“And the fruit of the Spirit is… gentleness” (Gal 5:22f)

A state of humility

According to Martin Luther, “Gentleness loses nothing, risks little, and gains everything.” –

A common mistake is to equate gentleness with passivity and weakness. The truth is that true gentleness, however, is just the opposite. It requires decisive strength and self-control. Gentleness comes from a state of humility. Therefore, someone who lacks gentleness is often prideful and easily angered, or feels the need for revenge.

In order to be gentle, we can’t secretly see ourselves as better than another. Rather than asserting superiority, someone who is gentle wants to help others, even when they have done wrong.

An example of gentleness can be seen in John 8, when the Pharisees bring a woman who was caught in adultery to Jesus. The Pharisees told Jesus that the Law of Moses commanded them to stone such a woman, to which Jesus responds, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).

After everyone left, Jesus did not condemn the woman, and said to her, “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11).

God is gentle with us in much the same way. Even in our sin, He continues to love us. He does not keep record of our wrongs, but offers forgiveness if we come to Him.

God wants us to be gentle to others. Matthew 6:14-15 says, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

Gentle lives

It is important to acknowledge the ways in which God is gentle with us. He is the Creator of the universe, yet He is still gentle and loving toward us despite our sinful nature.

Through understanding this, we can begin to incorporate his gentleness into our own lives. Through prayer, we can ask God to give us a spirit of gentleness and take away any feelings of self-righteousness. We can ask Him to reveal ways we can show gentleness to others so that we may reflect His character.

Fruit develops, doesn’t it? It’s not a gift given, but an attitude developed.

A gentle heart comes from having love for others. It’s the basic modus operandi of the Spirit-filled life, revealing itself in how we think, and speak and interact. Sometimes it’s not the strength but gentleness that cracks the hardest shells in others.

So be gentle. “Pay attention. Use your words to offer purposeful healing. Stretch yourself out into the world. Notice everything. From every angle. The way your bones feel. The way you orient to space and time. Invite your whole being into this new way of living, into the totality and wholeness of it. Let it be strange and uncomfortable and painful and stiff. Let it be magical and novel and unfamiliar and entirely wonderful. Follow the whispers where they lead.”

Gentle speech

“A gentle answer turns away wrath.” Words are big. They define who you are. They are permanent. I don’t think most people realise that. What you say is who you are. So try to be gentle in every exchange, every social media post. Lift others up when you can, especially if you don’t agree with what they have to say.

Don’t allow your words to become weapons when you can just as easily make them doves. Gentleness is treating yourself, others, and even inanimate objects with respect.

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Holy God, holy people & holy place in Exodus

The book of Exodus presents three major aspects that might be described as “holy.” Think of the picture of the God of the burning bush in Exodus 3, and Sinai in Exodus 19; of the “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” in Exodus 19, and the tabernacle and the priesthood in the third section (chapters 25-40).

A holy God summons a people into a holy lifestyle, and to centre that lifestyle in a place of worship, sacrifice and prayer.

In its most basic sense, holiness represents the very nature of God as contrasted with his creation. Holiness delineates the fundamental difference between the natural and the supernatural. God is wholly other, he is completely separate in nature and power from his creation. We see this at the burning bush, on Sinai, in the clouds and fire and in the miracles of deliverance of provision and deliverance.

Not only is God completely separate from his creation, he is also something frightening, uncontrollable, and dangerous. Therefore, the Hebrew people told Moses to talk to God alone, for fear of their own destruction if they heard his voice (Deut. 5:24-25). It’s rather similar to the dread that Isaiah experienced, because “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty” (Isa. 6:5). 

However, holiness is not only an attribute of God but of people, places, and objects. In this second aspect, holiness signifies things that are consecrated, or set aside for God’s use and glory. Elaborate rituals and ceremonies existed in order to sanctify, “to make holy,” items such as land, people, and sacrifices that Israel consecrated for God’s use. 

In this sense, holiness is derivative—holiness had nothing to do with the quality or nature of the object, person, or day; it had everything to do with the people of God setting items apart for God. 

But there isn’t an evolutionary development from religious to cultic to ethical. The three categories are one experience of relational identity. And Exodus also calls Israel to relationships of obligation and righteous actions. 

God’s personal character transforms holiness into a new spiritual responsibility for humanity. This is the inner heart of the law in the middle section of Exodus. In Hosea, God’s holiness breaks out from purely religious terms and becomes a reflection of his love for Israel (2:14-23). In Isaiah, God reveals his holiness in his willingness to forgive the creatureliness of Isaiah (6:6-7). And in Exodus, as elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, God’s will is not merely for Israel to be “set apart” just because God is holy—God wants the Israelites’ hearts to be holy by being devoted to God and not just to cultic practices.

In Luke 24, the risen Christ met with some weary travellers who were filled with doubt and confusion about the events of Easter. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

The “explanation” of Christ begins with Moses!

Paul makes the same link in 1 Cor 10: “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud, and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.

This is the continuing story – and journey- of the People of God. Jesus described himself with the phrase, “I am the way.” The Greek word is hodos. We see it in the title here: “Exodus” Ex hodos. The way out. And then, of course, the early Christians called themselves “followers of the way.” (Acts 9:2; 19:9,23; 24:14,22). There’s a fair degree of probability that this usage stemmed from Jesus himself, from John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth and the life.“ 

But hodos is a powerful noun. The designation “follower of the way” suggests much more than “follower of Jesus Christ.” It suggests journeying, or pilgrimage rather than destination. It suggests mobility rather than stasis. It suggests development rather than stagnation. It suggests fluidity rather than stoppage. This is a major principle that we read in Exodus.

