Tuesday, April 28, 2009

We've arrived!

All the party were up at the crack of dawn and the Castelways coach left the Royal Well at exactly 3-45.

Fog resulted in an hour's delay at Heathrow. But by 10-00 we were in the air and on our way to the Holy Land.

We arrived at Tel Aviv an hour late and Joanne and our bus were waiting for us. Within an hour and a half we were through the checkpoint and into Bethlehem. The Star hotel is in a stunning location. It seems to be on one of the highest points in the city of Bethlehem. After unpacking we were introduced to the restaurant and a delicious meal of tasy salad. But most impressive of all was the stunning view from the restaurant over Bethlehem and the surrounding mountains.

The panoramic windows make it feel as if you are on top of the world. We look across at the church of the nativity.

And in the morning we shall be visiting the church and getting our pilgrimage under way.

But at the end of a long day it is time to close.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Walls and what to do with them!

Walls have a beauty all their own in the countryside, and dry stone walls have a special beauty, not least here in the Cotswolds.


We couldn’t do without walls.  They keep the rain out and the warmth in and what makes the Englishman’s castle.


Walls make this place what it is – a place of tranquillity in the middle of a busy world.


Walls have a beauty of their own.


Walls can be sinister.  Do remember us in your prayers as we travel to a place of walls.  On Tuesday, all being well, our coach will drive us through the wall to the Star Hotel in Bethlehem.  For Israel it is a security fence, for Palestinians an apartheid wall.


Bethlehem is not the only place where walls are sinister.  Only this week the Belfast peace wall has again been in the news.  Another stretch of wall has been built.  Disturbing to hear a speaker from a church in Belfast speak of the continuing need for walls in that city in spite of the peace process.


Walls can make for security, for consiness and warmth.


And walls can divide.


Paul had no time for the walls that divide.  The joy of the good news he came to proclaim was the Jesus had torn down the dividing wall of hostility that separated Jew and Gentile, Male and Female, Slave and Free


For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.


He was convinced … in Christ we are a new creation, there is no longer Jew and Gentile, man and woman, slave and free … we are all one in Christ Jesus.


That’s the good news.  That’s the vision.  That’s the dream.


And the tragedy of the Christian church is that so often we have built the walls again.  And the walls have been dividing walls of hostility.


And those walls go up not just in Belfast, not just in Bethlehem, but much nearer to home.


Between churches, between families, within churches, within families, in the work place, in the community it is so easy for dividing walls of hostility to be built up.


Not only is it a tragedy, but it is also a travesty of all that we stand for as followers of Jesus.


How can we tear down the dividing walls of hostility?


How can we live out the oneness of humanity Jesus himself embodied and called us to embody too?


Not only did we visit the National Stone centre while we were at our annual Ministers conference in Derbyshire.  We also had a week that seemed daunting to go to, not least as we were on tenterhooks anticipating Lake’s arrival.


I was looking forward to sharing a session feeding back my experiences of a year ago in visiting Tantur, taking part in a Journey of Reconciliation and in anticipation of our visit this week.


I pulled out an old talk, an old PowerPoint presentation.  I took as my theme Conflict and Reconciliation.  I explored the way in which we were encouraged to look through the eyes of the other.  Only as we cultivate the art of what one writer, Miroslav Volf called, Double vision – seeing through the other’s eyes, can we hope to seek understanding and work for reconciliation.


It was deeply moving to hear Jan Berry speak the next day.  Her father was killed in the Brighton Bombing.  Her life had been tunred upside down and inside out.  Quietly and in a riveting way she spoke of her decision to seek out the person convicted for the bombing.


She eventually met him.


They talked.


At first he simply justified himself.


But as they talked she began to see through his eyes.  She could begin to understand, so she told us.


And he began to see through her eyes, eyes filled with tears.


They have come together, sometimes more easily than at others, and together they are working on a Forgiveness project which seeks to bring people together and talk with each other.


