grace is a slow business – and it only happens if we commit regularly to coming to church. And we then find that, little by little, we are formed into people who believe, hope and love. That is, we grow in the great ‘theological virtues’ of faith, hope and love – that St Paul spoke of in his first letter to the Corinthians.
Faith, hope and love are the ways that God makes his home in us and we in him. And this happens through Sunday by Sunday worship.
A huge event that takes and lasts a lifetime
Just stop and think about a regular Communion service. At the beginning we listen to the Word of God and this helps us grow in faith. In the Eucharistic Prayer we remember how, the night before He died, Jesus took bread, blessed it and gave it to His disciples saying, ‘This is my body, given for you’ and we have hope. Hope that failure, violence and death will not have the final say. And then, as we receive Communion, we experience the gift of love – as we encounter the risen Christ who offers to live within each one of us.
All this adds up to a huge event every Sunday. An experience, if you like, of how God – through Jesus – acts powerfully to save us.
This huge experience may not always be very emotional or dramatic but its cumulative effect is that we grow in faith, hope and love.
If we stuff ourselves with junk food every day and go to the gym once a month then those bouts of exercise will be pointless. And it’s similar with going to Church.
There’s no great point in going to Church once in a while – if our whole lives are pointed in another direction.
Going to a Church service is not like going to see a film – that bowls you over by its drama in the short space of a couple of hours. It is the greater and longer drama of your whole life. It reshapes your heart and forms you into the person God calls you to be – your very best and most beautiful self.
So, keep going to Church. Make it a regular habit. And see the difference that it makes to your life and the lives of those around you.
We are told that, before Jesus teaches his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, he was praying in ‘a certain place.’ And, while we can and should pray absolutely anywhere, it is helpful to have a place, a sacred or thin space, which prompts us to recognise the presence of God around us. To hear the pulse of Life that is always there – but we are often too busy to notice.
So where can we pray?
Well, not surprisingly, as a Vicar I find that the easiest place to pray is in a church – whether in a service or not. Stepping inside a church building just prompts me to pray. And so, as soon as I see a spire or a tower, I’m drawn in.
But, of course, you might just as easily pray in a car park – and there have been many times when I have done just that.
A few days ago I discovered, however, the wonderful story of Susanna Wesley and her special sacred space for prayer.
Susanna was the mother of nineteen children, of whom John Wesley was the 15th and Charles Wesley the 18th. She had a difficult life – not only because she was not wealthy and she had so many children to raise but also because her husband was twice imprisoned for fraud.
Nonetheless Susanna kept her faith and prayed every day.
So where was her place of prayer?
There was nowhere she could escape from the business of home life – so, whenever she wanted time with God, she would simply pull her apron over her head. And create her own unique prayer room.
In this way, her children knew what she was doing and that it was time to leave her alone. And it gave her a brief interlude to pour out her heart, to pray for her children by name, to mourn her lost babies (she lost nine children) and to intercede for her husband.
Footballers often pull their shirts over their heads – and, reading about Susanna, made me wonder whether there isn’t an element of creating prayer-space in doing this. By getting away from the cheering crowds for a few seconds and just being with God in a special moment of elation. Even if the footballer might not recognise his action in this way.
So be encouraged by Susanna Wesley. Find a space for prayer – however busy or complicated your life is. And see the difference this makes.
I’ll finish with a prayer of Susanna Wesley
Help me, Lord, to remember that religion is not to be confined to the church, or closet, nor exercised only in prayer and meditation, but that everywhere I am in Your presence. So may my every word and action have moral content. May all the happenings of my life prove useful and beneficial to me. May all things instruct me and afford me an opportunity of exercising some virtue and daily learning and growing towards Your likeness. Amen.
If you ask people whether they think Jesus was tall or short, they say tall. If you ask people whether he was handsome or ugly, they say handsome. What about slim or overweight? Most people would say slim. The thing is we find it hard – perhaps even sacrilegious - to imagine Jesus as short, ugly and/or overweight.
We imagine that, as a human being, Jesus must have been a perfect specimen.
But was he?
That is a question to which we will never have an answer for sure – as no one ever did even the roughest sketch of Jesus. Or, at least, no such drawing has ever been found.
In some ways, this may be a good thing – as it enables us each to imagine Jesus as being something like ourselves.
In the 5th century we have the earliest depictions of Christ – by Greek artists who showed him as young, fair-haired and beardless – looking something like the Roman god, Apollo, the god of truth and prophecy, healing, the sun and light.
Western artists in recent centuries have given Jesus a beard but kept to the fair-haired handsome image. Only more recently do we see artists depicting Jesus in more diverse ways - from a short haired Palestinian, to African, to Korean and even to being female.
It’s exciting to see these images and they are welcome. As Jesus lived and died for all humanity and calls each one of us – in all our diversity – to be one in him.
