In a little over a week’s time, on 9th April, it will be the 70th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s execution. Just two weeks before the camp was liberated by US forces, the young Christian pastor and theologian, aged just 39 years, was tried without witnesses, defence counsel or records of proceedings and hanged at dawn in the Flossenburg concentration camp. Six other conspirators, or we might say resistors, were hanged with him, amongst them three Generals and an Admiral.

Resistance to an autocratic regime is a dangerous undertaking.

There is clear evidence within the gospel accounts of the entry into Jerusalem that suggests a conspiracy of resistance to the authorities:

  • The provision of the colt. By whom and when was this set up?
  • Later in the week, the man carrying the water jar would lead the disciples to a prepared room. Who was he and when did this occur?
  • Matthew, Mark and Luke do not state that it was Peter who cut off the ear of one of the guards sent to arrest Jesus that was a much later addition by John.
  • Likewise the young lad who fled the garden naked.

I could go on. Suffice to say that there is, what one commentator (Theissen) calls, ‘protective anonymity’. This is surely because of the dangers faced by the conspirators, or resistors, to the authorities.

Theissen goes on to suggest that in the last two incidents both characters have run afoul of the ‘police’. Lopping off someone’s ear is no minor offense; and the young man that fled naked was involved in a physical struggle to avoid arrest.

But the provision of the colt and the provision of the room in which the meal was to be celebrated appear to highlight a conspiracy of secrecy.

These were dangerous times and clearly those caught up in the Jesus movement recognised the risks involved.

Which is what makes the entry into Jerusalem by Jesus all the more fascinating.

This was a bold, seriously brave venture.

There can be no doubt about the intention of Jesus.

To begin the descent into Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives was a declaration of serious intent. According to Zechariah (14.4) this is where the final battle against the nations would take place. And according to Josephus another prophet, a contemporary of Jesus known as ‘the Egyptian prophet’, had announced that God would appear on the Mount of Olives. Other writings, well known to the people, would mention the colt, leafy branches and scattered cloaks.

So Jesus was neither hiding his claims, nor was he slipping in by the back door.

Whilst others, understandably so, wanted to protect themselves against the charge of guilt by association, as did Peter of course on three occasions in the courtyard, Jesus stood tall against the forces of oppression.

In the course of my ministry I have on occasion received anonymous letters. For whatever reason the authors have felt the need to get something off their chest. Their complaint has usually been about something I or the church have done or failed to do. It’s always very difficult to know what to do with such correspondence other than throw it in the bin. But then so little or no change at all can be enacted upon, after all how can one engage with someone who chooses to remain anonymous? What has been most disconcerting for me at such times is the fact that someone has felt too afraid, for whatever reason, of declaring who they are. If they were able to so we could engage in what I would hope would be a constructive conversation. All that happens is for a brief moment they have vented their anger, but the cause of such anger more often than not goes unresolved.

To bring our concerns out into the open can be very costly, as the owner of the colt or the one who prepared the room for the last meal would have known, but it is vital if we are to achieve our aims as disciples of Jesus entrusted with carrying on the mission.

Today, as much as ever before, the world needs those who resist the injustices of society to stand up and be counted.

We may not have to engage in as demonstrative an act as riding a colt, nor be subjected to interrogation, torture and execution, but we may have to be ridiculed, verbally challenged and slandered if we are to have the impact necessary to prevent society from sliding into deeper division and a near-unredeemable breakdown in order.

The importance of the coming General Election cannot be over-exaggerated. It could well determine how the next 20 or 30 years turns out. Despite what some sections of the media claim, there is a clear choice being put before us the electorate. Narrow-minded nationalism is evident in certain political parties and some others are having to consider embracing the popularity of those parties’ so-called policies.

The chaos and uncertainty that could ensue should parliament be held hostage by extremists is very disturbing. Hence the need to reject those parties that are simply feeding off disenchantment and political disengagement.

Our nation, our world is at a crisis point.

The wars in the Middle East, and now Gulf, are threatening the stability of the world.

And in our country returning jihadists pose a very real threat to our security. It would not take much for a reaction to a terrorist outrage to wreak havoc across our diverse communities.

Our own contribution can be truly great. The Christian Church remains a powerful lobby. We are more likely to vote than those not affiliated to faith communities. That vote needs to be placed in such a way as to resist the increasing inequalities and divisions in society. That vote needs to be for progress and investment in our communities. That vote needs to take into account our neighbour in need. We are one of the richest nations in the world and it is a disgrace that so many are unable to guarantee food for their children because of policies that have restricted their income flow.

The entry into Jerusalem was a political act, have no doubt about. Jesus knew it and he would face the consequences in the coming days, not from the hands of the people but the occupying authorities, a relentlessly brutal and unforgiving regime. Which is why many, even those who wanted to be as part of the operation, would keep their heads down.

Thankfully no one in this country can feel threatened by casting their vote in a particular way, the ballot remains secret. But there may be opportunities for those who are able to find it within themselves to speak out against the injustices of 21st century Britain. If they do arise and you are one of those who can take the flak, do so with confidence for you stand in a long tradition of saints and martyrs, after all, without them things would be even worse, and without us things may yet get worse.

Pray to God they don’t, but add to your prayers action.

Jeremiah 31.31-34

Is Jesus given more credit than should be the case?
A provocative question; indeed, probably a disturbing one for some of us.

