Sunday 30 March 2008

The Gift of Faith

1. “There’s no use trying,” said Alice “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the White Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!”

I’m quoting from Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. The real name of this strange man was Rev Charles Dodgson. As well as writing his famous books - much more than just books for children I think - he was a Lecturer in Mathematics at Oxford University, a logician, and an ordained Deacon in the Church of England.

There’s a common theme running through all 3 of today’s readings. That theme is belief; belief that God raised Jesus from the dead; belief that his resurrection reveals him to be the Messiah, the Christ – both the Hebrew and Greek words mean the anointed one.

That belief is a hard call, isn’t it? In our common human experience, people who are dead - really dead, not just in a coma - stay dead. They don’t come back to life, walk about and talk to us. But that is what the Gospels tell us Jesus did. It seems impossible. Can we really believe it? Is this one of the six impossible things we should practice believing before breakfast like the White Queen?

Let’s look a little more closely at the readings to try to answer these questions.

2. First there’s the reading from John’s Gospel (John 20:19-31), about the apostle Thomas.

Thomas is nobody’s fool, he doesn’t take anything on somebody else’s say so, he thinks for himself. I like that!

Thomas isn’t there when Jesus appears to the other disciples on the day of his resurrection, so when they tell him their extraordinary news “We have seen the Lord!” he doesn’t believe them. He says “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

But a week later Thomas is there when Jesus appears again. Jesus talks directly to him, and invites him to touch his wounds, to which Thomas responds immediately “My Lord and my God!” For all his initial scepticism, Thomas is convinced by his own senses that Jesus has risen from the dead.

Thomas is one of my heroes. I think it’s rather unfair that in the Western churches we call him Doubting Thomas. We should instead call him Believing Thomas as the Eastern churches do. He is the sort of character whose strong faith, once he was convinced by his own experience, would drive him to action. It is the living tradition of the ancient Christian communities of Kerala in South India that Thomas did indeed act on his faith; that he went there as a missionary, founded their Churches, and finally died and is buried there. Scholars have cast doubt on this, but I see no reason to offend our brothers and sisters in Christ in India by rejecting their tradition. Let us all enjoy him as the Apostle to India!

Yet there is something odd about John’s story, as there is about all the stories of Jesus after the resurrection. The risen Jesus is not quite the same as he was before. On Easter morning Mary Magdalen didn’t recognise Jesus at first; even though she knew him so well, she thought he was the gardener. The disciples on the road to Emmaus didn’t recognise him either, until he blessed the bread and broke it, and then he vanished. Nor did the disciples who had been fishing unsuccessfully on the Sea of Tiberias, when Jesus appeared to them on the shore with breakfast already cooked. And in today’s reading Jesus seems to appear out of nowhere, even though the doors are locked. It seems clear to me that we can’t imagine the risen Jesus as just the re-animated corpse of the man Jesus who died on the cross. There’s a lot more to it than that!

So what are we to make of it all? Unless we reject the Gospel accounts out of hand, the disciples experienced something which they described as seeing Jesus the risen Christ: “We have seen the Lord” they say. I think we will never know just what their extraordinary experience was. And it must be futile to try to explain what happened scientifically, in terms of say physics or psychology – there just isn’t enough evidence. But that doesn’t mean that whatever happened contradicts what we have learned about the way creation works through science. We can both believe in the truth of science and believe in their experience. And we can choose to call their experience what they called it, seeing Jesus the risen Christ. But we also have to admit it is shrouded in mystery.

3. Now let’s turn to the reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:14a, 22-32).

The scene is set at 9 am on the day of Pentecost; 6 weeks after Thomas declared his belief, and 7 weeks after the resurrection. The twelve have just received the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, and begun to speak in all manner of foreign tongues, attracting a crowd. Peter, acting as spokesman, starts to make a speech.

For the first time in public, Peter declares boldly his belief, and that of the other disciples, that God has raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses” he says. And he declares that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, quoting from today’s psalm, Psalm 16, to show his Jewish listeners that King David had prophesied the resurrection of the Messiah:
"He was not abandoned to Hades,
nor did his flesh experience corruption."

We can no longer argue convincingly from biblical prophecy these days, because it doesn’t fit in with how our scientific culture understands the way the universe works. But in those days this is how everyone thought, and his words would have been very persuasive; in fact we are told he was so persuasive that 3000 new disciples were baptised that day!