And at the same time, of course, “the way” is Christ. He himself is that journey, that fluidly mobile development. The word hodos appears some ninety-eight times in the New Testament and is translated literally as “a way, a travelled way, a traveller’s way, journey, travelling”; and metaphorically as “a way of thinking, feeling or deciding.” Think of how we might use the term in English – it’s about the same in phrases such as “The way home” or “The way I feel about you.” 

And now think about Jesus calling us into that journey, (that decision, that way of thinking) and identifying himself with it. 

But what journey? The Exodus answer is the journey from slavery into promise, through law and worship. The most obvious answer to a Jesus-follower is the journey of the cross. When he called a would-be follower to take up his cross and follow, it was a summons to a particular kind of journey – a death march. 

For Christians, the way of Jesus’ life is the map of Everyman and Everywoman: divine conception -created in God’s image- ordinary life, betrayal, abandonment, rejection, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. In the end, it all comes full circle, and we return where we started, but now transformed. Jung saw this basic pattern repeated in every human life, and he called it the Christ Archetype, “an almost perfect map” of the whole journey of human transformation. 

And so the Exodus journey and the Jesus-journey express the same reality of liberation and identity.

Perhaps Jesus constantly called himself “The Human One” just to make this point. Ephesians recognizes this when it speaks of Jesus as the One Single New Humanity (Eph 2:15, 4:13), and Paul calls the Christ the “New Adam” or “Adam II” (1 Cor 15:22, 45-49). As Walter Wink demonstrated, we did history a disservice by usually translating Jesus’ self-appellation as “Son of Man,” which lost the corporate or inclusive message. And who did not get included? Us, history, humanity as a whole. We ended up with an anaemic and individualistic message about how “I” could go to heaven, which is well-disguised narcissism. We missed the social, cosmic, and revolutionary message of God’s infinite love and mercy. We missed the journey, the developing discovery of God-reality. 

Jesus ended up being an exclusive Saviour for us to worship instead of an inclusive Saviour with whom we are joined at the hip. This created a disconnect and disinterest for both the heart and the soul. No wonder so many find the Christian message so utterly uncompelling—it became a quick fix about later rewards for a very, very few and eternal punishment for the overwhelming many in all of  human history. Surely it did not foster any love or trust of God, in fact, quite the opposite. 

But to walk the way of Christ means that all the suffering of creation, and your own too, now has significance (Romans 8:18-34). The way of your little life is now part of the Way of Christ, and even better, it includes the seemingly “unworthy” parts (1 Corinthians 12:22). What a message! Nothing else can do that. When you see it correctly, the Way gives you a sense of belonging, meaning, and most especially, personal participation in it. The Way of Christ is the way of humanity’s true calling. 

We are finding it is almost impossible to heal isolated individuals inside of an unhealthy and unhealed culture and inside of a Christianity that is largely about exclusion and superiority. The individual remains inside of an incoherent and unsafe universe and soon falls back into anger, fear, and narcissism.

But to see the way, and to journey “in Christ….” That’s the pattern of inclusive humanity. That’s the Exodus journey. That’s our calling.

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What does it mean to be “a kingdom of priests”? (Exodus 19:6)

The back-story

And here they are: the liberated slaves, finally, coming “into the wilderness of Sinai” (v 1). This was long-planned: “When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain” (3:12). Moses had held up his end of the deal (more or less) and now speaks with God about “What next?” It’s a key moment in the text of Exodus, for it speaks to Israel’s identity and purpose. It’s almost an origin statement.

First, Moses is to remind them of what God has done for them so far: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (v 4). That is to say: this is all down to God. They stand now at Sinai completely indebted to the mercy of God and his rescue-plan.

Second, this debt is to be ratified as covenant. Verse 5 speaks of a covenant, with covenant terms to be obeyed. Israel—if they keep God’s covenant—will be God’s “treasured possession.” Among all the nations of the world, they will be particularly precious to God, a special nation with a special role. They will be “a priestly kingdom [literally, “a kingdom of priests”] and a holy nation” (v 6). Moses brings this message to the people, and the people accept this calling and agree to enter this covenant: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do” (v 8).

Israel, then, becomes a covenant community. This leads on to chapters 20–23 where we find the “Ten Commandments” and the more detailed teaching that follows, much of which unpacks the Ten Commandments. This leads, in turn, to the ceremony in chapter 24 in which sacrifices are offered and the people formally enter into the covenant with God. This leads to the instructions for the building of the Tent of Meeting in chapters 25–30.

In Exodus 40, the last chapter of the book, the glory of God fills the Tent of Meeting. God, as it were, “takes up residence” among the Israelites, symbolising that he is their God and they are his people. Whereas Exodus began with the Israelites enslaved to the Egyptians and seemingly forgotten by their God, it ends with Israel identified as a distinct people—a holy nation—with God in their midst, on the way to the land which God promised their ancestors.

Clearly, Israel’s arrival at Sinai in chapter 19 to meet with God is a key moment in this unfolding narrative.

