Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

Tag: resurrection

Trinity 13A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Matthew 16:21-28 Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection

21Jesus began to show his disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you’, 23but He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
24Then Jesus told His disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me, 25for those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26What will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? or what will they give in return for their life?
27‘The Son of Man is to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.’

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

Jesus lived in a region of Roman occupation, and violence was just a normal part of everyday life, especially if anyone dared to challenge the authority of the Roman governor. Torture and crucifixion were common in that environment. The disciples had grown up in that sort of world, where one powerful force would overrule another and take charge, so it’s hardly surprising that Jesus was constantly reminding them of a better way, but the better way hadn’t sunk in. When Peter declared that Jesus was the Messiah (Matthew 16:16) there was likely an expectation that Jesus would take on the Roman authorities and use His power to overthrow them. The first problem with that is that the use of violence to overthrow a power, and that is what would have been what most people at the time thought was needed to get rid of the Roman occupying forces, would only breed a new power struggle, and more violence. That’s one reason why war is so senseless, and why those who want to dominate our current world with force are only breeding more of the thing we need to rid this world of: violence. It appals me to hear that some current and some former service personnel in the Australian Defence Force are running an Instagram campaign promoting violence because that is so counter to Christ’s teaching and example. The second problem is that Jesus had been teaching the disciples a better way to live. Love conquers all. “Love your enemy” Jesus said. Have yourself labelled as a resister by not resisting.

It’s hardly surprising that Jesus would be subject to violence from within the religious establishment, considering He was often highly critical of those very people, and challenged their authority. Peter, on the other hand, couldn’t see how Jesus would be able to achieve what He proclaimed if He were subjected to such torture and a horrific death – and while we’re at it let’s not forget that those who were crucified would have been totally naked, unlike the sanitised pictures we see. Peter couldn’t image such a denigrating, humiliating death being part of the Good News. How often do we fall into the same sort of trap? How often do we argue against what God wants to do because we don’t like it, or can’t (won’t) see it? How often do we allow others to dictate what we do, and how we do it, when we should be proclaiming God’s message to all?

What did Jesus say to the one who had just proclaimed Him to be Son of Man, and the Messiah? “Get behind me Satan!” Jesus wasn’t condemning Peter for his attempt to save Christ from the cross, but condemning Satan, working through Peter’s problem in accepting the inevitable. There’s a real lesson for us there. Jesus separated Peter, one of His most ardent followers and someone able to listen to God, from the influence of Satan, who was taking Peter’s weakness and using it to attack Jesus. Can we separate the sin from the sinner in the same way? Our contemporary society can’t. I can think of many people who have been brilliant in their own way but have done something seriously wrong, and their great works have been discarded as well as them, and I can think of many others who have been treated similarly when their greatest failure is to have a different opinion from the majority. That’s what happened to Christ, except that we try to remember His good deeds, and try to explain away those bits which are difficult to accept.

Set your mind on divine things, not human things, and we stand a chance of redeeming the world. Do the reverse and you will be a stumbling block for God – though God will win in the end, so why fight?

What did Jesus mean by asking His disciples to deny themselves and pick up their cross to follow Him? It’s something which slips off the tongue easily and is gone before we think what it really means. Looking at Christ’s own example, and as followers we are challenged to follow in His footsteps, we can see that self is not the most important aspect of life. I think of the podium at major sporting events: in the middle is “I”, to the left, as we face the medal winners, is “S”omeone important to us, and on the right is “N”obody in particular. That spells sin. Instead of thinking of ourselves first, and others last we should reverse that process and think of everyone else before ourselves, except that we have a duty to care for our health, and not neglect it lest we cannot serve others.

There is great satisfaction in helping others, and not much in looking after oneself at the expense of others. We sacrifice the enjoyment and fulfilment in our lives when we ignore others, and that is what Jesus was railing against. When we encounter Christ again our work in looking after others will be rewarded, and that should be important to all of us.

We might think that the final verse in this passage indicates Jesus’s expectation that His second coming would be within the life-span of some of His disciples, but what if we consider seeing the “Son of Man coming in His kingdom” as having our eyes opened to a realisation that God’s Kingdom is here and now, and is all around us? Let us wash the paste off our eyes and see what God has given us.