What really impresses me about this is the change that has come over Peter. This is the man that only seven weeks ago denied that he knew Jesus three times and ran away, because he was afraid of what might happen to him. Yet now this ordinary fisherman is inspired to stand up in public and preach a sermon testifying to his belief that God raised Jesus from the dead, and that he is the Messiah. And by doing so he kick-starts the process that has led to countless people sharing his faith.

And Peter isn’t the only one changed. As we read on in the book of Acts, we see how the disciples pass on their faith to others; how they start to organise themselves into a Church; how they seem to be propelled by some irresistible force to go out and make disciples of all nations, just as Jesus asked them to do.

The experience of seeing the risen Christ and receiving the Spirit he promised utterly transforms his disciples. What a powerful force for change it is!

4. And so we turn to the 1st Letter of Peter (1Peter 1:3-9)

Most scholars today no longer believe this was written by the Apostle Peter; it was most likely written around AD 100, well after his death, to encourage Christians in Asia Minor in a time of persecution.

Whoever the author was, he gives us a glimpse of how the faith of Peter and Thomas and the other apostles was passed on to new generations. “Although you have not seen (Jesus), you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him”. Notice how this echoes what Jesus said to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

And this faith of the Apostles, which Peter first declared on the day of Pentecost, has continued to be passed on, from generation to generation, until we ourselves have received it. And we in turn will pass it on to our own children and grandchildren, by the grace of God.

We should I think see this faith in Jesus the risen Christ, and our capacity to believe it, as like a magnificent gift from God, a gift which will utterly transform us if we let it, just as it did the first disciples. I think it is what allows us to be truly human. We are blessed by it!

4. Like the White Queen we have all had plenty of practice believing impossible things.

Scientists believe and tell us incredible things. Among them are these:
  • We are all made of stardust from exploding stars like our own sun;
  • We and every living thing on this planet have evolved from a common ancestor.

And so many of the everyday things we all take for granted would have seemed quite magical to Lewis Carroll, like mobile-phones and aeroplanes and computers.

We can all honestly believe, as the apostles did, that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, even though the details will always remain a mystery.

We should be awe-struck by what a powerful force for change it is to meet the risen Jesus and receive the Spirit he promised.

And we ought to thank God for the gift of faith, handed down to us from the Apostles.

Friday 21 March 2008

Watching and Enduring

A Three Hour Vigil for Good Friday


In the next 3 hours we are going to join inwardly in events that happened nearly 2000 years ago, when Our Lord Jesus Christ was cruelly executed alongside two common criminals, after a travesty of a trial, on trumped up charges, at a place called Golgotha, just outside Jerusalem.

This is a vigil, not a church service. Like all vigils, it is about watching and enduring.

  • We are the watchers. We are watching Jesus as he dies slowly, suffering in agony on a cross. And to help focus our thoughts, we have a life-size cross looming in front of us. It is made of rough-hewn timber, not sanded or varnished, roughly bolted together. The craftsman who made it to this specification would not allow his name to be put on it, because it does not properly display his skill. We can imagine that Jesus’s cross would not have been so very different, a crude, functional instrument of torture.
  • We are watching with Jesus, but we are not enduring. Jesus is enduring. He is enduring not just physical pain, but spiritual torments of desolation, as life drains from him.
  • And as we watch Jesus endure, let us try to make sense of this dreadful scene. Is it possible for us to feel – really feel - the magnitude of what Jesus, our Lord and saviour, our friend and brother, did for us so long ago on the cross? It’s difficult, at least I find it so, but let us try.

To help us, we’re going to meditate on the Seven Last Words of Christ on the cross, as recorded by the Gospel writers. And to place these in context, we are first going to meditate on the events last night in the Garden of Gethsemane and the events of his trial first thing this morning.

Our meditation will be broken into 20 minute sections, during which we shall hear readings from the Gospels and reflections on the readings, and listen to the beautiful choral music of Théodore Dubois’s Seven Last Words. And we will also spend time just being still, pondering in silence the passion of Christ.

In the Garden of Gethsemane
“Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

Jesus has just spent the evening sharing a meal with his disciples in an upper room – his last meal, the Last Supper, which we re-enact every week as the Communion. Then he leads them out walking in the night, out of the city.

