Texts: Philippians 3:17-4:4
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
The Pharisees, generally speaking, get a bad name in the New Testament. Again and again, we hear of Jesus in conflict with the Pharisees. Perhaps it was because that in some ways, they were quite alike. Both Jesus and the Pharisees called people to stick to God’s ways in a world dominated by the pagan rulers of Rome.
So, for example, the Pharisees said that you should tithe a certain amount of your income. Jesus accused them of being obsessed with the detail, and said to them, ‘[you] have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith’ (Matthew 23.23 NRSV). Or they obsessed with ritually cleaning the plates and cups they used to eat; no point in that, said Jesus, if your heart is not in the right place: ‘‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence’.
Worst of all, from the Pharisees point of view, was that Jesus did not agree with them that you kept yourself pure by keeping away from sinners. Matthew’s Gospel records a time when the Pharisees complained that Jesus had the check to eat with those they deemed unworthy of a religious teacher:
..as [Jesus] sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ (Matthew 9.10-13 NRSV).
The New Testament gives us this notion of the Pharisees as hypocritical enemies of Jesus. So it’s a surprise to find some nice Pharisees today! For as Jesus is on his way towards Jerusalem, he gets a warning: ‘At that same time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “You must get out of here and go somewhere else, because Herod wants to kill you.”’ This is one of the few places in the New Testament where Pharisees come out well. It’s a reminder that we shouldn’t always be fooled by stereotypes. For here is a group of people- often seen as enemies of Jesus- who cared enough for him to pass on this warning.
If you believed the impression you get from some parts of the media, you would think that everyone in our culture, in our communities, were hostile to Christianity. And so many Christians, think that if they attempt to get involved in the community, or admit to being Christians in our culture, they will be ridiculed or attacked- just as Jesus was often the focus of furious controversy when he spoke to or about the Pharisees. And yes, there is hostility from many people towards the church today (although we should never confuse any hostility we sometimes encounter in our culture with the real suffering of Christians in places like Iraq, where Christians are being martyred for their faith).
Yet even where we worry there might be hostility, if we go about it in the right way, we can be pleasantly surprised. A few years ago the Kirk Session asked me to begin a dialogue with the gay and lesbian community in this city. I expected hostility, because we know that many gay and lesbian people have felt hurt and rejected by the Church in the past. But I found I was welcomed- that they were glad we want to speak with them, we were interested in them. They were not hostile, but gracious to us.
Another example would be the Kirking of the Council– an event which we in this congregation often underestimate. A few years ago, when a proposal was made to downgrade it, but many people in our community expressed their shock at the idea. When, some years ago, someone from the National Secular Society wrote a cack-handed letter to the local press complaining about the participation of local schools in the service, many people in the wider community spoke up to defend the event. Like the Pharisees who were worried about Jesus, people in our community worry about us, and care about the Church.
I find that when I work in schools, teachers are pleased to see me. When we asked a local primary school to take publicity for yesterday’s Messy Church, they were happy to do so. The wider community have also responded positively to our Friends of the Old High Church campaign. If we go about it in the right way, we can make a welcome for the Gospel in our community.
And yet being carrying the Gospel into our community does carry the risk of rejection, failure, and worse. Today’s Gospel reading has Jesus speaking about his mission to the city of Jerusalem. He can see that his journey to Jerusalem is a journey into controversy, conflict and confrontation. In Jerusalem he will meet his enemies head on. Already, on the road to Jerusalem, here are some Pharisees telling him that Rome’s puppet ruler, King Herod, wants to kill him. In Jerusalem Jesus will be arrested, tried and executed. Going to Jerusalem will be the death of him.
But he still goes. He replies to the Pharisees, ‘Tell that old fox Herod I’m carrying on with God’s work. He’s not going to stop me today or tomorrow from bringing healing to the sick and struggling with evil’. Jesus refuses to give up, even though he is aware of what a dangerous place the city is: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets, you stone the messengers God has sent you!’. And yet he will go there, for two reasons.