The significant point

But what is going on in chapter 19? To answer that question we must go back to God’s promise to Abram, first given in Genesis 12:1–3 and restated at a number of points in later chapters of Genesis. Everything that happens in the OT after Genesis 12 flows from this promise that God gave to Abram. In these verses God promises Abram three things: descendants (at the time Abram was childless); a land in which his descendants will live; and that he will bless Abram and his descendants. But there is a fourth promise. God tells Abram that he will do these things for Abram and his descendants, not so that Abram’s descendants should keep all the blessing for themselves, but so that ultimately all the nations should be blessed.

We begin to see the promise to Abram fulfilled in Genesis. In Exodus, the promise moves on a stage. When God meets with the Israelites at Sinai, they are already on the way to the land that God promised their forefathers. And at Sinai the fourth part of the promise—the larger aim of blessing for the nations—comes more clearly into view as Israel is called to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6).

The words “holy nation” are quite easy to interpret: Israel is to be a special nation, a nation identified as God’s people, distinct from the other nations of the world, reflecting God’s holy character, owing their allegiance to God.

The words “kingdom of priests” tell us that the entire nation of Israel—not simply the Aaronic priests and the Levites—is to carry out a priestly role in relation to the other nations of the world. Israel’s priests, as later texts make clear, were supposed to teach the people in God’s name: “you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them through Moses” (Lev 10:11). Israel’s priests were therefore to represent God to the Israelites. This was symbolised by the fact that their priestly robes were made of the same materials as the curtains of the tabernacle, God’s holy dwelling place (see Exodus 26 and 28). So when God called Israel as a whole to be a “kingdom of priests,” he was calling them to teach the nations his ways, to act as his representatives before the nations.

How would they do this? By living according to God’s teaching. This is what we find in Exodus 19:5–6: “If you obey my voice… you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” These words are taken up with a similar sense in the NT, when the Apostle Peter tells his readers—Christians living in Asia Minor—“you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Pet 2:9). Note how Peter speaks of Christians “proclaiming the mighty acts of God.” Just as God—speaking through Moses—called the Israelites to teach the nations his ways, so Peter speaks of Christians testifying to God’s power. This is the call given to Israel in Exodus 19. The detailed teaching that follows in chapters 20–23 fills out what it will mean for Israel to obey God’s voice and respond to God’s call.

A basic primer (Exodus 20–23)

Just to be clear, nothing here points in any way to what might be considered “salvation by works.” When Israel came to Sinai, they came as a people whom God had already saved (i.e., delivered from slavery in Egypt). The teaching in Exodus 20–23 was not given as a means of salvation, but so that Israel would know how God was calling them to live precisely as his saved people. It was given so that Israel would bear a good witness before the surrounding nations and thus fulfil its priestly calling in relation to the nations.

We see this in the Ten Commandments. The commandments cover two main topics: loyalty to God (worshipping God alone, having no idols, respecting God’s name); and treating one’s fellow Israelites rightly (no murder, no adultery, no theft, no false witness, no coveting of what belongs to one’s neighbour). Clearly, the two topics belong together. The same mixture is found in the more detailed teaching which begins around Exodus 20:22 and continues to the end of Exodus 23. These chapters cover a striking variety of topics: right worship; the rights of Hebrew slaves; violence, lethal and non-lethal; property and restitution; treatment of foreigners; treatment of debtors; the proper conduct of lawsuits; Sabbath keeping.

What are the main concerns of this teaching when you dig beneath the details? On the one hand, this teaching promoted commitment to God. We see this expressed at the end of chapter 20 in the instructions about the altars which the Israelites are to build to worship God, and in chapter 23 in the instructions about the three annual festivals which the Israelites are to hold, by way of remembering God’s goodness to them. On the other hand, it taught a commitment to maintaining the unity of God’s people, and to maintaining the Israelite nation as a genuine community. In their relations with each other Israelites were called to display qualities such as honesty, fairness, generosity, and commitment. These are some of the “core values” of Exodus 20–23.

In fact, you could sum up much of Exodus 20–23 in the word “community”. God wants his people to live in true community. That is why these chapters attempt to address threats to community and set out ways of dealing with these threats. You get a sense in these chapters that violence and injustice have the potential to rip Israelite society apart. Consequently, violence and injustice must be restrained and, where they occur, appropriately dealt with.

The world reflected in Exodus 20–23 is not a perfect world, and the Israelites are far from perfect human beings. In the world of Exodus 20–23 people fight, fall into debt, mistreat each other, use excessive violence, steal, and tell lies. Property goes missing, accidents happen, fires get out of control, oxen gore human beings and other animals, donkeys wander off and fall into pits. These chapters are realistic: they start where the people are. They do not begin by setting out an ideal picture of a just society and urging the Israelites to live up to it. Rather, they sketch the situation in Israel as it is likely to be and urge the Israelites to learn how to render justice to each other in that situation.

Interestingly, Exodus 20–23 assumes that Israelites will sin against each other, hence reparations of various sorts will be necessary. For instance, Exodus 21:12–26 addresses a variety of offences—manslaughter and murder, kidnap, grievous bodily harm, mistreatment of slaves, personal injuries—and sets out what is to be done in such cases. Sometimes compromises are necessary. It may be, for example, that the parties in a dispute disagree on the facts of the case. If so, one party has to swear an oath before God, and the other party has to accept that as the end of the matter (Exod 22:10–11). It’s not a perfect solution, but it brings closure.

