Chapter 40 / Pentecost Sunday

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Chapter 40

THE SPIRIT IS MOVING!

John 3:1–21
Acts 2:1–41

. . . I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.

Romans 6:1–14


Following Jesus today has much in common with the original disciples’ experience. We are welcomed as disciples by God’s grace, not by earning or status. We learn and practise Christ’s teaching in the company of fellow learners. We seek to understand and imitate his example, and we commune with him around a table. But there is an obvious and major difference between our experience and theirs: they could see Jesus and we can’t. Surprisingly, according to John’s Gospel, that gives us an advantage. ‘It’s better that I go away so the Spirit can come,’ Jesus said. If he were physically present and visible, our focus would be on Christ over there, right there, out there . . . but because of his absence, we discover the Spirit of Christ right here, in here, within.

Jesus describes the Spirit as another comforter, another teacher, another guide – just like him, but available to everyone, everywhere, always. The same Spirit who had descended like a dove upon him will descend upon us, he promises. The same Spirit who filled him will fill all who open their hearts.

Take Paul, for example. He never saw Jesus in the flesh, but he did experience the Spirit of Christ. That was enough to transform him from a proud and violent agitator of hostility to a tireless activist for reconciliation. Through this experience of the Spirit, he seemed to live inside Christ and look out through Christ’s eyes upon the world. And the opposite was equally true: through the Spirit, Christ lived inside Paul and looked through Paul’s eyes upon the world. ‘I in Christ’ and ‘Christ in me’ – that captures so much of Paul’s vision of life.

For Paul, life in the Spirit means a threefold sharing in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. First, as we turn from old habits and patterns, our ‘old self’ with all its pride, greed, lust, anger, prejudice and hostility dies with Christ. That former identity with all its hostilities is nailed to the cross and left behind. In this way, life in the Spirit involves a profound experience of letting go of what has been so far.

Then, Paul says, we join Jesus in the powerlessness and defeat of burial, symbolised by baptism. We experience that burial as a surrender to silence, stillness, powerlessness, emptiness and rest, a letting be.

Then we join Jesus in the dynamic, surprising uprising of resurrection. The surrender, silence, emptiness and rest of letting go and letting be make us receptive to something new. Like a vacuum, that receptivity welcomes infilling and activation . . . and so we experience a letting come of the Spirit of God.

The Bible describes the Spirit with beautiful and vivid imagery: Wind. Breath. Fire. Cloud. Water. Wine. A dove. These dynamic word pictures contrast starkly with the heavy, fixed imagery provided by, say, stone idols, imposing temples or thick theological tomes. Through this vivid imagery, the biblical writers tell us that the Spirit invigorates, animates, purifies, holds mystery, moves and flows, foments joy and spreads peace.

For example, in the first chapter of Genesis, God’s Spirit hovers over the primal waters like wind, creating beauty and novelty out of chaos. The Spirit then animates living creatures like breath. Then, in Exodus, God’s Spirit appears as fire in the burning bush, beckoning Moses, and then as a pillar of cloud and fire moving across the wilderness, cooling by day and warming by night, and leading the way to freedom. Centuries later, when John the Baptist comes on the scene, he says that just as he immerses and marks people with water, his successor will immerse and mark people with the Spirit. When John baptises Jesus, bystanders see the Spirit descending like a dove upon him. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus dramatises his mission by turning water, which is kept in stone containers used for religious ceremonies, into a huge quantity of wine to infuse joy at a wedding banquet. Later, he promises people that if they trust him, they will experience rivers of living water springing up from within.

At the core of Jesus’ life and message, then, was this good news: the Spirit of God, the Spirit of aliveness, the Wind-breath-fire-cloud-water-wine-dove Spirit who filled Jesus is on the move in our world. And that gives us a choice: do we dig in our heels, clench our fists and live for our own agenda, or do we let go, let be and let come . . . and so be taken up into the Spirit’s movement?

That was what the disciples experienced on the day of Pentecost, according to Luke, when the Spirit manifested as wind and fire. Suddenly the Spirit-filled disciples began speaking in languages they had never learned. This strange sign is full of significance. The Spirit of God, it tells us, is multilingual. The Spirit isn’t restricted to one elite language or one superior culture, as almost everyone had assumed. Instead, the Spirit speaks to everyone everywhere in his or her native tongue.

What happened at Pentecost reverses the ancient story of the Tower of Babel, when ambitious Babylonians grasped at god-like power by unifying everyone under one imperial language and culture. At Babel, God opposed that imperial uniformity and voted for diversity by multiplying languages. Now, in the Pentecost story, we discover a third option: not unity without diversity, and not diversity without unity, but unity and diversity in harmony.

In the millennia since Christ walked with us on this Earth, we’ve often tried to box up the ‘wind’ in manageable doctrines. We’ve exchanged the fire of the Spirit for the ice of religious pride. We’ve turned the wine back into water, and then let the water go stagnant and lukewarm. We’ve traded the gentle dove of peace for the predatory hawk or eagle of empire. When we have done so, we have ended up with just another religious system, as problematic as any other: too often petty, argumentative, judgmental, cold, hostile, bureaucratic, self-seeking, an enemy of aliveness.

In a world full of big challenges, in a time like ours, we can’t settle for a heavy and fixed religion. We can’t try to contain the Spirit in a box. We need to experience the mighty rushing wind of Pentecost. We need our hearts to be made incandescent by the Spirit’s fire. We need the living water and new wine Jesus promised, so our hearts can become the home of dove-like peace.

Wind. Breath. Fire. Cloud. Water. Wine. A dove. When we open up space for the Spirit and let the Spirit fill that space within us, we begin to change, and we become agents of change. That’s why we pause in our journey to gather together around a table of fellowship and communion. Like the disciples in the upper room at Pentecost, we present ourselves to God. We become receptive for the fullness of the Spirit to fall upon us and well up within us, to blow like wind, glow like fire, flow like a river, fill like a cloud and descend like a dove in and among us. So let us open our hearts. Let us dare to believe that the Spirit we read about in the Scriptures can move among us today, empowering us in our times so we can become agents in a global spiritual movement of justice, peace and joy.

So, are we ready? Are we willing to die with Christ? Are we willing to let go?

And are we willing to be buried with Christ? Are we willing to let be?

And are we willing to rise with Christ? Can we inhale, open our emptiness, unlock that inner vacuum, for the Spirit to enter and fill – like wind, breath, fire, cloud, water, wine and a dove? Are we willing to let come?

Let it be so. Let it be now. Amen.

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Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about a time when you experienced the Holy Spirit in a special way.

3. How do you respond to the imagery of death, burial and resurrection with Christ?

4. For children: What do you think it means for a person to be filled with God?

5. Activate: Make it a habit in the coming days to take a deep breath and then exhale to express letting go. Then remain breathless for a moment – to express letting be. Then inhale to express letting the Spirit come to fill you.

6. Meditate: In silence, hold the word open in God’s presence. Let images of openness come to you. Direct this openness to God’s Spirit as a desire to be filled.

Chapter 39

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Chapter 39

Whatever the Hardship, Keep Rising Up!

Isaiah 40:27–31

. . . they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Acts 9:1–25
2 Corinthians 6:1–10; 11:22–33


Let us imagine ourselves in Rome, in about ad 64.

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Over thirty years have passed since Jesus launched this uprising of faith, hope and love in our world. Over a dozen years have passed since we travelled with Paul around the Mediterranean. Since then, the uprising has continued to spread. New leaders have arisen. People around the empire have joined us. We know the movement is gaining strength.

It is gaining strength largely because of the hardships we have faced. There have been persecutions from outsiders, betrayals by insiders and stupid arguments that wasted time and drained our energy. There have been divisions, moral scandals, all kinds of crazy teachings that confuse and distract, power struggles, sad things that in many ways show how easy it is to forget what this whole movement is supposed to be about. As we’ve offended each other and forgiven each other, as we’ve experienced rifts and then reconciliations, we’ve learned that God doesn’t give us shortcuts around hardships, but strengthens us through them.

Speaking of hardships, we recently heard that Paul was under house arrest in Rome. Timothy told us Paul was feeling lonely and cold in the winter chill, and a little bored, too. So we joined Timothy and came to Rome to be with him. We brought him a warm coat and things to read, among other things. Since we arrived, a steady stream of visitors comes every day to talk with Paul about Jesus and the commonwealth of God, the great abiding passions of his life.

In the evenings, Paul often tells us stories about his many adventures. To our great surprise, the stories he likes to tell most are those of struggle. ‘If I’m going to brag like a fool,’ he says, ‘it will be about my weaknesses, limitations, sufferings and scars.’

Sometimes Paul shows us those scars – from whippings he received on five occasions, and beatings with rods that he received three times, including that unforgettable day in Philippi. He reminds us that even Jesus could only lead the way to God’s new commonwealth through suffering. ‘Through many hardships you enter the commonwealth of God,’ he says. He loves to tell the story – and we love to hear it – of how he first experienced the risen Christ over a three-day period, and how from the start he knew that his path would involve suffering.

The uprising had only been underway for about three years. Saul – the name by which Paul was known back then – had been its most passionate enemy. He hated the Way, as it was called back then. He became obsessed with stamping it out. He travelled around the region arresting, imprisoning and executing women as well as men in the name of God and the Scriptures. When he was on his way to Damascus to continue his bloody and hateful work, he was struck to the ground by a blinding light. He heard a voice saying, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked who was speaking to him, and the voice said, ‘I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city and you will be shown what to do next.’ This shattering experience of spiritual insight left him unable to see physically. So he had to be led into Damascus by the hand. For three days he sat in darkness, unable to see. Obviously, he had a lot to think about.

A complete stranger named Ananias came to visit him. Ananias was a disciple, a follower of Jesus and the Way – exactly the kind of person Paul had come to Damascus to arrest, torture and kill. Ananias could have killed his blind and defenceless enemy. But instead he spoke words of kindness to him. ‘Brother Saul,’ he said, ‘the Lord Jesus who appeared to you sent me to you so your sight could be restored and so you could be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Ananias laid his hands on him and prayed for his vision to be restored.

When Paul opened his eyes, the first face he saw was that of Ananias. Ananias warned him that the road ahead would be full of hardship, and that has been the case – for Paul, and for all of us on the Way.

Of course, as followers of the Way, we face the normal hardships of life – sickness, setbacks, delays, conflict, struggle. Paul has had his share of those. Once he survived a shipwreck, only to get bitten by a snake. How he laughs when he tells us that one! And there was the time he preached for so long that a young man got drowsy, dropped off to sleep and fell out of a second-storey window. Paul laughs even more when he tells that one. Thankfully, it turned out OK in the end. In fact, after healing the victim of his long sermon, Paul went back and preached for several more hours!

Paul is getting older now. He is constantly plagued by eye troubles and other aches and pains. Being under house arrest means poor food, cold, restricted movement and uncertainty about what the future holds, especially now, with Nero as emperor. Enough said about that. On a deeper level, Paul often speaks with deep regret about a break with two of his former friends, Barnabas and John Mark. He still dreams of reconciliation. And he carries constant concern for the ecclesia spread out across the empire, the way a mother carries her children in her heart even after they’re grown.

In the face of all this hardship, Paul admits getting depressed at times. But he tells us that it is only through hardship, through discouragement, through exhaustion, that we learn to draw on the power of God’s Spirit within us. It is only when we come to the end of our own strength, and even then refuse to give up, that we discover God’s strength. ‘When we are weak, then we are strong,’ he says.

Hardships make us bitter . . . or better. They lead us to breakdown . . . or to breakthrough. If we don’t give up at that breaking point when we feel we’ve reached the end of our own resources, we find a new aliveness, the life of the risen Christ rising within us. Paul often says it like this: ‘I have been crucified with Christ. So it is no longer my prideful self who lives. Now it is Christ, alive in me.’

Hardships not only teach us to live in dependence upon God, but they also teach us interdependence with others. So through hardship, we move from ‘me’ to ‘we’. Paul reminds us that he discovered Christ not only in his vision, but also in Ananias. And after Ananias, he met Christ in the ecclesia in Damascus, the ecclesia in Antioch, and in so many individuals too – in women like Lydia, Prisca and Julia, in men like Timothy and Titus . . . and yes, even dear Barnabas and John Mark too.

Paul isn’t the least bit shy about speaking of his tenuous future. ‘The only thing ahead for me is imprisonment and persecution,’ he says. ‘But I don’t count my life of any value to myself. My only ambition is to finish my course and fulfil the ministry the Lord Jesus has given me: to tell everyone everywhere about the good news of God’s grace.’

These days there’s a lot of unrest. The Zealots are stirring up rebellion in Jerusalem, and if that happens the Roman military will crush it and reduce Jerusalem to ashes and rubble. Here in Rome, Nero is utterly powerful and utterly insane. He takes sick pleasure in executing people on a whim, and any day Paul could be his next entertainment. But Paul refuses to complain – he can’t stand complaining. He just keeps rejoicing and singing and being grateful for each day, each breath, each heartbeat – just as he did that night with Silas in the jail in Philippi. ‘For me to live is Christ,’ he says. ‘But to die will be gain.’ Paul has followed Jesus’ example, and in so doing he has set an example for us . . . an example of enduring hardship and seeing joy beyond it.

We’ve been enduring hardship and experiencing joy for thirty years now. Paul will soon be gone. And then it will be up to us to carry on – leading with joy through whatever hardships we will face. Who knows where the road will lead? God will be with us, and we will make the road by walking, together.

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Let us lift a glass and say, ‘The Lord is risen!’ He is risen, indeed!

We too are rising up! We are rising up, indeed!

Let us arise in fellowship. In fellowship, indeed!

Let us arise in discipleship. In discipleship, indeed!

Let us arise in worship. In worship, indeed!

Let us arise in partnership. In partnership, indeed!

Let us arise in stewardship. In stewardship, indeed!

And whatever the hardship, we will keep rising up. Through hardship, indeed!

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Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about one of your greatest hardships.

3. How do you respond to the idea that we discover God’s strength only through our weakness?

4. For children: What’s something that you really don’t like doing, but you make yourself do it anyway?

5. Activate: This week, when you’re tempted to complain, look for a blessing that could come from enduring hardship well.

6. Meditate: In silence, ponder Paul’s words, ‘For me to live is Christ’ and ‘Christ lives in me.’ How does your heart respond?

Chapter 38

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Chapter 38

The Uprising of Stewardship

Deuteronomy 15:1–11
1 Timothy 6:3–19

. . . we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.

2 Corinthians 8:1–15


Let us imagine we are with Paul and his team of disciples in the city of Corinth in ad 51.

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We’ll never forget Philippi and what we learned there about the uprising. Since leaving the Roman colony, we’ve visited several other cities including Thessalonica and Berea. Now we have come to a city called Corinth. It’s a city with a dirty reputation, well deserved in many ways. The people here are tough. Mean. Selfish. There are all kinds of religions, lots of temple prostitution, all the worst of big-city life. But even here, an ecclesia of discipleship, fellowship, worship and partnership is forming. It looks like Paul, Silas and Timothy plan to settle here for a year or more. They have joined with a local couple, Priscilla and Aquila, to start a small business making tents.

Speaking of money, you don’t have to live very long to know that money rules this world. People with money have power, and to them what matters most is getting more of both. We see that here in Corinth, and it’s obvious around the whole empire. Paul is very suspicious of money. To him, loving money is at the root of all kinds of evil. What really counts isn’t gold, but the contentment that comes from desiring God above all else.

Again and again he teaches us that the drive to accumulate money wastes our lives. Our real ambition should be to build a big account of good works – acts of generosity and kindness on behalf of those considered the last, the least and the lost. Paul loves to quote Jesus’ words that it is better to give than to receive. That’s why he’s got us making tents: he wants us to have enough money to provide for our own needs, plus more to share with others.

When the uprising first began in Jerusalem, people started bringing all their possessions to the apostles. Since they knew it wasn’t God’s will for some of us to have luxuries while others lacked necessities, those with surplus began to share freely with those in need. We held all things in common. As you might expect, that created some problems. Some old prejudices sprang up between Jews and Greeks, and some people began playing games, pretending to be more generous than they really were. In spite of the problems, holding all things in common was a beautiful thing.

What must never change, is this: we realise that the systems of this world run on one economy, and we in the commonwealth of God run on another. In our alternate economy, those who have a lot don’t hoard it; they share it. Those who have been given much in terms of money and power feel not a sense of privilege and superiority, but a sense of greater responsibility for their neighbours who are vulnerable and in need. We measure our well-being and holiness by the condition of the weakest and neediest among us.

