To whom or to what do we submit? As citizens of the United Kingdom we, quite rightly, submit to British law and, for the moment at least, to European law. It is sound Christian teaching that the Church should fit into all aspects of civil and criminal law within the country where it is based. But, what if that law contravenes God’s law? Should Christians speak out, risk imprisonment and then be rendered impotent? Or, should Christians be ‘wise as serpents’ and seek to influence things for good from within? What does the Bible speak into this? Well, of course, the Bible says many things but, in this week, the week following Easter week, the New Testament passage is highly informative. The ‘council’ (ruling authority of the day) ordered the Apostles to stop telling the people in Jerusalem about Jesus. The reply by the Apostles is simple and direct. Peter replied: “We must obey God rather than human authority.” Peter then goes on to spell out the facts, clearly and with respect to the high priest who is questioning him: “The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead after you killed him by crucifying him.” Extra-ordinary courage from Peter which incensed the high priest who wanted to kill them all. However, that was not what happened. Following the advice of a pharisee called Gamaliel, the Apostles were released. The reasoning of the Jewish council was if Christianity came to nothing, then it wasn’t worth getting angry about. If it flourished, then not even all the legal and spiritual leaders of Israel could do anything about it. Of all the weeks of the year, Easter time is when Christians in the UK can speak out, even at the risk of upsetting people, if not (yet) breaking the laws of the land.
What things are certain in our Christian lives? Perhaps different people would give slightly different answers, but for the first Christians, their faith was based on the certainty of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. In our ordered and highly planned world, we might think that the Gospels were written down in the order of which the events happened, starting with the nativity, then Jesus’ teaching and healing and then ending with the resurrection accounts. Of course, this is quite wrong. For the early Christians, the first stories to be told and written down were the resurrection narratives. This was what fuelled the church and from which all other previous stories about Jesus made sense. What is the significance of the resurrection? The answer, for the Christian, is everything! In the Epistle reading for this week, Paul puts it this way, “Without the resurrection your faith is in vain.” How does it work? God, in his sovereign wisdom has not chosen to disclose this to us. However, the Apostle Paul goes onto throw some light onto the situation. He writes, just as death came into the world through Adam, the first man, so the resurrection from death is through another man, Jesus. Jesus the perfect man has replaced the imperfect and fallen man, Adam. All who are only related to Adam will die but those who are now related to Jesus will rise to life just as Jesus did. Wonderful theology; simple, powerful and certain! Alleluia, praise God.
This week is Passion week and the Gospel reading assigned is the whole of the Passion narrative recorded in Luke’s Gospel. It is a very long reading spanning two chapters, but it is a wonderful opportunity to grasp something of the enormity of Jesus’ sacrifice and love for us. What strikes us about the whole narrative covering the last supper, the arrest, the trial, the crucifixion and the death of Jesus? The answer is more than words can tell here but, for me, two words stand out. Those two words are ‘humble obedience’. In an age when the church celebrates intellect, fluent oratory and leadership perhaps we neglect these two crucial (this word is derived from cross) qualities. Jesus had unlimited intelligence, great oratory skills and outstanding leadership qualities but He also had phenomenal humility and obedience to see him through his Passion. This Holy Week let us exercise these God-given gifts and see how our world responds. Let me leave you with the Epistle reading for this week: “Your attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God. He made himself nothing; he took the humble position of slave and appeared in human form. And in human form he obediently humbled himself even further by dying a criminal’s death on a cross”. AMEN.
The Bible passage assigned to this week, the week before Palm Sunday, is the story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. In a sense this passage looks skilfully backwards and forwards. Last week was the story of the prodigal (son). Mary is the female incarnation of the father in that story. She too is filled with extravagant love. The story of Mary also looks forward. In washing Jesus’ feet, Mary is acting as a precursor to Jesus washing his disciples’ feet at the last supper. Mary, in a sense understands the role of true discipleship. The story is also rich with Easter imagery. Jesus is about to be crucified and his body placed in a tomb. The stench of a dead body, like the events involving Lazarus, is contrasted with the sweet smell of perfume that Mary brings to Jesus. However, the main point of this whole passage is the contrast that it draws between Mary and Judas. Mary’s love is extravagant, sincere and selfless. Judas’ actions are stingy, deceitful and self-serving. Yes, there is always a case for good stewardship of resources, but this should not cause us to be mean. Despite the terrible poverty in the world, I still, on occasion, buy my children an ice-cream often when they have done nothing special to deserve it. God is like that with us. Mary was like that with Jesus on this occasion and Jesus recognised in her a true disciple and that is why he commends her.
What is it in our Christian lives that makes us happiest? The Bible reading this week is the parable of the prodigal (son). This is one of Jesus’ greatest parables because in it we see the heart of the Father. The Father delights in a repentant sinner. In the charity CAP, a bell was rung in the head office every time someone came to faith through the ministry of CAP. This must be like the response in heaven as God delights in someone coming to faith. Earlier on in the Biblical narrative, the shepherd goes looking for the one sheep who went astray from the ninety-nine. God is like that. He is passionate about welcoming people into the kingdom from all walks of life, backgrounds and circumstances. Back to the question at the start about what makes us happiest? If we love God, we need to re-discover his heart in ours. His greatest joy should be our greatest joy. How wonderful for everyone, one day, to come to know God as God. We should all strive to hasten that day by every possible means. Or, in the words of the classic hymn by Arthur Campbell Ainger, “nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.” That, surely, above all else, should make us happiest.