A few weeks ago I spent a day in the school at which our elder son David teaches; I have done so once a year for each of the three years he has taught there.

My role has been to address three separate classes on a topic then throw it open to discussion followed by half an hour of questions on any theme.
The topics recently were firstly Creation and Animal Rights, the second class was on War, Peace and Human Rights and the final session was on Jesus and the Bible. Children tend to get their monies worth out of parents don’t you think!
I have always been impressed by the level of interest and searching questions from the students at the school, the vast majority of them, probably as high as 90%, are Muslim.

In the final session of the day last month one boy asked whether Paul had invented Christianity. We would do well to ask the same question. Was Jesus responsible for founding a new religion or his apostle Paul?
Addressing this would help us in our original question of whether Jesus is given more credit than should be the case.

Let’s take the two questions in turn, then ask if either should matter and finally consider the way forward.

Firstly, does Jesus get more credit than should be the case

It has been said by some commentators that Jeremiah came closest to the Word made flesh before Jesus. It is easy to see why. Who was it that first envisioned a new relationship with God, a relationship that was based on the heart being one with God? Jeremiah, Jesus or Paul? Our Old Testament reading is clear.This was a radically different approach for the people of Jeremiah’s time. According to Jeremiah it is the initiative of God, not the actions of the people that will enable the relationship to be fulfilled.
A full eight centuries before Jesus would speak on the hillsides of Galilee and proclaim that he had come not to abolish the law but fulfil it Jeremiah had recognized that humanity does not have the capacity to heal itself but depended entirely upon the grace of God.

In this sense then Jesus was neither unique nor first in advocating such an understanding of our relationship with God and yet popular theology over the centuries has cast Jesus as the initiator, what he was actually doing, as he himself stated was merely reforming Judaism.

So if Jesus never intended to create a new religion was it Paul who invented Christianity?

Well, there is no doubt that Paul took the story into the Gentile world, and so far as we know he did so with an enthusiasm and commitment almost like no other. I say almost because Thomas is now known to have ventured into India; whether his message was to the Jewish communities there because of the trade routes or because he believed it right to take it the non-Jewish communities of that area I am not sure.

Nevertheless Paul’s letters preserve an astonishing development of thinking. Some scholars might argue whether he is referring to Jesus when he speaks of the Christ or that he is deploying a more general term for God but what is clear is that the teaching radically shifts the ground upon which the believers stood.

Now does this any of this matter? Well it does if we look for certainty and not faith.

All too often we have needed the hard evidence to substantiate our beliefs.
But the truth is that hard evidence is difficult to come by. The passing of time and the shifting cultures can make it all so distant and difficult for us.
But what does stand the test of time is that relationship with God as perceived by Jeremiah, embodied in Jesus and expressed in Paul; such a relationship is based on faith not certainty.

Most importantly for us is how this relationship can be played out in our daily lives.

Firstly the arrogance of humanity is getting the better of us.
To believe that we can survive, let alone develop, without referring to the Divine is an act of supreme arrogance. The history of the twentieth century with its concentration camp and gulags is a constant reminder of what happens when societies dispense with God; they lose their moral compass and millions perish. Today such arrogance is present in the increasing gap between rich and poor and in the animosity between the indigenous and the immigrant. For the grace-filled human being such a travesty is morally abhorrent. Because of course, from the ‘least of them to the greatest’ all are included in God’s sphere of love; would that be so for society, especially certain politicians and their parties.

Secondly those faith communities that believe they have all the answers have missed the point. Jeremiah, Jesus and Paul opened up the message to those outside their own communities. But how did they do so? For Jeremiah it was about bringing Israel and Judah together again, this was possible because God was not siding with either community but had inscribed the law in the hearts of both. Even if Jesus did come to ‘save the lost sheep of Israel’, something I would contend as potentially early church spin, the woman at the well, the Syro-Phoenician woman, the image of a Good Samaritan, and the centurion father remind us of the universality of the message Jesus conveyed. I can’t overlook the implication of John’s account when the thirst of Jesus is refreshed at the well by a woman from outside his own faith community. And Paul, well we have already alluded to Paul branching out from his inherited traditions and taking the message beyond the synagogues, but he was only effective because he became as they were.

If only we, in our time and place, could open ourselves up to those with a different perspective – we would soon discover that we have a lot more to learn than we previously imagined and when we do so others may actually be a little more receptive than they have been thus far to what we have to say. In other words before we speak we would do well to listen. We are all too often like the little child that chooses to lock himself in his bedroom refusing to come out and engage with others, yet expects to grow up to be a fully matured human being.

Thirdly,where does all this lead us?

In short, the supreme rule of God in our lives and world. Not a warped, myopic view of what we think God’s reign should look like. Not one that fits with our desire to be comfortable and free from hassle.Not the kind of world where only we matter, where our prejudices are somehow justified and those who cannot appreciate our arguments are thwarted.But a world that reflects the glorious diversity of God; one built on grace and justice, love and openness, passion and disciplined spontaneity; a world where each child matters and each voice is heard; the world that can only come through the kind of self-sacrifice evident in the cross, a sacrifice that some have managed to belittled it through romantic hymnody and glossy bling. But the faithful, those true to God, beg to differ. For them the cross is neither romantic nor trendy bling, for to them the cross, with all its toil, tears and sweat is central to their being, the way to a better world.

Whether it’s Jeremiah, Jesus or Paul, the message is still the same and that is the good news.