These chapters are also strikingly egalitarian, particularly when read in their ancient Near Eastern context. Yes, there is a distinction between the status of slaves and maids and that of free citizens in these chapters. But, that aside, all Israelites are supposed to have equal standing before the law, regardless of social standing and wealth. In this respect Exodus 20–23 differs from other ancient Near Eastern law codes—for example, the laws of Hammurabi—which distinguished between the rights due to an upper-class person and the lesser rights due to a “commoner”. These chapters, in fact, demonstrate a particular concern for the vulnerable: for slaves, women, foreigners, and those who fall into debt.

We may not be particularly impressed with what these chapters teach in regard to these groups of people. We read, for example, that a man can sell his daughter into slavery, and the man to whom she is sold can even give her to his son as a wife (21:7–11). The only rights the woman enjoys in that situation are: (1) she cannot be sold on “to a foreign people”; (2) she is allowed to go free if she is not given proper food and clothing, without repaying the money that was given for her. This is not perfect justice, but it does ensure some justice for the woman—a fairly minimal justice, we may think, but better than what might otherwise have happened.

It is interesting to compare the detailed teaching of chapters 20–23 with the ideal set out in God’s call to Israel to be “a kingdom of priests and holy nation.” God was well aware what kind of people he was dealing with; he knew that the Israelites were a bunch of rather sinful priests. These chapters are perfectly realistic about the difficulties which redeemed—but still flawed—humans will face when they try to live together. But the aim of this teaching is that Israel should be a wholesome community whose members will treat each other fairly and with compassion.

That, in brief, is the teaching of Exodus 20–23. What were Israelites supposed to do with this teaching? I believe that they were meant, as we say, to run with it: not to regard it as setting the limits of their obligations towards God and fellow-Israelites, but to reflect on other areas of their lives to which the teaching might apply. And the teaching was not meant to be followed unthinkingly. On the contrary, it is clear from Exodus 20–23 itself that the Israelites were supposed to reflect on why it was right for them to follow this teaching. More than once these chapters address the issue of motive: we read that Israelites should respect the rights of resident aliens because they themselves were once aliens in the land of Egypt; or that creditors should treat debtors with compassion because God is compassionate.

In these and other ways, then, justice was to be administered in Israel, with the aim of maintaining Israel as a community, so that Israel might fulfil its calling of being “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” This would be good for the Israelites themselves, and it would bring God glory before the nations.

All these points I have made about Exodus 20–23 apply to the Book of Deuteronomy which takes up much of the teaching of Exodus 20–23. In particular, one passage in Deuteronomy 4 takes up from Exodus 19 the idea of Israel as a “priestly kingdom and holy nation” and asks: why should Israel follow the teaching given through Moses? Moses answers: you should do this because: this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!”  For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today? (Deut 4:6–8)

When Israel follows the teaching, the nations will look at Israel and they will be impressed at what they see—saying, “this great nation is a wise and discerning people”—and they will draw the conclusion that Israel’s God is a great and wise God. This highlights what we have seen, that one of the roles of Israel’s priests was to represent God to Israel; when Israel as a whole follows the teaching they will display God’s glory to the nations. They will be, precisely, a kingdom of priests, bearing witness to the nations regarding the character of their God. These texts in Exodus and Deuteronomy, then, set out Israel’s calling.

What is God saying to us?

Christians have been given the same task as Israel. Like Israel, we are called to be a “kingdom of priests,” to testify by our lives and (as we have opportunity) by our words to the power and love of the God who has saved us. This means that we should take seriously the ethical teaching of the Bible. The law was God’s gift to Israel. The Israelites did not have to work out for themselves how they should live; instead God gave them the law, teaching that set out both general principles (e.g., Exod 20:1–17) and detailed applications of those principles (Exod 21–23; Deut 12–26).

God’s aim was that Israel should know the blessing of living in true community, and that other nations would look at Israel, be attracted by what they saw, and be drawn to worship Israel’s God. The fact that Israel often failed in this (as most of the books which follow in the OT tell us) does not mean that this was fundamentally a bad idea. So too for us Christians. Ethics, doing good, living honourably, and upholding justice are not optional extras; they are part of our calling as Christ’s disciples. We should be concerned to honour God with all of our lives.

It is striking how the law in the OT covers all of life. It contains teaching relating both to religious practice (e.g., worship) and to everyday life (e.g., marriage, parenting, politics, justice, employment relations, even the environment). This tells us that commitment to God is something that should be reflected in every part of our lives, and not merely in that part which we choose to call “religious”. There should be no splits in our life: our faithfulness to God should be consistent, seven days of the week. Christ’s lordship takes in all of our life. What we do on “the other six days” matters just as much to God as what we do on Sundays.

Think of those “core values” of Exodus 20–23 listed above: honesty, fairness, generosity, and commitment. Should not our churches be known for these things? And if the outside world cannot see these things in Christians and in our congregations, why should they believe our gospel? The call to be a “royal priesthood and a holy nation” brings with it a great privilege. There is a great blessing which comes with this call—we Christians are God’s special people, the human agents of his purposes in the world. But with the call there also comes great responsibility—to take care that we bring glory to God by the way we live as well as by the gospel we proclaim.

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John’s roll of witnesses (John 20)

Pic by Ed de Guzman 2013

John’s Gospel provides the most extensive Resurrection theology in the Bible. The 20th chapter has four separate narratives and a brief conclusion. Each narrative has a perspective on the one event.

First, Seeing, Believing, Understanding – or not

The first ten verses provide a narrative frame familiar in the other gospels. A pre-dawn visit by the faithful Mary Magdalene which leads to Peter and John’s visit. Peter and John go in the open tomb. John, it says, ” saw and believed” which sounds positive but then the writer adds, “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.”