Let’s enter into the scene in our imaginations. There must have been a moon, or they could not have seen the way, but without street-lights the heavens would be ablaze with stars, such as we rarely see these days. It would be pleasantly warm. And as they walk Jesus talks, always teaching them. At the Mount of Olives, Jesus shocks them by saying that they will all desert him; they protest they never would. Then they go into a Garden, the Garden of Gethsemane. I imagine fruit-trees in it: figs, vines, perhaps oranges and lemons. And no doubt carefully tended patches of herbs and vegetables. The air would be heavy with Mediterranean scents.

But Jesus is agitated. He seems to know that this is the end-game; that at last the authorities are moving to arrest him; that the outcome will be his death. He leaves the others, taking only Peter and James and John with him. He is visibly distressed; he goes on ahead to pray by himself. “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake”, he asks them.

And alone now, Jesus opens his heart in prayer to his loving-Father God, “Remove this cup from me”, he pleads, “yet, not what I want, but what you want.” He knows what is in store for him: the cutting off of fellowship; the severing of joy; the utter darkness, loneliness and desolation beyond endurance. But yet he is perfectly obedient to God’s will, perfectly trusting in his Father’s love. He is a model for us of how to behave when we see the abyss open in front of us. As we will: of one thing we can all be certain, we will suffer the separation of death from all we love.

Jesus knows what is in store for him, but he does not waver in his trust in the love of God, not for one moment. Even when Peter and James and John cannot stay awake for a single hour to watch with him as he wrestles with the temptation to run away. Even when his chosen disciple Judas betrays him with a kiss. Even when all his disciples flee, as armed men take him away. He knows their unreliability, but even so, how their desertion must hurt him! Would you or I be any different to them? Have we never been guilty of desertion or betrayal?

As we start our first period of silence, you might like to focus your thoughts on 2 things:

  • On Jesus’s perfect obedience to the will of our loving Father God; and
  • On our own unreliability as his disciples

Trial and Judgement
“If I tell you I am the Messiah, you will not believe; and if I question you, you will not answer. But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.”

One thing that strikes me about Luke’s story is the sheer variety of people involved in Jesus's trial. As well as the great and powerful who sat in judgement, there are the ordinary folk: there’s Peter, trying to be inconspicuous in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house, and there are those who challenged him there; there are the guards who taunted Jesus; and there’s the rent-a-mob who cried, “Crucify him”.

Peter was a brave man. John tells us it was Peter who cut off the ear of the High Priest’s servant with his sword. And Peter dares to follow Jesus and his captors back to the High Priest’s house. Yet even brave Peter denies he knows Jesus three times: when the cock crowed, Jesus’s wordless glance reduces him to bitter tears. Would I have been more faithful? I doubt it. I’m not as brave as Peter. But we can all take heart that the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost turned the Peter who denied Christ into the Peter who declared his faith boldly in public.

The guards were brutal men. They blindfolded Jesus, they mocked him and they slapped him around a bit. The point was humiliation. There are still people like that today – just call to mind those shocking photographs from Abu Ghraib. We may not have done quite such ghastly things ourselves, but have we never been guilty of deliberately humiliating someone? Perhaps we’re not so different from them.

Jesus was actually tried 3 times, by 3 distinct authorities: by the Jewish assembly of elders, by Pilate the Roman Governor, and by Herod the ruler of Galilee.

Have you been watching the new version of The Passion on TV? It gives a vivid picture of the self-serving, ruthless arrogance of the Temple leaders. To put him out of the way, they try to get Jesus to convict himself from his own lips of blasphemy, a capital offence in Jewish law. I believe Jesus really did think he was the Messiah, the Son of God. But according to Luke Jesus avoids saying so: he neither confirms nor denies it, saying instead the equivalent of ‘if you say so’. I prefer this to Mark’s account, where he says ‘I am’. It seems so much in character for Jesus to try to leave the outcome entirely in his Father’s hands. Yet, in their eagerness to be rid of Jesus, the elders break their own rules of evidence and convict him. But before we condemn them, ask yourself: am I any better? How often have I rushed to judgement, and condemned a court for releasing someone I believe to be guilty?

