Monday, 31 March 2014

Life, law & laughter - people, Scripture & Jesus

an aid to reflection on the introduction of gay marriage in the UK
Two old friends meet again at the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem, where the long-term ill used to go in the hope of being healed...

Micha: Rafael! Great to see you again. Where’ve you been all this time?

Rafael: Micha, my friend! I’ve missed you! You wouldn’t believe it, I’ve been all round the country. It’s been so good to be able to walk - I’ve been making up for all those lost years.

Micha: Well, you did hold the club record - how many years was it?

Rafael: 38, I think. I lost count, to be honest.

Micha: So what happened? One day you were here, the next you’d vanished in a puff of temple smoke.

Rafael: Well, you know how everyone at the Pool here gets treated like animals… 

Micha: Tell me about it!

Rafael: …kicked by the Romans for being crippled vermin, spat on by the religious hobnobs for supposedly having brought it on ourselves by some past misdemeanour.

Micha: Well, it is our fault. ‘My sin is ever before me’, and all that.

Rafael: Ah, I’ll come back to that. Anyway… this guy comes along and sits beside me. Sits! On my level! Has anyone done that with you??

Micha: No - why would they want to??

Rafael: Well he did. And he sat there for ages, just quietly, not saying anything yet somehow listening to me, staring with me at the water… And after a while it felt like he was one of us - though I couldn’t see anything wrong with him.

Micha: Ah, people have all sorts of hidden issues. With all the folk we get to observe, we know that well enough, eh?!

Rafael: But not this one! And then eventually he asks, ‘do you want to get well?’

Micha: Like they do - as a joke, thinking they’re funny - ha ha…

Rafael: Only he wasn’t joking. He was kind. He meant it. And the emotion welled up in me, and I just blurted out that I couldn’t get down to the water in time. This place is all about success and failure: make it to the water and you’re saved, the rest of us, well we’ve failed. This place traps us - not by our sin but simply by not being able to make the mark. Tears were starting to run down my face by this point - I could be myself with this guy. I’d started to feel free already and I wasn’t even healed!

Micha: Rafael, honestly - crying - call yourself a man?!

Rafael: You know what, he was crying too… But when he next spoke, his tears looked to be of joy! Know what he said? ‘Stand up, pick up your mat and walk’!

Micha: And, given that you’ve been walking since, presumably you did!

Rafael: But even before that, it was remarkable. He said ‘stand up’ almost like a joke - but not a bad joke - a good joke - because it was a hilarious instruction. But he was smiling and laughing - with me, not at me. And it was like his infectious joy, his laughter even, ran through my bones, and my muscles, and all of me. And I was on my feet in a flash. And - sorry, I’m going to embarrass you again - I couldn’t resist giving him this enormous hug!

Micha: Well… [sarcastically] It’s nice to know that things turned out so well for you. And nice of you to tell me so quickly. Maybe he could have sorted me out too - but obviously I don’t deserve it.

Rafael: I am sorry it’s taken so long. But the trekking round the countryside I mentioned, it wasn’t just a jaunt, or earning money from giving talks about the miracle (actually, I didn’t earn a shekel!). No, I followed this guy around - as lots of other people were doing.

Micha: All placing bets on who he would heal next, I guess!

Rafael: It wasn’t so much that he healed people (though he did) - somehow he was healing. He was life, to those who could see it - so human and alive, laughing and crying… And he said things that made so much sense - like one day he said he was ‘the door’ - sounds mysterious, but it’s like he was a door I’d gone through to freedom from being trapped by failure.

Micha: So why have you come back here now? Where is this guy?

Rafael: He’s come back to Jerusalem…

Micha: Hang on a minute, Rafael: look, the spring’s bubbling up… 
Great - like old times - Wager on the Water - who’s going to make it down first? Get your money out, mate!…

Micha: Bad luck mate - thanks for your money! You always did pick who you wanted to win, not who was likely to!

Rafael: Quite true! I got another one wrong too, we all did. We didn’t think that this man - sorry, I hadn’t told you his name - it’s Jesus - would come back to Jerusalem.

Micha: Why not, it’s the Passover soon.

Rafael: Going back to that day - well, it was a game of two halves, alright, ‘cos it quickly all went downhill. I’d turned away for a moment to celebrate with a couple of the guys, and when I turned back he’d disappeared into the crowd. So, I trotted off to enjoy my new-found freedom and go the temple. And I was stopped in my tracks by one of the religious hobnobs. ‘It is not lawful to carry your mat’, he said, in that superior voice they do so well. ‘It is the sabbath’. I was gobsmacked.

