Touch

As I lead this reflection, you might like to hold the Palm Cross in your hand and just be aware of its shape, its texture, how it feels.

It must be 20 years since I watched the Star Trek film ‘First Contact’, but for some reason one particular scene has remained in my memory.  In the film the spaceship crew have travelled back from their futuristic time to the 21st century. They find an experimental rocket craft which, with the benefit of hindsight, they know is destined to play an historic role in opening up space exploration. Captain Jean-Luc Picard reaches out his hand and touches it

He says: ‘It’s boyhood fantasy there, I must have seen this ship hundreds of times in the Smithsonian but I was never able to touch it.’

His robotic colleague, Cmdr Data stands nearby, puzzled as he always is, by human emotion:

‘Sir, does tactile contact alter your perception of things?’

‘Oh yes, for humans touch can connect you to an object in a very personal way. Make it seem more real.’

Robot reaches out: ‘I’m detecting imperfections in the titanium casing, temperature variations in the fuel line, but it’s not more real to me now than it was a moment ago.’

But Jean-Luc Picard was right. Touch can connect you to an object in a more personal way. Make it seem more real… Or is it that we appreciate its reality, existence more deeply? That something we know to be true is now felt to be true – that understanding makes the journey from our head to our heart? Maybe we can identify with that sacramental understanding of reality, where the physical is truly significant, and the tangible and spiritual combine.

Something like that was happening when I knelt under the altar at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, reaching my hand into a hole in the floor through which you can touch the bedrock of Calvary. Thousands of pilgrims have done so, as close as one can be to the most likely place of the crucifixion.

Surrounded by hundreds of glittering golden lights and silver encrusted icons, it was perhaps an odd thing to do for someone with an evangelical background. But it was clear to me that it was only possible to understand the tradition fully by being part of it. You couldn’t think about touch. Analyse it academically while standing at a distance and observing. You had to do it.

And it was deeply moving. Yes, it happened. On that Friday so many years ago Jesus died on a cross. It really happened. And yes, it was for me. Millions have touched that spot, millions of men women and children for whom Christ died just as truly as for the billions who will never afford the air fare. But in these few seconds only one person can squeeze under that altar – and he died for me! And yes, I respond, with tears and gratitude.

Perhaps it was not at that spot that Jesus died. For there are other possible locations for Golgotha. Maybe it was somewhere very nearby – the evidence in the tradition is much more ancient than I had assumed. Whether it was certainly the place or not did not seem to be critical – centuries of devotion ensured that space had a sacramental character and power.

We are physical beings. God has made us spiritual and physical. In the incarnation our physicality is affirmed as Christ takes physical humanity into the Godhead. His sufferings in Holy Week were real.

We are incorporated into his body through the waters of baptism, nourished by the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Our future is physical, not as disembodied souls in a purely spiritual heaven, but as a resurrected new humanity inhabiting a new heaven and new earth.

Jean-Luc Picard was right. The physical matters. Indeed we find it can be a pathway to God.

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The Power of Words

Words are powerful, significant. Words are complex and subtle. When political parties promise to ban, in their own words ‘exploitative zero hours contracts’, what does that mean? Are they saying that they will ban all zero hours contracts because they are exploitative? Or are they suggesting they will ban only those zero hours contracts which are exploitative? ‘Exploitative zero hours contracts’, I wonder…

As we shall see in the next few weeks, words play on emotion and interpret destiny. The right word makes a great quote while one ill chosen can destroy a carefully crafted speed. A verbal blunder can scupper a romantic moment.

We also know that words can fail us. To most people, ‘ripped’ means torn. But if a teenager describes someone as ‘ripped’ it means he has a toned, muscular body. We can talk about these different meanings and cultures and explain them to each other. We do so by using other words, defining words by relation to each other in a circle of reference. Some words seem to make concrete the things they describe – virtue or hope can be personified. Other words are symbolic, and even those that aren’t obviously so may still have a particular, metaphorical, way of understanding the world underlying them.

As T. S. Eliot put it: ‘Words strain, crack and sometimes break, under the burden; Under the tension, slip, slide, perish; Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place; Will not stay still’

Is this a weakness? That the words we use struggle to secure meaning, fail to cage it, cannot pin it down?’ Does this suggest that at best, our descriptions see reality through a glass darkly? Hopefully in talking with one another we improve our insights but they are still limited until one day we shall see the truth face to face. Like the series of ever closer models or hypotheses used by the scientist, we draw closer and closer to truth, always remembering the limitations which language imposes.

Or at worst, do words flutter round us in a dance, while all we can do is play knowing games?