Then – in an indecisive bathos- “The disciples went back to where they were staying.” This sounds a little like the oldest ending of Mark, that “They went out and said nothing because they were afraid.”

Second, Weeping, Hearing, Believing (vv 11-18)

Meanwhile, “Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.”

The angels ask ‘Woman, why are you crying?’ and the question is repeated by an unrecognised figure she takes to be the gardener. When he says her name, she at last recognises Jesus.

Jesus’s answer is mysterious: “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’

Her subsequent message to the disciples is emphatic: ‘I have seen the Lord!’ Which word carries the emphasis in this sentence?

Third, Peace and Forgiveness

Jesus appears to his disciples “when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders” Their joy is mixed with fear for Jesus commands peace and then commissions them as apostles (“sent” ones) who carry a specific message of forgiveness: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’”

Fourth, Doubt, Belief and Declaration

The last narrative is based upon the experience of Thomas who doubted the news of the resurrection. Jesus reappears and provides the evidence that he demanded. He is gently rebuked: “Stop doubting and believe.‘ and this evokes the strongest declaration of the identity of Jesus in the Bible: “ Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’

And then comes the conclusion of these witness accounts. It begins with a word to Thomas which is also a word to the reader: “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’”

And then a general word; “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” This final passage reminds us that these are selected witness accounts intended to prove the point of Jesus’s identity. It reminds us that the genre of “Gospel” is best understood as an evangelistic tract.

So what might John be showing us through this selection of witnesses?

First -and the Gospel writers show no ambiguity about this point- women were the first witnesses of the resurrection. At that time, the testimony of a woman would not be eligible to be counted trustworthy in a court of law. The standpoint of the first Christians, however, was expressed in the principle of Gal 3:28, that “In Christ, there is neither male nor female…”

It is also instructive this particular woman had a checkered reputation and yet that also did not discredit her testimony.

Second, with the other Gospel writers, John indicates the fear and confusion that inhibited the male disciples. Matthew noted that “some worshipped and some doubted.”

Third, John’s story of Thomas is a powerful account of a sceptic who nevertheless comes to believe. Perhaps some people believe too easily. John himself “saw and believed…” Perhaps there is a greater level of credibility in someone who takes time to come to faith. And perhaps it is is this kind of person who finally arrives at a deeper and fuller understanding of Jesus’s identity.

Fourth, some scholars see the commissioning narrative as John’s version of Pentecost. There are one or two similarities, but an easy harmonization neglects John’s points. And they are, simply, to make an integral connection between resurrection and commissioning, receiving the Spirit and forgiving sins.

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The scandalous claim of the resurrection (1 Cor 15)

” Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.” (1 Cor 15:1-11)

The church had to be reminded about something at its very heart. It was the scandalous claim that the God of Israel raised Jesus — a first century Jew — from the dead.

Think of the context. Those ancient cities like Corinth had their own gods, with huge temples, limitless resources and countless devotees. Religion was at the heart of everyday life. How did this astonishing claim of the bodily resurrection of a Jewish peasant from a backwater region of the Empire gain credence, let alone dominance?

Paul began -perhaps- with his own story. For he claimed to have seen Christ for himself. And it is hard to account for his radical life change otherwise.

But then, as now, some couldn’t quite get it. Why emphasise the resurrection? Why not simply share the wonderful teaching of Jesus? But according to Paul, there is no good news unless God has raised Jesus from the dead. If God has not raised Jesus, if God has not claimed victory over death, then the gospel is bogus -a total sham.

So in this chapter, Paul addresses their concern in extraordinary detail. As he reminds the church about the significance of resurrection, we begin to see how crucial it is for us to hear this news too.

First, the backstory.

We hear again the main points of the gospel, and their validation by Scripture. And then Paul moves on to mention some post resurrection appearances — a point that is less surprising since he is going to reiterate that the resurrection did in fact occur. 

Why quote the Old Testament? It’s worth noting that although there may have been a few Jewish believers at Corinth (such as Crispus), the comngregation was predominantly Gentile. The point is that there was no guarantee that the non-Jews would know scripture well or even consider it authoritative. Paul is underlining that point. And he does so to remind them that this is not a new thing, a faddish flash in the pan. This is validated by it longevity. The God of resurrection has been around a long time. (1 Corinthians 1:9; 10:13).

The resurrection appearances also lend credibility to the story. Cephas and the twelve would be considered authoritative. It seems that the church has at least heard of Cephas, given Paul’s recounting of possible divisions in the beginning of the letter (1:12). If twelve apostles are not enough, Paul cites a resurrection appearance to more than five hundred people — some of whom were still alive at the time of his writing. Then he cites James and all the apostles. Clearly, he is using the designation of “apostle” as inclusive of more than the twelve, since he himself is among them.

Paul does not deserve to be among them — at least he does not think so. The language that he uses to describe himself gets lost in translation. Our English translations often say something to the effect of an untimely birth: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (verse 8). This makes it sound like he was just born at the wrong time — as though he was born too late to be among the twelve. But this is a misinterpretation.

The word that Paul uses to describe himself is a premature birth — a birth that usually results in death. It is the epitome of weakness. In a world where only fifty percent of full-term births reached the age of ten, the premature baby had little to no chance of survival. This is the same term used to describe a stillbirth. 