Not simply seeing through the other’s eyes, but feeling with them … and working for forgiveness and for reconciliation.  They hope to take their project to the Holy Land and work towards getting victims on both sides of a conclict talking with each other.


But how do we prevent the walls going up?  How do we tear the walls down?


John Campbell, the Principal of Northern College, took us to three chapters in 1 Corithians I have to confess I had not taken on board much at all.


Corinth was a church that had walls, not the kind that make for security and warmth, but the kind that lead to bitter hostility.


Different groups went their own way, each convinced they were right.


One issue that divided them was an issue it is difficult for us to understand today, and so good reason not to dwell much on these chapters.


Should you as a Christian, or should you not eat food that had been presented as an offering in a pagan temple.


Some were adamant – what kind of food you eat makes no difference whatsoever as a Christian.


Others were equally adamant – food that had been used in the setting of a pagan temple should not be touched on any account.


It was an issue that was tearing the church apart.


And the fact it had become an issue to tear the church apart angered Paul.


Something was profoundly amiss.


Although that issue is not a live one for us today, what Paul said into that issue is profound in its implications for us today as we seek to follow Christ and tear down those dividing walls of hostility.


Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’



In so many disputes this is the starting point.  Each side knows!


The snag is that kind of knowledge that really knows the rights and wrongs of an issue is too often the kind of knowledge that leaves no room for the thing that is of the very essence of the God who is at the heart of our Christian faith, love.


Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.2Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; 3but anyone who loves God is known by him.


Whenever an argument rages in a church context about doctrine that is in danger of building up dividing walls of hostility, take care.


Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.


That’s a slogan to come back to!


What Paul next does is to take sides.  He sees through the eyes of those who say, ‘it doesn’t matter what you eat’.  And he develops their argument.  And it is watertight.  It is absoulutely clear.


Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’, and that ‘there is no God but one.’ 5Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— 6yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.



There you have it.  That’s it in a nutshell.  The argument is resolved.  Paul’s knowledge has won the day for one side.


But wait a moment.  Paul does not leave it there.


He recognises that not everyone has this knowledge.  They are convinced that to eat food offered in a pagan temple will damage them.  They may be misguided in so thinking, but Paul considers that something takes precedence over the validity of the argument.


They may be misguided. But don’t damage their conscience!


12 But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall. 


In chapter 9 Paul speaks of his own way of being an Apostle – we’ll finish with what he says there.


But in chapter 10 he comes back to the point of contention.  And this time he argues cogently for the opposite case.  Instead of starting with first principles, he goes to the Bible and chapter 10 is a closely argued case for not eating certain kinds of food especially when it has been offered in a pagan temple.


Paul is putting the opposite case.  And it is a convincing argument.  The argument seems to be clinched with reference to the supreme importance of communion..  But even there in communion a higher order prevails.


Eating and drinking bread and wine is at the heart of Christian practice.


The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? 17Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. 1




It is apparent that a good case can be made out for both sides of the argument and that is precisely what Paul does.


But something is more important.


All things are lawful.


A good case can be made out on both sides of this argument.  Both are in line with the teachings of the Law, both are in line with the ways of God.


‘All things are lawful’, but not all things are beneficial.


Then comes a key verse in the context of any church disputes.


24Do not seek your own advantage, but that of others.


This suggested John Campbell is the nub of the matter.


The big issue, he suggested, is not how you win the argument, but how you treat each other.


Conscience is all important … but not so much your conscience


29I mean the other’s conscience, not your own. 


Not how you win the argument, but how you treat each other.


31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. 32Give no offence to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved.


This is none other than the way of Christ.


Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. 11.1


In chapter 10 Paul sets out the authority on which his knowledge is based.  And it is a pretty awesome authority.  He extols the freedom he has as an Apostle of Christ.


But one principle prevails when it comes to this kind of argument.


24Do not seek your own advantage, but that of others.



That is something Paul takes very seriously indeed.


The importance of ‘other regard’ is the key to the kind of forgiveness project Jo Berry and                        are involved in.


