By Matthew Croucher

Acts 7:55-60 and John 14:1-14

Today it is four weeks since Easter Sunday – and it’s been six and a half weeks since Level 4 lockdown began after the stroke of midnight of 23 March.  I know some of us were already “locked down” before that because of our health or because of the rules at the places we live.

What will Prime Minister Ardern and cabinet decide tomorrow?  When will lockdown end for most of us?  Will that be the last of it, or will be have to climb back in to our self-imposed isolation bubbles?  And what will Level 2 look like this time once it actually gets going?

How many of the people that we know will have lost their jobs?  Which of our favourite cafes or businesses will be gone for good?

How many people of the people we know will have had the virus?  Did anyone we know die?  What is missing them going to be like?

What travel plans that we were looking forward to will be cancelled?  And for how long?  What is going to happen to Africa?  Brazil?  India?  To America?  Will the virus bring down any governments?

Will the environment truly get to bounce back or will we continue with business as usual?  Will homelessness get worse again or get better?

I’m worried about what will happen with the work I am involved in to improve services for New Zealanders living with dementia – is all hope for positive change dead in the water for the time being?

And what, what in the hell is God doing in all of this mess?!

I’ve been thinking about how Jesus interacted with all the people we’ve been reading about from Easter Sunday onward.  With Philo, we read the story of the women in the garden on Easter Sunday morning [Matthew 28:1-10].  The tomb is empty.  The soldiers are unconscious.  There’s a violent earthquake!  An angel!  And then Jesus pops up while they’re running back home – “Surprise!”  And what is his message from beyond the grave?  Now that he’s back, you’d think he’d go to the others with the women.  But no, his message is: “I’ll catch up with you all later”.  What on earth does it all mean?  What are we to understand God was doing?  We weren’t sure, and Philo asked us to sit with that uncertainty.

With Digby, we read about Thomas and his quite reasonable doubt in the face of his friends’ insistence that they’d seen Jesus in the house [John 20:19-31].  Doubt founded on nothing less than the cast-iron reasoning that Thomas was a witness to Jesus’ trial, murder, and burial, days earlier.  Their very un-funny insistence on this story is not just unbelievable, it’s bizarre.  Then, quite suddenly, Thomas meets his Jesus, with the story dwelling uncomfortably on the anatomical details.  Surprise!  Digby wondered with us how we might believe in resurrection in the ‘new normal’ context we are living in at the moment.

The following Sunday, we travelled the Emmaus Road with Philo [Luke 24:13-35].  Those believers were non-plussed.  They were not talking about resurrection, they were talking death and dismay.  In this story, they get what we might describe as ‘a jolly good preaching to’ from Christ Icognito, and then, curiously, dinner, at which point they see.  Surprise!  No triumphal resurrection feast for the Son of God though, complete with assorted First Testament Saints, but rather a simple meal of bread.

Last week, Philo had us sitting around a camp fire on the shore of Lake Galilee some weeks later [John 21:1-19].  Peter has recognised Jesus in an enigmatic stranger on the shore, and they’d had a cooked breakfast together.  It was all just like old times.  And this familiar Jesus that Peter meets in this familiar place asks whether Peter really loves him, and again, and again, until it hurts, then wraps it up with a piece of prophecy that can’t be read even today without engendering a sense of threat.  Surprise! There’s no “On this rock I will build my church” rhetoric for this resurrection encounter.

Just in case we still haven’t got the message that God’s resurrection in our lives will not conform to our assumptions, we come to the visceral story of Stephen and his encounter with the risen Jesus [Acts 7:55-60].

Before we dive in, it’s worth noticing that this characteristic of the risen Jesus to refuse to conform to anyone’s assumptions is not that surprising, really, if we step away from a safe churchy view of Jesus.  It’s pretty consistent with Jesus’ entire life story up to that point – from the Son of God being born in an animal pen to a peasant girl who got pregnant outside marriage, to the long-awaited Messiah working as a carpenter in the middle of nowhere until he was at least ‘90 in Galilean Years’ before so much as preaching a sermon.