Across the Roman Empire, and especially here in Corinth, people exhaust themselves to get rich, and in so doing they cause much harm. Some exploit the land. You might say they are thieves who take more from the bank of creation than they put back, and in that way they steal from unborn generations. Others exploit people of this generation. They are thieves who make big profits through the sweat of their poorly paid neighbours, reducing them, if not to slavery, then to something almost the same. They are often very subtle in the ways they do this, using banks, investments and loans to enrich themselves as they impoverish others. It’s a dirty economy, and those who profit by it gain the world and lose their souls.

‘What’s yours is mine,’ some people say, ‘and I want to steal it!’ ‘What’s mine is mine,’ some people say, ‘and I want to keep it!’ ‘What’s mine is God’s,’ we are learning to say, ‘and I want to use it for the common good.’ We call that attitude stewardship.

Stewardship applies to all areas of our lives – how we use time, potential, possessions, privilege and power. Whatever we do, we try to give it our very best, because we work for Christ and not just for money. We want no part of dishonest or harmful employment, so if necessary we change jobs, or we work for reform so we can stay in our current jobs with a clear conscience. As we are being transformed personally, we seek to transform our economic systems from corrupt to ethical, from destructive to regenerative, from cruel and dehumanising to kind and humane. We believe this pleases God.

When it comes to how we spend our earnings, stewardship means living below our means. We do so by dividing our income into three parts. First, we determine a percentage that we will use to provide for our needs and the needs of our families. Second, we determine a percentage to save, since wisdom requires foresight. Even ants know to save some of their summer’s work to get them through the winter. Third, we set aside the largest portion we can for God’s work of compassion, justice, restoration and peace.

Some of this third portion goes to people like Paul, Silas and Timothy, who lead and serve our ecclesia. Some of it goes to members of the ecclesia who are in need – the sick, the widows, the orphans, the elderly and those who have lost their homes, their land and their work. Some of it goes to meet the needs of others near or far – as an expression of God’s love and ours. That’s what stewardship is, really: love in action.

Paul always reminds us that nothing has any value without love. That explains why money is so deceptive. It deceives people about what has true value. You cannot serve two masters, Jesus taught. If you love God, you will hate money, because it always gets in the way of loving God. If you love money, you will hate God, because God always gets in the way of loving money.

It is foolishness to live above your means. It is selfishness to spend all your money on yourself. It is godliness to give – to produce a surplus that is used for the commonwealth of God, which is an uprising not of greed but of joyful generosity and creative stewardship.

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Let us lift a glass and say, ‘The Lord is risen!’ He is risen, indeed!

We too are rising up! We are rising up, indeed!

Let us arise in fellowship. In fellowship, indeed!

Let us arise in discipleship. In discipleship, indeed!

Let us arise in worship. In worship, indeed!

Let us arise in partnership. In partnership, indeed!

Let us arise in stewardship. In stewardship, indeed!

engage.jpg

Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about a time when you got mixed up about what really has value.

3. How do you respond to the idea of dividing your earnings into three parts – to spend, save and give?

4. For children: If someone gave you a whole lot of money, what would you do with it?

5. Activate: If you’ve never developed a budget where you specify what percentage of your income you will spend, save and give, do so this week. And if you have such a budget, reassess and see if you can raise your standard of giving by a percentage or two. If possible, meet with a close friend from your DNA group to speak openly of your financial lives and priorities.

6. Meditate: Quietly ponder the tension between loving God and loving money. See if any insights come to you. Ask God to help you be a wise steward or manager of the resources that are entrusted to you.

Chapter 37

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Chapter 37

The Uprising of Partnership

Psalm 146
Matthew 10:16–20; 11:28–30; 28:16–20

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.

Acts 16:11–40


Let’s imagine it is about AD51 and we are with a group of disciples in Philippi, about halfway between Jerusalem and Rome.

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For almost twenty years now the uprising has been spreading. We still remember Jesus’ words about scattering seed and seeing it grow, or kneading yeast into dough so the bread will rise, or extending like fruitful branches from a central vine. We dare to believe that through tiny little seeds like us, through the yeast of our little ecclesia, through the spreading branches of this expanding movement, the world is beginning to change. Nobody knows exactly how many disciples there are, but every day, it seems, more are being added.

We’ve already seen uprisings of justice, peace and joy spread across Judea and Samaria, and now, Paul, Timothy, Luke, Silas, Priscilla, Aquila and many others travel across the empire, developing ecclesia in all its major cities. We have been invited to join them in Philippi.

Philippi is famous because, as a Roman colony, it’s like a little outpost of Rome. The people of Philippi are loyal Romans – the citizens, that is. The slaves here, just like everywhere in the empire, are not so happy with the Pax Romana. They do disproportionately large amounts of work and enjoy disproportionately small amounts of ‘pax’. The same could be said for women in the empire. It was a group of women we first met here several days ago, down by the river where they gather for prayer. A businesswoman named Lydia welcomed us – and our message. She and her household were baptised, and she gave us a place to stay at her large home. It’s not at all surprising that women were the first to welcome us. Luke keeps reminding us that ever since Mary, they’ve been leaders in the uprising.

If slaves and women are the worst-off people in the empire, young female slaves are the most vulnerable by far. It was a slave girl who next demanded our attention in Philippi. She made a lot of money for her owners by going into a trance and telling fortunes. Whenever we walked by her on the way to the riverside, she would start shouting about us: ‘These men are slaves of the Highest God of All. They proclaim to you the way of liberation!’ You can imagine how slave-owners feel when slaves shout about liberation. And you can imagine how believers in the Greek and Roman gods feel when people talk about ‘the Highest God of All’. It sounds very threatening to their economy and their religion – their whole Roman way of life.

This went on for a couple of days until finally, yesterday, Paul got annoyed. We were not sure why, exactly. He may have been frustrated that the girl was drawing attention to us in such an inflammatory way. He may have been embarrassed that a fortune-teller was speaking up for us. Or he may have been frustrated that this outspoken girl with so much energy, intelligence and courage was reduced to slavery. Paul constantly reminds us that all people have equal dignity in Christ, male or female, slave or free, Jew, Greek, Roman or foreigner. Anyway, for whatever reason, yesterday he had enough. He turned to her and commanded the spirit of fortune-telling to come out of her in the name of Jesus Christ. And from that moment, no more trances. No more fortune-telling. And no more money for the men who exploited her!

The situation deteriorated rapidly. The furious slave-owners grabbed Paul and another member of our group, Silas, and dragged them into the central plaza of the city where all the markets were. They told the city officials that Paul and Silas were Jewish revolutionaries, advocating a lifestyle that good Romans could never accept. The words Jew and lifestyle were code words that the city officials picked up. We Jews, after all, derive our basic identity from the story of God liberating us from slavery in Egypt. Of all people in the empire, we Jews are considered most resistant to Roman domination. So the slave-owners quickly whipped the people of the market into a frenzy. Soon, by order of the city officials, Paul and Silas were stripped naked, severely beaten and dragged off to prison, where they were put in chains in the innermost cell.

Late last night, Paul and Silas were singing praises to God. It was as if they were saying, ‘You can lock us up, but you can’t shut us up!’ Their songs of praise demonstrated that they feared neither the whole Roman system of slavery, domination and intimidation nor the petty gods that upheld it. The other prisoners, as you could imagine, were quite impressed by their courage, if not their singing voices. Suddenly, around midnight, there was an earthquake. Now earthquakes aren’t terribly rare in Philippi, but this kind of earthquake was completely unprecedented. It didn’t cause the jail to crash in a heap of rubble. It produced no casualties. It simply shook the jail gates and chains so they came unfastened! It was an earthquake of liberation, not destruction. Imagine that!

When the jailer rushed in to check on his prisoners, he was terrified. He knew that if they escaped, he would be put into prison himself, and perhaps tortured too. So he pulled out his sword and decided that suicide was better than being thrown into the miserable prison system that he managed. Paul shouted out to him, ‘Don’t do it, man! We’re all here!’

At this point, the poor jailer was even more shocked. Here his prisoners were concerned about his welfare! They were choosing to stay in prison voluntarily to keep him from suffering for their escape! He brought them outside the prison and fell down on his knees in front of them, trembling with emotion. ‘Gentlemen, what must I do to experience the liberation you have?’ he asked. There was that word liberation again – the same word the slave girl had used.

‘Have confidence in the Lord Jesus, and you will be liberated, and so will your whole household,’ Paul said. The jailer must have understood those words ‘Lord Jesus’ to be in contrast to the emperor’s title, ‘Lord Caesar’. He realised that Paul was telling him to stop being intimidated by Caesar’s system of threats, whips, swords, chains, locks and prisons. He heard Paul’s words as an invitation to live under a different lord or supreme leader, in a different system, a different empire, a different kingdom – the one Jesus leads, one characterised by true freedom, true grace and true peace.

The jailer took them to his own house, washed their wounds and gave them a good meal. He had already been transformed – from a jailer to a gracious host! And when Paul and Silas told the man, his family and his slaves more about Jesus and the uprising, they were all baptised.

Early this morning, the city officials realised that they had violated legal protocols by giving in to the wealthy businessmen’s demands. So they sent police to the jail with orders to get Paul and Silas out of town as soon as possible. But Paul refused to leave. ‘They made a mockery of justice by publicly humiliating, beating and imprisoning two Roman citizens without a trial, and now they want us to participate in a cover-up? No way! If they want us to leave, they need to come in person, apologise, and personally escort us from the city.’ When the police returned with news that the two prisoners were actually Roman citizens, the city officials were as scared as the jailer had been after the earthquake. Like him, all they could think of was how much trouble they would be in with the higher-ups! So they complied with Paul’s demands and politely requested that Paul and Silas leave the city immediately.

Paul wasn’t in any rush. He decided to stop and spend some time here at Lydia’s house, where the rest of us have been waiting. We quickly gathered the newly forming ecclesia. Paul and Silas shared the story you just heard. Everyone is brimming with excitement, overflowing with joy. We are partners in an earthquake of liberation! As we move forward together in this partnership in mission for peace and freedom, injustice at every level of society will be confronted, and people at every level of society will be set free!

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Let us lift a glass and say, ‘The Lord is risen!’ He is risen, indeed!

We too are rising up! We are rising up, indeed!

Let us arise in fellowship. In fellowship, indeed!

Let us arise in discipleship. In discipleship, indeed!

Let us arise in worship. In worship, indeed!

Let us arise in partnership. In partnership, indeed!

engage.jpg

Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about a time when you felt like one character in this story.

3. How do you respond to the idea that Paul and Silas were engaged in protest and civil disobedience in Philippi? Under what circumstances would you risk arrest, imprisonment or death?

4. For children: Have you ever been part of a really good team? Tell us about it.

5. Activate: This week, look for counterparts to the slave girl in your world. Do what you can to stand with them and stand up for them and show them you respect their dignity.

6. Meditate: Hold in your imagination the picture of jail doors shaking open. What could this image mean for your life? Listen in your deepest heart for an answer.

Chapter 36

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Chapter 36

An Uprising of Worship

Psalm 103
Acts 2:41–47

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

1 Corinthians 14:26–31
Colossians 3:12–17


Let us imagine ourselves among the early disciples in Jerusalem, a year or so after Christ’s death and resurrection.

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Many months have passed since the uprising began. For a short time, there were frequent reports of people seeing the risen Christ in a variety of locations. Soon, though, those reports became less frequent until they ceased entirely. A story spread that Jesus had ascended to heaven and was now sitting at God’s right hand. That fuelled a lot of speculation and debate about what we should expect. Some think God is going to stage a dramatic intervention any day. Some have even stopped working in anticipation of a massive change. But many of us have interpreted Jesus’ ascension and enthronement to mean it is now time to get to work, living in light of what Jesus already taught us. We’re convinced that what matters now is not for Christ to appear to us, but for Christ to appear in us, among us and through us. He wants us to be his hands, his feet, his face, his smile, his voice . . . his embodiment on Earth.

We gather frequently, at least weekly, as little communities that we call ecclesia. We borrowed this term from the Roman Empire, just as we ‘borrowed’ the cross and reversed its meaning. For the Romans, an ecclesia is an exclusive gathering that brings local citizens together to discuss the affairs of the empire. Our ecclesia brings common people together around the affairs of the kingdom of God. Whenever and wherever the Roman ecclesia gather, they honour and worship the emperor and the pantheon of gods that support him. Whenever and wherever we gather, we honour and worship the living God, revealed to us in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Our ecclesia gather for worship wherever we can – in homes, public buildings or outdoor settings. And we gather whenever we can – but mostly at night, since that’s when nearly everyone – even the slaves among us – can assemble. We often gather on Sunday, the day Jesus rose and this uprising began, but none of us would argue about which day is best, since every day is a good day to worship God.

For us, worship includes four main functions. We begin with the teaching of the original disciples, whom we now call apostles. Just as an apprentice carpenter is called a master carpenter once he has learned the trade, well-trained disciples who are sent out to teach others are called apostles. The apostles tell us the stories of Jesus, things they saw and heard as eyewitnesses of his time among us. They read the Law and the Prophets, and explain how our sacred texts prepared the way for Jesus and his good news. The apostles and their assistants also write letters that are shared from one ecclesia to the next. Our leaders read these letters aloud to us, since many of us can’t read ourselves. Whether in person or by letter, through the teaching of the apostles we learn the words of Jesus, the stories about Jesus, the parables he told, the character he embodied, so we can walk the road he walked.

Second, our worship includes breaking the bread and drinking the wine, as Jesus taught us. Usually, this is part of a meal that we call our ‘love feast’ or ‘the Lord’s table’. It is so unlike anything any of us have ever experienced. Everywhere in our society, we experience constant divisions between rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, Jew and Greek, city-born and country-born, and so on. But at the Lord’s table, just as it was when Jesus shared a table with sinners and outcasts, we are all one, all loved, all welcome as equals. We even greet one another with a holy kiss. Nobody would ever see a high-born person greeting a slave as an equal – except at our gatherings, where those social divisions are being forgotten and where we learn new ways of honouring one another as members of one family.

At our love feasts we say the words Jesus said about the bread being his body given for us, and the wine being his blood shed for us and for our sins. Those words ‘for us’ and ‘for our sins’ are full of meaning for us. Just as we take medicine ‘for’ an illness, we understand that Jesus’ death is curing us of our old habits and ways. For example, when we ponder how he forgave those who crucified him, we are cured of our desire for revenge. When we see how he trusted God and didn’t fear human threats, we are cured of our fear. When we remember how he never stopped loving, even to the point of death, we are cured of our hatred and anger. When we imagine his outstretched arms embracing the whole world, we feel our hearts opening in love for the whole world, too, curing us of our prejudice and favouritism, our grudges and selfishness.

Along with the apostles’ teaching and the holy meal, our worship gatherings include fellowship or sharing. We share our experiences, our sense of what God wants to tell us, our insights from the Scriptures. We also share our fears, our tears, our failures and our joys. There is a financial aspect to our sharing as well. At each gathering we take an offering to distribute to those who serve us by equipping our community in leading or teaching, and for those who are most in need among us and around us – especially the widows and the orphans. None of us is rich, but through our sharing none of us is in need either.

Finally, along with gathering for teaching, the holy meal and fellowship, our worship gatherings are for prayer. Some of our prayers are requests. We have learned that it is far better to share our worries with God than to be filled with anxiety about things that are out of our control anyway. We constantly pray for boldness and wisdom so that we can spread the good news of God’s love to everyone everywhere. We bring the needs and sorrows of others to God, too, joining our compassion with God’s great compassion. We pray for everyone in authority – that they will turn from injustice, violence and corruption to ways of justice, peace and fairness. We pray especially for those who consider themselves our enemies. The more they curse and mistreat us, the more we pray for God’s blessing on them, as Jesus taught us to do.

Some of our prayers are confessions. We freely confess our sins to God, because Jesus taught us that God is gracious and forgiving. God’s grace frees us from hiding our wrongs or making excuses for them. We don’t want to pretend to be better than we really are, and so prayers of confession help us be honest with God, ourselves and one another.

All of our prayers lead us to thanksgiving and praise. We feel such joy to have God’s Spirit rising up in our lives that we can’t be silent. We sing our deep joy and longing, sometimes through the ancient psalms and also through spiritual songs that spring up in our hearts. The more we praise God, the less we fear or are intimidated by the powers of this world. And so we praise and worship God boldly, joyfully, reverently and freely, and we aren’t quiet or shy about it!

