Making Sense of Jesus

Given by John Barratt
4th March 2018
John 2

As we read, watch or listen to current ‘news’ we face a blizzard of broken relationships – international, political, commercial, ethnic and personal – and of wrongs that need putting right – plastics, pollution, injustices etc..  It can be very depressing, despite wonderful examples of personal generosity we also hear about.

What can we do about it?  Traditional Church influence in the West is collapsing – it is now very fashionable for people to say they are ‘unbelievers’.  They deny the existence of any permanent moral authority whilst, perhaps, acknowledging the need for some mutual care – within reason, of course!   Perhaps, in practice, that is your view?

By contrast, today’s Psalm [19] speaks of the physical universe’s order [which, in a scientific age, we assume] and it also emphasises that the ordering of human relationships has to follow the same authority.  Our OT reading was the now largely-forgotten Ten Commandments [Exodus 20: 1-17] , which theoretically dominated Western civilisation for centuries.

But imposed religious practice concentrates on outward observances, and its frequent use to prop up the governing authority does not encourage human flourishing.  This is true not just of Islamic Republics or the Christian Inquisition; Temple-based religious power is one of the three main challenges that Jesus confronted in the wilderness.  By contrast, Jesus put the flourishing of each individual at the centre of his strategy. 

This was not some vague humanism confined to our brief physical life; we can only understand Jesus’ approach in the context of what, eg in his opening of the Lord’s Prayer, he called ‘heaven’.  For Jesus, healthy human relationships have a range which makes death a delusional limit, and so he challenged people to be more realistic about their lives and change their limited mind-sets.  Even in purely physical terms, self-centred thinking is daft – you probably think you are sitting still, but you are on an Earth that is spinning you daily counter-clockwise at about 100mph, whilst taking you on an annual trip round the sun at 67,000mph! 

Can Jesus, with his conviction that rich human life stems from costly acceptance of anyone within our range – our neighbour – shake us into greater enjoyment of our human potential, releasing us from selfish follies of materialism and imprisonment within self-imposed religious and ethnic brands?  

Jesus grew up in a community whose traditions declared they would lead humanity into such richness of God-intended life, yet their circumstances were grim.  The Romans were not the major problem – they were just the latest deluded military conquerors, and the Gospels give them only walk-on parts. 

The Temple,  newly re-built by King Herod, in many ways played a good and central part in the lives of ordinary people like Jesus’ family and friends.  Recently we heard how Joseph and Mary took Jesus there in ritual recognition of his birth, meeting the devout Anna and Simeon [Luke 2:22 38].  Luke also tells us that Jesus and his family went to the Temple every year, Jesus absorbed in challenging religious experts when he was only 12 [Luke 2: 41-52].  During his ministry Jesus frequently used the Temple as the appropriate place to argue and teach.  

Centuries previously, after the most important citizens had been exiled, their descendants returned [as Philip mentioned last week] with a refined version of traditional religion.  This zealous, self-perpetuating group of wealthy families, from which the High Priests and their hangers-on were drawn, insisted on their exclusive status and religious correctness, though some of them were not like that, e.g John the Baptist’s father [Luke 1: 39 et seq.] , or Nicodemus [John 3: 1-21, 7:50 and 19: 50-52] . 

   This asserted monopoly of technically-correct religion inevitably belittled those whose lives did not comply, thus misleading most ordinary people into missing the generously encouraging divine presence Jesus called ‘our Father in heaven’.  Conflict with Jesus, himself from an ordinary background and focussed on the unrealised potential of those around him, was thus inevitable.  The dispute was about life, not abstract theology.

   Throughout the Gospels, on page after page, we have Pharisees, Priests, Levites, Doctors of the Law, condemned by Jesus in the strongest terms:   “They talk, but they don’t perform.  They bind heavy burdens, and place them on people’s shoulders, but they don’t want to shift them themselves by so much as a finger”, records Matthew [23: 4].   Open your Gospels to get the scale of Jesus’ criticism.   The end of chapter 11 of Luke’s Gospel [ 37 et seq.]  is a particularly lengthy example.

