Theme: Consider Jesus (Sunday 21February 2021)
Series: A Considered Easter
Bible Reading: Acts 15:1-19 and Hebrews 12:1-3
Preacher: Phil Swain
This Sunday is the first Sunday in the season of Lent and we are using this time in the lead up to Easter to “Consider Easter” and allowing the questions to lead us into a fresh understanding of God’s love and grace as shown through the cross. Phil will be sharing some of the insight and points raised in the first of the “ACE” bible studies (which you can look at here) and encourage us to enter into Lent with an open heart, an inquisitive mind and a ready spirit. Prepared to be stretched and encounter God as we explore the Easter Narrative.
When I was about 16, in my enthusiasm and naivety, I volunteered to go on the church’s stewardship committee. This was back in the era where churches used to keep a track on how much everyone was financially giving and every couple of years actually visit people to see if they wanted to up their giving. Obviously I didn’t quite understand this when I volunteered … and found myself with a list of names of people in the church to visit to talk about their giving. Seriously. As I sixteen year old, I was given a stack of giving cards and told to go to the people’s place on my list … just be friendly and chat while they filled their giving card in.
Now, the other people in the committee were obviously being kind to me, because the first couple on my list were the nicest, caring, most generous and easiest to talk with couple in the church. It was like going to talk to Mr and Mrs Santa Claus about Christmas. Mind you, I was still nervous.
Anyway, here I was in their kitchen … they had made biscuits for my visit … and they were filling in their card when I innocently asked, “Just wait. You’re both retired. You don’t earn money. Why are you giving to the church?” They could have just said, “none of your business” but they started to explain their investments and finances and how they believe God was calling them to give and how they had tithed a specific 10% of their income all their life (they even showed me bible verses) and how they found they were blessed through their generosity. They patiently allowed me to ask questions and where happy to talk it through. I went there thinking I was just getting a card filled in. I was not expecting a conversation that ultimately help make my own person decision to tithe all my life. That conversation was insightful and lifechanging.
Conversations can be like that. Even conversations when none of you know quite what to say or do. I remember another conversation early in my ministry at my first church. I was chatting with this lady who honestly said, “I know that we all get dealt different hands of cards in life, but I don’t know why God keeps dealing me bad hands”. And then shared part of her story with me. It is still to this day the saddest, most tragic series of events I have ever heard; and I was agreeing – how does so much bad stuff happen to one person. Why couldn’t God just deal one nice hand in the midst of all the other bad hands. Then she asked for some spiritual advice … and I was lost for words. We prayed and felt God say “read the Psalms” and so we did. We open the Bible together, read, talked, questioned, sat there and in the midst of the conversation … we found some peace and hope.
Conversations can do that. Conversations that are real; were we genuinely listen to each other; where we are open to the questions; where we are sensitive to God’s spiritual nudges; those sorts of conversations I believe can lead to spiritual growth.
Today’s Bible reading from Acts 15 is a fascinating example of the Early Church really wrestling with a difficult theological issue. The reading sort of implied it was just about circumcision, but it was a much larger issue than that. You see, all the disciples and followers during Jesus earthly ministry were Jewish and adhered to all the Jewish customs. So when the early church was established, these people became the key leaders. But as the early church grew, many of the new followers were not Jewish. And so the question was whether those who were walking in the way of Jesus also needed to also adhere to the Jewish customs like the disciples and key leaders.
There were good points on both sides of the argument. Christianity is not the same as the Jewish religion, but Jesus himself followed these Jewish customs and if we are following the example of Jesus then maybe we should too…
Despite what the Roman Catholic church says, the early church didn’t have a pope to make decisions for them … so here in Acts 15 we see the early church trying to work out a way forward with this Jewish customs issue. And how did they do this? They had a conversation together. I love Acts 15:6 … the apostles and elders met to “consider this question”. Three words that sum up my goal for Easter … consider the question. Also note that they made sure to hear different voices – it wasn’t just the apostles and elders, they included Paul and Barnabas as well as some other believers. They made sure that they didn’t just hear people saying their own point of view but actively sort out different voices and perspectives.
And they didn’t rush the conversation. Verse 7 tells us, “after much discussion”. They took time to listen and learn. And they were respectful as they listened, verse 12 “the whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul”. They also took time to consider God’s will or God’s promptings in this issue. And by the time that James got up to summarise that everyone had said, there was consensus. The conversations and questioning help them to get there.
So that is my challenge for us in this season of Lent and this Easter. After the physical distancing and disconnection of last year, how can we intentionally come together and have conversations with each other. How can we wrestle with some of the issues or aspects of the Easter narrative and see what emerges?
How can we, in the words of the writer of Hebrews in our second reading, “Consider Jesus”; to consider the words, the actions, and the responses of Jesus in the Easter story and consider what they might mean for us? How can we have Lent and Easter conversations that lead to Spiritual growth?