When we gather, the Holy Spirit gives each of us different gifts to be used for the common good. Someone may be gifted to teach or lead. Someone may be moved to write and sing a song. Someone may be given an inspired word of comfort or encouragement or warning for our ecclesia. Someone may be given a special message of knowledge, insight or teaching. Someone may speak in an unknown language, and someone may pray with great faith for a healing or miracle to occur. The same Spirit who gives the gifts is teaching us to be guided by love in all we say and do, for love matters most for us. It is even greater than faith and hope!

We don’t want to give anyone the impression that everything is perfect with us. We have lots of problems and a lot to learn. But somehow, our problems seem small in comparison to the joy that we feel. This is why, even when we are tired from long days of work, even when we are threatened with persecution, even when life is full of hardships and we feel discouraged or afraid, still we gather to rise up in worship. In the face of Christ, we have come to see the glory of God, the love of God, the wisdom of God, the goodness of God, the power of God, the kindness of God . . . the fullness of God. In light of that vision of God in Christ, how can we not worship?

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Let us lift a glass and say, ‘The Lord is risen!’ He is risen, indeed!

We too are rising up! We are rising up, indeed!

Let us arise in fellowship. In fellowship, indeed!

Let us arise in discipleship. In discipleship, indeed!

Let us arise in worship. In worship, indeed!

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Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story of a time when your heart was full of worship.

3. How do you respond to the four functions of gathered worship – teaching, bread and wine, fellowship, and prayer?

4. For children: What do you like most and least about gathering for worship?

5. Activate: This week, look for opportunities to share with others what you gain from being part of an ecclesia – a gathered community of fellowship, discipleship and worship.

6. Meditate: Choose one word that points to an attribute of God – glory, wisdom, justice, kindness, power, etc. Hold that word in your heart and mind, and in silence worship God. Then choose another word and hold it together with the first in silent worship. Then add a third, and so on.

Chapter 35

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Chapter 35

An Uprising of Discipleship

Psalm 25
Luke 10:1–11, 17–20

John 21:1–15

Feed my lambs.


Let’s imagine ourselves with the disciples, a short time after the resurrection, in Galilee.

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There were several of us together that day. We had left the big city of Jerusalem and gone back to Galilee, our home region to the north. Thomas was there, and so were Peter, Nathaniel, James and John, plus a few more. Out of the blue, late in the day, Peter said he wanted to go fishing. Fishing, of all things!

We weren’t sure why, but we joined him anyway. We dropped our long gill net time after time through the night, re-enacting an old, familiar ritual. And time after time we hauled it in, hoping for something. But the net never struggled against us, never signalled the weight or life of a catch.

It was dawn when we saw a stranger on the shore about a hundred yards from us. Unsuccessful fishermen know the hated question: ‘Hey boys! Having any luck?’

‘Nothing,’ we replied glumly.

He yelled, ‘Drop your net over on the other side of the boat. You’ll find fish there.’

There’s nothing like having a stranger on the shore giving you advice after you’ve been fishing all night. But we did what he said.

And then it happened. We started feeling the net move. Not just a few fish, but a heavy, wriggling, squirming shoal! Most of us were thinking about the fish. But one thought only of that stranger on the shore. ‘It’s the Lord!’ Peter said. He immediately threw on his shirt and swam to shore while the rest of us hauled in the net. It’s a wonder it didn’t tear with all that weight!

When the rest of us came ashore, the stranger already had some bread laid out, with a charcoal fire glowing and some fish cooking. He invited us to add a few of our own fish to the meal, so Peter went out to pull a few from the net.

‘Let’s have breakfast,’ the stranger said.

We all had this sense of who he was, so nobody asked any questions. He broke the bread and gave it, and then the fish, to us. It seems strange to do something so normal . . . eat breakfast . . . under such extraordinary circumstances. But that was what we did. Later we remembered how Jesus had taken the role of a servant the night before the crucifixion, washing our feet. Now he was in the same role, serving us a meal. He turned to Peter to deal with some unfinished business between them.

That night when Jesus was arrested, Peter had fallen apart. When armed guards arrived, Peter panicked, pulled out his sword and slashed off somebody’s ear. In a matter of seconds, he managed to violate half of what Jesus had taught us for the better part of three years. Later, he denied that he even knew Jesus, not once but three times, and he threw in some choice language in doing so. On the morning of the resurrection, he was frantic and confused, and that was just days after he had bragged about how loyal he would be. It wasn’t pretty, and we all knew this instability weighed heavy on the mind of the man Jesus had renamed ‘the Rock’.

‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ Jesus asked, using Peter’s original name rather than ‘Peter the Rock’. We weren’t sure what Jesus meant by ‘more than these’. Did he mean more in comparison to us, his fellow disciples? Did he mean more than the fish, the boat and the net – symbols of his old life before it was interrupted by Jesus? Peter ignored any ambiguity. ‘Yes, Lord. You know I love you.’

‘Then take care of my lambs,’ Jesus replied. Then, as if Peter’s first reply didn’t count for much, Jesus asked him again: ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter replied in the same way the second time, and Jesus said, ‘Shepherd my sheep.’ Then the question came a third time, echoing in all our minds Peter’s three denials. Peter replied even more strongly this time. ‘Lord, you know everything. Of course you know I love you!’ Once again, Jesus told him to shepherd his sheep.

And that was it. It was as if all Peter’s failures melted behind us in the past, like a bad night of fishing after a great morning catch. The past and its failures didn’t count any more. What counted was love . . . love for Jesus, love for his flock.

Like a lot of us, Peter had a way of getting it right one minute and wrong the next. Sure enough, a few minutes later, Peter had forgotten about love for the flock and was treating one of the other disciples as a rival, a competitor. Jesus responded forcefully. ‘Stop worrying about anyone else. You follow me!’

Those words remind us of how this whole adventure began for us, with Jesus issuing that simple, all-or-nothing invitation: Follow me! Three years later, it’s still about that one essential thing: following him. Of course, that’s what the word disciple has meant all along – to be a follower, a student, an apprentice, one who learns by imitating a master.

You can imagine the honour, for uneducated fishermen like us, to sit at the feet of the greatest teacher imaginable. And now we feel it is an even greater honour to be sent out to teach others, who will in turn teach and train others in this new way of life. This revolutionary plan of discipleship means that we must first and foremost be examples.

We must embody the message and values of our movement. That doesn’t mean we are perfect – just look at Peter. But it does mean we are growing and learning, always humble and willing to get up again after we fall, always moving forward on the road we are walking. As Jesus modelled never-ending learning and growth for us, we will model it for others, who will model it for still others. If each new generation of disciples follows this example, centuries from now apprentices will still be learning the way of Jesus from mentors, so they can become mentors for the following generation.

Once, a while back, Jesus sent us out on a kind of training mission, preparing us for this day. He wouldn’t let us bring anything – not even a wallet, satchel or sandals. He sent us out in complete vulnerability – like sheep among wolves, he said. In each town we would need to find hospitable people to shelter us and feed us – ‘people of peace’, Jesus called them. They would become our partners, and with their support we would proclaim the kingdom of God in word and deed to their neighbours. If people didn’t respond, he told us to move on and not look back. We were looking for places, like fields that are ready for harvest, where the time was right and people wanted what we had to offer. We returned from that training mission full of confidence and joy.

Once again it is time for us to follow Jesus’ example and teaching, even though he will not be physically present. He invited us to be his disciples, so now we will invite others to become disciples too. And they in turn will invite still others. In this way, a worldwide movement of discipleship can begin this morning, here on this beach with this handful of tired but resilient fishermen. Small beginnings with unlikely people, given lots of time and lots of faith and lots of hope and love, can change the world.

Like Peter, if we lose our focus, we will be tempted to turn on each other – comparing, criticising, competing. That’s why, like Peter, each of us needs to hear Jesus say, ‘Stop worrying about anyone else! You follow me!’

I think Jesus chose fishermen like us for a good reason. To be part of his uprising, we must be willing to fail a lot, and to keep trying. We will face long, dark nights when nothing happens. But we can never give up hope. He caught us in his net of love, so now we go and spread the net for others. And so, fellow disciples, let’s get moving. Let us walk the road with Jesus.

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Let us lift a glass and say, ‘The Lord is risen!’ He is risen, indeed!

We too are rising up! We are rising up, indeed!

Let us arise in fellowship. In fellowship, indeed!

Let us arise in discipleship. In discipleship, indeed!

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Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about how you have been drawn towards discipleship through another person.

3. How do you relate to the story of Peter with its dramatic ups and downs?

4. For children: If you could help other children learn one important thing, what would it be, and how would you teach them?

5. Activate: This week, keep your eyes open for hospitable ‘people of peace’ who can be your allies in the uprising of peace that Jesus started.

6. Meditate: In silence, hold the image of tired fishermen at daybreak, being told to cast their nets one more time. What does this image say to you in your life right now?

Chapter 34

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Chapter 34

An Uprising of Fellowship

Psalm 133
John 20

Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.

Acts 8:26–40


Matthew, Mark and Luke tell the story of Jesus in ways similar to one another (which is why they’re often called the Synoptic Gospels – with a similar optic, or viewpoint). Many details differ (and the differences are quite fascinating), but it’s clear the three compositions share common sources. The Fourth Gospel tells the story quite differently. These differences might disturb people who don’t understand that storytelling in the ancient world was driven less by a duty to convey true details accurately and more by a desire to proclaim true meaning powerfully. The ancient editors who put the New Testament together let the differences stand as they were, so each story can convey its intended meanings in its own unique ways.

One place where details differ among the Gospels is in what happened right after the resurrection. Mark’s Gospel, which scholars agree was the earliest one to be written down, ends abruptly without any details about the days and weeks after the resurrection. In Luke’s Gospel and its sequel, the book of Acts, Jesus explicitly tells the disciples to stay in Jerusalem. In contrast, in Matthew’s Gospel, the risen Jesus greets only some female disciples in Jerusalem. He tells these women to instruct the male disciples to go to Galilee, over sixty miles away, where he will appear to them later. In John’s Gospel, the risen Christ appears to the disciples in Jerusalem on the evening of resurrection Sunday and then again a week later. And some time after that, the disciples leave Jerusalem and go to Galilee, where he appears to them once more.

For the next two weeks, we’ll imagine ourselves with the disciples in the Fourth Gospel, this week in Jerusalem and next week in Galilee.

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We were afraid that first Sunday night, just three days after Jesus died. Really afraid. We were afraid to go outside in case someone might recognise us as Jesus’ friends and notify the authorities. To them, Jesus was nothing more than a troublemaker and rabblerouser. The rumours about Jesus rising from the dead, spread by some of the women among us, only made matters worse. The authorities would know by those rumours that dreams of an uprising hadn’t completely died. Which meant that we were in danger. Real danger. So we locked ourselves in a room. But even there we were afraid, because at any moment some temple guards or Roman soldiers might bang on the door.

So there we remained, tense, jumpy, simmering with anxiety. What happened on Friday had been ugly, and we didn’t want it to happen to the rest of us. Every sound startled us. Suddenly, we all felt something, a presence, familiar yet . . . impossible. How could Jesus be among us?

‘Peace be with you,’ he said. He showed us his scarred hands and feet. It started to dawn on us: the women’s reports were not just wishful thinking – they were true, and we too were experiencing the risen Christ. ‘I give you my peace,’ he said again. And then he did three things that changed us for ever.

First he said, ‘As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.’ Here we were, huddled in our little safe house like a bunch of cowards, and he was still interested in sending cowards like us to continue his mission!

Next he came close to us and breathed on us. ‘Welcome the Holy Spirit,’ he said. Of course, this reminded us all of the story in Genesis when God breathed life into Adam and Eve. It was a new beginning, he was telling us. It was a new Genesis, and we were to be the prototypes of a new kind of human community.

Next came the greatest shock of all. After what happened on Friday, anyone with scars like his would have been expected to say, ‘Go and get revenge on those evil beasts who did this to me.’ But Jesus said, ‘I’m sending you with the power to forgive.’

Peace! Forgiveness! Those aren’t the responses you expect from someone who had suffered what Jesus suffered. But in that brief moment when our locked hideout was filled with his presence, that was the message we all received.

All of us except Thomas, that is. Thomas wasn’t with us that night. When we saw Thomas later and told him what we had experienced, he was his typical sceptical self. ‘I want to touch those scars with my own hands and see for myself, or I won’t believe,’ he said. A week later, we were all together again, this time with Thomas. We were still nervous about the authorities, so we were careful to keep the doors locked.

Just as before, Jesus’ presence suddenly became real among us – visible, palpable. He spoke peace to us, and then he went straight to Thomas, inviting him to see, touch, believe. He did not criticise Thomas for doubting. He wanted to help him believe.

‘My Lord and my God,’ Thomas replied. We couldn’t help but remember back on Thursday night, when Thomas asked Jesus where he was going and what was the way to get there. Jesus replied, ‘I am the way.’ Philip then asked Jesus to show us the Father, and Jesus said, ‘If you have seen me, you’ve seen the Father.’ Now, ten days later, it seemed as if Thomas was beginning to understand what Jesus had meant. He saw God in a scarred man whose holy aliveness is more powerful than human cruelty.

That’s one thing you have to say about Thomas: even though he didn’t believe at first, he stayed with us, open to the possibility that his doubt could be transformed into faith. He kept coming back. He kept showing up. If he hadn’t wanted to believe, he had a week to leave and go back home. But he didn’t. He stayed. Not believing, but wanting to believe.

And from that night, we learned something essential about what this uprising is going to be about.

It isn’t just for brave people, but for scared folk like us who are willing to become brave. It isn’t just for believers, but for doubting folk like Thomas who want to believe in spite of their scepticism. It isn’t just for good people, but for normal, flawed people like you and me and Thomas and Peter.

And I should add that it isn’t just for men, either. It’s no secret that men in our culture often treat women as inferior. Even on resurrection morning, when Mary Magdalene breathlessly claimed that the Lord was risen, the men among us didn’t offer her much in the way of respect. There were all sorts of ignorant comments about ‘the way women are’. Now we realise the Lord was telling us something by bypassing all the male disciples and appearing first to a woman. As we look back, we realise he’s been treating women with more respect than the rest of us have right from the start.

We have a term for what we began to experience that night: fellowship. Fellowship is a kind of belonging that isn’t based on status, achievement or gender, but instead is based on a deep belief that everyone matters, everyone is welcome and everyone is loved, no conditions, no exceptions. It’s not the kind of belonging you find at the top of the ladder among those who think they are the best, but at the bottom among all the rest, with all the other failures and losers who have either climbed the ladder and fallen, or never got up enough gumption to climb in the first place. Whatever else this uprising will become, from that night we’ve known it is an uprising of fellowship, a community where anyone who wants to be part of us will be welcome. Jesus showed us his scars, and we’re starting to realise we don’t have to hide ours.

So fellowship is for scarred people, and for scared people, and for people who want to believe but aren’t sure what or how to believe. When we come together just as we are, we begin to rise again, to believe again, to hope again, to live again. Through fellowship, a little locked room becomes the biggest space in the world. In that space of fellowship, the Holy Spirit fills us like a deep breath of fresh air.

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This week and in the weeks to come, your Table gathering host will introduce this concluding ritual:

Let us lift a glass and say, ‘The Lord is risen!’ He is risen, indeed!

We too are rising up! We are rising up, indeed!

Let us arise in fellowship. In fellowship, indeed!

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Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about an experience of true fellowship.

3. How do you respond to the idea that Christian fellowship is for scarred and scared people – without regard to gender, status or achievement?

4. For children: Tell us about your best friends and why they’re so special to you.

5. Activate: This week, aim to create spaces for an uprising of fellowship where people feel unconditionally welcome and included – whether in your home, in an office, on public transport, in a restaurant, on the street, or wherever.

6. Meditate: Imagine you’re Thomas at the moment Jesus shows his scarred hands, feet and side. See where Thomas’s experience from that night would resonate with your life today.

Chapter 33 (Easter Sunday)

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Chapter 33

The Uprising Begins
(Easter Sunday)

Ezekiel 37:1–14
Luke 24:1–32

Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?

Colossians 1:9–29


Let’s imagine ourselves with the disciples on the first Easter Sunday.

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Here’s what we heard. At dawn, before the sun has risen, some women who are part of our movement went to the tomb to properly wash Jesus’ corpse and prepare it for burial. When they arrived, they had a vision involving angels. One of the women claimed that Jesus appeared to her. The rest of us think it was just the gardener.

The gardener! What a place to be buried – a grave in a garden! A bed of death in a bed of life!