So notice the point here:

The story of Jesus is not the only resurrection in this passage.

Paul so firmly believes the resurrection because he was as good as dead when Christ appeared to him. He was killing the church of God. He was doing everything in his power to end the Jesus movement. He was a murderer and a persecutor and completely unworthy of God’s grace. And God chose him anyway.

Paul brings this up time and again – “I persecuted the church” (see Philippians 3:4-6; Galatians 1:13, 23; see also 1 Timothy 1:13). He shakes his head at God’s grace and returns his gratitude in the shape of hard work. He was the least likely candidate for God to choose. So if God can do something good through Paul the murderer, surely that God has the power to work wonders in the lives of others. The fact that the Corinthians have believed the scandal of the resurrection demonstrates that they too have been touched by God’s grace.

Seeing the resurrected Christ changed the trajectory of Paul’s life. Without the revelation of Christ, there is no good news.

When God reveals God’s self, our parochial backwater is transformed. We have moved to the big city now, and we cannot un-see God in our midst. Like Paul, we are unworthy of this life-changing revelation. And everything changes, in the way we live.

As we remind the church about the resurrection, that change is where we are heading.

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Walking together in a new world

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Do you remember the total strangeness of a first day? First day at school, or college. First day at a new job. First day after the first baby has arrived. Everything is odd and takes some getting used to. Everything is indefinably different.

When Luke tells the story of the first day after Jesus rose from the dead (in Chapter 24), he does so with a kind of masterly simplicity and down-to-earth detail. But you identify the strangeness straight away.

He tells of a couple of guys walking home from Jerusalem. A seven-mile country walk back to their village. They are sad for all that has happened. They had hoped for great deeds from Jesus and instead they had witnessed a kangaroo court and a squalid execution. They were desperately sad. Someone walks along side and joins the conversation. Why are you so sad? What are you talking about?

Why don’t they recognise Jesus? Are their eyes full of tears? Are they just staring at the ground?

Jesus comes as an unknown traveller. He shares their conversation without revealing himself. Instead, he begins to reveal the Hebrew Bible to them. His thesis is: Didn’t you know that the messiah had to suffer? And he tracks through the Bible -our Old Testament- pointing to what it speaks about Christ.

I tried this out at church once: “How would you speak about Jesus just using the Old Testament?” They were brilliant -obviously motivated by the large bag of chocolate eggs by my side. Jesus the lamb, the Passover Lamb, the Exodus, priest, the High Priest, the “one like Moses”, “His name shall be called wonderful…”, he “bore our sin”,  “I know my redeemer lives,” the son of David… We settled down to the familiar three-fold division, that Jesus is PROPHET, PRIEST and KING.

But not only so:

He is the Prophet who speaks the Word of God,  but he is also the Word itself.

He is the King but also the kingdom.

He is the priest, but also the sacrifice.

So perhaps Jesus spoke of some of these things. He didn’t reveal himself just then, but he revealed the Scriptures instead and allowed the words to explain things. Later, when the traveller and the walkers shared a meal, he broke bread and offered it to them and then they recognised Jesus. He “was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

How do you respond  to Easter Sunday, to the first day in a new world? Luke realises that the concept of resurrection is very very strange. It seems much more reasonable to keep your head down, burdened by the many sorrows of life, and to fail to recognise the one who walks along side. Luke was writing to a new generation, I think, a generation who wouldn’t have seen Jesus in the flesh, so he offers them three ways of receiving resurrection truth.

The first is to recognise Jesus through the words of the Bible: let the word of God speak to you and challenge you. God is known through his word.

The second, according to this passage, is to recognise Jesus when you take the sacrament of bread and wine. Perhaps for those first guys something jogged their memory and opened their eyes. Perhaps it was a very familiar gesture. But for us, something truly astonishing happens when in humility you take bread and wine and focus upon Jesus: on his death and resurrection.

The third “proof” of the resurrection comes right at the end of Luke’s Gospel and links in to the book of Acts. It is the coming and abiding of the Holy Spirit.

God in us. The Apostle John spoke in great detail (John 15-17) of the power and impact of the Holy Spirit. Ultimately it is God’s Spirit in my spirit, teaching me of Christ and empowering me to live in Christ’s way. Nothing less than that.

And that is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a whole new world.

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Easter rewrites the definition of courage

There was a moment in Churchill’s funeral that he planned himself. A single trumpeter stood at the west end of St. Paul’s Cathedral and sounded “Taps,” the song that signals dusk and the close of another day and is frequently played at the end of a military funeral. But after a moment of stillness that followed the last plaintive note of that song, another trumpeter stood at the east end of St. Paul’s, the end that faced the rising sun, and played “Reveille,” the song of the morning and the call to a new day.

Churchill perceived, you see, that Christ’s resurrection signals above and beyond all else that our God is a God of new life and never-ending possibility. The good news of Christ’s resurrection does not take away our fear — though sometimes we wish desperately that it would — but it does offer us courage and hope by anchoring us in the sure promise that God will have the last word, and that that word is one of light and life and grace and mercy and love and peace.

Matthew’s account of the resurrection carries both elements, in a way that is convincingly realistic. First we have the clarion certainty of the Messengers: “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised.” But, second, we have that earthquake, and angelic intervention so shocking that the guards drop in terror. No wonder that the women are scared. No wonder that they need that encouraging word not to let their fear rob them of joy.