They send Jesus to Pilate because only the Roman occupiers can confirm a death sentence. But notice that they don’t accuse him of blasphemy in front of Pilate – that wouldn’t cut much ice with a Roman. Instead they accuse him of being a dissident, claiming he is King of the Jews. Pilate believes he is innocent, and doesn’t want to execute him. He tries again and again to find a way of letting Jesus off: he sends him to Herod, who mocks him and sends him back - Herod is a puppet who will not exercise any responsibility, as well as a joker; Pilate offers to have Jesus flogged - but this does not satisfy the Temple leaders' desire to put Jesus out of the way; and Pilate seeks the approval of the rent-a-mob crowd to release him - but they blindly follow their leaders and don't think for themselves. The mob howls for Jesus to be crucified and a murderer Barabbas to be released. And Pilate is a weak man; a weak man seeking to avoid trouble. He caves in under pressure and washes his hands of this innocent man. But before we condemn Pilate, ask yourself again, am I any better? How often have I gone along with the crowd, for the sake of an easy time, and given my tacit approval for something I know to be wrong?

As we move into our 2nd short period of silent meditation, you might like to focus your thoughts on the human weaknesses displayed by the different characters in the story. Which of them are you most like?

The 1st Word
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

We have come to spend three hours in vigil from 12 to 3; but if we had arrived at Calvary at noon, we would have missed three of his seven words from the cross. We are told that they crucified him at 9 in the morning. The 1st word came as the nails were hammered into his hands and wrists: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

It’s astonishing, isn’t it? Here is someone more concerned for the people who are causing him agony than for himself who suffers the agony; and at the very moment that the agony is being caused! I remember the time that I slammed the car door shut on my mother’s fingers, God bless her. As I hopped around crying, “Mum, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to”, she screamed in pain and cursed me. She couldn’t forgive my carelessness in the moment of her excruciating pain. But Jesus could, even though he knew that they did mean to.

You might say, "Oh, Jesus could forgive because he was God." But that misses the point, I think, which is that God became a human being, one of us; and, as one of us, forgave his fellow human beings who caused him pain.

What is our attitude to those who give us pain? Is it modelled on Jesus? It’s hard to be forgiving, isn’t it? Particularly when the person who hurts us means to do so, or doesn’t mind hurting us. If we’re to imitate Jesus, we must ask ourselves, “Is there anyone I do not forgive?” There probably is, and if there is, shouldn’t we ask our loving-Father to forgive them, even if we can’t quite do so by ourselves?

And let us think for a moment of those who wielded the hammers, those who drove home the nails. What a sin it was to crucify the best man who ever lived, the Messiah, the Son of God! But are we any better than them? Have we not driven home the nails ourselves, many times? I know there are times when my thoughtless, selfish actions have caused real hurt to others of God’s children, and there are times when I have lashed out deliberately, and times I have said things that can never be unsaid, in pain myself and driven to cause pain. I need to hear Jesus say to me, “Father, forgive him, for he does not know what he is doing

As we sit in silence, let’s focus our attention on this cross in front of us. Let’s try to imagine Jesus hanging there, and marvel at his amazing capacity for forgiveness. As we hear him say “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”, let’s ask ourselves, “Is there someone I need to forgive”?

The 2nd Word
“Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise”

Jesus did not hang on his cross alone - two others shared the agony with him. He was innocent, but they were not: they were criminals. We are not told what their crimes were, but I think they must have been pretty heinous. The Romans did not lightly sentence men to crucifixion. Today’s equivalent of their crimes might be murder in the course of a robbery, or child abuse, or a terrorist atrocity.

In his agony, one of these bad men taunts Jesus. Jesus does not respond in kind, he simply bears the insults. But the 2nd bad man rebukes the first: he acknowledges Jesus’s innocence, and he admits his own sentence is deserved. He says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus does respond to the second man, with his 2nd word from the cross: he says to him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

What a remarkable contrast between the two criminals who are suffering, and Jesus’s response to them! But what is it that makes the difference?

I think Jesus doesn’t respond to the 1st man, because nothing Jesus could say would do any good. The 1st man is so wrapped up in his own pain and degradation that he can only spew out hatred. His is a lost soul.

Even though the 2nd man is in the same agony, Jesus perceives that he loves God, that he knows he has done wrong, and that he is capable of feeling sorry for someone else, for Jesus. Jesus does not use his power to bring him down from the cross, to make it all better – that would be supernatural, and that doesn’t seem to be the way God works. Instead Jesus reassures the man that God loves him, even though, like Jesus, he is dying on a cross. It is really a spiritual miracle: despite all the mess, today they will truly be together in Paradise!

God calls each one of us to carry our own cross, as a Christian, in our own way. Perhaps it is only by enduring our own personal cross, enduring without losing sight of God’s love for us and our common humanity, as Jesus and the 2nd criminal did, that we too can be with Jesus in Paradise.

