Archive for March, 2015

Palm Sunday  Isaiah 50.4-9  Philipians 2.5-11

If you asked me what I do in the pulpit every week, I would have to say I am usually asking you to think about how you read Scripture

The Bible isn’t one book: it’s a whole library of different books
They were all inspired by the same God, but the writers lived at very different times, in different places, and they responded differently to God
They spoke to different people, in different situations, and they had their own ideas about how people could be reached: so they need different approaches

Take Paul’s letters for example
We know Paul wrote most of them, but he didn’t write all of them
Scholars agree about that– but they’re not always sure which ones were written by his followers
So it’s probably not wise to expect the views expressed in one letter to be perfectly constistent with the views of another

We know the letters were written to churches – but we can’t always be sure which churches
Most of Paul’s letters were written to address problems in the lives of specific communities
And that some of them were written to answer questions they had sent to Paul, in letters of their own which are now lost
But we also know it didn’t take long before they were being copied and passed from one church to another

We know Paul’s letters aren’t like modern letters
Paul didn’t intend they should be read in private by one person
He intended them to be read aloud, to a whole congregation during worship
Not a little bit at a time, but all in one go

When you know they were intended for use in worship, certain things about Paul’s letters become easier to understand
We have some idea of the elements of worship in the churches Paul wrote to: “When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.” (1Co 14.26)

If you think about it, the elements of worship are also the main elements of Paul’s letters
Paul’s letters are not just theological arguments, or sets of instructions
They are not just sermons
They contain hymns, psalms, Scriptures, prophecies, interpretations, prayers, liturgy, blessings and benedictions
Paul intended his letters to build up the life of the church – and in this sense they are not just pieces of human communiction: they are acts of worship

Today in our reading from Philippians we’ve done what we usually do
We’ve taken a short passage out of context

Taken in isolation, this passage has raised an interesting theological question
What does Paul mean, when he says Jesus ’emptied himself’?
Was Jesus less divine when he lay in the manger, than when he sat at the right hand of the Father? Was he parted from God, when he suffered on the cross?

How far is Jesus’ divinity constrained by his humanity?
Nineteenth century theologians tied themselves in knots over this
In the gospel accounts, Jesus clearly is not omnipresent; his physical body is only present in one place at a time
He is not omnipotent; miracles are performed through him, not by him; and he says he cannot decide who will sit at his right or left hand in heaven
Jesus is not omniscient; he does not know when he will return

So the question is, if God empties himself of any of his divine attributes, is he still God?
Surely he is something less than God?

It’s a very interesting argument – but that’s not the point Paul is trying to make
This passage is just a lyrical interlude in a longer argument

The message is, Christ’s triumph over suffering
A triumph achieved not through superhuman toughness, nor the assertion of individual heroism, but through Christ’s loving willingness to act in perfect obedience to the Father’s will, and submit himself to the consequences

What Paul is telling the Philippians is, lay aside your petty differences
Stop priding yourselves on those things you think make you better than your neighbour
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”

Jesus gives us an example of humility we struggle to imagine, never mind try to copy
He submits himself to a system that brands him a subversive, a heretic, a blasphemer
But God highly exalts him

Jesus is cut off from his people: from his family, his friends, his community, his human lineage
He is stripped, paraded in fancy dress, abused, and dehumanised
He is hung up in public under a piece of paper with a meaningless title designed to mock him
But God lifts him up, and rewards him with the name above every name

Jesus is deprived of every right and dignity, and thrust down to a level far below that of even common slaves
He is forced to his knees and made to grovel
He staggers in public under the load of a cross he is too weak to carry
But God decrees that at the name of this helpless victim, every knee on heaven and earth shall bow

His enemies intend to silence him, and believe they have succeeded
But God decrees, that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father

The key to Christ’s divinity is not his supernatural greatness
The supreme expression of Christ’s divinity is the perfection of his obedient love for the Father
He does not have to be omniscient, omnipresent or omnipotent to express this obedient love
He only has to be perfectly human – humanly perfect

Being perfectly true to the Father, Jesus will not deny his relationship with the Father, when human beings challenge it
He will not qualify the perfection of the divine mercy, by denying it to others who need to experience it
He will not deny the Father’s perfect justice, by offering false consolation to powerful people who think they have the freedom to acknowledge God purely on their own terms

These are the reasons why he is condemned by human beings: but they are also the reasons why he is exalted by God the Father

Christ is ours because the Father loved us
We are owned by God because Jesus loved the Father
We are loved by Christ because the Father gave us to him