And then, after the words of courage, comes the call: “Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”

And they do. They come and see and then they run and tell. And Matthew describes that obedience as a mixture of “fear and joy.

Isn’t that also our reality? Don’t we also live lives tinged by both fear and joy? Fear of what may happen to our children in a scary world, and joy at all the possibilities too. Fear about money, provision, health… Joy in a million moments of light and pleasure all around, like half-heard music.

It’s important to see that the announcement of resurrection doesn’t take away all their fear. Rather, it enables them to keep faith amid their fears, to do their duty and share their good news in spite of their anxiety. Easter rewrites the very definition of courage. Some may argue that coming to faith in Christ should smooth all the rough places of life and still the tremors of this world, but Matthew’s Resurrection story gives us the ability to keep our feet amid the tremors and enables us not just to persevere but even to flourish when life is difficult.

“Do not be afraid.” This charge — repeated by Jesus when he encounters the women — gives us insight into the very nature of our lives in this world. For there is, indeed, much to fear in our mortal lives. And yet the resurrection of Christ creates the possibility for joy and hope and courage and so much more. Why? Because it changes everything. In the resurrection, you see, we have God’s promise that life is stronger than death, that love is greater than hate, that mercy overcomes judgment, and that all the sufferings and difficulties of this life are transient — real and palpable and sometimes painful, for sure, but they do not have the last word and do not represent the final reality.

It’s the song of the morning. It’s the call to a new day.

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Easter: The worst has happened… the best can begin

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Of course, every sunrise is special. This is Kathy Wright’s amazing study of flooded fields. It jogged a memory.

One memorable Easter Saturday long ago, I stayed up through the night. When the night was at its darkest I went for a walk, a long walk, and ended up greeting the dawn several miles away, sitting on top of a children’s climbing frame  in a municipal park. Pink sunrise on a pond.

The fact that I remember this so vividly testifies to the power of its impression. It was not just a new day dawning (and that is always wonderful enough), but it was The Day, the day of resurrection, of Jesus stirring out of death, shaking off the grave clothes and becoming totally new. Did He yawn and stretch, and smile?

Shannon L. Alder wrote that “All great beginnings start in the dark, when the moon greets you to a new day at midnight.”

That is to say, at the very point of deepest darkness, there is the possibility of a brand new beginning. John described Jesus (in John 1) as “light shining in the darkness” and the other Gospel writers spoke of Him offering a new start to those who came to Him.

God doesn’t invite you to turn over to a new page, nor even start a new chapter. As Anthony Liccione put it, “Rather than turning the page, it’s much easier to just throw the book away.”

The Bible describes it as “new birth,” a phrase sometimes blunted by familiarity. But the same powerful metaphor prevails, of a journey into the unknown, of darkness into light, from the familiar to the unexpected.

And this is the picture that Paul paints of someone who turns to Christ. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, he writes:

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

Some may be overwhelmed by the sheer scariness of what’s being proposed here. A whole new life? Doesn’t that mean giving up who I am, my comfortable old self?

Yes. And no.

C.S.Lewis explained it brilliantly: “The more we let God take us over, the more truly ourselves we become – because He made us. He invented us. He invented all the different people that you and I were intended to be. . .It is when I turn to Christ, when I give up myself to His personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.”

Do you remember that moment in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy steps out from the wreckage of her farmhouse, looks earnestly at her little dog and says, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Life awaits you. Step out. Step in.

It’s the dawn of the living. It started on Easter morning.

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: “The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.”’ Then they remembered his words.”

The narrative starts with simple devotion, with spices lovingly prepared and offered to honour a beloved Master, horribly tortured and killed before their eyes. It’s dawn -a symbolic moment for the beginning of something brand new. They find the stone rolled away, but do not find the body, but their puzzlement is quickly overwhelmed with wonder at an angelic encounter. Just as his birth is announced with angels, so is his resurrection, and the end of the gospel parallels its beginning.

The angels offer something of a mild rebuke: ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?” This is the key point. The resurrection should not have been a total surprise because Jesus had repeatedly taught them about it. And “Then they remembered his words.”

There’s a subtle shift in Luke’s text from “He” to “They.” “He” is still central, of course -uniquely pivotal- but now Christ forms the starting point for the actions of others, like the hub of a bicycle wheel from which every spoke is connected, and is held in place.

And “They” in the first eight verses is constituted by a group of faithful women, who form the first witnesses of the resurrection. That’s a significant point for the new Community. “In Him there is neither … male nor female.” (Gal 3:28)

This final chapter of Luke’s gospel forms a transition -a bridge-from the story of Jesus to the story of Jesus’ People in the book of Acts, and the worldwide spread of the good news in the power of the Holy Spirit. But, in order to make the bridge secure, both bases have to be firmly anchored. It is Luke’s task in this chapter to provide both review and preview events,  unifying the story rather than permitting it to disintegrate into two stories. The review is right here: “Then they remembered his words.” The words of Jesus are the explanation for the cross and empty tomb

The angels’ words stressed the fact that Jesus was alive. It was inappropriate to look for a living person in a tomb (cf Acts 2:24). They then recalled Jesus’ prophecy that he would rise after three days. But even at the time they hadn’t really absorbed the idea.

The women now remembered the predictions they had heard but had not understood. The Resurrection had begun to clarify many things that Jesus had previously taught His disciples. The women then returned to the Eleven and the other disciples with their news. The angels had been witnesses of the Resurrection to the women, and now the women were witnesses of it to the rest of the disciples. They in turn would be witnesses of it to the ends of the earth ( Acts 1:8).