Firstly, because even when the people of Israel reject him, Christ still loves the city. He uses a lovely image: he’d like to be like a mother hen looking after her chicks, taking city under her wing. But the city will not let him. Jesus loves the city of Jerusalem, despite the fact that the city often rejects God. He laments for the city, precisely because he loves it so. And Christ loves our city, this city of Inverness, despite the fact that so many in the city reject God. For even if there are those who wish well for the Church, still our city, like all cities, too often only pays lip service to God, or ignores or rejects God.
The many churches which exist within our city are not a sign that this is a city which loves God (in fact, many of these churches are a sign of the sinfulness of the city, because they have been set up by Christians who feel they are too good to be in the same Church as other Christians!). If our city loved God, there would no-one homeless, no families wondering where their next meal will come from, no-one who is lonely or despairing. And when we do try to bring God’s kingdom to the city, we too will meet controversy, conflict and confrontation. The powerful might welcome our acts of charity, but when we go further, and point out, from the point of view of the Gospel, those things which cause poverty or despair in our city- then our word might not be so welcome.
Yet Christ loves the city, and all who live here- so we have to love it too!
The other reason Jesus carries on into the dangerous city of Jerusalem is because it is God’s plan for him. Recall the message he gave the friendly Pharisees for Herod: Here, Jesus is talking about what he believes his mission to be. Right now, he’s bringing healing and carrying on with work which indicates that God’s kingdom is on its way- the sick are cured and evil is driven out (‘I am driving out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow’). But then he adds, ‘and on the third day I shall finish my work’.
In fact, this phrase might be better rendered as Jesus saying, ‘on the third day I will be perfected’. The reference to ‘the third day’ is a reference to his death and resurrection. Elsewhere, he takes his disciples aside and tells them,
‘Listen! We are going to Jerusalem where everything the prophets wrote about the Son of Man will come true. He will be handed over to the Gentiles, who will make fun of him, insult him, and spit on him. They will whip him and kill him, but three days later he will rise to life’ (Luke 18.33).
Going to the city will lead to Jesus’ death, but that is just part of God’s plan. It does not end at the cross, but it ends, is perfected, ‘on the third day’, with Easter, and his resurrection. Jesus may face disaster if he goes to Jerusalem. But it will not be the end of his story.
The Church is the continuing story of the risen Christ. We’re here because of the resurrection. We are all part of the risen Christ’s story. The risen Christ is the life of the Church.
When Jesus warned his disciples what was ahead at Jerusalem, they often did not understand. For the idea that your leader might be intending to go to where he will die must had seemed just crazy to them. And yet, that was God intended- crucifixion and resurrection.
I think today that we are fearful as we think about the future of the Christian faith and the Church… and not just in this city, and not just in this congregation. But we need to follow where God is leading us. Perhaps that will mean, as it did for Jesus, death. There will be things we have to put to death, to leave behind, to crucify, if we are faithful to God’s plan.
But ultimately, the cross is not the end. St Paul says that we who have been baptised are already ‘citizens of heaven’ (Philippians 3.20). And he hints that we will share in Christ’s resurrection: ‘He will change our weak mortal bodies and make them like his own glorious body’ (Philippians 3.21). Whatever struggles lie ahead, we will continue to have hope. For we are Easter people. We believe in resurrection- in the possibility of life arising where once there was only death. For we the risen Christ is our life, the life of the Church.
As we look to the future as a church, we need to pray. But we are not to pray, ‘please God make our plans for this congregation successful’. Instead, we have to pray, ‘Please God, show us your plan, and give us the strength to stick with it. Lead us through the controversies, and difficulties, the opposition, help us to stay with your plan, for our live and for your Church. Make us willing to make sacrifices, even to let die things we love, if that’s what’s in your plan for us. But sustain us with your hope, until we are perfected on the third day, the day of resurrection. Make us more and more like Christ. And thank you, God, for unlikely friends who make your Gospel welcome. Amen’.
Ascription of Praise
Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2016 Peter W Nimmo