Another silence in the shadow of the cross. You might like to use it to think about your own personal cross, if you have one, or what it is that you most dread happening, if you don’t. Can you endure it, without losing sight of God’s love, and your own humanity? Remember the words of Psalm 23:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the
shadow of death, I will fear
no evil;
for thou art with me, thy rod and
thy staff they comfort

And let us pray for those who are suffering but cannot feel God’s loving touch, that feel unloved and unable to love. May they too hear Jesus say, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

The 3rd Word
He said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!”

Thank God I’ve never had to watch a public execution. It is an ugly thing, a degrading thing – that is the point of it, to degrade the victim. I find it hard to understand, but people have always thronged to watch them – even today where they’re still allowed. This degradation is part of what Jesus had to endure: his enemies jeering; the curious simply there for something to do, a bit of fun; those who loved him, grieving in front of his eyes.

It must be particularly gut-wrenching to watch someone you love, the child you have nurtured, suffer the prolonged torture of crucifixion. It took hours, not just the 3 hours of this vigil. Yet somehow Mary his mother finds the strength to stay close by Jesus in his agony. How completely torn she must be: repelled by his ghastly death, yet drawn to be near her beloved son in his last hours. In Mary at the cross we see an image of the eternal love at the heart of motherhood, and of the suffering it can bring. I thank God too that I have never had to suffer the death of a child.

Mary the mother of Jesus is supported in her vigil by four others: her sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene, as well as someone not named, but described as the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’. Scholars have identified Mary’s sister as Salome, the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee. The ancient tradition of the Church is that the disciple Jesus loved was Salome’s son John, the writer of John’s Gospel. If scholars and tradition are right, it is Jesus’s cousin John who is there with Mary at the crucifixion; though most scholars now believe the Gospel was written long after his death.

It’s rather moving, isn’t it, that in his 3rd word from the cross on the brink of his death, Jesus should commit his mother Mary to the care of his cousin John, and John to the care of Mary, to look after each other, and to comfort each other’s loneliness when he was gone. A truly practical example of the love of God at work in evil times.

The first three words from the cross display Jesus’s compassion for others, even in the midst of his own torment: he has asked forgiveness for his torturers; he has assured the criminal of a place with him in Paradise; he has provided for his mother and the disciple he loved. He has hung on the cross now for more than 3 hours. There is nothing more he can do, but conserve his remaining strength for the job of yielding himself to death.

As we watch in silence in front of the cross, we remember how Jesus gave Mary his Mother into the care of John, and John into the care of Mary. Let us remember all those who are bereaved and missing their loved-ones. Let us pray that they may find the love and support that Mary and John gave each other.

The 4th Word
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Time has moved on as Jesus labours at dieing. Now it is approaching 3 in the afternoon, and Jesus speaks again a 4th time: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

What terrifying implications flow from these words! Jesus has always felt himself so close to his loving-Father God. Has God really forsaken his obedient son, at this moment of his greatest need? If so, what hope is there for our wayward souls? Is our faith vain? We are compelled to seek answers.

The onlookers misunderstand Jesus’s words in Aramaic, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” They think he is crying out for Elijah, and some even wonder whether that great prophet will come to save him miraculously. Could we too be misunderstanding him?

It is possible that as he waits to die Jesus is recalling a Psalm. Psalm 22 begins in desolation and dejection with these words, but it ends in soaring triumph:

He has saved my life for himself; my descendents shall serve him;
this shall be told of the Lord for generations to come.

They shall come and make known his salvation, to a people yet unborn,
declaring that he, the Lord, has done it.

Perhaps Jesus never experiences the withdrawal of the love of God at all. Or perhaps the evangelist puts these words in his mouth to echo the Psalm.

There are other views. Some people suggest that this is the moment when Jesus feels the whole weight of the world’s sins, which he must do so that he can atone for them and bring us salvation. Paul in his 2nd Letter to the Corinthians says, “For our sake (God) made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Others don’t feel very comfortable with this theology of atonement, because it makes God out to seem more vengeful than loving.

Another way of looking at it is in more human terms. It seems to me that Jesus could not be Jesus unless he had plumbed the absolute depths of human experience. There are times when every one of us feels that God has forgotten us; when we simply cannot comprehend why a loving God would let some awful thing happen, and we feel absolutely alone and bereft. Perhaps this is such a moment for Jesus. It is very Hell! There is an echo of this in the Apostles’ Creed, where we say ‘He descended into Hell’. And the idea of Jesus 'harrowing Hell' is an ancient one, much beloved by the Orthodox churches. Isn’t it comforting to think that there is no place we might go, where Jesus has not been before us? Even Hell!