Lent 5 A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

John 11:1-45

1A certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

7Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ 8The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, but you are going there again?’ 9Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world, 10but those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ 11After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ 12The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died; 22but even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ 23Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ 25Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ 27She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ 29When she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ 40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ 45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

Ah, Lazarus! We named one of my cars ‘Lazarus’ because it kept coming back from the dead, first after a certain learner driver ploughed into a stone gate post and later when I had the distinction of hitting two kangaroos at once on the Nullarbor Plain. The mechanics and repair people did a wonderful job in both cases.

Here, of course, we have a story about a man who was restored to physical life by the words of Christ and the actions of God. Jesus would have known, before he received the deputation from Martha and Mary, that Lazarus was about to die, but the timing of His return to Bethany was not right for raising someone who would have been acknowledged as really dead, rather than in what we could call a coma. The chance to raise someone from the dead for the glory of God was not to be missed, but to achieve that He had to wait a little longer. God’s timing and ours don’t always match.

Even at this stage Jesus is not afraid of going into hostile territory. John’s favourite phrase “The Jews”, meaning the Jewish authorities who were keen to protect their own skins and get this upstart out of the way, had been finding issues which irked them and their collective temper was getting a bit too hot. Even so, Jesus tells His disciples that they should go into this enemy compound, to visit Mary and Martha. I have pity for the disciples as they are frequently portrayed in the fourth gospel. If we’re in the same house and say that someone has fallen asleep, it’s very likely that we’re talking about restorative rest as we (hopefully) get each night, but if we make the same statement when we’re a long way from home it’s likely to be interpreted as referring to permanent sleep, i.e. death. Our poor disciples needed that explaining, as they seem to need everything explaining on their journey with Christ. Thomas has to have the worst rating of all, suggesting that they too should die just because Lazarus has died.

So the group arrived at Bethany, and Jesus finds that Lazarus has been dead for four days. It’s important to realise that the Jewish people believed that the soul left the body after three days, so there was no hope of being brought back to life. Stop the press! Has anyone done some arithmetic here? Jesus waiting two days before heading to Bethany, but by the time He got there Lazarus had been dead four days, so even if He had left immediately Lazarus would have been dead before He arrived.

We could allow Martha the right to say “if you had been here Lazarus wouldn’t have died” in the sense that had He been in Bethany when Lazarus became sick He would have cured the sickness, but many people think that she was critical of the delayed travel. That might not be fair to her. There are eight “I AM” statements in John’s gospel, of which His claim to be “the resurrection” is the sixth, but Martha thinks only of the resurrection as what scripture told her would happen “at the last day” when we all face God. Did she get the message properly when Christ explained things to her, or later? Her affirmation of Christ as the Messiah, however, comes a long time before Peter made a similar statement. Then Mary came to Jesus, with the same response as her sister, not understanding what was about to happen.

Stop the presses again! John 11:35 is famous for being the shortest verse in the Bible, based on the translation in the King James Version, which says “Jesus wept.” That’s a somewhat reasonable translation of the Greek word εδακρυσεν (edakrusen). The NRSV translation “Jesus began to weep” is, to me, as weak as dishwater because the Greek verb really means “to ball one’s eyes out.” No wonder those around commented that He must have loved Lazarus a great deal. If anyone tells you that men don’t cry we can refer to this verse and say that Jesus was a blubbering mess, so yes, men do cry, and should.

Even as the group approached the tomb, the focus of the bystanders was still on what they fully expected regarding someone who had been dead for so long. Decaying flesh has an awful smell to it, but Jesus was not bothered because He knew what has about to happen. Lazarus walks out of the tomb, still wrapped in burial cloths, and those gathered round believed in Christ because of what they had seen, and hopefully heard. Are we dependent on seeing God’s work to believe in Him? Do we fail to see God’s helping hand at work in our lives because we are looking for the wrong thing? I think we’re all guilty of that.

16th April 2017 (Easter Day)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Mary Magdalene at the SepulchreJohn 20:1‑18

1Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb, 2so she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father, but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English version), alt, used with permission.

Over the years there has been debate about whether Jesus was married or not. Some argue that there is no mention in the Bible about Jesus having a wife, while others say that the only disciple whose marital status was mentioned was Peter, whose mother-in-law was healed by Jesus, and if, at 30, He didn’t have a wife it would have been so unusual that it would have been mentioned. I wasn’t there either, so I don’t have any better insights than the scholars who have looked carefully at contemporary literature and the various fragments of scripture we now have, but we have some tantalising snippets.