The women came and told the disciples. Peter went running back and found the tomb empty. Empty! And the burial cloths were still there, neatly folded. Who would take a naked corpse and leave the bloody cloths that it was wrapped in? Peter wondered what was going on – but he didn’t have any clear theory.

We all speculated, but none of us knew what to think. We decided to go back home.

That’s where we are now – walking on the road back home. It’s about a seven-mile walk to our little town of Emmaus. It takes a couple of hours. Along the way we’ve been talking about all this, trying to come up with some kind of interpretation of the events that have transpired.

Now we notice this other fellow walking towards us, a stranger. We lower our voices. He comes a little closer.

‘What are you folks talking about?’ he asks.

One of us replies, ‘Are you kidding? Are you the only person in this whole region who doesn’t know all that’s been happening around Jerusalem recently?’

‘Like what?’ he asks.

We tell him about Jesus, that he was clearly a prophet who said and did amazing things. We tell him how the religious and political leaders came together to arrest him. We go into some detail about the crucifixion on Friday. ‘We had hoped . . .’ one of us says, and pauses. ‘We had hoped . . . that this Jesus was the one who was going to turn things around for Israel, that he would set us free from the Roman occupation.’

We walk on a few steps, and he adds, ‘And this morning was the third day since his death, and some women from our group told us that they had a vision of angels who said he was alive.’ It’s pretty clear from the tone of his voice that none of us take the report of the women very seriously.

That’s when the stranger interrupts. ‘You just don’t get it, do you?’ he says. ‘This is exactly what the prophets said would happen. They have been telling us all along that the Liberator would have to suffer and die like this before entering his glory.’ As we continue walking, he starts explaining things to us from the Scriptures. He begins with Moses, and step by step he shows us the pattern of God’s work in history, culminating in what happened in Jerusalem in recent days. God calls someone to proclaim God’s will. Resistance and rejection follow, often culminating in an expulsion or murder to silence the speaker. But this isn’t a sign of defeat. This is the only way God’s most important messages are ever heard – through someone on the verge of being rejected. God’s word doesn’t come in dominating, crushing force. It comes only in vulnerability, in weakness, in gentleness . . . just as we have seen over this last week.

At this point, we realise we’ve reached home already, and as we slow down, the stranger just keeps walking. We plead with him to stay here with us, since it’s getting late and will soon be dark. So he comes in and we sit down at our little table for a meal. He reaches to the centre of the table and takes a loaf of bread and gives thanks for it. He breaks it and hands a piece of it to each of us and . . .

It hits us at the same instant. This isn’t a stranger... this is... it couldn’t be – yes, this is Jesus!

We each look down at the fragment of bread in our hands, and when we look back up to the stranger . . . he is gone!

And we start talking, one interrupting the other.

‘When he spoke about Moses and the prophets, did you feel . . . ?’

‘. . . Inspired? Yes. It felt like my heart was glowing, hotter and hotter, until it was ready to ignite.’

‘Did this really happen, or was it just a vision?’

‘Just a vision? Maybe a vision means seeing into what’s more real than anything else.’

‘But it wasn’t just me, right? You saw him too, right? You felt it too, right?’

‘What do we do now? Shouldn’t we . . . tell the others?’

‘Yes, let’s do it. Let’s go back to Jerusalem, even though it’s late. I could never sleep after experiencing this!’

So we pack our gear and rush back to the city, excited and breathless. On our earlier journey, we were filled with one kind of perplexity – disappointment, confusion, sadness. Now we feel another kind of perplexity – wonder, awe, amazement, almost-too-good-to-be-true-ness.

‘Do you realise what this means?’ one of us asks, and then answers his own question: ‘Jesus was right after all! Everything he stood for has been vindicated!’

‘Yes. And something else. We never have to fear death again.’

‘And if that’s true,’ another answers, ‘we never need to fear Caesar and his forces again, either. Their only real weapon is fear, and if we lose our fear, what power do they have left? Ha! Death has lost its sting! That means we can stand tall and speak the truth, just like Jesus did.’

‘We never need to fear anyone again.’ ‘This changes everything.’

‘It’s not just that Jesus was resurrected. It feels like we have arisen too. We were in a tomb of defeat and despair. But now – look at us! We’re truly alive again!’

We talk as fast as we walk. We recall Jesus’ words from Thursday night about his body and blood. We remember what happened on Friday when his body and his blood were separated from one another on the cross. That’s what crucifixion was, we realise: the slow, excruciating, public separation of body and blood. So, we wonder, could it be that in the holy meal, when we remember Jesus, we are making space for his body and blood to be reunited and reconstituted in us? Could our remembering him actually remember and resurrect him in our hearts, our bodies, our lives? Could his body and blood be reunited in us, so that we become his new embodiment? Is that why we saw him and then didn’t see him – because the place he most wants to be seen is in our bodies, among us, in us?

It’s dark when we reach Jerusalem. Between this day’s sunrise and today’s sunset, our world has been changed for ever. Everything is new. From now on, whenever we break the bread and drink the wine, we will know that we are not alone. The risen Christ is with us, among us, and within us – just as he was today, even though we didn’t recognise him. Resurrection has begun. We are part of something rare, something precious, something utterly revolutionary.

It feels like an uprising. An uprising of hope, not hate. An uprising armed with love, not weapons. An uprising that shouts a joyful promise of life and peace, not angry threats of hostility and death. It’s an uprising of outstretched hands, not clenched fists. It’s the ‘one day’ we have always dreamed of, emerging in the present, rising up among us and within us. It’s so different from what we expected – so much better.

This is what it means to be alive, truly alive.

This is what it means to be en route, walking the road to a new and better day.

Let’s tell the others: The Lord is risen! He is risen, indeed! Lord is risen! He is risen, indeed! Lord is risen! He is risen, indeed!

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Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about a time in your life when despair was replaced with hope.
3. How do you respond to the idea that the Eucharist dramatises Jesus’ body and blood being reunited in us, transforming us into a community of resurrection?
4. For children: Why do you think Jesus’ friends were so happy on Easter morning?
5. Activate: This week, remember the contrast between how life looks on Friday, Saturday and Sunday of Holy Week. Ask God to help you see with Easter eyes.
6. Meditate: Imagine the scene when the risen Christ broke the bread and suddenly disappeared. Hold that moment of disappearance in silence, and open your heart to the possibility of absence becoming fullness.

Chapter 32c (Holy Saturday)

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Chapter 32c

Doubt. Darkness. Despair.
(Holy Saturday)

Psalm 77
I cry aloud to God, . . . my soul refuses to be comforted.
Psalm 88
Ecclesiastes 1:1–11
Job 10


Let us imagine ourselves with the disciples on that Saturday after the crucifixion. We are hiding together in a home, engaged in sober, sombre conversation.

––––––––––––

Perhaps our descendants, the disciples of the future, will call this a day of waiting. But we are not waiting. For us, there is nothing to wait for. All we know is what was lost yesterday as Jesus died on the cross. For us, it’s all over. This is a day of doubt, despair, disillusionment, devastation.

Certain details of the killing yesterday are hard to shake. Jesus, carrying his cross on the road to Golgotha, surrounded by women who were weeping for him. Jesus telling them, ‘Don’t weep for me. Weep for yourselves and your children.’ What did he mean? Was he telling them that the violence spilling out on him was only a trickle of the reservoir that waited behind the scenes to flood the whole region?

Then there was Peter . . . so full of bluster at dinner on Thursday, such a coward later that night, and invisible all of yesterday. And Judas – to think we trusted him as our treasurer! At least the women stayed true . . . the women, and John, who was entrusted with Mary’s care as her surrogate son. None of us can imagine what yesterday must have been like for Mary. She has carried so much in her heart for so long, and now this.

Then there was that strange darkness, as if the whole world were being uncreated, and there was that strange rumour about the veil in the temple being torn from top to bottom. Was that an image for God in agony, like a man tearing his clothes in fury over the injustice that was happening? Or was it a rejection of the priesthood for their complicity in the crime – a way of saying that God was done with the priests and the temple, that God would welcome people into the Holiest Place without their assistance? Or maybe it could mean that God is on the loose – that God is through with being contained in a stone structure and behind a thick curtain and wants to run free through the world like the wind. That’s a nice sentiment, but not likely from today’s vantage point. Today it best symbolises that no place is holy any more. If a murder like this can take place in the so-called Holy City, supported by the so-called holy priesthood, then holiness is nothing but a sham. It’s a torn curtain, and behind it only emptiness lies.

On top of it all, we have to come to terms with the fact that Jesus seemed to know all this was coming. True, at the last minute, just before the betrayal and arrest, he prayed that the cup might pass from him. But he had been telling us that something terrible was coming – telling us since back in Caesarea Philippi, when Peter confessed him as the liberating King and the true Leader, telling us in many ways, even in his parables.

He loved life. Yet he did not cling to it. He loved life. Yet he was not controlled by the fear of death. In the garden on Thursday night it seemed as if, to him, the fear of death was more dangerous than death itself, so he needed to deal with the fear once and for all. But look where that got him. Maybe it would have been better for him to flee back to Galilee. Lots of other people are living in communes out in the desert, waiting for Jerusalem and all it represents to crumble under its own weight. Maybe that was what we should have done. But it’s too late now.

That one Roman soldier was impressed by him, but the others – all they cared about was seeing who would win a dead man’s garment with a roll of the dice. True to form – playing games and obsessed with clothes and money to the very end!

Then came that moment when one of the rebels who was being crucified with Jesus started mocking him. When the other rebel spoke up to defend Jesus, Jesus said those kind words to him about being with him in paradise. Even then he had compassion for someone else. Even in death he was kind to a neighbour. And finally there was that haunting moment when he spoke of forgiveness . . . for those who were crucifying him, and for us all.

Normal, sane people would have said, ‘God, damn them to hell for ever for what they have done!’ But not Jesus. ‘They don’t understand what they’re doing,’ he said.

What did our leaders think they were doing? Protecting law and order? Preserving the status quo? Conserving what little peace and security we have left? Silencing a heretic or blasphemer? Shutting down a rabble-rouser and his burgeoning movement?

Right up to the last minute we dared hope that God would send in some angels, stop the whole charade and let everyone see how wrong they were and how right Jesus was. But no last-minute rescue came. Only death came. Bloody, sweaty, filthy, ugly death. Just before he died, it seemed that even he had lost faith. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ he cried. Maybe some shred of hope remained, though, because his last words were, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’

Now. Now, he is dead. Does that mean this uprising is dead too? We feel a chill as we realise that possibility. What do we do now? Do we leave, go back home, pick up our lives where we left them before all this started for us? Do we try to carry on the teaching of a . . . dead, defeated, failed and discredited leader? Do we turn cynical, disillusioned, dark, bitter? Fishing and tax collecting will seem meaningless compared to the memories of these last three years. But that’s all we have left . . . fishing, tax collecting, and memories. The adventure of Jesus is dead and done.

Maybe we have all been fools. Maybe Pontius Pilate was right when he told Jesus that truth didn’t matter, only power matters – the power of swords and spears, chariots and crosses, whips and nails. Or maybe the Sadducees and their rich friends in Jerusalem are right: life is short, and then you die, so amass all the money you can, by any means you can. And while you can, eat the best food and drink the best wine, because that’s all there is.

Wine. That brings us back to Thursday night, there around the table. ‘Remember me. Remember me. I will not eat of this until . . .’ Until?

Did Jesus really believe that death wasn’t the last word? Did he really believe that there was any hope of . . .

That’s too much to believe today. Today we sink in our doubt. Today we drown in our despair. Today we are pulled down, down, down in our pain and disappointment. Today we allow ourselves to question everything about the story we have been told.

Creation? Maybe God made this world, or maybe it’s all a cruel, meaningless joke.

Crisis? Maybe violence and hate are just the way of the world. Maybe they’re not an intrusion or anomaly; maybe they’re the way things are and will always, always be.

Calling? Forget about being blessed to be a blessing. Today we lie low and nurse our wounds. It is a dangerous world out there. We would be wise to stay inside and lock all doors.

Captivity? Who cares if Moses succeeded in getting our ancestors out of slavery in Egypt? Jesus failed, and there’s no Moses for us now. We’re still captives, worse off than we were before that crazy Galilean came and raised our hopes.

Conquest? If the most violent win and the non-violent are killed, what kind of world is it?

Conversation? Today it seems that the sceptics and doubters were right. There’s nothing to say except, ‘Vanity of vanities. All is vanity!’ Today’s lament feels like the only sure truth in all the sacred Scriptures!

Christ? What Christ? He lies in a grave, cold and dead, and with him all our hopes for a better way to be alive. Let the women prepare to embalm his corpse, if they can find it. Probably the Romans tore it to pieces and fed the fragments to the dogs.

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Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about a time when you felt deep despair or disillusionment.
3. How do you respond to this opportunity to express your doubts so freely and honestly?
4. For children: What was a really sad or scary time in your life?
5. Activate: Today, take some time to allow yourself to feel emptiness, doubt, disappointment and fear, and don’t try to explain them away. But keep open to the possibility that God is bigger than your biggest fear, disillusionment or sorrow.
6. Meditate: Hear Jesus crying, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ And allow the parts of your own heart that feel forsaken to find a voice with Jesus.

Chapter 32b (Good Friday)

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Chapter 32b

Everything Must Change
(Good Friday)

Psalm 22
Luke 22:39 – 23:56

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.


Let’s imagine ourselves with the disciples just before three o’clock on this Friday afternoon. A few of us have come together to talk about what has happened over the last twenty-four hours.

––––––––––––

It all started falling apart late last night when Judas, accompanied by a band of soldiers, came for Jesus. All we could think about was saving ourselves. Only Peter and John had the courage to stay with Jesus for a while. But by the time dawn came, Peter was having an emotional breakdown and John had run away too. The next thing we knew, about nine this morning, Jesus was carrying his cross through the streets of Jerusalem. It was obvious he had been beaten, scourged mercilessly, mocked and tortured. He was hardly recognisable.

By noon, he was hanging on the cross.

During the last three hours, some of us have gathered at a distance to watch. We’ve been silent, lost in our own thoughts, but no doubt all our thoughts have been running the same circuit through the same shared memories.

We’ve been remembering last night in the garden, before Judas showed up. We kept falling asleep as Jesus prayed: ‘My Father, if it is possible, take this cup of suffering away from me. However, not what I want but what you want.’ With tears and in great distress, he prayed a second and third time. But the thrust of his prayer shifted from what might be possible to what might not be possible: ‘My Father, if it is not possible that this cup be taken away unless I drink it, then let it be what you want.’ In the second and third prayers, he was clearly preparing to die.

But why? Why was there no other way? Why did this good man – the best we have ever known, the best we have ever imagined – have to face torture and execution as if he were some evil monster?

As the hours drag on from noon to nearly three o’clock, we imagine many reasons. Some are political. The Pharisees were right to be concerned last Sunday when Jesus came marching into the capital. First our little parade – the Romans would have called it a rebellious mob – proclaimed Jesus as king. From there, he marched into the temple and called it a hideout for crooks, turning over the tables and upsetting the religious economy. Only a fool would do things like these without expecting consequences. Jesus was no fool.

We think about more spiritual reasons for this to happen. Jesus has told us again and again that God is different from our assumptions. We’ve assumed that God was righteous and pure in a way that makes God hate the unrighteous and impure. But Jesus has told us that God is pure love, so overflowing in goodness that God pours out compassion on the pure and impure alike. He has not only told us of God’s unbounded compassion – he has embodied it every day as we have walked this road with him. In the way he has sat at table with everyone, in the way he has never been afraid to be called a ‘friend of sinners’, in the way he has touched untouchables and refused to condemn even the most notorious of sinners, he has embodied for us a very different vision of what God is like.

At dinner last night, when he knelt down and washed our feet, and later when he called us his friends, what was that supposed to mean? Was he trying to show us that God isn’t a dictator high in the sky eager for us to cower in fear at his feet? Was he inviting us to think of God as the one who is down here with us, who stoops low and touches our feet – as a servant would? Was he telling us that God would rather cleanse us than condemn us? If that was the case last night, what could this horrible day be trying to show us? Could there be any meaning in this catastrophe playing out before us now?

And then we think: if Jesus is showing us something so radical about God, what is he telling us about ourselves – about human beings and our social and religious institutions? What does it mean when our political leaders and our religious leaders come together to mock and torture and kill God’s messenger, God’s beloved child, God’s best and brightest? How misguided can our nation be? Is this the only way religions and governments maintain order – by threatening us with pain, shame and death if we don’t comply? And is this how they unify us – by turning us into a mob that comes together in its shared hatred of the latest failure, loser, rebel, criminal, outcast . . . or prophet? The Romans boast of their peace, and our priests boast of their holiness and justice, but today it all looks like a sham, a fraud, a con game. What kind of world have we made? What kind of people have we become?