We see this difficulty in pinning down meaning when we reflect on Jesus’ words in 1 Corinthians. ‘This is my body’. Is it a simple fact: ‘This was once a piece of bread. It has now become my body’? A logical statement, that x=y? And if so, how has that happened? And what does it mean for our devotion?

Or is it a metaphor? Like those phrases in John: ‘little children’ or ‘now you must wash one another’s feet’? Is ‘This is my body’ a symbol where the word ‘is’ does not mean ‘has become’ but rather ‘signifies’? In effect: Think of this as my body when you eat, do this and remember me. Debates like this characterised much of the Reformation and are still significant today.

But perhaps there is an additional way of grasping what the words are doing. For we see that symbolism and metaphor are inherent in language. While that makes words slippery at times, it can also be a strength, for it allows words to say so much without being tied down. We can do a great deal with them.

So, the limitations of words? Or a creative space within which the possible range of meanings can be part of the point? Where symbolism, metaphor and intuited meaning are the best way of encapsulating the truth. Perhaps it is not so much that words are a flawed way of trying to capture truth and convey it to us. But rather that the nature of some truth at least is reflected in the allusiveness and analogy of words.

When we forget this, we end up with a problem that happens quite often in theology. Where someone takes a particular Biblical principle, say predestination, and extends it into a logical system. The thoroughgoing all-encompassing application of one big idea swallows up other Biblical insights that really should be held together in thoughtful nuance, paradox or mystery. So the complex nature of words may actually reflect the nature of truth.

The Word of God became man. He spoke these words, taking the hallowed text of Passover and making it his own. ‘Take, eat’ – an action, a command to ‘Do this’ and remember him. ‘This is my body, given for you’. Do this, remember me and what I will do this day.

The Early Church obeyed his command, they proclaimed his death, and in so doing, found that he was with them. They not only remembered his death but encountered his living presence, mysteriously in them through the bread and wine. Now as we speak those words and obey his command, may we find that Christ is with us today.

Palm Sunday

They say beware of the Vicar who has just returned from the Holy Land. If you are not careful he will corner you and show you his holiday snaps. I’m not planning on doing that. But could I really speak at the beginning of Holy Week without drawing on the remarkable things I’ve seen in Jerusalem, the city where it all happened?

Of course not, it’s an incredible place and a great help to faith. I’d recommend a pilgrimage to anyone. One thing that really struck me is how small the old city of Jerusalem is. The historic sites are really close together. And a lot of the places that we read about in the gospels are still there, some preserved as archaeological remains, while others have ornate churches built on top. The only part of the Temple that remains is the Wailing Wall, and I have to say that I was rather anxious about visiting it

It’s a special place for the Jews, and I’m always a little nervous about going to someone else’s holy place. How should we behave? What to wear? We don’t want to offend. Will they mind us being there, especially on the Sabbath? We had a briefing which included things like: don’t take photos after sunset because when the Sabbath starts no-one is allowed to operate any kind of machine. The religious police will be enforcing the ban.

I also thought it would be a rather grim experience: it is after all called the Wailing Wall…I was expecting a serious and mournful atmosphere. Nothing could have been further from the truth. It was a chaotic, joyful celebration. The place was packed with families meeting up, teenagers giggling at each other. Even the very austere looking Orthodox Jews were joining in the singing, praying, even dancing. That sunny evening it was profoundly beautiful and spiritual. I did wonder what it could be like if these wonderful people could believe that Jesus is their Messiah’.

Christians can learn a lot from the Jewish roots of our faith about the value of celebration. That joy and Christian faith can, should go hand in hand. There is a bit of a tendency in our culture to think that proper religion is a serious and sombre business. British grown up religion shouldn’t be too demonstrative, but we might endure a little enforced jollity from time to time in an effort to appeal to the young.

But actually taking our faith seriously involves celebration. Not dumbing down but the whole family of God rejoicing in him. We worship a great God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer in whom we can and must delight! In the Old Testament God commanded his people to observe community festivals, Sabbaths, holy days. Celebration is our duty and our joy.

One of the privileges of Sabbatical has been worshipping in different churches of varying tradition and style. A few I admit were pretty deadly, several have been inspirational. What struck me, independent of churchmanship was that the common theme of the good ones has been the contagious power of joy. Whether it’s a handful of Ethiopian Christians meeting in a tiny incense filled chapel, or a large Evangelical church with a worship band, it’s wonderful to join people taking delight in God.

Joy is hospitable. It welcomes people, makes them feel at home and conveys God’s love. Joy in worship draws people into praise, lifts up their hearts with a vision of God and sends them out bearing hope into the world. Perhaps unexpectedly, joy also holds and embraces those among us who live with suffering. It is easier to weep somewhere warm, loving and accepting than somewhere cold and distant.