Come to think of it, there’s a lot of this in the Old Testament too.  Who is identified as being the people who will be the parents who will birth God’s people into the world?  A couple of octogenarians who have never conceived even a single child between them.  Who is chosen to lead surely one of the most cantankerous and traumatised groups in classical literature out of slavery and into a new land?  A poor public speaker who has lived as one of the oppressors in the palace itself until the day he murdered a government worker in cold blood.  Who becomes the first monarch of Israel’s golden era?  A shepherd teenager who discovers amongst other things that he’s capable of killing a good man just so that he can have sex with his wife.  God just will not conform to our expectations when it comes to dealing with us.

So what’s the preamble to Stephen’s resurrection story?  Well, the fledgling believers are doing well!  Unbelievably, in Jerusalem!  Acts of power are taking place, apostles are preaching in the open, public opinion has swung in support of the new group, and Jewish believers of all religious and political stripes are linking up with the Jesus Movement, including the Greek culture-loving upper-class Roman-appeasers, the Sadducees.  Stephen is one of those people.  I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to imagine he might have been somewhat similar in his time and place to a Trump-supporting southern evangelical from a large house in a leafy suburb in Tennessee.  “Make Judea Great Again!  Support Herod!”

Yet Stephen’s also done something astonishing, switched allegiance to the Jesus Movement, and been appointed a deacon to ensure the common wealth gets fairly distributed to the needy of all Jewish persuasions.  Wow.  Didn’t see that coming.  But wait, there’s more.  Surely God showers particular blessings on this man, of whom the writer says he was “a man full of faith”, “a man full of God’s grace and power [doing] great wonders and miraculous signs”.

Well, before you know it, he’s making enemies by arguing with the supporters of the status quo, powerful people, and he’s dragged into the very same court that oversaw Jesus’ death sentence.  One senses this might not go well without God’s intervention.  There’s a lot at stake, but Stephen has a reputation for being unable to be argued with, once he gets going.  He is reported to have considerable wisdom because of “the Spirit by whom he spoke”.  Surely if anyone can grasp a resurrection victory from the jaws of defeat, it’s God working through Stephen?  Didn’t the last few weeks of extraordinary actions by the early church demonstrate a capacity for just this kind of resurrection?

Surprise!  Stephen’s wise and Spirit-filled speech turns out to be a lengthy historical and theological argument that could have been designed to deliberately incense his listeners, something it achieves so spectacularly that after a final series of what read like calculated insults and suicidal accusations against the whole institution of the court, he doesn’t even get to finish because the judiciary drag him outside the city in scenes of fury that make Jesus’ hearing seem civilised in contrast.  Does God have no sense of even the most basic rules of Public Relations?

And it’s here, here that Stephen gets his face to face meeting with the resurrected Christ.  And this time, it certainly is with the whole heavenly glory thing, only the effect is in extremely sharp juxtaposition with the fact that he is being bludgeoned to death by the rocks being thrown at him.

What on earth are we to do with all this?  Some people have pointed to Saul’s presence at this execution and see in this that Stephen’s death is a necessary part of a master-plan to convert this key person and galvanise the early church.  Are we really expendable chess pieces in a great game?  Was Jesus’ message to Stephen in his death-vision really “Well done, good and faithful servant, sorry about that” or was it “I am God” and “I am here”?  Let’s not forget that whatever positives Stephen’s death may have brought for the believers in the longer term, this violence actually emboldened the conservative opposition, so that a “time of great persecution” took shape from that moment on.

So what are we to do with all these post-resurrection encounters, from Mary’s to Stephen’s?  Apparently God’s ways of working are so strange, so freakingly incomprehensibly bizarre, that not even his very best friends, his disciples, the people that either met him first-hand or personally knew someone who had; not even these people are capable of expecting what actually happens, and they often even seem to fail to recognise Jesus at first when he does make his encounters with them.  And two thousand years of careful thought, scholarship, and cultural indoctrination later, if you’re like me, it’s all still perplexing.