One minute the crowds were flocking to Jesus hoping for free bread and healing. The next minute they were shouting, ‘Crucify him!’ And we, his so-called disciples, we are no better. One minute we were eating a meal with him and he was calling us his friends. Now here we stand at a distance, unwilling to identify ourselves with him and so risk what he is going through.

It has grown strangely dark now, in the middle of the afternoon, and in the darkness, even from this distance, we can hear Jesus. ‘Father, forgive them,’ he shouts. ‘For they don’t know what they are doing.’

Forgive them? Forgive us?

Our thoughts bring us again to the garden last night, when Jesus asked if there could be any other way. And now it seems clear. There could be no other way to show us what God is truly like. God is not revealed in killing and conquest . . . in violence and hate. God is revealed in this crucified man – giving of himself to the very last breath, giving and forgiving.

And there could be no other way to show us what we are truly like. We do not know what we are doing, indeed.

If God is like this, and if we are like this . . . everything must change. Everything must change.

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Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share what the crucifixion of Jesus says and means to you today. 3. How do you respond to the idea that ‘there couldn’t be any other way’?
4. For children: If a friend asked you, ‘Why did Jesus die?’ what would you say?
5. Meditate: In silence, let scenes from the crucifixion story play in your imagination. Imagine seeing the story unfold from the vantage point of various characters in the story – Jesus’ frightened disciples, the religious leaders, the Roman soldiers, the crowds and Jesus himself. Finally, hold over all these scenes Jesus’ words: ‘Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.’

Chapter 32a (Holy Thursday)

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Chapter 32a

A Table. A Basin. Some Food. Some Friends.
(Holy Thursday)

Selections from John 13 – 17 will be read to conclude this chapter


Let’s imagine ourselves near Jerusalem. It’s Thursday night, and we are walking the road with Jesus’ disciples on Thursday of this climactic week. What a week it has been!

It all started last Sunday as Jesus led us in that unforgettable parade into Jerusalem. And then there was that scene at the temple. That certainly stirred things up! Every night we have slept outside the city and returned the next morning for more drama. One day there were confrontations with the religious scholars and Pharisees; the next day, more controversy with the Sadducees.

Jesus has issued lots of dire warnings about the fate of the temple, which upsets many people because it’s the centre of their whole world. And earlier today, just as Jesus sent two of us to find that donkey for our parade last Sunday, he sent Peter and John to find a man carrying a water jar so they could prepare the Passover meal at his guest room tonight.

Every Passover all Jews remember the night before our ancestors were liberated from slavery in Egypt. We celebrate a night of great anticipation. We associate each element of the meal – bitter herbs, unleavened bread, a lamb, fruit and more – with different meanings from the liberation story. In that meal, we feast on meaning. But tonight, at this special Passover, the focus isn’t on the distant past. It’s on the present and what will soon happen. Jesus draws our attention not to the lamb, but to a simple loaf of bread and a cup of wine. Near the end of the meal, Jesus lifts the bread and gives thanks for it. He says, ‘This is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ Then he lifts a cup of wine and says, ‘This cup is the new covenant by my blood, which is poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ He adds, ‘Whenever you take this bread and drink from this cup, do so in memory of me.’

Our first reaction is shock. To ask us to remember him suggests he will soon die. We know he has mentioned this several times, but now it hits us: he really means it, and it’s coming soon. Our second reaction? To speak of his body and blood this way sounds repulsive – like cannibalism! Why would we want to eat human flesh or drink human blood? That’s unkosher in our religion, and downright uncivilised! What could Jesus possibly mean by these strange words?

But before we can ponder the meaning of Jesus’ strange words any more, he adds to our shock by speaking about one of us being his betrayer. That quickly gets us arguing about which one of us would do such a terrible thing. Soon, we’ve moved on from arguing about which of us is the worst disciple to arguing about which of us is the greatest. It’s pretty pathetic, when you think about it. It says a lot about us disciples, and a lot about human nature too. Jesus is trying to tell us he’s about to suffer and die, and all we can do is think about ourselves, our egos, our status in the pecking order!

Even this becomes a teaching opportunity for Jesus. Gentiles, meaning the Romans who occupy our land and seek to dominate us in every way, play these kinds of status games, he says. They cover up their status games with all kinds of language games. ‘That’s not the way it will be with you,’ Jesus says. ‘Instead, the greatest among you must become like a person of lower status and the leader like a servant.’

Years from now, when the Fourth Gospel will tell the story, it will make this theme of service the focal point of this whole evening. It won’t even include the bread and the wine and Jesus’ solemn words about them. It will put centre stage the dramatic moment when Jesus strips off his normal clothing and puts a towel around his waist. He pours water in a basin, stoops as a servant would, and washes the dust from our feet, one by one. When he finishes, he explains that he has set an example – of humble service, not domination – and he means us to imitate his example. Later, after the meal, he will expand ‘Serve one another as I have served you’ to ‘Love one another as I have loved you’.

Both ways of telling the story of this night lead us to the same meaning. The original Passover recalled one kind of liberation - liberation from slavery in Egypt. This meal suggests another kind of liberation – liberation from playing the shame games of rivalry, pecking order, domination and competition to reach the top of the pyramid of pride. If the first Passover gets people out from under the heel of the slave-master, this holy meal leads people out from the desire to be slave-masters in the first place. This meal celebrates a new model of aliveness – a model of service, of self-giving, of being blessed, broken and given for the well-being of others.

It’s pretty predictable, I guess: to see how we disciples completely miss the point and turn that holy supper into an argument, a contest for who will be the greatest, who will have the most status at the table, who will be excluded. But in spite of our anxiety and rivalry . . .

Jesus, the patient teacher . . .
Jesus, the humble leader . . .
Jesus, the king of self-giving sets an example of service. And in that context, he asks us to remember him – not primarily for his great miracles, not primarily for his brilliant teaching, but primarily, essentially, for this: that he gives himself like food for us, and for the whole world.

Some people say that later on that unforgettable night, after the holy supper, after Jesus went to a garden to pray, after his disciples fell asleep, after Judas came to betray Jesus with a kiss, after Peter pulled out his sword and Jesus told him to put it away, after Jesus was taken into custody, after his disciples ran away, Jesus was whipped. They say he received thirty-nine lashes, one fewer than the forty lashes that constituted a death sentence. So let us conclude our time together by observing silence, extinguishing the lights, and pausing to remember thirty-nine of Jesus’ sayings from this holy, horrifying night.

1. If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet.

2. I give you a new commandment. Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.

3. This is how everyone will know you are my disciples, when you love each other.

4. Don’t be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me.

5. I am the way, and the truth, and the life.

6. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.

7. I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.

8. If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 9. I won’t leave you as orphans. I will come to you.

10. Whoever has my commandments and keeps them loves me. Whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.

11. Whoever loves me will keep my word. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.

12. The Companion, or the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you.

13. Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you.

14. I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. 15. Remain in me, and I will remain in you.

16. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine.

17. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will produce much fruit.

18. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.

19. As the Father has loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love.

20. This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you.

21. There is no greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.

22. I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because everything I heard from my Father I have made known to you.

23. I assure you that it is better for you that I go away. If I don’t go away, the Companion won’t come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.

24. I have much more to say to you, but you can’t handle it now. However, when the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you in all truth.

25. Soon you won’t be able to see me; soon after that, you will see me.

26. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy will be complete.

27. I left the Father and came into the world. I tell you again: I am leaving the world and returning to the Father.

28. I have said these things to you so that you will have peace in me. In the world you have distress. But be encouraged! I have conquered the world.

29. This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent.

30. Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one.

31. Make them holy in the truth. Your word is truth.

32. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.

33. I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.

34. I am in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me.

35. I have made your name known to them and will continue to make it known so that your love for me will be in them, and I myself will be in them.

36. Put your sword away!

37. My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world.

38. I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth.

39. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice.

Amen.

Chapter 32 (Palm Sunday)

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Chapter 32

Peace March
(Palm Sunday)

Zechariah 9:9–10
He will cut off the chariot . . . the warhorse . . . and the battle-bow . . . and he shall command peace to the nations.
Psalm 122
Luke 19:29–46


Let’s imagine ourselves just outside Jerusalem. We are with Jesus and his band of disciples early on a Sunday morning. Jesus has walked many a mile since he taught us that day on the hillside in Galilee. He has told many a parable, answered many a question and asked even more. Earlier this morning, he did something really strange.

He sent two of our number into a town on the Mount of Olives, which overlooks Jerusalem from the east. He said they would find a donkey’s colt tied to a tree. The two disciples should untie it and bring it to him, and if anyone asked about it, they should simply say, ‘The master needs it.’ That was exactly what happened, and they brought Jesus the colt. The colt, of course, didn’t have a saddle, so we took some of our coats and put them on the donkey. Then we lifted Jesus up onto it. We started down the road that led to Jerusalem.

So now we walk with him. At first it’s quiet, with only the sound of the donkey’s hooves clomping on the road. The wind blows through the olive trees. We don’t have any idea what he has planned.

Then we hear something up ahead. What is it? A crowd is gathering. Children are shouting. Palm branches are waving. People are taking their coats and spreading them on the dusty road to make a lavish, multicolour carpet, as if Jesus were a king being welcomed to the capital. More and more people join our parade as we descend the hill. Eventually, we feel our confusion giving way to excitement. We shout and dance and praise God together as we descend the road that leads to Jerusalem. Our voices echo across the valley: ‘Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’ we shout. ‘Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens!’

Some Pharisees who have been part of the crowd are getting uncomfortable. They rush up to Jesus and sternly warn him that this is dangerous. He should order us all to be quiet. They’re worried that proclaiming Jesus as king will be seen as a revolutionary act, the kind that might bring the Roman soldiers riding in on their horses, swords and spears in hand, to slaughter us all in the name of law and order. But Jesus refuses to silence us. ‘If they are silent, the rocks will start shouting!’ he says.

So our parade continues. We shout louder than ever. After our long journey over these last three years, it feels that things are finally reaching their climax. We round a bend, and there is Jerusalem spread before us in all her beauty, the temple glistening in the sun. A reverent silence descends upon our parade. It’s a sight that has choked up many a pilgrim.

But Jesus doesn’t just get choked up. He begins to weep. The crowd clusters around him, and he begins to speak to Jerusalem. ‘If only you knew on this day of all days the things that lead to peace,’ he says through his tears. ‘But you can’t see. A time will come when your enemies will surround you, and you will be crushed and this whole city levelled . . . all because you didn’t recognise the meaning of this moment of God’s visitation.’

What a shock! From a shouting, celebrating crowd to the sound of Jesus weeping! From the feeling that we were finally about to win to a prediction of massive military defeat! From joyful laughter to tears!

As we continue descending the road towards Jerusalem, we also descend into the quiet of our own thoughts. We begin whispering among ourselves about what’s happening. Someone reminds us of the words from the prophet Zechariah (CEB): ‘Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem! Look, your king will come to you. He is righteous and victorious. He is humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the offspring of a donkey.’ A shiver of recognition runs through us.

‘What comes next?’ one of us asks. ‘What did the prophet Zechariah say after that?’ Someone else has the passage memorised: ‘He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem. The bow used in battle will be cut off; he will speak peace to the nations. His rule will stretch from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth.’

Suddenly we feel the full drama of this moment. We recall another parade that frequently occurs on the other side of Jerusalem, whenever Herod rides into the city in full procession from his headquarters in Caesarea Philippi. He enters, not on a young donkey, but on a mighty warhorse. He comes in the name of Caesar, not in the name of the Lord. He isn’t surrounded by a ragtag crowd holding palm branches and waving their coats. He’s surrounded by chariots, accompanied by uniformed soldiers with their swords and spears and bows held high. His military procession is a show of force intended to inspire fear and compliance, not hope and joy.

And so the meaning of this day begins to become clear to us. Caesar’s kingdom, the empire of Rome, rules by fear with threats of violence, demanding submission. God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, rules by faith with a promise of peace, inspiring joy. Jesus’ tears are telling us something: he knows that our leaders aren’t going to listen to him. They’re going to respond to Caesar’s violence with violence of their own, and that’s why Jesus just made that dire prediction.

Our minds are reeling with these realisations as Jesus leads our little parade into Jerusalem and straight to the temple. There he causes a big scene. He drives out the merchants who sell animals for sacrifice. He drives out those who exchange foreign currency for the temple currency. Again, we know there is great meaning in his actions. He is again challenging assumptions about the necessity of sacrifice and about the need for opulent temples and all they represent. This time he links together quotes from two of our greatest prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah. My house will be a house of prayer for all peoples, Isaiah said. But you have turned it into a hideout for crooks, Jeremiah said.

It has been quite a day, a Sunday we’ll never forget, the beginning of a week we’ll never forget. What a wild mix of emotions! What a collection of dramatic moments! As we fall asleep, we ponder this: to be alive is to learn what makes for peace. It’s not more weapons, more threats, more fear. It’s more faith, more freedom, more hope, more love, more joy. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

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Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about a time when you were part of a public parade or demonstration.

3. How do you respond to the idea that on Palm Sunday Jesus was intentionally echoing Zechariah’s prophecy?

4. For children: What do you like about parades?

5. Activate: This week, look for moments when you, like Jesus, can see with grief that people are choosing a way of conflict or violence instead of peace. Allow yourself to feel the sadness without vilifying anyone.

6. Meditate: Hold the phrase ‘a house of prayer for all people’ together with the phrase ‘my Father’s house’. See what thoughts and emotions arise within you, and express them in prayer.

Chapter 31

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Chapter 31

The Choice Is Yours

Matthew 7:13–29

(Read this passage reflectively two or three times.)

. . . the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.


Imagine that hillside in Galilee. Jesus is seated, surrounded by his disciples, a huge crowd circled around them. Perhaps it’s the rhythm and tone of his voice. Maybe it’s the pace of his words. Somehow they know he is building towards a climax, a moment of decision. He presents a series of vivid images, all in pairs.

First, there are two gates, opening to two roads. We can’t travel both. One, he says, is broad and smooth like a Roman highway. It leads to destruction. One is narrow and rocky like a mountain path. It leads to life. ‘Go along with the crowd,’ Jesus implies, ‘and you’ll end up in disaster. But dare to be different, dare to follow a new and different path, and you’ll learn what it means to be alive.’

Next, there are two vines or two trees producing two different kinds of fruit, each representing aliveness. One approach to life produces thorns, briars and thistles; another approach produces luscious fruits. Get your inner identity straight, he tells them, and your life will be fruitful.

Next there are two groups of people, one entering Jesus’ presence, the other going away. One group may boast of all its religious credentials, but Jesus isn’t impressed by talk. He’s looking for people he knows, people he recognises – people, we might say, who ‘get’ him and understand what he’s about. We can identify them because they translate their understanding into action.

Finally there are two builders building two houses, one on sand, one on rock. They both represent people who hear Jesus’ message. They both experience falling rain, rising floodwaters and buffeting winds. The big difference? The person who builds on the solid foundation, whose structure withstands the storm, doesn’t just hear Jesus’ message; he translates it into action.

Each pair of images challenges us to move beyond mere interest and agreement to commitment and action. And what is the desired action? To take everything Jesus has taught us – all we have considered as we have listened to him here on this hillside – and translate it into our way of living, our way of being alive.

It makes sense, then, to go back and review the substance of Jesus’ teaching:

Be among the lowly in spirit, remain sensitive to pain and loss, live in the power of gentleness, hunger and thirst for true righteousness, show mercy to everyone rather than harshness, don’t hide hypocrisy or duplicity in your heart, work for peace, be willing to joyfully suffer persecution and insult for doing what is right.

Dare to be a non-conformist by being boldly different, like salt and light in the world. Demonstrate your differentness through works of generosity and beauty.

Reject both mindless conformity to tradition and rebellious rejection of it. Instead, discern the true intent of tradition and pursue that intent into new territory.

Never hate, hold grudges or indulge in anger, but instead, aim to be the first to reach out a hand in reconciliation.

Do not nurture secret fantasies to be sexually unfaithful to your spouse. Ensure fidelity by monitoring your desires – the way you see (symbolised by the eye) and grasp (symbolised by the hand) for pleasure. And do not settle for maintaining the appearance of legality and propriety; aspire to true fidelity in your heart.

Avoid ‘word inflation’ when making vows. Instead, practise clear, straight speech, so simple words like ‘yes’ and ‘no’ retain their full value.