Let us be silent again in front of the cross, as we think of the spiritual torment Jesus is expressing in the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When we feel forsaken and abandoned by God, let’s remember that Jesus has been there before us. It will pass.

The 5th Word
“I thirst!”

Time is starting to move very slowly now for Jesus on his cross. On Golgotha it is nearly 3 o’clock, and Jesus is close to death. But here we still have nearly an hour to watch with him.

Jesus’s 4th word from the cross revealed his mental and spiritual suffering. This 5th word, “I thirst”, reminds us again of his physical suffering. When he wrote his Gospel around 100AD, John may very well have included these words deliberately, to refute the views of Gnostic Christians that Jesus as God was pure spirit, and incapable of suffering as humans do. But we can’t avoid Jesus’s suffering; even if we feel we can’t bear it, we mustn’t turn away; we have to face squarely the excruciating physical pain of the Cross. Excruciating – the word literally means ‘from a cross’.

So let us focus on what was involved with crucifixion.

  • The nails would have been hammered through Jesus’s wrists, not the palms of his hands as imagined in medieval pictures, because only bones can support the weight of a body.
  • The arms would be spread quite wide, because if the angle were narrow Jesus would have died too quickly from suspension asphyxiation. Even so he would have felt he could hardly breathe. And to get relief by hauling his body upward on the nails would be very painful.
  • Death could come either from asphyxiation, or by shock and dehydration. Liquid loss from the scourging and exposure in bright Judean sun would lead quickly to dehydration.
  • Jesus would have become very thirsty. As dehydration worsened, his heart would begin to race and his breathing would become fast, he would experience headache and nausea.
  • At about 15% fluid loss he would begin to suffer muscle spasms and vision loss. Death would follow later.

It could take days to die on a cross. If the executioners wanted to speed the process up, they would smash the victim’s legs to cause traumatic shock and hasten death. Jesus did not have to suffer this because his death came mercifully fast, but the two criminals beside him did.

If you can bear it, look up at the cross behind me; imagine that broken body hanging there in excruciating pain. Excruciating pain which Jesus accepted obediently, as his loving Father’s will. Excruciating pain which Jesus accepted willingly, to show us his way to life and the love of God.

Let us keep silence. No words can do justice to the courage Jesus shows as he endures the cross.

The 6th Word
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

The moment of Jesus’s release draws near; it will not be long now.

As a skilled storyteller Luke emphasises the tragic drama being played out on Calvary by describing an ominous darkness. The sun’s failure is an image of creation gone awry. Scholars and commentators are uncertain and divided on the significance of the rending of the curtain of the temple. But you may like, as I do, this thought: it is as if the veil hiding the presence of God from us was torn down as Jesus died. From now on all people have direct and equal access to God, through Jesus’s self-sacrifice upon the cross.

The next to last word Jesus utters on the cross is a prayer, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” If he had felt truly forsaken by his God earlier, now he is confident once again that God loves him. He offers his spirit back to God, in the certainty that God will keep it safe.

“Into your hands I commend my spirit” is a quotation from Psalm 31. In later centuries this psalm was often used in Jewish evening prayer to commend oneself into God's care during the night's sleep. There is something very childlike and trusting in the way Jesus uses this verse. Who knows, perhaps Mary taught her little son to say it as a bed-time prayer, as my mother taught me this one:

Now I lay me down to sleep;

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.

To this verse Jesus adds the word “Father”. Jesus was not alone in addressing God as Father, “Abba” in Aramaic, but it was characteristic of his teaching. He taught his disciples, and you and me, to pray to “Our Father in heaven”. This not only teaches us that God is like a loving father to us, but also teaches us that Jesus is like our brother. He is one of us, experiencing all the joys and sorrows that we experience.

When my own time comes, and I look my own death squarely in the eyes, I pray for the grace to be able to say with Jesus “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

As we keep silence under the cross, let us pray in Jesus’s words,“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

The 7th Word
“It is finished!”