Nadia Bolz-Weber says in her Easter Sermon this year:

“God never seems to adhere to our expectations …

[What if] God was basically fed up with being on the receiving end of all our human projections, tired of being nothing more to us than what we thought God should be … in short [what] we would be if we were God … and the thing … wasn’t the question ‘Is Jesus like God?’, it was ‘What if God is like Jesus?’

What if God is not who we thought?  What if the most reliable way to know God is not through religion, [but] through a person. What if the most reliable way to know God is to look at how God chose to reveal God’s-self in Jesus.”

I think this week’s gospel reading brings the same point across.

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”  Jesus answered, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life … if you really know me, you will know my Father as well.  From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

What if we have met God?  What if we already have all the information we need?

Today it is four weeks since Easter Sunday – and six and a half weeks since Level 4 lockdown began.  What will be decided tomorrow?  When will lockdown end for most of us?  Will that be the last of it?

How many of the people we know will have lost their jobs?  How many of the people we know will have had the virus?  Did anyone we know die?  What is going to happen to the rest of the world?  Will the environment truly get to bounce back or will we continue with business as usual?  Will homelessness get worse or get better?  What will happen with the work I’ve been doing?

Is all hope of change dead in the water for the time being?

And what, what in heaven’s name is God doing in all this?  What is God expecting of me?  Of our Aldersgate community?

Let’s keep on looking at how Jesus lived his life, and let’s keep doing it together.  Perhaps we’ll be surprised.



Prayers of the People.

Dorothy Drew, May 2020

Loving Lord, you came to show us how to live life with fresh wonder.

During this unusual time in our lives we have many opportunities to stop
and drink in the beauty of this world which is our home,
this planet with its amazing variety and colour.

For this lovely season of Autumn,
when the trees are letting go and the leaves are falling,
forming a kaleidoscopic carpet of colour on the ground below;

For the vivid contrasts and the wonderful vitality of nature;
For all this we give you praise and thanksgiving.

This has been a challenging time for us all
but through the gift of technology
we have been able to keep in touch with family and friends.

Yet what we miss, Lord is human touch,
the warmth of a smile, the comfort of a hug,
and being together in worship.

We treasure this togetherness – this time apart has taught us how precious it is.

We thank you, Lord for those special moments in life
when we are surprised by a happening which brings us closer to you –

The surprise of a card or letter,
the unexpected telephone call which tells us that we are being thought of
even though we are apart.

We hear you also in the moments of silence.
Special moments we would like to keep forever.

What a moment for Mary Magdalene when Jesus called her by name.
And for Thomas when Jesus appeared to him and all doubt was wiped away.

We remember the grieving two on the Emmaus road,
not knowing who their companion was
until the moment of the blessing of the bread.

For Peter, the moment Jesus said “Feed my lambs”.

And what about Stephen? Did he have doubts?
No. He did what Jesus did in the moment of death
and prayed to you not to punish his oppressors.

We are sorry and pray your forgiveness, Lord
when we do not always recognise you
and so easily dismiss the moment of revelation.

As we continue to live in these uncertain times
we remember now all those who are still suffering from the virus.

So many have lost loved ones
here in our own city, country, and in your global family.

We pray for those who have been or are affected still,
not only by illness and grief
but by lack of food, water, shelter, and the necessary medical help.

We give thanks for all those who are working so diligently to bring relief
to the many needy in our city and elsewhere providing food parcels.

We know our Methodist Mission staff are among these
and we are thankful that they do this caring on our behalf.
Bless them all we pray.

You are the God of hope and compassion.

As we come to a new week, we pray for ourselves, Lord,
that we may be gentle, compassionate, and caring,
especially for the vulnerable and those most at risk.

There will be many who are anxious and distressed,
perhaps at the thought of returning to work, a fear of unemployment, or a business failing.
There may be children who are unsure about returning to school.
We pray that they will receive the help they need.

Eternal God, we all need to know the power and freedom of your healing grace
so hold us together, loving Lord we pray,
in our fragilities but also in our strengths.

Inspire us with your presence
and may we know that we love, labour, laugh and cry
not alone, but with you.



Our Church Community’s Experience of the Lockdown:
What we missed most, and what we appreciated during the lockdown

Lockdown presentation_compressed

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