I say that because joy in the Lord is sometimes misunderstood. Joy is deep. It’s not a frothy manipulated surface emotion but a grace that comes from being rooted in God. Joy is not a fragile bubble within which we hide from the hardships of the world. No, joy knows those hardships and knows the God who is working in and overcoming them. Joy is not denial, it gives the strength to endure.

Joy is strengthened by being expressed, and shared. Particularly in worship. So I’d encourage you: let your delight in God out. When we worship together, sing up – don’t be worried if you’re out of tune, I will be too and if we all sing up no-one will notice! Join in. Give of your best. But not anxiously. Corporate worship shouldn’t be a performance – after all, for whom are we doing it? Let go a little bit – I don’t find that easy, so we can learn together!

There’s so much joy in today’s reading. The crowd welcome Jesus. They don’t hold back: waving palms, throwing cloaks on the road, singing songs. In Matthew’s account, the Pharisees object: ‘Do you hear what these children are saying?’ Jesus replies: ‘Have you never read ‘Out of the mouths of infants God has prepared praise?’ In Luke: ‘If these keep quiet the stones would cry out!’ They must praise because God’s king has come.

The long awaited Messiah is here, and the crowd know it. They recognise what Jesus is doing. They know Zechariah 9:9 where it says ‘Shout aloud O daughter Jerusalem. Your king comes to you. Triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.’ Jesus deliberately chooses to enact this prophecy. He knows what he is doing, he is making a point.

We might think that Mark makes rather a meal of describing the arrangements in verses 1-7. Jesus says go there, do this, say that. And they do go there, do what he told them, and said the words. It’s making the point that Jesus does this purposefully. What he did was intentional symbolism and everybody got the message: Jesus is God’s chosen King.

 

Of course, they saw people riding on donkeys every day. ‘Man rides donkey’ was hardly headline news. But when someone considered to be a possible Messiah approaches Jerusalem at the feast which celebrates God’s deliverance of his people and all his disciples call out, in verses 9 and 10: ‘Hosanna. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, Blessed is the coming Kingdom of our ancestor David’ – when all this is done while riding on a donkey, the message is clear.

Perhaps I’ve laboured this point but I’ve done so because it matters today. The Christian faith is undermined by people who want to say that we have misinterpreted Jesus. They say that St Paul or the church gave Jesus a significance that he never claimed for himself. It’s an attempt to rewrite our history and downplay who Jesus is. So we need to be clear that Jesus actually did claim to be the Messiah. He did so deliberately, everybody at the time got the point, and the crowd went wild.

Jesus thinks he is the Messiah, the crowd think Jesus is the Messiah and God thinks Jesus is the Messiah and proved it by raising him from the dead.

Now we cannot finish Palm Sunday without also recognising that the people’s vision for the Messiah was very different from God’s plan, the one Jesus was following. The point is often made, and I for one have preached about the changeability of the crowd. But having thought at bit more, I don’t think we should criticise the crowd too much.

I don’t think we can accuse the crowd of wanting an easy way. Of desiring the glory without the pain. Of seeking triumph without hard work. We can’t say the crowd are looking for an easy religion without understanding the need for sacrifice. That may be projecting our own culture’s weaknesses into the story, but it’s not really fair to them.

For they probably thought that they’d done the hard work and pain already. They’ve been living for decades under Roman occupation, the culmination of centuries of oppression. Many of the crowd would have followed the Jewish law intently, making real sacrifices to do so, and hoping that the Kingdom of God will come with their observance. So these aren’t people looking for an easy path. They’ve already done the graft. At last, they think, God is responding and his Kingdom has come.

 

It had, but in a different way. That’s where the contrast shows up. Between human expectation and God’s wisdom. They didn’t grasp that the problem was far deeper than they thought. They hadn’t seen that sin needed a much costlier sacrifice than their obedience. They looked for a Messiah but couldn’t imagine that he redeemed them from their pain by sharing in their suffering. They couldn’t believe in a rejected Messiah, and so rejected him. God’s way was too much of a mystery.

But suffer he must, if we are to be redeemed. And he freely chose to give himself up for us. In this week we follow in the footsteps of Christ to the cross and beyond. Sharing together in these services helps us to appreciate what Christ has done, draws us closer to him in his sufferings. If we just travel directly from one celebration to another, from Palm Sunday to Easter, we will not truly grasp the joy of the resurrection. My colleagues have prepared a thoughtful and spiritual path through this Holy Week. I’d urge you to join in as much as you can so that together we may encounter afresh this eternal story, our humble king crucified and risen.