Micha: Well, he was right, wasn’t he? Why didn’t you leave your mat behind?

Rafael: I was just enjoying taking my first deep breaths of the new life I’d been given, and those words - ‘It is not lawful’ - it was like being punched in the stomach and having that breath knocked out of me. Oh Micha mate, how can four short words - ‘It is not lawful’ - cause such problems? The lawyers spend so much time arguing about what is and isn’t lawful. The dissent, the conflict that gets stirred up! And the rest of us, if we’re on the wrong end of their judgements, they don’t even seem to notice the grief they cause, the pain, the condemnation. People simply get crushed.

Micha: But that's just it - the law’s only a problem if we don’t obey it - and then we deserve the consequences. The law is good: it keeps us on the right track, gives us boundaries - and we certainly need those - it brings order. It helps us please God.

Rafael: But what if those boundaries get in the way of good being done? Jesus made me better on the Sabbath. It should be a no-brainer - but the lawyers classified that as work, of course!

Micha: Naturally. The Sabbath is rooted in Creation - it’s holy because God himself rested. You can’t change the created order of things!

Raphael: I know it’s hard to get because you weren’t there. But what was obvious was that Jesus wasn’t changing the created order - he was simply showing that the law has limitations.

Micha: The law of God - limited? Only the law can provide solid rock to stand on - are you suggesting we have a joy-ride down the slippery slope into the world of the heathen?? It’ll be a short-lived one, I can tell you! ‘Happy are those who walk in the law of the Lord’.

Raphael: But I’ve seen that Jesus brings life! He’s shown me that boundaries sometimes need to be understood differently. He reveals the created order as it really is. The law can numb us to this.

Micha: I didn’t have you down as subversive! This Jesus has had a bad influence. Our lawyers know the Scriptures inside out!

Rafael: It’s easy for the lawyers to make and obey the rules - they avoid the messiness of real life. They don’t sit and listen to people's stories of pain and confusion. They don’t sit and listen to a cripple…

Micha: OK, so what laws does Jesus teach?

Rafael: He teaches how to understand it: that our Jewish laws are special because they point to God’s perfection - and freed to aspire to that ourselves, not trapped by our failures. Jesus always challenged us with how we could love other people better - and love God better. But a bit like I said he seemed to be life - he also somehow seemed to ‘be’ law, to ooze what it meant.

Micah: You mean he kept the law perfectly? I’ll believe that when I see it!

Rafael: Much more than that. He seemed to be encouraging us, instead of looking for guidance to the law, to look at him, who he was, how he lived. And that any laws - from the past, even in the future! - were not rules to be slavishly obeyed, but that we should interpret them by looking at him - that the starting point for knowing what to do shouldn’t be laws but him

Micha: A little egotistical, perhaps?? It all sounds worryingly loose. Very convenient and easy.

Rafael: Believe me, having watched him, ‘easy’ couldn’t be further from the truth. He didn’t live by the luxury of rules - he lived much more riskily. In every situation, with every person, he applied thought and care and discernment, and imagination and courage - and infinite generosity. Plenty of laughter too, of course - there’s no law against that! The model of service and sacrifice. Which is what brings him to Jerusalem…

Micha: How come?

Rafael: The resistance he’s faced from the religious hobnobs… (he’s eternally gracious that I dropped him in it that first day), it’s coming to a head. This man brings life! But the legal-eagles who steal life will get their prey and steal his. That first day even, I felt something of this darkness. ‘Don’t sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you’, he said. I could see sadness in his eyes, and he was staring beyond me as if he was talking about everyone. And now I understand: he can see the calamity that will come if we Jews, of all people, kill God’s representative… It’ll be blasphemy they’ll nail him for.

Micha: Blasphemy?? I’m sorry, but he deserves it, then. Frustrating - that’s my miracle healing gone! But we’ve got to hold those boundaries… It has been good to see you back, though, Rafael.

Rafael: You want to know my bet, Micha? - and this isn’t just wishful thinking! That he’ll be back too. The law will kill him, but that life that coursed through me - that joy, that laughter - how can it not do so for him??… Life will have the last laugh!.. See you around.


Alphaeus adds (for 21st century readers):

How can the way Jesus handles people and handles Scripture help shape our approach as Christians to the introduction last weekend of gay marriage?