The other Gospels tell us that at the moment of his death Jesus uttered a great cry, but only John tells us what it was: “It is finished!” It is a shout of triumph. He didn’t whisper it, like someone forced to admit defeat. He didn’t mouth it in relief that his agony is over. He threw back his head and he shouted it. “I have done it!” he is saying, “I have faced the very worst, and I have won!”

By his victory won upon the cross, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, our friend and brother, shows us all the way to vanquish sin and death with the weapons of love. It is only left to us to follow.

The note of triumph in Jesus’s last word from the cross this Good Friday is a foretaste of his resurrection which we celebrate this Sunday. But before we meet him again on Easter Morning, we must follow him to the tomb, as Matthew tells us his mother Mary does with Mary Magdalen.

In Jewish law, in Deuteronomy (21:22), it is written: “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day.” The Temple authorities have no option but to arrange with Pilate for the bodies of Jesus and the two criminals to be taken down.

But where to bury him? No doubt the little party of disciples from Galilee does not have the resources to do so decently. Two people step forward to help. Joseph of Arimathea is rich and powerful, a member of the Sanhedrin, and a secret disciple of Jesus: he provides the tomb - his own, we are told. Nicodemus is also a secret disciple; he had visited Jesus at night, because he was afraid to do so publicly: he provides the ointments and spices needed to embalm the body. Together they make sure that Jesus is buried with decent reverence.

It’s amazing, isn’t it? These two people, who were afraid to support Jesus publicly while he was alive, are able to do so as soon as he is dead. All the cowardice, the hesitation, the prudent concealment are gone. Jesus has not been dead an hour, when his words reported by John (12:32) begin to come true: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Jesus is already showing his risen power to be a magnet of souls.

But we are running ahead. Here, now, Jesus has just cried “It is finished!” His lifeless corpse hangs on the cross in front of us. Yet he is victorious. Let us meditate on that.

As we move into our last period of silence in front of the cross, let us focus our thoughts on the beautiful words of the prayer of St Richard, Bishop of Chichester in England in the mid C13th. It goes like this:

Lord Jesus Christ we thank you
for all the benefits you have won for us,
for all the pains and insults you have borne for us.
Most merciful redeemer, friend and brother,
may we know you more clearly,
may we love you more dearly,
and follow you more nearly,
day by day.

Sunday 9 March 2008

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones!

1. Introduction
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.
Ezekiel connected dem dry bones.
Oh hear the word of the Lord!

Forgive me for my poor singing, but after hearing the words of Ezekiel’s stirring vision in our OT reading, I couldn’t resist it!

Both readings today are about resurrection: the renewal of life in someone or something that to all appearances is dead. Ezekiel (37:1-14) prophesies the resurrection of the House of Israel, at a time of desolation and exile. And John (11:1-45) tells us the charming story of the raising of Lazarus.

So today I’m going to examine these readings more closely and ponder the meaning of resurrection. What a fine subject resurrection is for a fine spring day, when all about us seeds and plants and trees and lambs and calves are bounding into new life in our gardens and fields!.

2. So firstly, what about Ezekiel’s dry bones?

Ezekiel is writing in Babylon around 580BC, shortly after Nebuchadnezzar’s armies had laid waste to Jerusalem and the Temple. The Israelite leaders and many of the people had been deported into exile by the banks of the Euphrates, close to Babylon in what is now modern Iraq. Babylon may well have been the greatest city in the world at that time, with a population estimated at about 200,000. There are disturbing reports that when the American army invaded Iraq, they bulldozed and levelled part of the ruins of this great city to build a base for tanks. The invading armies of today are no less brutal and destructive than those of antiquity!

Ezekiel conjures up such a vivid picture, doesn’t he? The unburied corpses of the Israelites killed in the Babylonian invasions have weathered to parched, dislocated and scattered bones. We are told they represent the whole people of Israel, the exiles crushed by despair, and the dislocated and disoriented Israelites left behind, not just the dead. And Ezekiel tells this devastated people that their God YHWH will not let them down; he will open their very graves, he will give them life, and he will restore them to their land.

Many people have seen this passage as a promise of a literal resurrection of the dead, but I think that is a mistake. I feel sure we should see it as a metaphor, a metaphor carefully crafted by Ezekiel to give a devastated nation hope, hope that one day they will be restored to their land. His words, and those of other prophets, resonated with the people of Israel, and helped to hold them together, until eventually the exiles were able to return to Jerusalem, 50 years later, when Babylon in turn was captured by Cyrus the Persian. The ancient people of Israel did indeed experience a resurrection to new life!