That kind of ‘double vision’ that enables you to see through the eyes of the other.  This is the key to breaking down the dividing wall of hostility.


The big issue, he suggested, is not how you win the argument, but how you treat each other.


Get that right and so much else will follow – in a church context, in a family context, in a national context, in a Belfast context, in a Bethlehem context … wherever those dividing walls of hostility raise their ugly heads.


For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

What kind of triumphal entry?

What kind of triumphal entry?


The people of Jerusalem were used to triumphal entries.  And they didn’t much like them.  That’s because the ‘triumphal entries’ they were used to were made by the Romans.  And they were an awesome statement of power.


Herod the Great had established what some regarded as an unholy alliance between the Jewish people and the Roman power.  He played one side off against the other.  This half-Jewish, half-Idumean came to power thank to the way he weedled his way into the good books of Cleopatra and Anthony.  When they lost out in battle to Octavian, that August character who became the first Roman Emperor and took the name Augustus, Herod did the thing power-crazed tyrants tend to do.  He switched sides.


To win over the Jewish people he built a magnificent new temple to Yahweh the Jewish God  the like of which the people had never before seen in Jerusalem.  And on the coast he built a major new port and city with its very own temple to Augustus the Roman God-Emperor.


At Herod’s death his kingdom was shared out among his sons.   But the one who took charge of Judea and Jerusalem couldn’t keep the Jewish rebels who wanted to overthrow Rome down.  So by the time Jesus had his bar mitzvah and came of age at the age of 12 and made that first memorable visit to Jerusalem and its new Temple, the Romans had dismissed Herod’s son.


In his place they placed a Procurator who would be based not in the Holy City of Jerusalem on Mount Zion, but down in the much more conducive modern Roman city of Caesarea Maritima, Caesarea by the seaside.


By the time Jesus’ ministry began in the reign of  Tiberius, the Roman Emperor, Pontius Pilate had become the Procurator.  His capital was in Caesarea by the Seaside.


But he would from time to time have to make his way to Jerusalem and enter into the city.  He was the representative of Rome.  And he most certainly would not ride on a donkey!


In fact, we have a description of the kind of presence he would have in the Book of Acts.  Paul was arrested in Jersualem but transferred under guard to the Roman Procurator’s capital in Caesarea.  Luke it is who describes the way the Romans took him under guard, rescuing him from an assassination attempt.  It must have been pretty impressive!


The high-ranking Tribune based in Jerusalem ‘summoned two of the centurions and said, “Get ready to leave by nine o’clock tonight for Caesarea with two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen.  And provide mounts for Paul to ride and take him safely to Felix the Governor.”


What is interesting about that snapshot account is that it shows what the Roman presence was like.  How much serious armed guard they needed in what could be very troubled times.  It indicates the tensions there could easily between those among the Jewish people who wanted to rise up in rebellion against Rome.


The military might was very impressive.


Did you see the pictures on the news of the fleets of lightly armoured police vans heading into central London in order to police the G20 meetings this week.  That’a a pretty awesome statement of power.


That was what the Roman statement of power was like … but it was very much more sinister.


If that was what it took to protect a prisoner, you can imagine that the guard for the Roman Procurator would be even more impressive.


It as at Festival ltimes that unrest could easily flare up.  So it was that Pilate, maybe unwillingly, would have to ride into Jerusalem and take up residence there.  Pilate would have ridden into Jerusalem on a mount that was massively impressive flanked by horsemen, maybe spearmen.


And arriving in the city he would have come through the gates in the wall and curiously made his way towards the Temple.  Not to go into the Temple.


A mark of the way King Herod the Great had played Roman off against the Jewish people was the way he built the big fortress for the Roman presence.  It was built immediately beside the Temple itself – and it towered over the walls of the temple.  And Herod named it after one of his first Roman heroes, Mark Anthony.  The Antonine Fortress towered over the Temple mount itself.


That would have been Pilate’s base.


That’s the power.