For the authorised version of Rafael's story, see John’s Gospel chapter 5

Monday, 24 March 2014

Water (a tale of redemption)

a reflection on Jesus' approach to people

Samaritan Woman at the Well, by He Qi, China
A conversation between two women in a village in Samaria... 

Woman: Hey, listen! listen!

Villager: Just leave us all alone, you always have so much to say and nothing worth listening to.

Woman: Honest, I’ve had this amazing encounter! I’ve been talking to this man at the well...

Villager: Talking to a man? well, I never... Do I hear the sound of wedding bells - number six, eh?? Does Reuben know?

Woman: No no! - this man’s a Jew.

Villager: It gets worse! He must be desperate, chatting up a Samaritan woman!

Woman: No, he wasn’t like that - he’s a prophet. He’s never been to the village before yet he knew all about my past!

Villager: And that’s good, is it??!

Woman: That’s the trouble with you lot. You all use the truth about me to condemn me. With him the truth has made me feel free! It’s like the truth of who he is has flooded through me and my past has been washed away. I never knew truth could be so good!

Villager: Well, I must admit you do seem happier than you’ve been for a long time - since you were a kid, even - more relaxed, like you’ve taken a big swig of some magic healing potion.

Woman: Funny you should say that! One minute this man and I were talking about water in the well - you know, how the dry weather’s affected its level, the usual sort of chat - and the next moment he was telling me about water that if I had I would never need to drink again.

Villager: Useful!

Woman: That’s what I thought. But he’s deep - he wasn’t talking about water-water at all. He was talking about water from God - you know, like from Isaiah, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters...”. I never knew what that meant before. But the way he looked at me, I knew - and this is going to sound weird - that somehow he is the source of this living water. You’re right, I have drunk something!

Villager: So why were you the chosen one to meet him? Oh yes, because you have to go to the well in the heat of the day because everyone ostracises you.

Woman: But that’s just it, he shouldn’t have been there either, a Jew in Samaria. I’ve always known that’s a stupid rule - and he knew it too and was quite happy to break it. He’s like me, he breaks rules too. But I break the rules when it’s good for me - he broke the rules because he cared about me. It was like he was there just so that he could meet me - how could that happen?!

Villager: Clearly a really good man. And I suppose you just left him there, didn’t offer him any hospitality??

Woman: A group of his friends turned up and started to give him a hard time for talking to me. I wasn’t going to hang around!

Villager: Well, I’ll get some others and go and find him. He sounds too interesting to miss. Let’s see how far he’ll push his rule-breaking and see if he will actually stay in Samaria for a bit...


Villager: And this man, who I learned was called Jesus, did stay a couple of nights, though his friends were all pretty grumpy about it. How can one person change the whole way life is, change people in our village, change our community? But he has. It’s like the water from the well has overflowed down into the village and we’re refreshed, renewed. And all through our friend here, of all people - the most unlikely of encounters...

That evening...
Peter speaking to his brother Andrew...

Andrew, Jesus is making me mad! We’ve got to stop him before he truly goes off the rails.
Being an impetuous type myself, I’ve really appreciated his calm, peaceful manner ever since I met him. He feels grounded, safe - like you can really trust him. And then he just gets these mad-crack ideas - OK, so we had to go through Samaria this time but not dilly-dally over it. And then talking with a Samaritan woman, on his own - what is he thinking!

He worries me, Andrew. He just doesn’t care what people think. The only thing he seems to cares about is other people. And it doesn’t seem to matter who those people are, for goodness sake!

I have a theory, and it worries me if I’m right. Remember when Jesus got, quote, ‘baptised’. And this thing like a bird came down on him, and afterwards he said it was the Holy Spirit. Well, I’ve been watching him, and there’s something so - how can I put it - guided about him. It’s like he just follows some internal guidance as to what to do and where to go and what to say. (I reckon all that early-morning praying he does has something to do with it too.) He goes off on completely unpredictable tangents, does bizarre things, and says really open things to people - sometimes really challenging things - whilst obviously caring for them, and you think ‘where did that come from??’. But the maddening thing is, he’s always right! That woman, that village - they’re transformed, they love him!

Thanks again for introducing me to him, by the way! It’s quite a ride with Jesus, alright. He’s no tame, domestic rabbi, this one - he’s got a wild streak! But boy, he’s good to be with!...