Therefore Paul says to the Philippians, don’t try to find your joy in yourselves: seek your joy in the love of other people – in loving others, and being loved by others
Discover freedom in loving others unconditionally
Rejoice to see other people coming to faith in Christ and becoming part of our community
Rejoice to seeing them grow in the love of Christ, becoming confident to speak and act in Christ’s name
Rejoice to see them growing up, accepting responsibility, becoming leaders who know how to serve
That is the joy I have in you, says Paul; that is the joy Jesus Christ has in all of us


Hebrews 5.5-10  John 12.20-33

They say life is full of ups and downs
Jesus’ teachings on his way to the cross are certainly full of ups and downs
Except that he keeps on saying, the world’s “ups” are actually downs, and the world’s “downs” are God’s “ups”
The Christ who is thrown down and trampled by the world, then lifted up and exposed to humiliation and ridicule, is raised up from the grave and exalted to God’s right hand
Jesus keeps mixing up and inverting the categories of “up” and “down” in his final teachings to his disciples
He is confusing them in order to make it possible for them to accept the greatest paradox of all, the paradox of what happens in his crucifixion and resurrection

The path from Palm Sunday to Easter morning is not an easy journey for human understanding to make
The purpose of Holy Week, and the whole season of Lent before it, is to help us make that journey

It’s often said that Christians are tempted to go straight from Palm Sunday to Easter
And miss out the bits in between
Because Palm Sunday and Easter are the good bits: the celebrations

This habit of skipping over the Last Supper, the betrayal in the garden, the trial, the mocking, the torture, Peter’s denial, and the cross itself, is something that almost happens by default

On Palm Sunday you hear about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem
On Easter Sunday seven days later you hear about the resurrection
But if you don’t come to church in between you’ll miss the commemoration of the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday
You’ll miss the reflection on Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday

We obviously know these events took place
But it’s important at this time of the year to make a special effort to appreciate their significance

That’s why of course the Lectionary says we should have a complete reading of one of the Passion narratives on Palm Sunday
So that everyone is reminded of the whole story, just before Easter
It’s also one of the purposes of the whole season of Lent

One of the key points of the Passion narrative is that even Jesus himself, as a human being, prayed that he might not have to drink the cup that was being handed to him
He prayed in the garden he might not have to endure the suffering of the cross

This morning, we haven’t reached that point in the story
What we have at this point is Jesus telling his disciples more about what he will suffer
Warning them about his death on the cross, and its meaning

Some gentiles have asked to see Jesus
It is a significant moment: it shows that Jesus’ reputation is spreading
It is also a prophetic moment: their request is a sign that the world will come to know Jesus

But Jesus takes this opportunity to warn his disciples that the road that leads to his recognition by all nations leads through the deepest suffering:
John 12.32-33: When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

Remember last week’s reading from John’s gospel
Jesus is identified with the bronze serpent Moses made and raised on a pole to remove the curse of the poisonous serpents that were killing the Israelites

Jesus has to be raised up in order to be recognised
He is raised up by angry sinners who need to vent their hatred on someone
They don’t just want to kill him; they want other people to see Jesus as a curse

But when Jesus rises from the dead, their condemnation becomes his glorification
Jesus glorifies the Father by his obedience, all the way to his death on the cross
It is his perfect obedience that reveals him to be truly the Son of God the Father
And in the resurrection, the Father glorifies Jesus in return

As our reading from Hebrews says,
Heb 5.5: Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, You are my Son, today I have begotten you”

Glorify is the key word in both of these passages
At Easter we give thanks because with Jesus we have been raised to life, and raised to glory
But there is no glory, even for Jesus, without the cross; no Easter Sunday without Good Friday

No sermon from me today, because Rob Wylie our evangelist preached instead. I hope you’ll read his latest thoughts on his own blog, at

From me, here’s a video:

1 Corinthians 1.18-25 John 2.13-22

This week we also hear the Ten Commandments, and our introductory message reflected on what it means to ‘take’ or ‘bear’ the name of our Lord in vain

Foolishness is a difficult concept for Christian churches to grasp
Our churches are institutions, with laws and rules to follow, and ‘foolishness’ is not what the auditors want to see when we hand over the books

I am aware as a minister I represent St Cuthbert’s during the week as well as on Sundays
I am accountable to members here
I wonder how happy you would be if I went to St Nicholas’ Cathedral, walked into the gift shop, and threw the goods and the staff out through the door and into the street
You would probably think it was quite a foolish thing to do

It’s an action that would simply not be appropriate for a minister – or anyone else
It wouldn’t represent the views of anyone here
It would be very unlikely to win anyone to Christ
It would certainly be the end of my time as a minister of the URC

The cleansing of the temple is one of those key episodes that occur in all four gospels
Mark’s version, towards the climax of Jesus’ arrest goes like this: Mark 11:16–19 (NRSV)

Jesus would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,

My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?
But you have made it a den of robbers.”