Luke’s gospel is the only one not to specifically name Mary Magdalene as one of the women at the foot of the cross, but does include her in the list of women who went with the body of Jesus to the tomb, and who returned on the Sunday morning with the intention of embalming His body. In all cases Mary Magdalene is mentioned first, even before Christ’s own mother. It was the responsibility of the next of kin to attend to the burial needs of a deceased person. Contrary to Roman Catholic teaching there is no evidence in scripture, or contemporary literature, to suggest that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, and Jesus did frequently, indeed almost constantly, associate with sinners, forgiving them their sins and challenging them to lead a better life, so was Jesus married to Mary Magdalene, and, if so, why has the Church spent hundreds of years trying to defame her? Many of the images I considered to go with this page had Mary in “prostitute” red, or Jesus attired in such a way that she wouldn’t have mistaken Him for the gardener.

To the Jews the Sabbath began at sunset on our Friday and extended to sunset on our Saturday. The first day of the week was equivalent to our Sunday. The Sabbath was a time when the people were not supposed to work, including treating a dead person, so embalming a body had to wait until after the Sabbath had ended. Hence our gospel story begins with something which many calendar makers these days like to ignore: Sunday is the first day of the week, not the last, though if we start a week on Monday the Seventh Day Adventists would be celebrating on Sunday with us. Who should arrive to treat Christ’s body but Mary Magdalene, according to other gospel writers along with other women bringing spices for the process. Seeing that the stone, which had been set to keep the tomb shut, had been removed Mary ran to Peter and “the beloved disciple”, whom most scholars believe was John, to tell them that the body had been taken away. It was still dark, so who even had the authority to move the body? In biblical times a woman’s testimony meant nothing – only a man’s testimony could be taken as evidence, so this hysterical woman tells two of the men, and they actually listened to her evidence and so ran to the tomb. Once they had seen the bandages wrapped up in the tomb, and remembered what Jesus had said about His rising from the dead, they went home, leaving Mary weeping outside the tomb. A bit of pastoral care might have been useful! Why didn’t they go and tell any of the other disciples?

Mary’s first encounter after Peter and John have left is with two “angels”. No, angels do not have to be dressed in dazzling white and with wings: an angel is someone who turns up unexpectedly, but at the very moment you need help, and disappears without trace once that need has been met ‑ and its highly likely that you have encoutered at least one in your life without realising it. With the knowledge of what has happened to Jesus, these two angels ask the grieving Mary why she is weeping. Shrouded in tears, and deeply mourning the loss of someone dear to her, whether or not the suggestion of marriage was true, Mary cannot, at first, recognise Jesus, but assumes, from his presence in the garden at this time of the day, that he is the gardener. It’s not the only time that followers of Jesus did not recognise Him immediately when encountering Him. The road to Emmaus was another example, but we shouldn’t be harsh on these people. If we had seen a dear friend or member of our family die would we believe that the person we met some days later was, in fact, the very person whose death we had witnessed? Of course we wouldn’t. Mary, traumatised by what she had seen on Friday afternoon would have had great difficulty seeing the man in front of her as the same one who had died less than 48 hours before. It was not His appearance but a single word He said, which changed her experience. How did He say “Mary”? What emotion was included? What chemistry was sparked by the word? However we answer those questions, Mary was transformed on the spot.

Again, as a woman, her evidence would not normally be acceptable to the men in the community, but Jesus tells her to go “to my brothers” and tell them that He is ascending to His Father and ours. To Jesus, His brothers were not just his siblings but all those who had been followers through the period of ministry. This Mary, who earlier had been weeping her heart out because of the death of Jesus and the disappearance of His body, now goes to the disciples and blurts forth that she has seen the Lord after his resurrection. Did they believe her? Did they pick up on the transformation which had affected Mary then, in advance of their own transformations, which were to happen on what we celebrate as Pentecost?