Good plan, but you might be thinking that unlike the issue in Acts 15, there are not conflicting views when it comes to Easter. Everyone agrees – Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose again 3 days later to bring us eternal life. What’s there to discuss? That’s it.
Yes … that is a great summary of Good News of Easter, but the Easter narrative is much more than that. As I said last week, like a techie person wanting to take a TV apart to see how it works or a person googling for more information while watching a Netflix show … how do we lift the lid on Easter to see what else we can discover inside.
I still remember when I was about 17, I was at an Easter camp and someone read John 19:31-34.
Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. 32 The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. 33 But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water
And when the read the part about not breaking Jesus legs but instead sticking him with a spear … I remember sitting up and thinking. I knew about the spear, but I have never heard about the broken legs bit before. I was 17 and I grew up in the church … how could I not of heard of this before?
I think partly because this is not the sort of thing that good Sunday School teachers like to include in their Easter story … not being critical, but I imagine that they just skip over those less appropriate parts … I was just surprised that there was something in this very familiar Easter story that I didn’t know. And that got me thinking. What else is there that didn’t make the Sunday School cut? And I discovered that there is more. I am still discovering more. These new discovers or revelations don’t change the core understanding of the love, forgiveness and life that comes through the cross and resurrection … but they can bring us new insights and new depth into our considerations.
Do you want another example? This one is found in the first “A Considered Easter” studies that some groups have done, and others are still to do. I am going to read you three verses from Matthew 27 of which one commentator called this “Matthew’s weirdest passage”. This is Matthew’s version of the death of Jesus. Matthew 27:50-54
And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. 54 When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”
Ok … let’s be honest. Did any of that surprise you? Sure, we’ve heard about the temple curtain being torn in two … but what about the earthquake, or the tombs being broken open?
Or the Easter Zombies who hang around the broken tombs for 3 days until Resurrection Sunday before going into town? What do we do with this? How do we understand this?
We have a conversation. We ask questions. We look up what other parts of the bible say, or what articles on the net say, or ask our minister to explain it, or go to one of the bible study groups that will have a conversation about this passage and see what emerges. (I actually have links to some articles on our website about this).
One thing that I got inquisitive about was the idea of the earthquake. Did you know that there are two earthquakes in Matthew’s Easter narrative? That one when Jesus died, and other as Jesus gets resurrected. What are the chances of two earthquakes at those moments? Surely, it’s a God thing?
One article I read (whose link is on the website) talks about the geological evidence to show that there were earthquakes around Israel roughly around that time. Another article suggest that the earthquakes might not have been real by symbolic – that Matthew might have been a literary tool to show that both Jesus death and resurrection were earth shaking moments. Something to ponder.
But again, you might want to say, “But why ponder this? What’s the point? We know that Jesus died for our sins and we know that Jesus rose again so that we might have eternal life. What does it matter if the earthquake was real or symbolic?”
You’re right … It doesn’t really matter – compared to the core message of Easter – this pondering is secondary. However, I think that it is helpful and useful.
I stumbled across a scientific article where someone asked “Why do scientists ask so many questions?” The response from the scientist really grabbed me. They wrote that Scientist love questions and even after a scientist is convinced that something is true … they will continue to ask questions of themselves and their scientific theories – not to create doubt about the scientific theory but to clarify and make the theory stronger. One scientist stated, “Asking many questions helps make science better!”
It is the same about theology. Whatever questions and new insights and challenges we might stir up about the Easter story does not change the core truth that Easter is about God’s love for us as shown through Jesus. But the questions and conversations can make our insights and understandings better.
In the Ponderers bible study group which meets on a Thursday afternoon, Stewart shared a book that he got from his father called, “Who moved the Stone?“. It is an old book about a journalist who asked a lot of questions about the Easter story. He approached it with a critical, and slightly sceptical mind. He found that the more questions he asked, the more he talked with different people, more he started to see the Good News of Easter.
Lee Strobels had a remarkably similar experience when writing his book, “The Case for Christ”. Strobels added that although questions and conversations can bring revelation and insight and even bring you to a point of belief … receiving the love and forgiveness offered to us through the cross and stepping into a relationship with God still requires a step of faith.
It is my prayer that we will experience both this revelation and this faith this Lent and Easter. That through questions and conversations and inquisitive exploration we might be drawn into a deeper understanding of the Easter narrative. That we might see more, know more, discover more.
But when we run into those moments that we just don’t understand … the almost impossible idea of an almighty God who knows us and loves us and wants to be in relationship with us – and the mystery of how Jesus death on the cross and resurrection from the dead makes that possible … I also pray that we might lean into our faith and receive this Easter blessing of love, forgiveness and eternal life.
Lets consider this Lent
Considered in our faith
Considering the questions
Considerate in the conversations we have
And above all, let us consider Jesus – not only as an example to follow, but in our own personal relationship with Jesus made possible because of Easter.