When the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

There are important differences between the accounts in John’s gospel and the others:
– The incident in Mark’s gospel sounds as if it went on for quite a while: Jesus confronts a number of different people, and he teaches the crowd in between confrontations
– There’s no whip of cords in Mark’s gospel
– There is no direct confrontation with the religious authorities, with the people John identifies as ‘the Jews’, and so we don’t hear them demanding a sign. That’s a conversation you find elsewhere in Mark’s gospel
– In Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ actions are enthusiastically received by the crowd; their enthusiasm saves him from arrest, because the authorities don’t want a riot
– And most importantly, in Mark’s gospel, the cleansing of the temple comes at the end of Jesus’ ministry, instead of near the beginning

Why is John’s version set at a different time?
– If you ask, which version is historically correct, it is probably Mark’s. No one who acted like this in the temple would have been allowed to leave unscathed
– So why does John alter the record? The answer is, that John’s placement of the episode is symbolic
– John puts this episode at the start of Jesus’ ministry, because it dramatises so clearly the central messages of Jesus’ teachings

What are these messages?
– There’s a political message: Jesus marks himself as a campaigner for reform; as someone who ‘turns over the tables’
– But there’s a more important theological message: Jesus asserts his equal status with God: he says, “this is my Father’s house”, by which we know he is the Father’s Son
– And he asserts that the temple cult is passing away

The prophet Malachi said, (3:1) “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.”
Malachi made it clear that the Lord’s return would begin a time of judgment for Israel
So when Jesus turns over the tables in the temple in John’s gospel, right at the start of his ministry, we know that everything he says and does from that point forward will be a judgment on Israel, and especially on its religious leaders

But it’s more than that
Jesus is also saying, the dwelling place of God on earth is no longer within these stone walls
It’s here: in my human heart, within my human flesh

This point emerges when the temple leaders ask him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answers them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

Everyone listening thinks he is crazy.
But of course the disciples realised, after the resurrection, Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body.

Jesus says in all his important teachings that he takes over the place of the temple: he becomes the temple
Some of the most important passages in John’s gospel are the ‘I am’ sayings
– He says, ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’
– He says, I am the Good Shepherd
– He says, I am the Alpha and Omega

Many of these sayings are based on temple themes:
– Jews expected living water to flow out from the altar in the temple across the whole world; but Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well, ‘I am the source of the living water’
– Every day the priests laid out twenty of the finest loaves on a special table in the temple: the bread of the Presence. Only the priests could eat this holy bread
– But Jesus said, ‘I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry (John 6:35)
– Every day, the priests poured out drink offerings of wine on the altar. But Jesus said, ‘I am the true vine’, the one who makes fruitful the lives of everyone who believes in him
– It was believed, that when the High Priest emerged from the Holy of Holies, once a year, at the Feast of Tabernacles, he carried the radiance of holiness with him – for a little while
– But Jesus said, ‘I am the Light of the World’; and he promised the light of that presence would remain with us in the world, for all time

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near: those are the first words Jesus speaks in Mark’s gospel: the things of this world are passing away
Zeal for his Father’s house consumes Jesus
But the house that Herod has built for God in Jerusalem is being consumed from within; it is gnawing away at itself, because it is focused entirely on itself, on the supposedly God-given rightness of its religious monopoly

We don’t look for God in a stone-built temple any more
– Instead, we gather ‘in the name of Jesus’, bearing his image in our hearts
– We pray today we have not taken that Name in vain
– We pray that we have taken seriously the responsibility of being Christ’s people, the temple of living stones, called to be the place of his presence, a house of prayer, a source of hope, a place of healing, and a place of blessing

Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16; Rom 4.13-25

Children and young people are furiously revising at the moment, because the exams are not far away
The church is furiously revising at the moment, because Easter is not far away
The period of Lent is a time when we take another look at key episodes and teachings from Jesus life and ministry on earth
And when we look at important early interpretations of his life and teachings, especially in the letters of Paul