Reject revenge. Instead, pursue creative and non-violent ways to overcome wrongs done to you.

Love your enemies as well as your friends, and so imitate God’s big, generous heart for all creatures.

Cultivate a hidden life of goodness by giving, praying and fasting secretly.

Pray in secret through four movements of your heart. First, orient yourself towards a caring yet mysterious God. Second, align your desires with God’s great desire for a just and compassionate world. Third, bring to God your needs and concerns – both physical and spiritual. Finally, prepare to re-enter the public world of temptation and oppression, trusting God to guide you and strengthen you.

Remember that God isn’t setting up a forgiveness market but is building a whole forgiveness economy.

Don’t let greed cloud your outlook on life, but store up true wealth by investing in a growing portfolio of generosity and kindness.

Be especially vigilant about money becoming your slave-master.

Don’t let anxiety run and ruin your life, but instead trust yourself to God’s gracious and parental care, and seek first and foremost to build the just and generous society that would fulfil God’s best dreams for humanity.

Don’t develop a sharp eye for the faults and failures of others, but instead first work on your own blindness to your own faults and failures.

Don’t push on people treasures they are not yet ready for or can’t yet appreciate the value of.

Go to God with all your needs, and don’t be discouraged if you face long delays. Remember that God loves you as a faithful, caring parent and will come through in due time.

Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Realise that aliveness includes tough choices, and that thriving includes suffering.

Don’t be misled by religious talk; what counts is actually living by Jesus’ teaching.

Some may claim that God is angry and needs to be appeased through sacrifice. Some may claim that God is harsh and demanding, requiring humans to earn God’s favour through scrupulous religious rule keeping. Some may claim that God scrutinises our brains and speech for perfect doctrinal correctness. But Jesus, like the prophets before him, proclaims a different vision of God. Based on what Jesus has told us today, God is gracious and compassionate and does not need to be appeased through sacrifice. God’s love is freely given and does not have to be earned. What God desires most is that we seek God’s commonwealth of justice, live with generosity and kindness, and walk humbly – and secretly – with God.

If you were there that day on the Galilean hillside, what would your decision have been? No doubt you would have been impressed, but would you have said ‘yes’?

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Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about a fork in the road that you faced, where you made a life-changing choice.

3. How do you respond to the summary of Jesus’ sermon?

4. For children: What do you think of this as a basic rule for life: ‘Treat other people the way you wish they would treat you’?

5. Activate: Choose one of the summary statements of Jesus’ teaching that you think you most need to focus on. Write it down, or e-mail it to yourself, or put it on your calendar, or in some other way make sure you will be reminded of it several times each day this week.

6. Meditate: After a few moments of holding the image of a house standing strong in a storm, ask God to help you develop this kind of strength as a disciple of Jesus.

Chapter 30

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Chapter 30

Why we worry, why we judge.

Matthew 6:19 – 7:12

(Read this passage reflectively two or three times.)

But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.


Wise parents soon learn what makes their children cranky: not getting enough sleep, too much sugar, being hungry, not getting time alone, too much time alone, lack of stimulation, too much stimulation. Have you ever wondered what makes grown-ups cranky?

In the next section of Jesus’ core teaching, he strips away layer after layer until he exposes three core problems that turn us into dismal grouches and keep us from enjoying life to the full.

Our first core problem is anxiety. Driven by anxiety, we act out scripts of destruction and cruelty rather than life and creativity. We worry about things beyond our control – and in so doing we often miss things within our control. For example, you may fear losing someone you love. As a result, driven by your anxiety, you grasp, cling and smother, and in that way you drive away the person you love. Do you catch the irony? If you’re anxious about your life, you won’t enjoy or experience your life – you’ll only experience your anxiety! So to be alive is to be on guard against anxiety.

Jesus names some of the things we tend to be anxious about. First, we obsess about our bodies. Are we too fat or thin, too tall or short, or too young or old, and how is our hair? Then we obsess about our food, our drink and our clothing. Are we eating at the best restaurants, drinking the finest wines, wearing the most enviable styles? Our anxieties show us how little we trust God: God must be either so incompetent or uncaring that we might end up miserable or starving or naked or dead! So we worry and worry, as if anxiety will somehow make us taller, thinner, better looking, better dressed or more healthy!

Not only are our anxieties ridiculous and counterproductive, Jesus explains, they’re also unnecessary. He points to the flowers that surround his hearers on the hillside. See how beautiful they are? Then he gestures to the flock of birds flying across the sky above them. See how alive and free they are? God knows what they need, Jesus says. God cares for them. God sustains them through the natural order of things. And God does the same for us, but we are too anxious to appreciate it.

Anxiety doesn’t stop its dirty work at the individual level. It makes whole communities tense and toxic. Anxiety-driven systems produce a pecking order as anxious people compete and use each other in their pursuit of more stuff to stave off their anxiety. Soon, participants in such a system feel they can’t trust anybody, because everyone’s out for himself or herself, driven by fear. Eventually, anxiety-driven people find a vulnerable person or group to vent their anxiety upon. The result? Bullying, scapegoating, oppression, injustice. And still they will be anxious. Before long, they’ll be making threats and launching wars so they can project their internal anxiety on an external enemy. No doubt many of Jesus’ original hearers would have thought, He’s describing the Romans! But to some degree, the diagnosis applies to us all.

Jesus advocates the opposite of an anxiety-driven system. He describes a faithsustained system that he calls God’s kingdom and justice. He makes this staggering promise: if we seek God’s kingdom and justice first, everything that we truly need – financially, physically or socially – will be given to us. His promise makes sense. When we each focus anxiously on our own individual well-being without concern for our neighbour, we enter into rivalry and everyone is worse off. But when we learn from the songbirds and wildflowers to live by faith in God’s abundance, we collaborate and share. We watch out for each other rather than compete with each other. We bless each other rather than oppress each other. We desire what God’s desires – for all to be safe, for all to be truly alive – so we work for the common good. When that happens, it’s easy to see how everyone will be better off. Contagious aliveness will spread across the land!

After anxiety, Jesus moves to a second core problem we all face. Anxious people are judgemental people. Worried that someone is judging them, they constantly judge others, which, of course, intensifies the environment of judgement for everyone. Just as anxiety quickly becomes contagious and creates an anxiety-driven system, judgement easily creates accusatory systems in which no one can rest, no one can be himself or herself, no one can feel free.

We can’t help but remember the story from Genesis – the choice between two trees, the tree of life that nourishes us to see the goodness in everything, and the tree whose fruit we grasp to know and judge everything and everyone around us as good or evil. When we see in these dualistic terms, we constantly judge us as good and condemn them as evil. In response, others do the same to us. In the shade of that tempting tree, soon nobody is safe. Nobody is free. Nobody is truly and fully alive.

So Jesus calls us back to the tree of life where we stop creating a them to condemn as evil people and an us to privilege as good people. If Jesus’ antidote to anxiety is to seek God’s kingdom and justice first, his antidote to judging is self-examination. Instead of trying to take splinters out of other people’s eyes – that is, focus on their faults – we should first deal with the planks in our own eyes. When we have experienced how difficult and delicate it is to deal with our own problems, we will be much more sensitive in helping others deal with theirs.

It’s interesting that Jesus refers again to eyes: so much about being truly alive is about seeing in a new way.

To refrain from judging does not mean we stop discerning, as Jesus’ tough words about not throwing pearls before swine make clear. Put simply, if we want to experience non-judgemental aliveness, then in everything – with no exceptions – we will do unto all others – with no exceptions – as we would have them do to us. In these words, Jesus brings us back to the central realisation that we are all connected, all children in the same family, all loved by the same Parent, all precious and beloved. In this way, Jesus leads us out of an anxiety-driven and judgement-driven system, and into a faith-sustained, grace-based system that yields aliveness.

Beneath our anxiety and judging lies an even deeper problem, according to Jesus. We do not realise how deeply we are loved. He invites us to imagine a child asking his mum or dad for some bread or fish. No parent would give their hungry child a stone or snake, right? If human parents, with all their faults, know how to give good gifts to their children, can’t we trust the living God to be generous and compassionate to all who call out for help?

So next time you’re grouchy, angry, anxious and uptight, here is some wisdom to help you come back from being ‘out of your mind’ to being ‘in your right mind’ again.

Try telling yourself: My own anxiety is more dangerous to me than whatever I am anxious about. My own habit of condemning is more dangerous to me than what I condemn in others. My misery is unnecessary because I am truly, truly, truly loved.

From that wisdom, unworried, unhurried, unpressured aliveness will flow again.

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Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about a time when you felt anxious, judgemental, or both.

3. How do you respond to the idea that our deepest problem is that we don’t know we are loved? In what ways does it help you to think of God’s love as fatherly, and in what ways does it help to think of God’s love as motherly? Are there ways that imagining God as a loving friend helps you in ways that parental images for God don’t?

4. For children: Why do you think little children are often afraid to be left with a babysitter? What is so special about having your parents around?

5. Activate: This week, monitor yourself for anxiety and judgement. Whenever you see them arising in you, bring to mind Jesus’ teaching in this lesson.

6. Meditate: In silence, ponder how the love of good parents frees their children from anxiety and the need to judge one another. Savour that feeling of being safe and secure in God’s love.

Chapter 29

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Chapter 29

Your Secret Life

Matthew 6:1–18

(Read this passage reflectively two or three times.)

Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.


All of us agree: the world isn’t what it should be.

We all wish the world would change. But how? How can we change the world, when we can hardly change ourselves? The forces of conformity and peer pressure are so strong. We set out to change the world, and time and time again the reverse happens. Or we resist the status quo with such fury that we become bitter, cynical, angry – hardly models of a better world. That’s why we aren’t surprised when Jesus turns to the dynamics of change in our personal lives. He shows us how to be the change we want to see in the world.

The key concept, according to Jesus, is the opposite of what we might expect. If you want to see change in the outside world, the first step is to withdraw into your inner world. Connect with God in secret, and the results will occur ‘openly’.

Jesus offers three specific examples of how this withdrawal process works: giving in secret, praying in secret and fasting in secret. Giving, praying and fasting are often called spiritual disciplines or practices: actions within our power by which we become capable of things currently beyond our power.

For example, can you run twenty miles? If you haven’t trained, no matter how well intentioned you are, you will be reduced to a quivering mass of cramps and exhaustion before you reach the finish line. But, as thousands of people have learned, you can start training. You can start running shorter distances in private, and gradually increase them. A few months from now you could cross the finish line in full public view!

If through physical practice a lazy slug can end up a lean and energetic runner, then through spiritual practice an impatient and self-obsessed egotist can become a gentle, generous and mature human being. But Jesus makes clear that not just any practices will do: we need the right practices, employed with the right motives. ‘Practice makes perfect’, it turns out, isn’t quite accurate. It’s truer to say practice makes habit. That’s why Jesus emphasises the importance of practising prayer, fasting and generosity in secret. If we don’t withdraw from public view, we’ll habitually turn our spiritual practices into a show for others, which will sabotage their power to bring deep change in us. So, instead of seeking to appear more holy or spiritual in public than we are in private, Jesus urges us to become more holy or spiritual in private than we appear to be in public.

When it comes to giving, Jesus says, don’t publicise your generosity like the hypocrites do. Don’t let your left hand know how generous your right hand is. By giving in secret, you’ll experience the true reward of giving. A good way to make secret giving habitual is to give on a regular basis to the local church, as a percentage of our income, as we learn in scripture. As our income increases over time, we can increase our standard of giving and not just our standard of living. It’s kind of ironic: a lot of people do ugly things in secret – they steal, lie, cheat and so on. Jesus reverses things, urging us to plot goodness in secret, to do good and beautiful things without getting caught.

It’s the same when it comes to prayer, Jesus says. Prayer can either strengthen your soul in private or raise your profile in public, but not both. So don’t parrot the empty phrases of those who pray as if they were being paid by the word. A few simple words, uttered in secret, make much more sense . . . especially since God knows what you need before you even ask. Jesus offers a model for the kind of simple, concise, private prayer that he recommends. His model prayer consists of four simple but profound moves.

First, we orient ourselves to God. We acknowledge God as the loving parent whose infinite embrace puts us in a family relationship with all people, and with all creation. And we acknowledge God as the glorious holy mystery whom we can name but who can never be contained by our words or concepts.

Second, we align our greatest desire with God’s greatest desire. We want the world to be the kind of place where God’s dreams come true, where God’s justice and compassion reign.

Third, we bring to God our needs and concerns – our physical needs for things like food and shelter, and our social and spiritual needs for things like forgiveness for our wrongs and reconciliation with those who have wronged us.

Finally, we prepare ourselves for the public world which we will soon re-enter. We ask to be guided away from the trials and temptations that could ruin us, and we ask to be liberated from evil.

Immediately after the model prayer, Jesus adds a reminder that God isn’t interested in creating a forgiveness market where people come and acquire cheap forgiveness for themselves. God is interested in creating a whole forgiveness economy – where forgiveness is freely received and freely given, unleashing waves of reconciliation in our world that is so ravaged by waves of resentment and revenge.

Jesus takes us through the same pattern with the spiritual practice of fasting: ‘Whenever you . . . do not . . . but do . . .’ he says. Whenever you fast, don’t try to look all sad and dishevelled like those who make spirituality a performance. Instead, keep your hunger a secret. Let every minute when your stomach is growling be a moment where you affirm to God, ‘More than my body desires food, I desire you, Lord! More than my stomach craves fullness, I crave to be full of you! More than my tongue desires sweetness or salt, my soul desires your goodness!’

So, Jesus teaches, if we make our lives a show staged for others to avoid their criticism or gain their praise, we won’t experience the reward of true aliveness.

It’s only in secret, in the presence of God alone, that we begin the journey to aliveness.

Jesus now turns to the subject of wealth. Just as we can practise giving, prayer and fasting for social enhancement or spiritual benefit, we can build our lives around public, external, financial wealth or a higher kind of ‘secret’ wealth. Jesus calls this higher wealth ‘treasure in heaven’. Not only is this hidden wealth more secure, it also recentres our lives in God’s presence, and that brings a shift to our whole value system so that we see everything differently. When we see and measure everything in life in terms of money, all of life falls into a kind of dismal shadow. When we seek to be rich in generosity and kindness instead, life is full of light.

Some people shame the poor, as if the only reason poor people are poor is that they’re lazy or stupid. Some shame the rich, as if the only reason they’re rich is that they’re selfish and greedy. Jesus doesn’t shame anyone, but calls everyone to a higher kind of wealth and a deeper kind of ambition. And that ambition begins not with how we want to appear in public, but with who we want to be in secret.

The world won’t change unless we change, and we won’t change unless we pull away from the world’s games and pressures. In secrecy, in solitude, in God’s presence, a new aliveness can, like a seed, begin to take root. And if that life takes root in us, we can be sure it will bear fruit through us . . . fruit that can change the world.

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Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about a time when you did something good – but for a less-than-ideal motive.

3. How do you respond to the four-part summary of Jesus’ model prayer?

4. For children: Why do you think grown-ups think about money so much? What do you think about money? Do you get an allowance? Is that important to you? Why?

5. Activate: This week, decide whether you’d like to experiment with giving, fasting or praying in secret. But don’t tell anyone!

6. Meditate: Hold the phrase ‘treasure in heaven’ in silence in God’s presence, and notice how your heart responds.

Chapter 28

There will be a couple of extra chapters slotted in throughout Lent to match the timing of Easter this year. They will be released mid-week. Enjoy.


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Chapter 28

A New Path to Aliveness

Matthew 5:17–48

(Read this passage reflectively two or three times.)

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.


Anyone present that day would have felt some tension in the air. Many in the crowd stuck to the familiar road of tradition, playing by the rules, leading conservative, conventional and respectable lives. They were worried that Jesus was too . . . different, too non-compliant. Others ran on a very different road. Unfettered by tradition, they gladly bent any rule that got in their way. They were worried that Jesus wasn’t different and defiant enough.

According to Jesus, neither group was on the road to true aliveness.

When Jesus said, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,’ you can imagine the traditionalists in the crowd felt relieved, because that was just what they feared he was about to do. When he added, ‘I have come not to abolish but to fulfil,’ they must have tensed up again, wondering what he could possibly mean by ‘fulfil’. Then, when he said, ‘Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,’ the non-traditionalists would have looked dismayed. How could anyone be more righteous than that fastidious crowd?

As Jesus continued, it became clear he was proposing a third way that neither the compliant nor the non-compliant had ever considered before. Aliveness won’t come through unthinking conformity to tradition, he tells them. And it won’t come from defying tradition either. It will come only if we discern and fulfil the highest intent of tradition – even if doing so means breaking with the details of tradition in the process.