And Christian mission here starts right here.

It was as if God were saying: The worst has happened, and now the best can begin.

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A day without resurrection

Easter Saturday is the day that stands between that death on the cross and the empty tomb of the risen Christ.

It is all too easy for us to skip over  the meaning of this day. Perhaps it is because we don’t want to accept the reality of death, much less this particular awful death. We can  celebrate Good Friday for what “Christ did for us” on the cross, but even while we do this we tend to ignore the utter Godlessness of the suffering of Jesus.

Godless, yes. This is the day when evil is seen to triumph, when every follower of Jesus was filled with doubt and confusion and crippled with grief.

In his remarkable little book, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday, Alan Lewis notes that the this day “appears to be a no-man’s-land, an anonymous, counterfeit moment in the gospel story, which can boast no identity for itself, claim no meaning, and reflect only what light it can borrow from its predecessor and its sequel”. However, Lewis suggests that this Saturday could be a “significant zero, a pregnant emptiness, a silent nothing which says everything”.

Someone called it the “sharp intake of breath before the plunge…”

But this day. This day stands for the hopelessness of a world without resurrection.

And it’s where most of the world lives. Most people see death as the end, and any suggestion to the contrary is met with sneers or a shake of the head. They might understand Good Friday as a picture of what human evil looks like. They might even think of Jesus as a noble teacher cornered by the elite (rather like Socrates). Maybe even a great example of moral courage… but not anything more.

Even within the community of Jesus, some concentrate on the Good Friday aspect of life… And to be sure, there’s a hell of a lot of suffering. In this world, as Jesus said, you DO have trouble. 

Some, perhaps, would tear Good Friday from the Bible and just see Easter Sunday…. We could espouse a hyper-optimism that simply refuses the fact of suffering, pain.

But today, at least, we live between two worlds… between suffering and glory, between death and life.

I guess that Easter Saturday reminds us that it is both/and rather than either/or.

That the glory of Christ can be seen in the suffering, that the meaning of life can be understood in death, that the cross is the action of both both humanity and God

God and man at cross purposes

The love of God meets the hate of humanity

The worst that humanity can do

The best that God can offer

The wrath of God against sin meets the high point of humanity in Jesus

The implacable fury of God against the damage sin does

The shining beauty of a life lived the way God intended in the human Christ Jesus…

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The Gamble: John’s Revelation of the Christ of the Cross

When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.

2“Let’s not tear it,” they said to one another. “Let’s decide by lot who will get it.”

This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled that said,

“They divided my clothes among them
    and cast lots for my garment.”

So this is what the soldiers did.” (John 19: 23-24)

There was more gambling going on at the cross than just the gamble for Jesus’ robe. Some gambled that their understanding was correct enough to put another man to death despite all that he had done.

Some gambled that Jesus was just another Jewish criminal being executed.

Others gambled that their mockery was justified and had a worthy target.

We also take a gamble. We decide what we think of Jesus, and act accordingly with our lives. No one should look at the cross and then reject it without realising the gamble being made. It’s the Biblical and spiritual reality behind Pascal’s Wager.

This concept is developed in five places: the garden across the Kidron valley (18:1-11); the house of Annas, the father-in-law of the high priest (18:12-27); the Roman praetorium (18:28-19:16); Golgotha, the Place of the Skull (19:16-37); and the garden of Jesus’ burial (19:38-42). As Jesus moves to each new location, the narrator describes the place as well as the characters and activity that will be involved there. It’s a five-act play: The Gamble.

Let’s just take John 19:23-30, which is made up of three cameo shots. First, Jesus is crucified at Golgotha and Pilate’s final, ironic, proclamation of Jesus as King in the inscription on the sign over his head (v 22). And then, this second brief scene of scripture fulfilment follows as the soldiers unwittingly take part in God’s plan by not dividing Jesus’ tunic.

In a moment of profound dramatic irony, the third scene shows Jesus’ last breaths on the cross establishing the church – the body of Christ- as symbolised by a garment that cannot be torn apart. Jesus is not alone with his enemies, but is surrounded by some of his own, including his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary Magdalene, and the disciple he loved. Jesus’ mother and the Beloved Disciple come together “because of that hour” (v 27). These too, are taking the gamble on who Christ is.

Thus, standing at the centre of this moment, the first to believe (Jesus’ mother at the wedding in Cana; John 2:1-12) and the beloved disciple are given to each other by Jesus to establish a new community in faith and love. Even on the cross, Jesus’ primary concern is for his own as he forms a family to nurture the children of God.

The earthly life and ministry of Jesus the Son of Man ends in the fourth scene when he declares, “it is finished” — the conclusive affirmation that all has been done, and done well. The fulfilment language of the passion narrative reaches its peak here. Only after the acknowledgment of his glorification and completion of his mission, can he go. Jesus bowed his head and “handed over the spirit” (v 30).

In John’s Gospel, God exalts Jesus through his crucifixion. Remember, John teaches that God so loved the world that he handed over his only Son (3:16). This handing over, in all its irony of apparent scandal, is an incredible act of love.

Remember the words ofJesus the Son who was given to the world and who loves his own to the end (13:1)? The glory of God and God’s glorification of Jesus lies in this gift of the Son that begins with the incarnation (John 1:1-18), but is not complete until he is lifted up on the cross and hands over his spirit, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

The gamble is won.

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