Here are a few reminders;

Jesus’ story of the ineffective Temple prayer of a self-righteous Pharisee and the effective penitence of a despised Tax Collector [Luke 18: 9-14];

his story of a ritually unclean Samaritan, whose spontaneous generosity fulfilled his humanity, compared with a Priest and a Levite on their way to officiate at the Temple, ignoring the blatant needs of a ritually unclean, half-dead traveller [Luke 10: 25-37]; 

when a Samaritan woman challenged whether true worship was confined to Jerusalem he insisted that sincerity in worship, not location, was what mattered [John 4]: 1-30] .

 In today’s Gospel story [John 2:13 – 21], Jesus leads a riot in the Temple. 

The Temple was divided into sections for priests, Jewish men, Jewish women, and foreigners, and being Passover it was full of visitors.  In the foreigners’ section, supposedly “a House of Prayer for all Nations” [Psalm 69:9], guides organised parties of sightseeers; birds and animals were sold for sacrifice; and because the Romans prohibited Jewish coins, and Roman coins idolatrously bore the image of Caesar, a commercial currency exchange provided religiously acceptable coins from nearby Tyre.   Jesus told the traders to “stop making my Father’s house a market-place.”  All four Gospels tell us that Jesus drove them out.  [Matt. 21:12-21; Mark 11:15-18; Luke19:45-48].

Jesus could only have led such a physically powerful attack in such a prominent place if he had active public support, and Luke tells us that immediately afterwards “Every day Jesus taught in the Temple. The chief priests, the teachers of the Law, and the leaders of the people wanted to kill him, but they could not find a way to do it, because all the people kept listening to him, not wanting to miss a single word.” [19:47]  

The Temple authorities were furious.  “What miracle [they asked him] can you perform to show us that you have the right to do this?  Jesus answered ‘Tear down this Temple, and in three days I will build it again.’ …  But the Temple Jesus was speaking about was his body.”  [John 2, 18-19, 21.].  This cryptic text from our Gospel reading is at the heart of Jesus’ activity from Lent [throwing himself down from the Temple roof] to Easter [his constant forgiveness whilst suffering].  What does it mean? 

At a recent Synod, the Bishop of Carlisle used Jesus’ message that every human being is made in the image of God and is of unique and equal value.  It is easily said, but its application is challengingly difficult and costly.  The Bishop was speaking out of concern for Down’s syndrome foetuses revealed by ante-natal screening.  Work on that for yourselves.  Jesus was no populist; he knew he would have to demonstrate in his coming execution that the cruelty did not affect the permanent, heavenly, significance of his life.  By contrast, the Temple was merely a building, and the Romans destroyed it a few decades later.  

 By accepting with determined humanity the murderous hatred of those whose privilege he disturbed, Jesus exposed a shallow world of power and greed, and replaced it with the real world which releases our human potential.  In a good paraphrase of today’s Epistle, Paul puts Jesus’ challenge starkly: “The message about Jesus on his cross is meaningless to those who are going nowhere.  But to those who are on the path to completeness, it shows how resourceful God is.”  [1 Cor. 1: 25,  Good As New (2004)].  Can we expand our awareness of people as our path to completeness?

When a young couple were having dinner, sitting in an Ipswich restaurant’s window seats, they spotted a homeless man outside and asked the waiter if they could buy something for the man to eat.  The waiter was unresponsive, so Gareth dashed to MacDonalds.   Unable to get the homeless man out of their heads, Gareth and Sarah started a Facebook page for donations of clothes and sleeping bags, but  realised the acute need for homeless people to have dry, secure places to sleep. 