Some of the Jewish people went along with the Roman power.  Especially the wealthy, those with influence, those with power, those with clout!  The Saducees, the High Priests, the Lawyers, the Scribes.  But there were those among the Jewish people who wanted something very different.  The Pharisees stood for a purity that would not compromise with the Gentile Rome.  There were those who said a plague on both your houses and went off to the desert, the Judean wilderness, notably to Qumran.  And then there were the Zealots, and the other sword-bearers, revolutionaries.  They wanted to overthrow Rome by force of arms.


And in one way or another they looked to one who would come as anointed of God, the kind of king, messiah who would usher in the kingdom of God.


Word came to the shepherds in the fields just outside Jerusalem, the fields of Bethlehem …”Do not be afraid; for see – I am bring you good news of great joy for all the people, to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped I bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace …”


Those wise men expected the one born to be king to be born in one of Herod’s palaces.  That’s where they went.  Instantly Herod the Great saw the coming of a promised king as a threat to his power.  He had killed a lot of people to get to the position he was in, including members of his own family.  He had few qualms, so we are told by Matthew.  Maintaining the power and the security of Rome took precedence over the lives of little ones.  The innocents were slain.


Glory to God in highest heaven, and on earth peace.


Jesus didn’t exactly burst on to the scene unannounced.  John the Baptist paved the way for the one who was to come.  When he came his message was all about the Kingdom of God, the rule of God taking root in people’s hearts, people’s homes, in the world at large.  Love God, love your neighbour, love your enemy too.   This was a powerful message.


Glory to God in highest heaven, and on earth peace.


How he turned things upside down.


Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,

Blessed are those who mourn for they sill be comforted.

Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled

Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.

Blessed are the peace-makers for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those whoa are persecuted for the sake of righteousness / justice for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.


Glory to God in highest heaven and on earth peace.


He matched deeds to words and brought healing, wholeness salvation into people’s lives.


And then came the point when he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem.


It was the Pharisees who felt that unwise.  Some of them came to him with a warning.  Get away from here, they said, for Herod – not Herod the Great he had died shortly after Jesus’ birth, but Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great who had jurisdiction over Galilee.  He was the Herod who had been responsible for the cruel execution by beheading of John the Baptist.


“Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”


Jesus knew exactly where he was going.  And he knew why.  And he said so in the most forthright of terms.


“Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.  Yet today, tomorrow and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.”


Jesus knew what Jerusalem was like.  He knew what was in store for him there.


“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.”


Things haven’t changed a lot.  It’s still a centre of conflict.


How Jesus longed for the peace of Jerusalem.


“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under wings, and you were not willing.”


By now Jesus is very much on his journey to Jerusalem.  A journey that will take him to rejection, intense suffering, death … and beyond to resurrection.


His route takes him partly through Samaria, down to the river Jordan along the river, before he makes his way through Jericho, up into the mountains and reaches the outskirts of Jerusalem.


And now he is ready.


Ready for a triumphal entry.


But what kind of triumphal entry will it be?


He has come to the place of the prophets.  Just as the prophets before he is used to making symbolic statements charged with meaning.


He has one prophet in particular in mind as he makes his preparations for that triumphal entry.  Matthew it is who identifies the prophet – it is the prophet Zechariah.


In his choice of a donkey of all things – as nonsensical to people used to those triumphal entries of the all-powerful Roman Procurator coming as the personally-appointed representative of the Roman Emperor himself, as it is to us, he had the words of this prophet in mind.


Reading:  Zechariah 9:9-10


Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
   Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
   triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
   and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
   and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
   and from the River to the ends of the earth. 


Cut off the chariot?


Cut off the war horse?


Cut off the battle-bow.

Command peace to the nations … this is a very different kind of triumphal entry.


As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
‘Blessed is the king
   who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
   and glory in the highest heaven!’ 


Haven’t we heard that chant somewhere before?


Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.


In the shepherds’ fields they had been heavenly hosts, now it was a very earthly multitude.


Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace


Has become.


Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.


Peace and Glory – these are the marks of God’s realm where God’s rule prevails.  Peace and Glory – this is what’s in Jesus’ heart as he makes his triumphal entry.


And then, Luke tells us, he came near.  And then comes the point.  And to come down from Bethany and reach the so-called Mount of Olives, it is so dramatic.


As he came near, and saw the city.  Something happened to Jesus.



For a moment he was overwhelmed.


Luke 19:41-44


As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.’


As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognised on this day, the things that make for peace …


2000 years on I saw that view through razor wire.


Look at Jerusalem today, look at Israel, at Palestine, at the West Bank, at Gaza and you cannot help but weep, echoing the words of Jesus, “If you had only recognised the things that make for peace.”


Bishop Suhail, the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, has responsibility for the Al Ahli hospital in Gaza: it is supported by the Bible Lands Society.  As war raged in Gaza he wrote to the Bible Lands Society,


“Every day since the beginning of military operations, the hospital has received an extra 20-40 people, injured or wounded.  Patients with burns and acute, crippling psychological trauma are being seen more frequently.  The hospital staff is working around the clock, struggling with the effects of exhaustion and against limited resources in an area of ongoing mi8litary operations.


“Many medical items are needed.  The hospital’s windows have all  been blown out or shattered from rocket and missile concussion and cold permeates the entire premises.  Plastic sheeting to cover the windows could alleviate some of the cold, but is unavailable now.  Food supplies are scant and maintaining patients’ nutritional needs at the hospital has been difficult.  Some medicines and supplies for the hospital have been generously donated by US Aid, but it has not yet been possible to deliver the items.”


Jesus may have wept over a city that failed to recognise the things that make for peace, but he continued on his ‘triumphal entry’.


triumphant and victorious

humble and riding on a donkey,

His purpose:  to cut off the chariot from Ephraim
   and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
to cut off the battle-bow,
   and to command peace to the nations


We who follow in the footsteps of this Jesus and are proud to be children of God are called to be peace-makers.


That is what Bishop Suhail, the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, recognises in a second letter to the Bible Lands Society


I believe that we must remember during these difficult days that we are celebrating at this very moment the incarnation of our Lord.  That God is present among us, and it is in our own ministries that each of us witnesses to His presence.  Yes, especially amidst conflict and strife, we Christians stand for something here.


“We stand for Peace, Justice, Reconciliation and Forgiveness, and the Promise of a time when we can live together in fellowship.


“I believe the meaning of this parable we are living now is that we must hold firmly to our faith and trust in the promise that the Lord made to us.  So as always, but especially now, I ask that you walk this parable of Peace and Reconciliation with me, each in your way and in your own ministry.  May the Peace of the Lord be always with you.”[1]

1     It came upon the midnight clear,

       that glorious song of old,

       from angels bending near the earth

       to touch their harps of gold:

       'Through all the earth, goodwill and peace

       from heaven's all-gracious king!'

       The world in solemn stillness lay

       to hear the angels sing.


2     With sorrow brought by sin and strife

       the world has suffered long

       and, since the angels sang, have passed

       two thousand years of wrong:

       the nations, still at war, hear not

       the love-song which they bring:

       O hush the noise and cease the strife,

       to hear the angels sing!


3     And those whose journey now is hard,

       whose hope is burning low,

       who tread the rocky path of life

       with painful steps and slow:

       O listen to the news of love

       which makes the heavens ring!

       O rest beside the weary road

       and hear the angels sing!


4     And still the days are hastening on -

       by prophets seen of old -

       towards the fulness of the time

       when comes the age foretold:

       then earth and heaven renewed shall see

       the prince of peace, their king;

       and all the world repeat the song

       which now the angels sing.


Jubilate Hymns version of It came upon the midnight clear Edmund H Sears (1810-1876)

[1] Quotations from Bishop Suhail, the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, in The Star in the East, The Magazine of Bible Lands and Christian Love in Action, Spring 2009.

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