Sunday 20 November 2011

Mission Sunday collection for Luyengo Farm Project, Swaziland

The parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) is vivid and memorable - so typical of the stories Jesus uses to convey his teaching.
And its message is clear – God will judge us in accordance with our response to human need.

In NT times sheep and goats were usually kept in mixed flocks, as they still are in the Near East. But it was sometimes necessary to separate them into their kinds, at shearing time for instance. Or at the approach of hard weather – sheep are hardier than goats and can be left to graze over winter in the uplands, but goats must be brought down and folded in the shelter of the valley. Or to manage grazing – sheep eat only low growing herbs while goats will eat the leaves of bushes so that when forage of one kind is running out the appropriate animals must be moved to other grazing.

Jesus uses this image of separating sheep and goats, so familiar to those he was talking to, as a metaphor for how people can be separated into two kinds. ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory’, says Jesus, ‘… he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left’.

Those that are righteous will be blessed by God and receive everlasting life, and those that are not will be accursed and receive eternal punishment. ‘Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”, and ‘he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”’.

The test for whether a person is righteous or not – to be blessed or accursed - is how he or she responds to the human needs they encounter. The king tells those who are blessed, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me”. He tells those who are accursed that they did none of these things.

And when both kinds of people express surprise because they did not recognise him, the king tells them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”.

Jesus confronts those who hear him, then and now, with this great truth: help given to those who need it is help given to him as the Son of Man, the king; and in contrast help withheld is help withheld from him. God is our loving Father, we are made in his image, and it is our Christian duty to help his children, our fellow human beings.

This teaching of Jesus is wonderfully apt for today, Mission Sunday.
Mission Sunday is the day designated by the Bishop for a special collection for overseas mission. In previous years the money has been split over many projects, all most deserving, but inevitably this has meant that none received very much. But this year the Diocesan Board of Mission, with the support of Bishop Trevor, has decided all the money should be directed to a single project in Swaziland. By concentrating resources in this way our diocese can make a real difference, which seems like a very good idea to me.

Most of you will remember Amy Hanna’s inspiring talk about her experiences in Swaziland on Mission Sunday last year. She told us that this small landlocked country squeezed between South Africa and Mozambique, with a population of around 1 million in an area about the same as Northern Ireland, is desperately poor – most people live on less than €1 per day. And she shocked us by telling us that as many as 40% of people have HIV, with the result that Swaziland has the lowest life expectancy in the world, just 32 years.

The poorest of the poor in Swaziland need help. The Anglican Diocese of Swaziland recognises that it is their Christian duty to respond. They have initiated a programme to help people affected by HIV, which includes these elements:

  • Care Points: Places run by parish churches where orphans and vulnerable children can come after school for fellowship and food, and to interact with adults who care and will listen. Swaziland has 140,000 orphans. 15% of all families are headed by a child.

  • Home Based Care: Anglican teams of retired nurses visit homes, bringing painkillers, antibiotics, vitamin supplements etc to supplement the antiretroviral drugs supplied by the state.

  • Egumeni: In Swaziland this is the reed fence around a homestead where women sit and girls learn from their mothers and grandmothers. The egumeni programme is about passing on wisdom from generation to generation, and in particular training in safe behaviour and self respect - not just a matter of morals but a matter of life and death in Swaziland.

  • Life Skills: A training programme for teenagers, enabling them to take control of their lives and stay safe, covering topics from personal identity to safe sex.

The programme sounds splendid, doesn’t it? There is just one problem – paying for it. But the diocese, supported by USPG Ireland mission partner Andrew Symonds and his wife Rosemary, has identified a way to do so.

  • The diocese owns 200 acres of good agricultural land, with unlimited access to water, at Luyengo Farm at Big Bend.

  • An investment of €300,000 would turn it into a productive commercial farm. Part of the site would be used to produce baby vegetables for export. Three harvests annually would create regular seasonal employment. Pigs would be fed from farm waste.

  • A commercial partner has agreed to provide half the investment and USPG Ireland seek to raise the other half on behalf of the Diocese of Swaziland.

  • The income from the farm is expected to rise to €40,000 in the 2nd year. And what will be the result? The diocese will become self-sufficient, with a steady, reliable income to pay for the HIV/AIDS programme.

Our Mission Sunday collection this year will go to support this Luyengo Farm Project.
As the Bishop of Swaziland the Rt Revd Meshack Mabuza puts it, ‘As a church we see agriculture as an answer to the continuance of our AIDS ministry. This land that we have is arable and fertile, with plenty of water running through it. We must use it, and we desperately need your help to get started’.