Many people have had “near death” experiences; some have been declared, by medical staff, to be dead, only to start breathing again, sit up and talk to people as if they had only been asleep. A recent news item reported that a jockey had returned to winning rides after reading his own obituary. How do we relate to those experiences? Would we believe the witness of one or two who had been present? With this Easter season, are we transformed, as Mary was, by our own experiences of the risen Christ. I have a strong affinity with the centurion who commented, on Christ’s death, “truly this was the Son of God”, and so the resurrection is a personal experience for me each year. If we live as if these stories are our own, and in our own time, not relegating them to history, then we, too, can experience the transformation, and be ready to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to spread the Good News.

8th January 2017

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Acts 10: 34-43

34Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation, anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him. 36You know the message He sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ — He is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. 39We are witnesses to all that He did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put Him to death by hanging Him on a tree; 40but God raised Him on the third day and allowed Him to appear, 41not to all the people, but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with Him after He rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that He is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about Him that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name.’

Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English Edition) alt, used with permission.

It horrifies me to think of all the times I’ve heard people say, or imply, that someone isn’t a Christian because that person doesn’t belong to a particular denomination.  Peter, talking to a Gentile group after being summoned by Cornelius, a Roman soldier, is very specific here in declaring that God shows no partiality. Unfortunately for native English speakers, “fear” now has the connotation of “dread” as if something nasty will happen. Though “fear” is derived from the Greek word used here, a better translation of phoboumenos would be “hold in awe” because that is the sense implied in the Greek. To his audience Peter would have been quite clear: just because you are of Roman origin, and have had no contact or relationship with the God whom the Jews have been worshipping for centuries, does not preclude you from God’s love and grace. Peter was, of course, speaking out of his experience with the risen Christ, and encouraging his audience to accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Note the challenge, though. If we are to emulate God in this world then we must show no partiality at all. When I was asked how a priest should respond if an openly homosexual person should enquire about being part of the parish I responded: ‘we can consider the person to be sick, and we are called to minister; we can consider the person a sinner, and we are called to minister; or we can consider the person normal, and we are called to minister; so the only choice available is to minister, and not to judge.’ I wish I could claim I always respond in the same way when faced with other situations which might disturb my well-being, but that is the challenge. Our partiality, of course, isn’t limited to how we relate to other Christians; it is deeply ingrained in the way our society works, so it is hard to set it aside. Do we shudder when asked to help someone who has no food, no home and no money? Do we run the other way when an openly homosexual couple walks into church? Do we expunge from our lives all the good memories of people whose encounter with Satan has led them astray, or do we celebrate the good and pray for forgiveness for the bad? We should ask ourselves how God would respond, and do the same.

Peter’s summary of Christ’s ministry is very succinct. Though physical and time restrictions meant that Jesus spent His entire ministry in a small area there is no indication in what Peter says that the message is limited only to that geographic area. Indeed, his comments to the people gathered by Cornelius show that there is no limit. Jesus went about doing good. He also went about “healing all who were oppressed by the devil.” Are we following in Christ’s footsteps, healing those who have been oppressed by the devil? At least one priest I knew was told to stop casting demons out of the lives of those who sought him, even though we are all commissioned to do so by Christ himself.

One question I have asked myself many times is did Christ rise from the dead or was He raised from the dead. “What’s the difference?” do I hear you ask? It all boils down to who did the raising, was it Christ (as second person in the Trinity), or was it God (as first person)?

Christ may not have appeared to a large number of people, after his resurrection, but to those who had lived with Him through His ministry He was as bodily intact as they were. Peter tells us that He ate and drank with them. This was no figment of someone’s imagination: there were too many who had the experience, and all of them were transformed into people who had the confidence to preach the Good News, irrespective of the consequences. Is that how our churches work today? Are our priests expected to be the only ones jumping up and down with joy at the Good News, or are we going to share in that ministry? How often do priests not do what they feel called by God to do because of some perceived possible consequence? When a priest’s licence can be withdrawn at any time and without explanation because someone else shows partiality, God’s work can be threatened by humans.

The last verse of this reading is a first century Christian slant on how the prophets, well known to the Jewish people but not to the Gentiles, tried to bring people back to worshipping God, and having their sins forgiven as a result of the new righteousness. That message rings loud and clear for us today, too. If we, like sheep, have gone astray, but return to the flock then, just like any doting parent of a child who has wandered off, God will forgive our sins – forgive, not forget. God doesn’t keep a count of our sins, but might just remind us if we are about to stray down the same path again. Whether we are listening or not is another matter.