But, nonetheless, none of these images depict Jesus as being ugly or imperfect.
Apparently in the Middle Ages, there was a tradition that believed Jesus may have been a hunchback or may have had leprosy. And it’s possible that he did. But this tradition seems to have completely disappeared.
Great humanitarian workers, like Mother Teresa and Jean Vanier, have said how they saw Jesus in the most ugly and deformed human beings. So maybe this is how we should see Jesus too?
Jesus was 'as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised'
After all, the closest thing we have to a biblical portrait of Jesus is the description in Isaiah, which points forward to Christ, the suffering servant. And here is the portrait Isaiah paints:
‘Just as there were many who were astonished at him —so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals… He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.’
There’s a famous, apocryphal story in Church circles about the mother who tries to get her son out of bed one Sunday morning. It resonates well with mothers – as most churchgoing mums have been in this position.
Anyway, in the story, the mother goes into her son’s bedroom and says, ‘Get out of bed and go to church.’
The son puts a pillow over his head and she goes away.
Then, ten minutes later, the mother returns, removes the pillow, and says, ‘Get out of bed and go to church.’
‘I don’t want to,’ says the son. ‘It’s so boring. Why should I bother?’
‘Because it’s Sunday,’ replies the mother. ‘And also because you are the bishop of the diocese.’
Church is a turn off
It’s a funny story – but it also tells a great truth. That many people in the West today would rather stay in bed on a Sunday morning than get up and go to church. Surveys show that people no longer feel duty bound to go to church on Sundays. And they think of it as being boring.
Furthermore, they might be interested in spirituality - but ‘institutionalised religion’ is a turn off.
Why go to church?
So why go to Church? Why can’t you just have God’s rest and know his love at home in your bed?
The bishop’s mother says her son should go to church just because it’s Sunday. Perhaps she is reminding him of how Jesus invited us to re-enact the Last Supper, the meal he had with his disciples the night before he died, which is what we do in a Sunday Communion service every week. But why would Jesus ask us to do something that is tedious and apparently unfruitful?
The mother might have said that her son needed to go to church to celebrate with his Christian family. As a member of a family, you are obliged to attend family events like your mother’s birthday party, however tedious.
But what is this Christian family? Why would you drag yourself out of bed to meet up with a congregation of people you barely know, if at all?
Can’t we just do faith online?
In our society, we choose the people we want to belong to – the group we practise pilates with; our colleagues at work; our Facebook friends. We can listen to sermons and Christian podcasts galore online. So why do we need to go to church?
Well, I guess the answer is that, at church, we receive the gift of Christ’s body – in the bread and the wine that we take into our hands and put in our mouths – something that can’t be delivered by Amazon or accessed online. And we come face to face with people in our community whom we are neither related to nor have we chosen them – all sorts of people, including people who are very different from us and whom we may not even like.
Over the next few months, in these Community posts, I’m going to explore why these differences more. And show you, I hope, why getting up for Church is not only important – but leads to something precious and life-giving.
I’ve just finished reading Pete Greig’s excellent book called How to Pray: a guide for normal people. And, although I’m not sure how truly normal I am, I did find it a very helpful and encouraging book.
One of the things Greig suggests in the book is using the mnemonic P.R.A.Y. when we pray. Which works as follows.
P is for Pause
Before we start praying it’s good to pause, to definitively stop whatever else we have been doing. It’s a bit like when you have to make a right turn off a main road, you need to stop first – to gather your senses and your full concentration before you make the turn. In prayer, we need to pause and allow ourselves to become full present in time and place so that we recognise that God is with us, and we can then begin to engage with him.
R is for Rejoice
Once you’ve paused and stilled yourself, it’s good to take some time to rejoice in God’s many blessings. To have a time of thankfulness. I like to use all my senses to see, hear, touch, taste and feel the wonder of God and creation all around me. When I do this, I can’t help but feel overwhelmed by the simple joy that it is to be alive. Taking time for rejoicing is an essential part of prayer.
A is for Ask
Jesus tells us to ask God for the things that are on our hearts. God loves us like the most loving parent imaginable and he wants us to come to him with all our problems and concerns. God wants to give us not only our daily bread but also he wants to turn water into wine for us. He wants to lead us into green pastures and for our cup to overflow with blessing. Our requests, whether big or small, can never irritate God or waste his time. He loves us to tell him what we most desire.
Y is for Yield
The night before he died, Jesus prayed that God would take away the cup of suffering that was before him. But then Jesus adds, ‘Yet not my will but yours be done.’ When we pray we surrender to the will of God – trusting that God loves us and loves all his children. Our prayers become less about what we want for ourselves and more about what God wants, as he calls us to work with him to bring in his kingdom. To make the world the place of peace and justice for all - that he yearns for it to be. We yield to the one who loves us, forgives us, protects us and redeems us.