The Board of Mission has challenged the whole diocese to raise at least €40,000 for it this year. That may seem a lot, but it is only €20 for each active member of the diocese. It is therefore a challenge we can meet, if we choose, and meet in a single year. This collection is the first bite at it, and they invite us to use our creativity to find ways to raise more in the next 12 months.

I commend the project to you. By helping the Diocese of Swaziland we are helping Swazi people in need, and as today’s Gospel teaches us, when we help those in need we are helping Jesus himself.
So please be truly generous with your money in the Mission Sunday collection envelopes. However rich or poor you may feel in these recessionary times, we are all rich compared with the people who will be helped by it. If you usually put a coin in, look for a bigger one; if you planned to put in a note, pull something bigger out of your wallet.

Our heavenly Father will bless us for our generosity!

    Sunday 6 November 2011


    An address given at Portumna, Eyrecourt and Banagher on Sunday 6th November 2011, the 3rd before Advent.

    I hope you are wise enough to check the oil level in your central heating tank regularly.
    When I read through today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (25:1-13), I was prompted to rush to check my own tank, and I was very glad I did because there were only a few inches left.

    It’s an awful pain when the oil runs out, as I know only too well, because it happens to me far too often. And I don’t just have problems with central heating oil, but other oil too. Patrick Towers teased me this week, advising me to check I had enough fuel in my car today of all days, lest I be shown up as a ‘foolish Diocesan Reader’. This struck a nerve because it reminded me of my mother, God bless her. She would always ask me as I drove away whether I had enough petrol, because she knew I’d run out twice in a fortnight years before – she never accepted my excuse that the fuel gauge was broken and I had to dip it with a stick to see if I needed a fill.

    The bridesmaids in the Gospel story - or the virgins as older translations had it: the Greek word simply means an unmarried girl – needed oil for their lamps. The wise ones made sure they had enough, but the foolish ones didn’t. We would all like to think we are like the wise bridesmaids but I fear I’m often more like the foolish ones.

    The story Jesus tells about the bridesmaids may seem a bit strange to us in Ireland in the 21st Century.
    In our wedding tradition we don’t expect bridesmaids to have to wait up with oil lamps for the groom to turn up in the middle of the night. But those who heard the story from Jesus would have found it all quite familiar.

    In Jesus’s time the tradition was for the bridegroom to go around the houses of his friends and relatives before the wedding so that they could congratulate him and rejoice with him – a bit like our stag-nights I suppose. And the bride’s unmarried friends – the bridesmaids – would gather to escort the bridegroom to the house where the marriage ceremony would take place, when he finally arrived with his friends. When they got there everyone would join in a big party – the wedding banquet - which might go on for several days. No one could be sure when the groom would arrive - perhaps the suspense of waiting added to the general excitement, or perhaps it was a bit of a game for the groom’s friends to see if they could catch the bride’s friends napping.

    So in Jesus’ story the wise bridesmaids, who came prepared with extra oil for their lamps, get to join in the bride’s big day and enjoy the party. But the foolish bridesmaids, with no extra oil, not only have the shame of being late for their friend’s wedding, but they are shut out and miss the party too.

    Jesus finishes by saying ‘Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour’. Those who heard him would have grasped the moral of the story straight away – it is to ‘Be prepared’, just like the Girl Guide’s motto. If you are wise you will be prepared. If you are not prepared you are foolish.

    Jesus tells the story as a parable about the kingdom of heaven.
    ‘The kingdom of heaven will be like this’, he says. But what did he intend the parable to convey to those who heard him?

    Since ancient times Christians have taken the parable as an allegory of the 2nd Coming of Christ in the end times. The bridegroom who is delayed stands for Christ, the time of whose coming we cannot know; he will judge between the faithful and the unfaithful – the wise and the foolish – in a Last Judgement; the wise bridesmaids stand for those faithful Christians who will receive their just reward in heaven - represented by the wedding banquet; and the foolish bridesmaids are those who are unfaithful - they will be excluded from the heavenly kingdom.

    Matthew believed with all the earliest Christians that Jesus would return again within their lifetime to usher in the kingdom of God which he had preached. Earlier in his Gospel (16:27-28) he quotes Jesus saying, ‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom’.

    As time passed, later Christians began to realise that Jesus wouldn’t necessarily return in their lifetimes - the first Christians had died. Jesus was delayed like the bridegroom. So they came to believe that Christ’s 2nd Coming would be at some indefinite future date, at the ‘end of time’.

    I’m not convinced by this theology of the 2nd Coming – it smacks too much of a vengeful, not a loving God. I don’t think it is what Jesus meant to convey to those he spoke to.