The owners of a double-decker bus for sale on eBay gave it them for free.  Gareth, a skilled tradesman, put in a kitchen, bathroom, lounge and dining area, and 14 secure sleeping pods, using equipment donated by local businesses.  Other costs were covered by crowdfunding.  A homeless individual thus became the measure for life-fulfilling action.

Burnley churches created a food bank, but soon realised that many poor people were socially isolated, so their members began to deliver food to those who did not go out.  As needs of individuals became more apparent, volunteers became Street Pastors, supported victims of domestic violence, and organised youth work.

A retired Leicester GP, working in a makeshift camp for Rohingya refugees, recently wrote: “One little girl stands out.  She was paralysed from the waist down and, before she came to the hospital, had developed dreadful bedsores which became infected.  She was so brave coping with the dressings and made real progress over six weeks.  We arranged for her to have a special mattress [and] now she sits on a chair.   One young boy has deformed feet [and] couldn’t run away from the soldiers …  who shot him in his club foot  … 

You look around sometimes and tears come to your eyes.  It’s absolutely terrible.  You just do what you can. ” 

May Jesus’ example expand what we can do, and so deepen the coming joy of Easter.



Jesus talks to the Samaritan Woman

Given by David Teall
24th February, 2008
John Chapter 4

DavidTeallFor a few years after we retired my wife, Pat, and I lived on board a sailing boat in the Mediterranean. I well remember an occasion when, after a short sail from a neighbouring island, we moored in a deserted bay on the northern side of the island of Meganisi in Western Greece. We were low on food and decided that there was just about time to walk up the hill to a nearby village before the shops shut for their afternoon siesta.

As we left our boat it was about noon. The sky was a deep Mediterranean blue with not a cloud to be seen and there was not a breath of wind. It was hot – very hot indeed. As we struggled up the hill we zig-zagged from one side of the road to the other to keep wherever possible in the minimal amount of shade cast by the occasional olive tree. Every few hundred metres we stopped under a tree to catch our breath, wipe the sweat from our eyes and take another sip from the bottles of water that we had taken with us for the journey. By the time we reached the village we were feeling extremely hot and bothered and needed a sit down and yet another drink before we felt able to face doing the shopping. Walking up hill under the Mediterranean noon-day sun is definitely something to be avoided if at all possible.

Our walk to the village and back was no more than three miles. When Jesus arrived at Jacob’s Well, he and his disciples had walked many times further than that. They had been in Jerusalem for the Passover and were now on their way back to Galilee, a distance of at least 80 miles. That’s about as far as from here to London. Jacob’s Well was in a mountainous area of Samaria about half way along the route. If you imagine yourself walking from here to London, that’s somewhere around Bedford! No wonder John tells us that Jesus was ‘tired out by his journey’. Picture the scene in your mind: Jesus sitting by the well, very probably in the shade of an Olive tree, taking a well-earned rest after maybe six hours of hard walking along a mountainous path. Can you understand his tiredness? Can you appreciate his need to sit down for awhile? Of course you can. It is a very normal part of being human that we have all experienced and all understand. Jesus the man – I shall return to that.

When we set off up the hill to the village in Greece we took the longer route that skirted around the hill rather then the direct route that went straight over the top. We were approaching sixty years of age and knew our limitations! By contrast, Jesus was in his early thirties and was no doubt, a very fit man. He chose to go the shortest route from Judea to Galilee which took him through the mountainous lands of Samaria. The alternative route up the Jordan Valley would have been at least 40 miles further. At the time of Jesus there had been friction between the Jews and the Samaritans for hundreds of years. There are several disputed stories about their origins but the Biblical evidence comes from the Second Book of Kings, Chapter 17. From this text we learn that, in about 722 BC, the King of Assyria captured Samaria, deported most of the Israelites and brought in many settlers from foreign lands. Other versions of the story suggest that some of the Jews who escaped deportation to Assyria remained and inter-married with the tribes who were brought in. Whether this is true or not, aided by a priest appointed by the King, the Samaritans developed a religion based on the first five books of the Old Testament and they claimed that they were the true successors of the Law of Moses, not the Jews.