P.R.A.Y – Pause, Rejoice, Ask and Yield
I’ve been using the mnemonic for the last few days and have found that it has given much greater depth and balance to my prayers. So I encourage you to give it a try. Pause, rejoice, ask and yield – and then you will truly know how to pray.
John’s gospel is full of wonderful metaphors. We have Jesus as the bread of life, the good shepherd, the light, the gate, the way, the life and the vine.
They are all powerful and important images that tell us so much about who God is and the relationship we might have with Him.
Last night I was reading about the vine – which we find in John chapter 15. The chapter starts with Jesus saying, ‘I am the true vine and my Father is the vine-grower…’ Jesus is speaking to his disciples the night before his death and He wants to use this powerful image to explain the relationship with God that is on offer to His disciples.
The image of the vine is a far cry from images that Moses might have used to describe God in the Old Testament. Where God was seen as holy and untouchable – an all-consuming fire.
Jesus does not seek to diminish our understanding of the holiness of God. Even in this chapter He talks about the vine-grower cutting off branches of the vine and throwing them into the fire. But Jesus is showing his disciples that, not only can they touch God but they can also be directly connected to Him. They can be an integral living entity with God.
In the passage, Jesus says think of me as the main stem of the vine and think of yourselves as the branches. The branches can’t exist without the stem – as the stem provides nourishment and the water of life. And also provides structure and direction.
Does the stem need the branches?
But what about the stem – does the stem really need the branches?
This is a question I had not really thought that much about. But reading the passage again last night, I noticed for the first time that the fruit of the vine grows on the branches not on the stem. The stem needs the branches to bear fruit. And the leaves, of course, through photosynthesis provide energy and nourishment to the stem and the whole plant. The stem is really nothing and has no future without the branches.
I think Jesus, in using the vine metaphor, wants us to understand this too.
Yes, we are dependent on Him. And, without Jesus, our lives wither and dry up. But He too is dependent on us.
Jesus needs us, the branches, to go out into the world spreading His love and bearing fruit – making a difference.
This is the way that God has chosen to make His Kingdom come – to make the world a place of peace and justice - through us.
What this means for us
So try to keep this image in mind today.
Know yourself rooted in the beautiful, life-giving, flourishing vine. And know that your branch has its role to play. Your branch is important. Jesus needs you. He needs you to bear fruit today. To give love to someone you know or meet and for that love to blossom and bring new growth.
As the French theologian, Jean Vanier, says, ‘The fruit of the vine is the life we are called to give to others. But it is not just we who give life, nor is it just Jesus, it is we and Jesus, Jesus is in us and us in Jesus.’
The metaphor of the vine is wonderful because it shows a God who loves us so much that He is not only willing to include us in His life – He is willing to make us integral to His life. He is willing to make Himself vulnerable to the point of depending on us as we depend on Him.
It’s a beautiful and inspiring image. It’s a challenging and breathtaking opportunity. To be a part of the vine. To receive love from God and others. And to give love to God and others too. In an amazing and never-ending cycle.
On Holy Saturday, as we wait – almost holding our breath between the grief of Good Friday and the hope of Easter – I found this beautiful poem by Malcolm Guite that I’d like to share with you:
As though some heavy stone were rolled away,
You find an open door where all was closed
Wide as an open tomb on Easter Day.
Lost in your own dark wood, alone, astray,
You pause, as though some secret were disclosed,
As though some heavy stone were rolled away.
You glimpse the sky above you, wan and grey,
Wide through these shadowed branches interposed,
Wide as an empty tomb on Easter Day.
Perhaps there’s light enough to find you way,
For now the tangled wood feels less enclosed,
As though some heavy stone were rolled away.
You lift your feet out of the miry clay
And seek the light in which you once reposed,
Wide as an empty tomb on Easter Day.
And then Love calls your name, you hear Him say:
The way is open, death has been deposed.
As though some heavy stone were rolled away,
And you are free at last on Easter Day
This Easter, may you find that open door; may that secret be disclosed to you; may you glimpse hope; may you find a clearance in the tangled wood; may you lift your feet from the miry clay and seek light; may you hear Love call your name.
Whatever the heavy stones in your life at this time. May you let Jesus roll them all away.
This is something Christians say in every communion service. And I find it a great comfort and inspiration to say these words. And to recognise that our faith is so big and so amazing that it cannot be fully explained and comprehended. It is a mystery.
Why does mood of the crowd change in Holy Week?
And one part of that mystery is how Jesus goes, in the space of one short week, from being a hero on Palm Sunday to being a villain on Good Friday.
