The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      12th May 2019
Jan Rushton

Readings Acts 9, John 10

Alleluia Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Since Easter we have exulted in resurrection. The women, and especially Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, Doubting Thomas, & then doubting Peter tempted to return to his fishing. We have seen how doubt and despair are not the end of the day. Doubt has been transformed into literally life-changing faith. And more is to come. Now, as the Christian community begins to emerge, grow beyond Jerusalem and Judea, up into Galilee and Samaria, we hear of Peter, first healing Aeneas, paralysed for eight years, and then, greatest of miracles, Peter, as Jesus himself raised Jairus’ daughter, Peter raises the dead Tabitha back to life.

 Tabitha is an important member of the Christian community in the coastal town of Lydda about thirty miles North West of Jerusalem. We know she is important because she is described as a ‘disciple’. The only place in the New Testament where this word is used in its feminine form.

Benevolent, compassionate and devout, with a deep care for widows and orphans, memory of her is still rich and sustained in ‘Dorcas Sewing Societies across the world today. She was a skilled seamstress, seemingly affluent for she has an ‘upper room’ where guests could stay. And it would appear, she has given away to the community much of the product of her labour, her life filled with good works. But she falls ill and dies. How can this happen to one so faithful? Her friends have prepared her body for burial in that upper room.

Deeply distressed, they hear that Peter is nearby in Joppa. They send for him, and there follows  a raising from the dead.  Are we thinking: well, that was then, this is now. It doesn't quite work like that in our day?  Heartbroken families of those murdered in terrorist attack on Easter Day will not feel the warm presence of their loved ones returned to them. How can we make sense of such tragedy in our world? Repeated in varying communities - not long ago it was the Muslim community in New Zealand, and yesterday in Pakistan. How can we make sense of the willingness of wealthy educated individuals to wreak such havoc on their neighbours?

 This morning in our gospel we return to an earlier time in Jesus’ ministry, a time when perhaps as for us, believing in, following Jesus, was not easy. It required clear sightedness, patience, courage and determination. Jesus is once more with the crowds in the Temple precincts at festival time. He has been teaching them about the Kingdom of God, and hinting that for those with eyes to see, ears to hear, maybe, he is something more than they first imagine.

The Jews have been longing and waiting for the Messiah to come. And Jesus it seems has been tantalising them. "Tell us clearly," they say with some exasperation "Tell us what you are about!  Just who are you?!" The literal translation of the words: 'How long will you keep us in suspense?' are a rebuke to Jesus: How long are you going to hold our lives in your sway - without delivering.  We are waiting!  Why should we continue to wait? We don't want to give our lives to you waiting in vain. Tell us!

 At one level Jesus was an intoxicating person to be around. He lifted your spirits. You felt better immediately - But he was also an enigma. As we read the gospels there are a thousand questions we want to ask - and we can only speculate about the answers. I'm sure those around Jesus also had a thousand questions they wanted to ask - and somehow they never quite got a straight answer!  Jesus was always pulling them, just that little bit deeper in - but where was he taking them?

 The Messiah was supposed to drive out the occupiers, the hated Romans. When are you going to show us your mettle Jesus? But Jesus’ answer is again 'Follow me!' Come closer, get to know me, enter the sheepfold.

It is those who know him, trust him, commit themselves to him, it is they who will experience the answers to their doubts, their questions, discover new ways forward in difficult circumstances,

answers they could not have imagined if they had not spent time with him. Jesus promises: I will hold you secure. God holds you secure.

 And then the blasphemy:  I and my Father are one. In the lectionary reading stopping where we do at this incredible declaration, we miss the drama that ensues in the following verse, ‘And they took up stones again to stone him.’ Stone him for the blasphemy of claiming oneness with God. The author of John writes to draw us into the sense of effrontery Jesus felt at their lack of faith. But actually, for the Jews their sense, that in making such claims Jesus is committing blasphemy, is utterly reasonable. What he is asking of them is enormous! In these statements Jesus is putting himself on the same plane as God. We may imagine that it was much easier for those first disciples

who had him there in the flesh before them, much easier for them than for us to follow Jesus, to believe in him and have faith. But this is far from true. They like we, had to grow in relationship with him, grow too as people, only then could they begin to understand. We know it is only as we enter we enter into real friendship with another, a relationship of trust and openness, that we begin to truly understand how that person thinks, who they are.

 Relationship with Christ is the heart of Christianity. Christianity is not primarily about rules and regulations, how to behave - though it is about how to live. It is not about believing in a book -

though it is through the book that we know anything at all. It is through relationship with the man Jesus that we find relationship with God. And as with any other relationship, this takes time and commitment: to pray, read our Scriptures, come to worship, open our hearts to the transforming power of the Spirit.

 In New Testament terms, you can only claim to ‘believe’ when you act on your beliefs. Belief is not simply about accepting a set of propositions. When Dorcas, Tabitha, is raised from the dead, we are told that many ‘believed’. And ‘believing’ meant turning their lives around.  A new outlook.

Actively including those they would in former times have considered ‘outsiders’, kept well away from. And we know they did indeed do just this from the last verse of our first reading from the Book of Acts. Peter, the staunch upright Jewish fisherman, goes to stay with Simon the tanner. 

 At first sight this may not seem exceptional to us, but it was an incredible act of faith for Peter.

In Jewish sensibility, Simon the tanner was seriously ‘impure’. He worked with animal hides, handled dead bodies all day long. This made him very much unclean. Yet now, in the new Christian dispensation, Peter is not only friends with Simon, Peter stays with him in his ‘unclean’ house!

The outsider has been transformed into the close friend and colleague.

 The miracle of resurrection will happen in Sri Lanka when, in the fulness of time, rather than seeking vengeance, those whose lives have been ripped apart this Easter, grow in the grace of forgiveness,

arrive at a place where rather than retaliation, they seek new opportunities to reach out to, embrace again the stranger, the one who is different. The miracle of resurrection will happen when together we break down the barriers which divide us, pull up the boundary markers and include everyone, those who are like us and with whom we feel at ease, and include those who are not like us, those from whom we differ.Include indeed, those very ‘Jews’ the evangelist behind the gospel of John, repeatedly casts as opposed to Jesus, casts away as ‘other’. A reality of the separation from the Jews of the evangelist’s own Christian community at the end of the first century, and not a perspective

found in the other gospels - or indeed one Jesus himself would have shared. Yet a perspective which has led to appalling persecution down the centuries.

How easily, Christians included, human beings fall back into attitudes which limit our lives, attitudes Jesus was consistently drawing us away from. As Peter’s transformation, transformation of our hearts and minds, the radical shifting of our lives, is in many ways as big a resurrection as a literal raising of the body!  Amen.

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