Around 250 BC the Samaritans rebuilt Shechem (Sychar) and built a temple to Yahweh on Mount Gerizim, not far from the Well of Jacob. This temple stood until it was destroyed by the Jews in 128 BC. However, the ‘Samaritan problem’ did not go away. In 6 AD, when Jesus was a young child, some Samaritans crept into the Jerusalem Temple and scattered human bones in it, an act of desecration. The repercussions of this outrage rumbled on throughout the life of Jesus until eventually, a few years after his crucifixion, Pontius Pilate ordered a massacre of Samaritans on Mount Gerizim. What we now refer to as ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, now thankfully behind us, were very short-lived by comparison with the Samaritan Problem’.

This then is the background to the seemingly simple picture of Jesus sitting by a well talking to a local woman. According to the received wisdom of the time there were two very good reasons why he should not have engaged her in conversation: first she was a woman and secondly, she was a Samaritan. But Jesus, whose willingness to engage with those whom others considered to be outcasts had frequently got him into trouble, had no time for racial or sexual discrimination and so, whilst the disciples were shopping for food, they talked.

No doubt we only have an abridged report of what was said from John, but what a conversation it was! What is it that we are taught about making conversation with strangers: avoid talking about relationships, religion or politics. And what did Jesus talk to the Samaritan woman about? Relationships, religion and politics! There are several gems within the conversation which I could expand upon but they are all eclipsed by what is arguably the most dramatic scene described in the New Testament: Jesus volunteers the information that he is the Messiah: ‘I am he,’ he said ‘the one who is speaking to you.’

There are other accounts in the New Testament where we learn from Jesus that he is the Messiah, but none as direct as this. In Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus affirms Peter’s statement that he is the Messiah and the Son of God, but he does not utter the words himself. Later in the same three gospels, Jesus tells the High Priest that he is the Messiah, but only in response to a question. In his conversation with the Samaritan woman he volunteered the information at a point when he could easily have remained silent. What can we learn from this remarkable decision?

Jesus was on a mission. He was on earth to establish a new covenant between God and his people: all his people; not just the Jews. What better way to deliver that message than to reveal his true identity to someone as far removed from the Jewish leaders of the time as possible: a Samaritan woman? This was, in the modern idiom, breaking news of the most spectacular order. If they had had today’s technology there would have been helicopters jostling for position over head and television satellite vans backed up on the road all the way to Jerusalem!

We started this story with a vivid picture of the humanity of Jesus sitting down in the shade for a well-earned rest. Through his conversation with the Samaritan woman we are brought face to face with his divinity. He is able to tell her ‘everything that she has ever done’; he speaks with authority on the nature of worship and he reveals that he is the Messiah – God’s chosen one. Here, by Jacob’s well, the Samaritan woman, an outsider, someone the disciples would have preferred to ignore, met the man who is God whom we now worship. She believed in him and it changed her life. What a powerful and irresistible image that is. Try to keep it with you throughout the rest of today.

Along with that vision, one final question to leave you with: who is the modern equivalent of the Samaritan Woman? Who is the ‘outsider’ that we feel can never share a part of God’s Kingdom, but whom Jesus wants us to include? Could it be members of other faiths perhaps? Or, within our own Church, could it be Women Bishops or Gay Clergy? Or even closer to home, could it be someone who simply lives in a different part of the village, or who wears very different types of clothes? Such questions can be very difficult to answer as Jesus never said that we should condone the breaking of God’s law: His passionate over-turning of the tables in the temple is testament to that. However, by revealing his true identity to the Samaritan woman, Jesus challenged the prejudices of his time and of his disciples in particular and forced them to re-evaluate what was and was not against God’s law. His encounter at Jacob’s Well challenges us no less today. Let us go out into the world this week more firmly resolved to confront our prejudices and to open our hearts to all of God’s people.