These words resonated once again with the devastated Jewish people of Europe, emerging from the Nazi extermination camps after the Holocaust, the Shoah in Hebrew, as they created their modern state of Israel in Ezekiel’s ancient homeland. A heart-breaking consequence has been the devastation of the Palestinian people they displaced. The creation of the modern state of Israel brought exile and dispossession to some 750,000 Palestinians, which they call the Nakba, or Catastrophe in Arabic. As we walk with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem and the cross this Lent, let us pray for an end to the evil cycle of hatred and bloodshed there, for reconciliation with peace and justice, for a resurrection to new life for all in the Holy Land.

The black slaves transported to America were another devastated people. The plight of the Israelites in exile and Ezekiel’s message of hope resonated with them too, inspiring the fine Negro spirituals and Gospel music which are part of our common inheritance. Thank God that Christian leaders like Martin Luther King were there to harness their hope. I quote from his great speech to the March on Washington in 1963:

Let freedom ring. And when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
A call for resurrection to new life, if ever I heard one!

3. Now let’s turn to John’s Gospel and the raising of Lazarus.

It’s a rather long passage, and it’s a puzzling story, but the Evangelist fills it with so much incidental detail that the scenes really come to life.

One lovely thing that shines out is how much Jesus loved Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus.
  • Luke also tells us about Martha and Mary, but not Lazarus. If you remember, Mary sat at Jesus’s feet and listened to him talk, leaving Martha to do all the housework. And when Martha complained, Jesus gently chided her for being so distracted by mundane tasks.
  • How delightful it must have been for Jesus to visit these close friends, to relax, to be himself, and to drink in the warmth and love of their home. As a wandering teacher Jesus had no home of his own. I feel sure that he must have needed that sort of refreshment, just as much as we do.
  • But this visit was different. Lazarus was dead. Both Martha and Mary separately said to him ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died’. How guilty Jesus must have felt for arriving late! When he saw Mary weeping, Jesus too broke down and wept. Our translation has it that he was ‘deeply moved’, but this really isn’t strong enough at all. The Greek word used by John is also used of a horse snorting. The meaning must be that Jesus’s heart was so wrung by anguish that he groaned out loud.
  • And then Jesus did what he had come to do: he called Lazarus out from the grave, back from the dead.

But there are a number of things that puzzle me about John’s story:

  • Firstly, some of the words he puts in Jesus’s mouth seem rather out of character to me. Think for a moment about his declaration that Lazarus’s illness ‘is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it’. What a cold way to look at a friends suffering! Could Jesus really have said that? John's purpose in writing his Gospel was to convert Greek speaking Jews who were not believers. Is it possible this lead him to colour his story?
  • Secondly, John makes it clear that the raising of Lazarus is the immediate reason why the Jewish authorities decided to do away with Jesus, leading directly to his crucifixion. Yet the other three Gospels say absolutely nothing about it, nothing at all! We know that at least one of the apostles was there, Thomas. So how could the other Gospel writers not have heard of and written about such an important miracle, with such momentous results, if John’s account is correct? Is it?
  • And then there’s the elephant in the room. How can we explain satisfactorily - scientifically - a four day old, stinking corpse rising up and walking? A person who has apparently just died might be woken from a coma. But one that has started to decompose?

There may be problems with John’s story. Some of us will believe that it all happened just as John sets down that it did. Others will be much less certain. And we can never know for sure what exactly happened so long ago. But does it really matter whether or not Jesus literally raised a corpse to life in Bethany in AD30?

4. What really matters, I think, is the spiritual message.

That message is that that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Perhaps John has crafted the whole story around that message.

Jesus said to Martha ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die’.

One thing is clear – Jesus is not speaking of physical life. We all know that Christians experience physical death just like everyone else.

But if we believe in Jesus Christ, if we accept everything he teaches us about his loving Father God as absolutely true, and stake our lives upon it, then we enter into a new relationship with God, and we enter into a new relationship with life.

  • We become absolutely sure of God’s love. We become absolutely sure that above all he is a redeeming God – if sin is death, forgiveness is resurrection. And the fear of death vanishes, because death means nothing more than a merging with the great lover of souls.
  • With faith in Jesus Christ, our life becomes a new thing, a strong thing, such a lovely thing, that we cannot imagine it ending incomplete.

‘Do you believe this?’ said Jesus. ‘Yes, Lord’ said Martha, ‘I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world’.