Thursday, 26 April 2007

the good shepherd John 10 22-30

At his very first entrance into the narrative of the gospel Jesus is announced by John the Baptist as “The Lamb of God”. Now he announces himself as the “Good Shepherd”. The word shepherd was closely connected with kingship. The notion of the people as a “flock” was deeply embedded in the imagery of worship, through the Psalms and prophetic literature. This understanding of the king as shepherd and his subjects as the flock was probably a least partially rooted in David’s role as the shepherd king.

But the role of shepherd also had less clear but no less powerful antecedents in the more mythical mists of Jewish history: if Yahweh was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob then he was the God of a shepherd race. Jacob indeed was the consummate shepherd who breeding skills with sheep brought him his wives and enabled him to father the tribes of Israel. It was while shepherding on the back flank of Sinai that Moses (the palace boy) received his calling to bring Israel out of slavery, as God made himself known to him as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and revealed his name. Further back beyond the mists of time it was Abel’s, the shepherd’s, sacrifice that was pleasing to God whereas Cain’s cereal offering was not.

The prophet Ezekiel (chapter 34) had roundly condemned both shepherds and sheep for selfishness and greed: as shepherds they had cared better for the strong than the weak and as sheep they had practised survival of the fittest and left the weak and the lame to perish. It was going to need God to set a new pattern of shepherding for his people so that they could learn afresh how to be sheep and ultimately how to be shepherds.

The kingship exercised in the time of Jesus by the Romans was that of the wolf of Rome. That kingship was not even that of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The wolf-like coat was worn with pride. The kingship provided by Herod was that of the fox – a sort of counterfeit wolf. The Jewish leaders cross-examining Jesus in the temple are not even fit to be in the flock let alone shepherds.

It would be difficult to be more insulting to the priesthood than to claim that they were no longer part of God’s flock. In the fearful chapter 25 of Matthew the sheep and goats are separated out: but at least originally the sheep and goats would have coexisted happily in the same flock. Here the shepherd disowns the flock. There are some who hear his voice and belong and others who don’t and don’t. The issue is not of feeling – nor appearance nor breeding. It is simply one of recognition and obedience. Is the way of Jesus authentically that of God the King and Shepherd of his people? If you believe it is and live it then you are in the flock. If it is not you stand outside in the cold. And the days are wintry and dark indeed outside the fold.

Of all the Jewish festivals – the festival of Hanukkah was the most nationalistic. It was also the most recent. It celebrated the time when Judas Maccabaeus and his fellow nationalist rebels had stormed into the Jerusalem of Antiochus, thrown the Persian invader out and cleansed the temple of his blasphemous Gentile statue and effects. It was at this very feast that Jesus made this outrageous assault on those who regarded themselves as the prize sheep in God’s most prestigious flock (if not even shepherds themselves). Earlier in the chapter he has pointed out that there other sheep outside the historic flock of Jacob, who will be part of his flock. It is to be the greatest flock that ever lived. They asked him if he was the messiah. His answer upped the stakes. His mission was even greater than that of the Messiah as they envisaged it. His mission was not simply local to Jerusalem, it was global. If the vision of Ezekiel was that of shepherds failing even to be sheep, Jesus was so conquering as Lamb that he was to be the ultimate shepherd.

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

a net full of fish John 21 1-19

“I’m going fishing”, said Peter. The others – a motley crew in total 4 short of the 11 – though mystically making up a very complete team of 7 agreed to go with him. But in that dark night the familiar haunts Galilee seemed a very hostile Tiberias. In the murky waters no fish were to be found. It seemed that after the adventures of following Jesus there was going to be no easy return to the old ways that they had abandoned only three long years ago. Three years, three hours, three days, Saturday night and Sunday morning, days seemed to stretch into eternities and eternities condensed into the twinkling of an eye. Time no longer made sense. But somehow the three years, three hours and three days had changed everything and now their past was inaccessible to them. Perhaps new fishing companies had sprung up in their old haunts with new technology and greedier boats and had fished Galilee empty. Perhaps the knack had gone. But the dawn greeted tired, disappointed, hungry and penniless men with nothing to show for a night of toil.