If tradition could be compared to a road that began in the distant past and continues to the present, Jesus dares to propose that the road isn’t finished yet. To extend the road of tradition into the future – to fulfil its potential – we must first look back to discern its general direction. Then, informed by the past, we must look forward and dare to step beyond where the road currently ends, venturing off the map, so to speak, into new territory. To stop where the road of tradition currently ends, Jesus realises, would actually end the adventure and bring the tradition to a standstill. So faithfulness doesn’t simply allow us to extend the tradition and seek to fulfil its unexplored potential; it requires us to do so.

But what does it mean to fulfil the tradition? Jesus answers that question with a series of examples. Each example begins, ‘You have heard that it was said . . .’ which introduces what the tradition has taught. Then Jesus dares to say, ‘But I say . . .’ This is not, as his critics will claim, an act of abolishment or destruction. His ‘but I say’ will creatively fulfil the intent of the tradition.

The tradition said, ‘Don’t murder.’ That was a good start. However, the tradition didn’t want us to stop merely at the point of avoiding murder. So as a first step beyond what the tradition required, Jesus calls us to root out the anger that precedes the physical violence that leads to murder. As a second step, he calls us to deal with the verbal violence of name-calling that precedes the physical violence that leads to murder. As a third step, he urges us to engage in pre-emptive reconciliation. In other words, whenever we detect a breach in a relationship, we don’t need to determine who is at fault. The intent of tradition isn’t merely to be ‘in the right’; the goal is to be in a right relationship. So we are to deal with the breach quickly and proactively, seeking true reconciliation. Being in a right relationship – not merely avoiding murder – was the intent of the tradition all along.

That kind of pre-emptive reconciliation, Jesus teaches, will help us avoid the chain reactions of offence, revenge and counter-offence that lead to murder, and that keep our court systems busy and our prison systems full.

After extending the road in the area of violence, Jesus moves to four more issues, each deeply important both to individuals and societies – sexuality, marriage, oaths and revenge. In each case, conventional religious morality – which Jesus calls the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees – focuses on not doing external wrong: not murdering, not committing adultery, not committing illegal divorce, not breaking sacred oaths, not getting revenge. For Jesus, true aliveness focuses on transforming our deeper desires.

So, regarding sexuality, the tradition requires you to avoid adultery. But Jesus says to extend the road, to go further and deeper by learning to manage your internal lustful desires. Regarding divorce, you can try to ‘make it legal’ in the eyes of society as the tradition requires. But Jesus challenges you to go further and deeper by desiring true fidelity in your heart. Regarding oaths, you can play a lot of silly verbal games to shade the truth. Or you can go further and deeper, desiring simple, true speech, saying what you mean and meaning what you say. And regarding retaliation against injustice, you can react in ways that play right into unjust systems. Or you can go further and deeper, transcending those systems entirely.

Here Jesus gets very practical. As people living under Roman occupation, his hearers were used to getting shoved around. It was not uncommon for a Roman soldier to give one of them a backhand slap – the insulting whack of a superior to an inferior. When this happened, some would skulk away in humiliation or beg the bully not to hit them again. But that rewarded the oppressor’s violence, and it made them complicit in their own diminishment.

That was why others dreamed of retaliation, of pulling out a dagger and slitting the throat of the oppressor. But that would reduce them to the same violent level as their oppressors. So Jesus offered them a creative alternative: stand tall and courageously turn the other cheek, he said. In so doing, they would choose non-violence, strength, courage and dignity . . . and they would model a better way of life for their oppressors, rather than mirroring the violent example they were setting.

Another problem they frequently faced was that rich landowners would often take tenant farmers to court. If they hadn’t paid their rent or tribute, the landowners would start suing them for their personal belongings. So, Jesus said, if someone takes you to court and they sue for your outer garment, go ahead and strip down naked and give them your underwear as well. Yes, your ‘generosity’ leaves you exposed – but your nakedness also exposes the naked greed of your oppressor.

Often, a Roman soldier would order a civilian of an occupied nation to carry his pack for a mile. If the civilian refused to do so, he would show courage and self-respect, but he would probably end up dead or in jail. Most would comply, but once again, doing so would reinforce the oppressor’s sense of superiority and their own sense of humiliation. Jesus tells his disciples to surprise their oppressors by volunteering to take the pack a second mile. The first mile may be forced upon them, but the second mile they’ll walk free. The first mile they are oppressed, but the second mile they transcend their oppression and treat their oppressor as a human being, demonstrating the very human kindness that he fails to practise.

Neither the compliant nor the defiant typically imagine such creative responses. Jesus is helping their moral and social imagination come alive.

Jesus employs his ‘you have heard it said . . . but I say . . .’ pattern once more, perhaps the most radical example of all. Tradition always requires love and responsibility towards friends and neighbours, people we like, people like us, people ‘of our kind’. That is a big step beyond utter selfishness and narcissism. But Jesus says that the road of tradition was never meant to end there. Love should now be extended further than before, to outsiders as well as insiders, to them as well as us, even to our enemies. We may not have walked the road that far yet, but that is God’s intent for us.

Again, using example after example, Jesus directs his disciples beyond what the tradition requires to what the Creator desires. ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,’ he says. Some people might assume that by ‘be perfect’ he means ‘achieve external technical perfection’, which is what the scribes and Pharisees aim for. But Jesus means something far deeper and wiser. He tells them that God doesn’t let rain and sunshine fall only on good people’s lands, leaving bad people to starve. No, God is good to all, no exceptions. God’s perfection is a compassionate and gracious perfection. It goes far beyond the traditional requirements of the scribes and Pharisees.

For us today, as for the disciples on that Galilean hillside, this is our better option – better than mere technical compliance to tradition, better than defiance of tradition.

This is our third way.

God is out ahead of us, calling us forward – not to stay where tradition has brought us so far, and not to defy tradition reactively, but to fulfil the highest and best intent of tradition, to make the road by walking forward together.

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Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about a time when someone knew you had done wrong but loved you anyway.

3. How do you respond to the comparison between a tradition and a road? Where do you think you are being called to move beyond where you are right now?

4. For children: Are there times when you want to do better than ‘good enough’? What makes you want to do your very best?

5. Activate: This week, look for opportunities to practise Jesus’ teaching in regard to violence, lust, marriage, oaths and revenge.

6. Meditate: In silence, ponder God’s perfection as a compassionate perfection. Let a prayer of praise arise from your heart to break the silence.

Part 3 / Chapter 27

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Part 3

Alive in a Global Uprising

Joining the adventure of Jesus is a starting line, not a finish line. It leads us into a lifetime of learning and action. It challenges us to stand up against the way things have been and the way things are, to help create new possibilities for the way things can and should be. It enlists us as contemplative activists in an ongoing uprising of peace, freedom, justice and compassion. In Part 3 we focus on what it means for us to join in his adventure.

The first five chapters have been written for use in the traditional season of Lent. They are dedicated to Jesus’ most concentrated teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7). Rather than having multiple Scripture readings during this season, we will read one passage multiple times to encourage deeper reflection. Then, for Passion Week, we will imagine ourselves in and around Jerusalem.

Beginning with Easter, we’ll travel with the growing company of disciples as their uprising spreads across the Mediterranean world.


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Chapter 27

A New Identity

Matthew 5:1–16
(Read this passage reflectively two or three times.)

Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.


Imagine yourself in Galilee, on a windswept hillside near a little fishing town called Capernaum. Flocks of birds circle and land. Wildflowers bloom among the grasses between rock outcrops. The Sea of Galilee glistens blue below us, reflecting the clear midday sky above.

A small group of disciples circles a young man who appears to be about thirty. He is sitting, as rabbis in this time and culture normally do. Huge crowds extend beyond the inner circle of disciples, in a sense eavesdropping on what he is teaching them. This is the day they’ve been waiting for. This is the day Jesus is going to pass on to them the heart of his message.

Jesus begins in a fascinating way. He uses the term blessed to address the question of identity, the question of who we want to be. In Jesus’ day, to say ‘Blessed are these people’ is to say ‘Pay attention: these are the people you should aspire to be like. This is the group you want to belong to.’ It’s the opposite of saying ‘Woe to those people’ or ‘Cursed are those people’, which means ‘Take note: you definitely don’t want to be like those people or counted among their number.’

His words no doubt surprise everyone, because we normally play by these rules of the game: Do everything you can to be rich and powerful. Toughen up and harden yourself against all feelings of loss. Measure your success by how much of the time you are thinking only of yourself and your own happiness. Be independent and aggressive, hungry and thirsty for higher status in the social pecking order. Strike back quickly when others strike you, and guard your image so you’ll always be popular.

But Jesus defines success and well-being in a profoundly different way. Who are blessed? What kinds of people should we seek to be identified with?

  • The poor and those in solidarity with them.
  • Those who mourn, who feel grief and loss.
  • The non-violent and gentle.
  • Those who hunger and thirst for the common good and aren’t satisfied with the status quo.
  • The merciful and compassionate.
  • Those characterised by openness, sincerity and unadulterated motives.
  • Those who work for peace and reconciliation.
  • Those who keep seeking justice even when they’re misunderstood and misjudged.
  • Those who stand for justice as the prophets did, who refuse to back down or quieten down when they are slandered, mocked, misrepresented, threatened and harmed.

Jesus has been speaking for only a matter of seconds, and he has already turned our normal status ladders and social pyramids upside down. He advocates an identity characterised by solidarity, sensitivity and non-violence. He celebrates those who long for justice, embody compassion and manifest integrity and non-duplicity. He creates a new kind of hero: not warriors, corporate executives or politicians, but brave and determined activists for pre-emptive peace, willing to suffer with him in the prophetic tradition of justice.

Our choice is clear from the start. If we want to be his disciples, we won’t be able to simply coast along and conform to the norms of our society.

We must choose a different definition of well-being, a different model of success, a new identity with a new set of values.

Jesus promises we will pay a price for making that choice. But he also promises we will discover many priceless rewards. If we seek the kind of unconventional blessedness he proposes, we will experience the true aliveness of God’s kingdom, the warmth of God’s comfort, the enjoyment of the gift of this Earth, the satisfaction of seeing God’s restorative justice come more fully, the joy of receiving mercy, the direct experience of God’s presence, the honour of association with God and of being in league with the prophets of old. That is the identity he invites us to seek.

That identity will give us a very important role in the world. As creative nonconformists, we will be difference makers, aliveness activists, catalysts for change. Like salt that brings out the best flavours in food, we will bring out the best in our community and society. Also like salt, we will have a preservative function – opposing corruption and decay. Like light that penetrates and eradicates darkness, we will radiate health, goodness and well-being to warm and enlighten those around us. Simply by being who we are – living boldly and freely in this new identity as salt and light – we will make a difference, as long as we don’t lose our ‘saltiness’ or try to hide our light.

We’ll be tempted, no doubt, to let ourselves be tamed, toned down, shut up and glossed over. But Jesus means us to stand apart from the status quo, to stand up for what matters, and to stand out as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. He means our lives to overcome the blandness and darkness of evil with the salt and light of good works. Instead of drawing attention to ourselves, those good works will point towards God. ‘Wow!’ people will say. ‘When I see the goodness and kindness of your lives, I can believe there’s a good and kind God out there too.’

The way Jesus phrases these memorable lines tells us something important about him. Like all great leaders, he isn’t preoccupied with himself. He puts others – us – in the spotlight when he says, ‘You are the salt of the Earth. You are the light of the world.’ Yes, there’s a place and time for him to declare who he is, but he begins by declaring who we are.

It’s hot in the Galilean sunshine. Still, the crowds are hanging on Jesus’ every word. They can tell something profound and life-changing is happening within them and among them. Jesus is not simply trying to restore their religion to some ideal state in the past. Nor is he agitating unrest to start a new religion to compete with the old one. No, it’s abundantly clear that he’s here to start something bigger, deeper and more subversive: a global uprising that can spread to and through every religion and culture. This uprising begins not with a new strategy but with a new identity. So he spurs his hearers into reflection about who they are, who they want to be, what kind of people they will become, what they want to make of their lives.

As we consider Jesus’ message today, we join those people on that hillside, grappling with the question of who we are now and who we want to become in the future. Some of us are young, with our whole lives ahead of us. Some of us are further along, with a lot of hopes left and not a lot of time to fulfil them.

As we listen to Jesus, each of us knows, deep inside: If I accept this new identity, everything will change for me.

Everything will change.

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Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about someone who has impressed you as being the kind of salt and light Jesus spoke of.

3. How do you respond to the reversal of status ladders and social pyramids described in this chapter?

4. For children: Lots of people ask children what they want to be when they grow up. But what kind of child do you want to be right now?

5. Activate: This week, look for ways to be a non-conformist – resisting the pressures of your environment and conforming your life to the alternative values of the beatitudes.

6. Meditate: In silence, imagine darkness, and into that darkness, imagine light coming from a candle, a sunrise, a fire or a torch. Hold these questions open before God: Which is more fragile and which ismore powerful, light or darkness? How can my life become like light?

Chapter 26

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Chapter 26

Making it Real

Mark 2:1–19

[Jesus] said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.

Hebrews 11:1–8
1 John 1:1 – 2:6


Let’s imagine ourselves visitors in a small village in Galilee, just at the time Jesus was passing through. A crowd has completely filled a house. An even bigger crowd surrounds the house, with people crammed around every open window and door. We approach but can only hear a word or two. We ask a woman on the edge of the crowd about what’s going on inside. She whispers that inside the house is a rabbi everyone wants to hear. We ask her who he is. She motions for us to follow her and whispers, ‘I am Mary. I come from Magdala, a town not far from here. I don’t want to disturb those who are trying to listen. I will be glad to tell you what I know.’

When we get a stone’s throw from the crowd, Mary explains that the rabbi inside is the son of a tradesman from Nazareth. He has no credentials or status, no army or weapons, no nobility or wealth. He travels from village to village with a dozen of his friends plus a substantial number of supportive women, teaching deep truths to the peasants of Galilee.

‘Look around at us,’ she says. ‘We are poor. Many of us are unemployed, and some are homeless. See how many of us are disabled, and how many are, like me, women. Few of us can afford an education. But to be uneducated is not the same as being stupid.

Stupid people cannot survive in times like these. So we are hungry to learn. And wherever this rabbi goes, it is like a free school for everyone – even women like me. Do you see why we love him?’

We ask, ‘Do you think he is starting a new religion?’

She thinks for a moment and whispers, ‘I think Rabbi Jesus is doing something far more dangerous than starting a new religion. He says he is announcing a new kingdom.’

We continue, ‘So he is a rebel?’

‘His kingdom is not like the regimes of this world that take up daggers, swords and spears,’ Mary says. ‘He heals the sick, teaches the unschooled and inspires the downtrodden with hope. So no, I would not say that he is a rebel. Nor would I say that this is a revolution. I would call it an uprising, an uprising of learning and hope.’

We look curious, so she continues: ‘According to Rabbi Jesus, you cannot point to this land or that region and say, “The kingdom of God is located here,” because it exists in us, among us. It does not come crashing in like an army, he says. It grows slowly, quietly, under the surface, like the roots of a tree, like yeast in dough, like seeds in soil. Our faith waters the seed and makes it grow. Do you see this? When people trust it is true, they act upon it and it becomes true. Our faith unlocks its potential. Our faith makes it real. You can see why this message is unlike anything people around here have ever heard.’ Mary looks concerned. She asks, ‘And where are you from? You aren’t spies from Jerusalem, are you, looking for a reason to arrest the rabbi?’

‘No, we are travellers,’ we reply, ‘passing through.’ We quickly turn the subject back to her: ‘You are one of his disciples?’

She looks down for a moment and replies, ‘Not yet. But I am considering it.’

We wait for her to continue: ‘Most of my friends in Magdala are just trying to survive. Some of them are indeed dreaming about a holy war against Rome and their puppets in Jerusalem. Even little boys are sharpening their knives and talking of war. But I think that is foolish. My father was killed in the rebellion in Sepphoris, so I know. There must be another way. Another kind of uprising. An uprising of peace. If Rabbi Jesus can lead that kind of uprising, I will join it gladly.’

‘You seem to have a lot of faith,’ we observe. ‘Do you ever have doubts?’

She laughs. ‘Sometimes I think his message is the crazy dream of poets and artists, the fantasy of children at play, or old men who drink too much. But then I ask, what other message could possibly change the world? Perhaps what is truly crazy is what we are doing instead – thinking that a little more hate can conquer hate, a little more war can cure war, a little more pride can overcome pride, a little more revenge can end revenge, a little more gold can cure greed, or a little more division can create cohesion.’