Alphaeus adds:
for the authorised version of this story, see John’s Gospel chapter 4.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Old Pharisees Club - with Paul and Nicodemus

two old friends chew the theological cud - a sketch

Paul and Nicodemus meet, by chance, in the Roman baths at the Old Pharisees Club in Jerusalem (but not in a state of undress)…

Paul: Well, if it isn’t Old Nic, my old Law tutor from Pharisee School - the man who taught me everything I know!

Nicodemus: Well, I never! Paul, young chap, good to see you - you flatter as much as ever - you always were a political operator! And one of our brightest pupils too - destined for the top. How things have changed for us both since then, eh - kicked out for becoming followers of The Way.

Paul: Yep, and it looks like we both know the same trick of sneaking back into the Pharisees Club to use the baths under cover of darkness - and the mists of the sauna. Of course! - you’re an expert in sneaking round in the dark. Going to see Jesus at night - what a coward - you’ll never live that one down!

Nicodemus: I’m so maligned! I was just busy at work and couldn't get away to see him during the day…. OK, alright, not my finest hour. But the thing was, we were all in the dark, all of us Pharisees, weren’t we? We thought we had it all, with our fine knowledge of the Scriptures - and we knew nothing of God Himself. That night there was a chill wind as Jesus and I huddled under the temple portico, but I felt a warm wind wrap round me as Jesus spoke about the Spirit. When he talked about having to be born again, it was like Jesus was banging nails into the coffin of the secure life I knew, whilst at the same time ushering me to an open door that light streamed through. So when he died, I was ready to nail my colours to the mast and buy the embalming spices for him; somehow I sensed that wasn’t the end, that there was a new birth coming… But here I am, rabbiting on like I’m still your teacher! I understand you saw the light in a rather dramatic way! Everyone’s heard the story.

Paul: The memory’s as clear now as it was that day - the light streamed in so bright, it completely blinded me. I wasn’t just knocked off my pedestal - Jesus took me out with a bloomin’ sledge-hammer!  And how my eyes were opened to how blind I’d been! - that we’d all been. And I know you’re not in this camp, Nic, but some Jewish believers are still blind to one thing - that in the church all are meant to be equal, including Jews and non-Jews - because God loves everyone equally. You would think that Jesus made that clear enough, with his radical inclusive love, but still we persist in our sense of superiority over others. It’s like that in the church in Rome - that’s why I wrote to them.

Nicodemus: Ah, your letter to the Romans… Let me slip my tutor’s hat back on for a moment. I do worry a little that you thought you were writing the thesis for your doctorate - it’s not exactly easy reading for them!

Paul: OK, OK, so parts of it can read like a theological treatise! But I have Pharisee School to thank for sharpening my legal mind so I could present a watertight argument - and that’s what I’ve done; I was on top of my game for that letter, I felt. And I think they will get drawn into it - because I’ve blown holes in the Jewish tradition that we are superior to Gentiles just because we’re ‘children of Abraham’. Yet Abraham was initially a Gentile, of course! God chose a Gentile, so proving that Gentiles were never really inferior for him. He has just taken a long route round to make that completely clear! Jesus told you the same thing, didn’t he?

Nicodemus: Yes, that was his punchline with me - and it was like being punched in the stomach. ‘God so loved the world’, he said. I nearly choked. ‘God loves the Jews’, I thought angrily. ‘He doesn’t love the Romans, the heathen, the idolaters - he hates them. How could he love our enemies??’ I’m more of a pragmatist than you, Paul - theoretical arguments don’t cut it so much for me, despite having climbed the Pharisee career ladder - which is maybe why I didn’t give your Romans letter a 5-star review for the Jerusalem church - sorry!

Paul: Thanks - I knew I could count on you!

Nicodemus: But after watching Jesus love his enemies for those years, that’s what won me over to see that God really must love the whole world. Even including cowards like me!

Paul: We’ve come a long way, haven’t we - from a God of law to a God of grace! And things being free just ain’t natural for people - it’s a constant uphill struggle, I find, to help the churches to get it.

Nicodemus: Well, Paul, I think you’re doing a pretty good job out there in Gentile-land, if I may say so! Rather you than me doing the away-fixtures… Talking of which… there’s late-night chariot-racing at the stadium later - I must be off - fancy coming?

Paul: Thanks, but best keep my head down!  Great to see you, though, old man. Hope to see you around - and don’t teach anything I wouldn’t teach!

Nicodemus: You're a cheeky one! But take care.

Note to 21st century readers:
See John 3 and Romans 4  (Church of England set readings for today)