Some of them (particularly Peter) may have remembered the dire warnings of Hosea: “There is neither faithfulness nor loyalty in the land ….. and even the fish in the sea will perish” (Hosea 4 1-4). Someone was standing on the shore watching them. “Children!” he called out. They were hardly in the mood to be patronised by a passing tourist. “You don’t seem to have caught any fish, have you? Try putting the net on the right side.” Amazingly they took notice.The result was spectacular. Suddenly they have a new problem; the net was so full it could hardly be brought to Land. Only Jesus could have been responsible for such a reversal of nature. Peter leapt overboard to meet his Lord.

When they counted the catch they found 153 fish. The amount written on this catch would out-weigh even that quantity of fish. For me by far the most coherent explanation is that of T A Emerton at -. It has long been known that 153 is triangular number based on 17. (That is if you add all the numbers from 1-17 you get 153). 10 plus 7 is itself the sum of two complete numbers, thus giving 17 a particular significance. The ages of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are all based on 17: books 3 and 4 of the Book of Psalms each contain 17 Psalms. The prophecy in Ezekiel 47 that the sea between En Gedi and En Eglaim will be full of fish when the water from the temple flows into the Dead Sea is surely relevant. Already John has described how Jesus had stood up in the temple and talked about streams of living water flowing out him, and those who believe in him. In Hebrew all the letters have a numerical value. If we add the Hebrew letters making up the word GEDI we get 3+4+10, = 17. When we add up the Hebrew letters of the word EGLAIM we get 70 +3 +30+10 + 40 = 153!

Hardly anyone in the Old Testament is described eating fish: by the time John’s gospel was written the word fish and the emblem of a fish were codes for the church. Jerome seemed to think that there were 153 known species of fish and that the net was the symbol of the church. Thus the church could embrace all types and conditions of men without being torn asunder. (Would that this were true!) That theory has since been doubted. It certainly seems as if the number 17 is again at work. Then number of different groups of people who heard the gospel at Pentecost was 17. More likely than it being the known species of fish 153 may have been a symbolic number for all the nations on earth.

In any event what is surely being suggested by John is that the resurrection of Jesus had set in motion a whole new creative order. On the eighth day God had arisen from his Sabbath to begin a new work of creation so that even that which seemed dead was now alive. The tired toilings in the night of a disappointed people were not going to be sufficient to turn things round. Any success depended on the creative spirit of God. His presence ensured that even dead waters would teem with life. But that presence was as reliable as the dawn which follows the night. Eternal day had dawned. The new creation was already in train.

Jesus had already been out fishing for there was already fish on the barbecue. Peter, as had Adam before him, realised that he was naked. But now the curse has been lifted. His sin did not bar him from table fellowship with his God. In the new creation he would have the opportunity to be a Good Shepherd like his Lord, though that might mean laying down his life, too.

Men came from the sea
with their unusual catch -
one hundred and fifty three.
A fire burned on the beach.

They had expected nothing,
now there was a glut,
and also this man waiting.
The charcoal was white hot.

But was the man there?
One moment it seemed so,
the next he was not.
Master, they said, don't go.

Like thin air shimmering
when powerful heat bakes it,
he continued his waiting.
Indefinite. Definite.

The fire burned on the beach
with their unusual catch.
They had expected nothing.
Now there was too much.

copyright Andrew Motion, 2004

Thursday, 5 April 2007

All change John 20 1-18

Whatever we may say to the contrary I suspect that most of us don’t like change: familiarity does not so much breed contempt as content: when we return from holiday we like to find the house as we left it; when we prepare to meet again with a loved one after a long absence we can only remember her as she was and are often disconcerted to find that not only she but we also have changed over the intervening years. As parents we often find it difficult to adapt to the changes that take place in our children: when they become toddlers we try to cling to their babyhood, then, when they enter those terrible teens, we find it dreadfully difficult to come to terms with their growing maturity. Many of the battles fought in so many households arise out of this failure of parents to keep pace with the change that occurs in their children. And sometimes, alas, they seem to grow out of our love altogether: that is a change no parent can take.