It’s hard to preach on Paul
If there was a simpler way of saying what he has to say, that’s probably how he would have said it
At the same time, sometimes you can pull out a strand that has a particular relevance to our situation today
And sometimes, on the other hand, it pays to remind yourself that Paul is a first-century Jew, writing to other first-century Jews and Gentiles
We must try to appreciate, as members of a Reformed church, just how far our own intepretations of the letter to the Romans have been shaped by later commentators, particularly John Calvin and Martin Luther

Paul in this passage from Romans sets out to make one very simple point
That God throughout history has been absolutely faithful
But that what has been truly constant throughout history has been, less God’s faithfulness to his law, than God’s faithfulness to his promises
So the central issue for Christians is faith – not law

God delivers his promise in the form of a covenant
The covenant sets out humanity’s future with God
It is made to individuals, but it is made for everyone

The covenant is not a bargain; it is not the outcome of a negotiation
The covenant is one-sided: God sets the terms

Look at the language of the covenant with Abraham, in our reading from Genesis
Two words keep recurring: ‘I’ and ‘make’:
‘I will make my covenant between me and you’
‘I will make you exceedingly numerous’
‘I have made you the ancestor of many nations’
‘I will make you exceedingly fruitful’
‘I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you’

I, I, I, I, I – five ‘Is’
Why? because God is Lord and King – his power is absolute

Make, make, make, make, make – five ‘makes’
Why? because God is the Creator – the one who makes all things

We are used to thinking of the covenant as an expression of God’s Kingship
We are less accustomed to thinking of the covenant as an expression of God’s creativity

But creation is not limited to the seven days of Genesis
God’s creative activity continues through the working out of his covenant
The plan of creation goes on unfolding throughout time and human history

I said, the covenant is made to individuals, but it is made for everyone
We see here a face to face conversation between Almighty God, and Abraham

But it is conversation that involves everyone, because we are invited to visualise the womb of Sarah as the place from which all subsequent human history will unfold

It is a history that builds to a first climax with the reign of David as king over Israel
But it reaches its ultimate climax with the coming of Christ, born from the womb of Mary
Christ the universal agent of redemption and salvation

Abraham is a figure who can seem very remote
There is something mysterious and even unreal to modern minds about the stories surrounding him
But of course he stands at the beginning of the history of the Jewish nation

Abraham is central to Paul’s thinking about the salvation that comes through Christ
Salvation is promised through Abraham; but it is Abraham’s faith, not his obedience to the law, that matters: as Paul puts it,
‘The promise that [Abraham] would inherit the world did not come to him or his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith’

Why is Paul so keen to insist that God’s promise is fulfilled through faith rather than righteousness?
That question has been answered in different ways at different times

The Reformers often quoted this passage from Romans
Their theology emphasised how helpless we are because of sin
Sin is the problem that prevents us solving the problems that sin itself give birth to
We cannot be saved by our own righteousness – only by faith in Christ, who achieved righeousness on our behalf

But that is not Paul’s point here
Paul’s central concern is how the Gentiles can be brought to faith in Christ
And how the crucifixion and resurrection become efficacious for non-Jews

That is why the figure of Abraham is so central for Paul
Because God declares Abraham righteous on the basis of his faith – not his righteous deeds
Abraham believes in God’s promise – that is what matters

The Jewish people of Paul’s time inhabited a world they regarded as divided by God’s promise into outsiders (the Gentiles) and insiders (themselves)
They accorded Abraham and Moses a similar importance
But there is an important difference between Abraham and Moses

Abraham is associated with faith; Moses is associated with the Law
The law that comes through Moses is given to Israel
But the promises that come through Abraham are given to all his descendants, to ‘a multitude of nations’ – which Paul understands to mean, to the whole world
We are all descended from Abraham – so we all share in the promises made to Abraham
Gentiles as much as Jews – as long as we believe in Christ

The call to share in Abraham’s blessing through faith is a call to separate ourselves from others – to be different
Abraham is living quite comfortably in Haran when God calls him
God says to Abraham,
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”

Abraham sets out for the Land of Promise – a place he knows nothing of
He separates himself from his neighbours by an act of faith

In the same way, Jesus tells his disciple to separate themselves by an act of faith – to take up their cross, to accept as a blessing the obligation to participate in Christ’s suffering

We live in a world today where minorities with an exaggerated faith in what they claim to believe use religion to put up barriers
They use religion to justify for the worst atrocities
Those are the extremes that result when we use religion to divide the world into outsiders and insiders

Jesus’ commandment is that everyone become an outsider
– not because they reject the world
– not because they reject other people
– but because through embracing the love of Christ and the commandent to love others in his name, they move beyond the barriers that separate one group from another