Jesus enters Jerusalem on a Sunday – riding on a donkey, fulfilling the prophecy that the Messiah would enter the holy city in this way. And the community greets him with loud cheers. They throw down their cloaks in Jesus’s path and cry, ‘Hosanna!’ Which means ‘Save us!’ The people believe that Jesus has the power to save them, to rescue them – from the Romans and all that oppresses them in life. Just as Moses saved their ancestors from slavery in Egypt in ancient times.
Nonetheless, the community in Jerusalem turns against Jesus. And, by the Friday, they are baying for his blood. They want him executed and cry ‘Crucify!’
How can this be?
I was reading this week an article that suggested that there were two very distinct communities in Jerusalem – those who supported Jesus and those who opposed him. And we see the first group on Palm Sunday and the second on Good Friday.
But I’m not convinced that these two groups were quite as distinct as the article suggests.
After all, at the beginning of the week one of Jesus’s closest friends, Peter, says he is willing to die with Jesus. But, by Friday, he is adamant that he has never even met Jesus, let alone been one of his followers and supporters.
Do we only cry Hosanna? Or do we cry Crucify too?
So how is it that we can shift so rapidly from Hosanna to Crucify?
I guess that there is a deep human need – perhaps a survival instinct – to want to be on the winning side.
When Jesus is being proclaimed as the Messiah and it looks like he is going to assert his rule – then everyone wants to get behind him.
When things go wrong and Jesus is arrested and sentenced to death, people get scared. And understandably so. Who would want to be crucified? Who would want to go on supporting a lost cause?
To be a Christian is to be part of the community that surrounds Jesus.
And so, the question is will we be loyal when the going gets tough? Or will we too desert Jesus when our faith puts us in any discomfort, let alone danger?
It’s all very well to sing worship songs at church and proclaim our faith together on a Sunday morning behind the thick walls of our buildings. That’s like throwing down our cloaks on Palm Sunday. We are in the safety of the like-minded. We are in a crowd that is behind Jesus.
But what about on Monday morning at the office – when people ask us about our weekend? What about on Thursday evening at a football match - when people are swearing on Jesus’s name? What about on Saturday afternoon – when God asks us to give some money away that we were planning to spend on ourselves?
We are then in a different crowd. A crowd that scoffs at people who go to church. A crowd that has no respect for the name of Jesus. A crowd that puts itself first and others last.
And are we going to be different?
Are we going to risk standing out from that crowd?
This week is Holy Week and a great opportunity to be different. You can be different by attending the many wonderful services that will take place on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
And that’s good.
But you can do better than this.
Forget the winning side and the losing side – be on Jesus’s side this Easter
You can be different among the crowds who deny Jesus and even hate him.
You can tell someone at work that you are a Christian. You can ask the person sitting next to you In the stadium not to swear on the name of Christ. You can do something sacrificial for those in need – either giving your money or your time.
Do this at Easter and you will truly belong to Christ’s community.
In the story of the wedding at Cana, the wine runs out and Mary says to Jesus, ‘They have no more wine.’ She does not give him any instructions about what he might do; she just presents the situation as it is.
Telling God what to do
Often, when we pray, we like to tell God what to do.
And there’s nothing wrong with this. Jesus says at one point in John’s gospel, ‘I will do whatever you ask in my name.’
But sometimes it feels not only more gracious but also more trusting to simply present to God whatever it is that is on our minds.
Telling it as it is
In Eavesdropping: learning to pray from those who talked to Jesus, Henry Martin says,
‘Mary simply brings a problem to Jesus and then leaves it with him. She offers no solutions, nor asks him to do anything. Her job is to alert Jesus and then trust that whatever he does next will be good…
Praying is often far more simple than we make it…Our ‘solutions’ could damage our praying. Sometimes we bring not only our problem to God, but also some quite specific directions for him, on his best way to proceed. Mary does not fall into this trap. She sees. She tells. She leaves the rest to him.’
A kind of See it - Say it – Sort it, if you like.
Martin goes on, ‘Mary could have taken charge and ordered her son to nip out and find more wine from whichever shops were open…but she already knows her son’s ability to think outside the box. She sees. She tells him. She trusts him…We miss out when we are too prescriptive with our solutions. God is free to answer us in ways far beyond our imagining. If we are so fixed just on our one outcome, we might fail to notice that God is answering our prayer…’
The worst prayers
Furthermore, if we need to come up with solutions, we might not pray at all. Especially in seemingly hopeless situations.
Martin says, ‘The worst prayers are those we never pray.’
Maybe there were no shops in Cana and no possible solution to the lack of wine at the wedding – but that did not stop Mary telling Jesus about the situation.
The answer to prayer is always joy and peace
And the end of the story is that – in an extraordinary miracle – Jesus turns water into wine and celebrations continue.
When we take our troubles to God – we too can trust that he will find a way to bring joy and peace – even in situations that, to us, seem impossible.