But of all changes the most difficult to come to terms with is surely death. It is a common occurrence in bereavement to talk to an empty chair as if the loved one were still there, to go to the gate and look for him coming home from work at his normal time, to imagine every heavy footstep on the path as his.

But what if one day the step were his? How would we react then?

Mary had seen Jesus die: she had stood at the foot of the cross and seen every detail of that awful death: and she had heard his cry of triumph: it is completed. So she came to the tomb as soon as she could - it was all finished now - at least he was safe there. The pain, the humiliation was over: there she would find her Lord in peace - beyond harm, beyond danger, preserved in spices; she could bring flowers on his birthday, sit there in the tranquil shade of the garden alone with her memories, cherishing the man of love too good to die - but all the same dead. She came. But the body was gone. The huge stone that should have protected him for ever had been rolled away - the embalmings were there - but there was no Jesus. She dashed back to tell Peter. He confirmed the story: but as if she couldn’t believe her own eyes or his she was drawn irresistibly back to the tomb again; she quizzed the angels barely registering who they were, her eyes filled with tears, “They’ve taken my Lord away and don’t know where they’ve put him” Then, with anger and bitterness welling up inside her she sees someone in the shade of the trees - almost without thinking she comes close to accusing him of stealing the body:

“Tell me where you’ve put him then I can go and take his body away.” Then no—one would ever separate her from her Lord again.

Then the man called her name and in an instant she knew who it was. She clutched him round the legs, perhaps not even aware that he was alive —determined only never to let him go again. As far as she was concerned - if he was alive he was the same old Jesus come back to life: they would go back to Galilee and live as if nothing had happened. But Jesus told her to let go. “Do not cling to me”.

We like to take hold on Christ - to cling to him - to possess him: and in so doing we frequently limit him to our way of thinking, imprison him in our flesh, entomb him in our feelings, confine him to the limits of our experience and our understanding. Like Mary we clasp him round the legs to keep him where we are. There is always an inner conflict between our comfortable preferences and our calling: it is all a question of control. We want to control Christ and his work: we try to restrict his resurrection life to our own limited vision. Like Mary, we would drag him back to the safety of the past and live with him there.

But the risen Jesus breaks out of her grasp: for his journey is not yet over. He had broken through the veil of the flesh and had embarked on a journey that eventually was to be Mary’s journey and ours too. Just as he led the way to the cross so the risen Christ leads out beyond death to the father.

But Jesus did not end his word to Mary with a rebuke: he gave her an order:

go and tell: and when she does tell my Lord becomes the Lord. For the first lesson that Mary had to learn was that the risen Jesus was not for her alone. He was not only to be her own personal saviour - for this is another way in which we cling on to him. The glimpses of the risen Christ are always momentary: he does not linger - he would always go further. And when he does linger it is usually to explain mission: go and tell for Jesus lives in the telling; and the church born of the spirit and living in the spirit is Christ to the world: this good news is not to be kept bottled up. So what is the message? ‘I am going up to my father and your father, my God and your God.” Mary wanted to pull Jesus back through death, to keep him human, personal, the old Jesus she felt safe with - but he was en route for glory. Not just for him but for her too, and if for her, for us also. As we sing:

Soar we now where Christ hath led

Following our exalted head

Made like him with him like him we rise

Ours the cross the grave the skies. Alleluia!

What a message to pass on: death is but a stage on the journey we make in Christ: we have a picture of death in baptism: just as in baptism we rise up out of the waters, born anew in his spirit, so death is but a door we pass through in our journey to the Father, God. Thus that message comes to us fresh again this Easter day, passed us through millions of lips it has reached our ears, I go up to my Father and your Father, my God and your God.

It comes to us still hankering after the old times, it comes to us with our narrow perspectives and our wavering faith, it comes to with our limited expectations of God’s salvation. But it comes to us with the same urgent challenge as it came to Mary: for the Jesus who goes to the father is still the way, and he who is the way is the truth and he who is the truth is life itself. Do not cling to me but go and tell that I am going on

Let us do that and then go forward ourselves in the strength of his spirit.