Mary is silent for a moment, lost in her thoughts. She turns again to us. ‘What about you? Are you beginning to believe in him? Do you trust him?’

That question has a peculiar power, doesn’t it? ‘Do you trust him?’ is not the same as ‘Do you believe he existed?’ or ‘Do you believe certain doctrines about him?’ It’s a question about commitment, about confidence. For Jesus, the call to trust him was closely linked to the call to follow him. If we truly trust him, we will follow him on the road, imitate him, learn from his example, live by his way. Because his message was and is so radical on so many levels, believing and following can’t be treated lightly. They are costly. They require us to rethink everything. They change the course of our lives.

This time, we have been lost in our own thoughts, so Mary asks again: ‘Maybe you believe he is misguided and only misleads others? That is what the religious scholars from Jerusalem think.’

‘We’re like you,’ we respond. ‘We want to learn more. We feel our hearts being drawn towards him. Maybe we are beginning to trust him.’

‘So we must go back and listen,’ she says. We return with our new companion to the edge of the crowd. While we were away, it appears there has been some kind of commotion on the roof of the house. The crowd is buzzing about a paralysed man being healed.

Mary leans towards us and whispers: ‘Often when he heals someone, he says, “Your faith has healed you.” So there it is again. With him, faith is where it all begins. When you believe, you make it real.’

‘You change this’ – she points to her head – ‘and this’ – she points to her heart – ‘and you change all this.’ She gestures to indicate the whole world.

We hear in her words a summons, a challenge, a life-changing invitation. Do we dare to step out and follow Jesus, to make the road by walking, to risk everything on an uprising of peace, an uprising of generosity, an uprising of forgiveness, an uprising of love?

If we believe, we will make it real.

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Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about one of your biggest decisions – how you reached it, how it felt before and after making the choice.

3. How do you respond to the idea that faith makes it real?

4. For children: Who is someone you want to be like when you grow up?

5. Activate: This week, consider beginning each day with the words ‘I believe’. If you would like, add the words ‘Help my unbelief’. Echo them throughout the day when they arise in your heart.

6. Meditate: Sit in silence with Jesus’ words: ‘Your faith has made you well.’ What in you feels like it is being made well? End the silence with a simple prayer.

Chapter 25

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Chapter 25

Jesus, Violence and Power

Isaiah 42:1–9; 53

. . . a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.

Matthew 16:13 – 17:9


Once Jesus took his disciples on a field trip. There was something he wanted them to learn, and there was a perfect place for them to learn it. So he led them on a twenty-fivemile trek north from their base in Galilee to a city called Caesarea Philippi, a regional centre of the Roman Empire.

The city was built beside a dramatic escarpment or cliff face. A famous spring emerged from the base of the cliff. Before Roman occupation, the spring had been known as Panias, because it was a centre for worship of the Canaanite god Baal, and later for the Greek god Pan. Worshippers carved elaborate niches, still visible today, into the cliff face. There they placed statues of Pan and other Greek deities. Panias also had a reputation as the site of a devastating military defeat. At Panias, invading armies affiliated with Alexander the Great took the whole region for the Greek Empire.

Eventually the Romans replaced the Greeks, and when their regional ruler Herod the Great died, his son Herod Philip was given control of the region around Panias. He changed the name to Caesarea Philippi. By the first name he honoured Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor. By the second name, he honoured himself and distinguished the city from another city named Caesarea Maritima – on the coast. The city was, in effect, Philip’s Caesar-ville.

Imagine what it would be like to enter Caesar-ville with Jesus and his team. Today we might imagine a Jewish leader bringing his followers to Auschwitz, a Japanese leader to Hiroshima, a Native American leader to Wounded Knee, or a Palestinian leader to the wall of separation. There, in the shadow of the cliff face with its idols set into their finely carved niches, in the presence of all these terrible associations, Jesus asks his disciples a carefully crafted question: ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’

We can imagine that an awkward silence might follow this rather strange and selfconscious question. But soon the answers flow. ‘Some people say you’re John the Baptist raised from the dead; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’

Jesus sharpens the question: ‘What about you? Who do you say I am?’ Another silence, and then Peter, a leader among them, speaks: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’

It may sound like Peter is making a theological claim with these words. But in this setting, they’re as much a political statement as a theological one. Christ is the Greek translation for the Hebrew term Messiah, which means ‘the one anointed as liberating king’. To say ‘liberating king’ anywhere in the Roman Empire is dangerous, even more so in a city bearing Caesar’s name. By evoking the term Christ, Peter is saying, ‘You are the liberator promised by God long ago, the one for whom we have long waited. You are King Jesus, who will liberate us from King Caesar.’

Similarly, Son of the living God takes on an incandescent glow in this setting. Caesars called themselves ‘sons of the gods’, but Peter’s confession asserts that their false, idolatrous claim is now trumped by Jesus’ true identity as one with authority from the true and living God. The Greek and Roman gods in their little niches in the cliff face may be called on to support the dominating rule of the Caesars. But the true and living God stands behind the liberating authority of Jesus.

Jesus says that God has blessed Peter with this revelation. He speaks in dazzling terms of Peter’s foundational role in Jesus’ mission. ‘The gates of hell’ will not prevail against their joint project, Jesus says, using a phrase that could aptly be paraphrased ‘the authority structures and control centres of evil’. Again, imagine the impact of those words in this politically charged setting.

Surely this Caesar-ville field trip has raised the disciples’ hopes and expectations about Jesus to sky-high levels. But Jesus quickly brings them back down to Earth. Soon, he says, he will travel south to Jerusalem. There he will be captured, imprisoned, tortured and killed by the religious and political establishment of their nation, after which he will be raised. Peter appears not to hear the happy ending, only the horrible middle. So he responds just as we would have, with shock and denial: ‘Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!’ (Matt. 16:22, NIV).

Do you feel Peter’s confusion? Jesus just said that Peter ‘gets it’ – that Jesus is indeed the liberating king, the revolutionary leader anointed and authorised by the living God to set oppressed people free. If that’s true, then the one thing Jesus cannot do is be defeated. He must conquer and capture, not be conquered and captured. He must torture and kill his enemies, not be tortured and killed by them. So Peter corrects Jesus: ‘Stop talking this nonsense! This could never happen!’

At that moment, Jesus turns to Peter in one of the most dramatic cases of conceptual whiplash ever recorded in literature anywhere. ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ Jesus says. It’s a stunning reversal. Jesus has just identified Peter as the blessed recipient of divine revelation. Now he identifies Peter as a mouthpiece of the dark side. Jesus has just named Peter as a foundational leader in a movement that will defeat the gates of hell. Now he claims Peter is working on the side of hell. Do you feel the agony of this moment?

Like most of his countrymen, Peter knows with unquestioned certainty that God will send a Messiah to lead an armed uprising to defeat and expel the occupying Roman regime and all who collaborate with it. But no, Jesus says. That way of thinking is human, satanic, the opposite of God’s plan. Since the beginning, Jesus has taught that the non-violent will inherit the Earth. Violence cannot defeat violence. Hate cannot defeat hate. Fear cannot defeat fear. Domination cannot defeat domination. God’s way is different. God must achieve victory through defeat, glory through shame, strength through weakness, leadership through servanthood, and life through death. The finely constructed mental architecture in which Peter has lived his whole adult life is threatened by this paradoxical message. It’s not the kind of change of perspective that happens quickly or easily.

But isn’t that why a master-teacher takes students on a field trip? By removing students from familiar surroundings, the teacher can dislodge them from conventional thinking. By taking them to a new place, the teacher can help them see from a new vantage point, a new perspective.

It was less than a week later that Jesus took three of his disciples on another field trip, this time to the top of a mountain. There they had a vision of Jesus, shining in glory, conversing with two of the greatest leaders in Jewish history. Again, Peter was bold to speak up, offering to make three shrines to the three great men, elevating Jesus to the same elite level as the great liberator Moses and the great prophet Elijah. This time, God’s own voice rebuked Peter, as if to say, ‘Moses and Elijah were fine for their time, but my beloved Son Jesus is on another level entirely, revealing my true heart in a unique and unprecedented way. Listen to him!’

Moses the law-giver and Elijah the prophet, great as they were, differed from Jesus in one important way: they had both engaged in violence in God’s name. But in God’s name Jesus will undergo violence, and in so doing he will overcome it. And that was why, as they came down the mountain, Jesus once again spoke of suffering, death and resurrection – a different kind of strategy for a different kind of victory.

In many ways, we’re all like Peter. We speak with great insight one minute and we make complete fools of ourselves the next. We’re clueless about how many of our pious and popular assumptions are actually illusions. We don’t know how little we know, and we have no idea how many of our ideas are wrong. Like Peter, we may use the right words to describe Jesus – Christ, Son of the living God. But we still don’t understand his heart, his wisdom, his way. But that’s OK. Peter was still learning, and so are we.

After all, life with Jesus is one big field trip that we’re taking together. So let’s keep walking.

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Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about a time when you were completely certain about something, and then you realised you were completely (or at least partly) wrong.

3. How do you respond to this interpretation of the Caesar-ville field trip?

4. For children: What’s one of the nicest compliments you have ever received? Why did that mean a lot to you?

5. Activate: Look for situations this week when your initial reaction should be questioned, especially in relation to power dynamics.

6. Meditate: Imagine you are Peter after he hears the words, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ In silence, listen for ways your thinking is out of sync with God’s ways. Imagine what you would want to say to Jesus in reply.

Chapter 24

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Chapter 24

Jesus and Hell

Jonah 4
Luke 16:19–31
Matthew 25:31–40

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.


Jesus was boring, if you go by the tame and uninteresting caricature many of us were given. He was a quiet, gentle, excessively nice, somewhat fragile man on whose lap children liked to sit. He walked around in flowing robes in pastel colours, never dirty, always freshly washed and pressed. He liked to hold a small sheep in one arm and raise the other as if hailing a taxi. Or he was like an x or n – an abstract part of a mathematical equation, not important primarily because of what he said or how he lived, but only because he filled a role in the cosmic calculus of damnation and forgiveness.

The real Jesus was far more complex and interesting than any of these caricatures. And nowhere was he more defiant, subversive, courageous and creative than when he took the language of fire and brimstone from his greatest critics and used it for a very different purpose.

The idea of hell entered Jewish thought rather late. In Jesus’ day, as in our own, more traditional Jews – especially those of a political and religious group known as the Sadducees – had little to say about the afterlife and about miracles, angels and the like. Their focus was on this life and on how to be good and faithful human beings within it. Other Jews – especially the Pharisees, the Sadducees’ great rivals – had welcomed ideas on the afterlife from neighbouring cultures and religions.

To the north and east in Mesopotamia, people believed that the souls of the dead migrated to an underworld whose geography resembled an ancient walled city. Good and evil, high-born and lowly, all descended to this shadowy, scary, dark, inescapable realm. For the Egyptians to the south, the newly departed faced a ritual trial of judgement. Bad people who failed the test were then devoured by a crocodile-headed deity, and good people who passed the test settled in the land beyond the sunset.

To the west, the Greeks had a more elaborate schema. Although there were many permutations, in general souls were sorted into four groups at death: the holy and heroic, the indeterminate, the curably evil and the incurably evil. The incurably evil went to Tartarus where they would experience eternal conscious torment. The holy and heroic were admitted to the Elysian Fields, a place of joy and peace. Those in between might be sent back to Earth for multiple reincarnations until they could be properly sorted for shipment to Tartarus or the Elysian Fields.

Then there were the Persian Zoroastrians to the east. In Zoroastrianism, recently departed souls would be judged by two angels, Rashnu and Mithra. The worthy would be welcomed into the Zoroastrian version of heaven. The unworthy would be banished to the realm of the satanic figure Ahriman – their version of hell.

A large number of Jews had been exiles in the Persian Empire in the sixth century BC, and the Persians ruled over the Jews for about 150 years after they returned to rebuild Jerusalem. After that, the Greeks ruled and tried to impose their culture and religion. So it’s not surprising that many Jews adopted a mix of Persian and Greek ideas of the afterlife. In fact, the Pharisees may have picked up their name from the old word for Persian – Parsi or Farsi. For Jews who integrated Greek, Persian and other ideas into their vision of the afterlife, the heaven-bound could be easily identified. They were like the Pharisees – religiously knowledgeable and observant, socially respected, economically prosperous and healthy in body. The hell- bound were just as easily identified: the opposite of the Pharisees – uninformed about religious lore, careless about religious rules, socially suspect, economically poor and physically sick or disabled.

Jesus clearly agreed with the Pharisees that there was an afterlife. Death was not the end for Jesus. But one of the most striking facets of his life and ministry was the way he took the Pharisees’ understanding of the afterlife and turned it on its head.

Who was going to hell? Rich and successful people who lived in fancy houses and stepped over their destitute neighbours who slept in the gutters outside their gates! Proud people who judged, insulted, excluded, avoided and accused others! Hypocrites who ‘strained out gnats and swallowed camels’! In other words, who was going to hell? People just like the Pharisees! The judgement they so freely pronounced on others, Jesus turned back on them.

And who, according to Jesus, was going to heaven? The very people whom the religious elite despised, deprived, avoided, excluded and condemned. Heaven’s gates opened wide for the poor and destitute who shared in few of life’s blessings; the sinners, the sick and the homeless who felt superior to nobody and who therefore appreciated God’s grace and forgiveness all the more; even the prostitutes and tax collectors. Imagine how this overturning of the conventional understanding of hell must have shocked everyone – multitudes and Pharisees alike.

Again and again, Jesus took conventional language and imagery for hell and reversed it. We might say he wasn’t so much teaching about hell as he was un-teaching about hell. In so doing, he wasn’t simply arguing for a different understanding of the afterlife. He was doing something far more important and radical: proclaiming a transformative vision of God. God is not the one who condemns the poor and weak, nor is God the one who favours the rich and righteous. God is the one who loves everyone, including the people the rest of us think don’t count. Those fire-and-brimstone passages that countless preachers have used to scare people about hell, it turns out, weren’t intended to teach us about hell: Jesus used the language of hell to teach us a radical new vision of God!

Jesus used fire-and-brimstone language in another way as well. He used it to warn his countrymen about the catastrophe of following their current road – a wide and smooth highway leading to another violent uprising against the Romans. Violence won’t produce peace, he warned; it will produce only more violence. If his countrymen persisted in their current path, Jesus warned, the Romans would get revenge on them by taking their greatest pride – the temple – and reducing it to ashes and rubble. The Babylonians had done it once, and the Romans could do it again. That was why he advocated a different path – a ‘rough and narrow path’ of non-violent social change instead of the familiar broad highway of hate and violence.

For a time, the Pharisees rejected both Jesus’ alternative portrayal of God and his warnings about a violent uprising. In fact, the Pharisees joined with the Zealots and became leaders in a rebellion against the Roman Empire in ad 67. Their grand scheme succeeded for a time, but three years later the Romans marched in and crushed the rebellion. Jerusalem was devastated and the temple was destroyed. The nation was even worse off after its revolution than before.

And that was when the Pharisees changed. In many ways, after their failed revolution, they followed a path more like the one Jesus had taught. They showed that it wasn’t too late to change, even for the Pharisees.

In that outcome, we see the real purpose of Jesus’ fire-and-brimstone language. Its purpose was not to predict the destruction of the universe or to make absolute for all eternity the insider-outsider categories of us and them. Its purpose was to wake up complacent people, to warn them of the danger of their current path, and to challenge them to change – using the strongest language and imagery available. As in the ancient story of Jonah, God’s intent was not to destroy but to save. Neither a great big fish nor a great big fire gets the last word, but rather God’s great big love and grace.

Sadly, many religious people still use the imagery of hell more in the conventional way Jesus sought to reverse. Like Jonah, they seem disappointed that God’s grace might get the final word. If more of us would re-examine this fascinating dimension of Jesus’ teaching and come to a deeper understanding of it, we would see what a courageous, subversive and fascinating leader he was, pointing us to a radically different way of seeing God, life and being alive.

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Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about a time someone confronted you with a mistake or fault and you didn’t respond well.
3. How do you respond to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus?
4. For children: What are some of the ways that grown-ups try to keep children from doing harmful or dangerous things? What ways do you think work the best?
5. Activate: This week, look for people like Lazarus in the parable and refuse to imitate the rich man in your response to them.
6. Meditate: Imagine the rich man walking by Lazarus in the gutter. In silence, ask God if you are stepping over anyone in your life.