    But there is another way of looking at the parable, a way I prefer. Perhaps when Jesus refers to the undefined future coming of the bridegroom – or to the end times, because this parable is surrounded by other end-times parables - he is really talking metaphorically about a typical time, any old time. No one can know when that time will be, but perhaps Jesus is telling his disciples that each one of them should expect to personally encounter him again, during their lives not in the indefinite future. That is when they will be judged, depending on whether they are ready to greet him or not.

    Looked at this way, the parable teaches us that Jesus’ disciples – like the bridesmaids – must prepare themselves to be ready to greet him – as the bridegroom – whenever he comes. And who are Jesus’s disciples today? – You and I, all of us, of course!

    If we are wise, we will prepare ourselves to recognise and respond when Jesus returns – though in truth he never really left us: ‘Remember’, Jesus says, ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28:20).

    If we are wise, we will prepare ourselves to hear and respond to the prompting of the Spirit – ‘The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything’, says Jesus, ‘and remind you of all I have said to you’ (John 14:26).

    If we are wise, we will prepare ourselves to discern that still small voice of the God Jesus calls his Father – to which we should respond as Eli advised Samuel to do: ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’ (1Samuel 3:9).

    If on the other hand we are foolish, if we are unprepared, if we are not ready when the time comes, we will miss the opportunity our Trinity-shaped God freely offers to each and every one of us, the opportunity to share in the joy of his kingdom, the opportunity to share in the joy of doing what is right and just, simply because that is what God calls us to do.

    Ultimately, if we cannot respond to God we condemn ourselves. That surely is the sin against the Holy Spirit, the only sin that can never be forgiven.

    Sunday 16 October 2011

    Harvest justice and righteousness

    A harvest festival address given at Dorrha on Sunday 16th October 2011

    We all love the harvest season and Harvest Festivals, don’t we?
    Just look around us at this beautifully decorated church, filled with harvest bounty - how can we fail to feel thankful? The decorators have every right to be proud of their skilful arrangements. Those who have grown the produce have every right to be proud that the best of it should be displayed here in God’s house. We all enjoy the colours and the smells of the fruit and the vegetables and the flowers, we all enjoy the familiar harvest hymns, and we all enjoy seeing so many cheerful people, filled with a sense of accomplishment, now that the year’s work has been crowned with success.

    Let’s also take a moment to reflect on the sheer breadth and variety of our harvest:

    • We have the staples: we have wheat for bread, barley for beer, oats for porridge, forage for cattle - and I saw a pile of good black turf in the porch. Farmers were worried by the lack of sun earlier, but in the end it’s been a good harvest - so my farming neighbour tells me, and he’s not usually so positive. Yields are generally up a bit, and prices are good, though broken weather damaged some of the hay, he tells me.

    • But there is so much more than staples for us to enjoy. There’s milk and butter and cheese, fruit and nuts and honey, blackberries and mushrooms, plums and apples, potatoes and turnips, pumpkins and marrows, cabbage and lettuce, peas and beans. My beans have done particularly well this year, despite a slow start – after filling the freezer there’s more than enough to share with friends. My wife Marty has had terrific strawberries and flowers too. And generous beekeeping friends have given us lovely honey, as I wait impatiently to harvest my own next year from my new beehive.

    • There are the animals too – we have this year’s foals and calves and lambs, chicks, ducklings, and goslings to delight us. And we must not forget the fruit of our own bodies, our children and grandchildren born this year – I rejoice in a new grandson, Cormac, born in September.
    Psalm 65:12-13 expresses it in beautiful poetry, ‘The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy’.

    Thanks be to God for giving us so much joy!

    In the OT reading from Deuteronomy (8:7-18), Moses speaks to the Israelites as they wait to cross into the Promised Land.
    ‘The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land’, he says, ‘a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley’. Well, God has placed us in just such a land, hasn’t he? We live in ‘a land where (we) may eat bread without scarcity, where (we) lack nothing’. It is surely right for us, like the Israelites, to ‘eat our fill and bless the Lord (our) God for the good land that he has given (us)’.

    But Moses also gives the children of Israel a warning. As they enjoy all these good things, he tells them, ‘Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances and his statutes, which I am commanding you today’. For, he says, it is God who makes it possible to have all this wealth of good things. And, he adds, if you fail to keep his commandments – that is if you fail to live as God intends you to live – terrible things will happen to you. In the very next verse he says, ‘If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish’.

    In his long speech to the Israelites, of which today’s reading is a tiny part - and it is long, taking up almost all of Deuteronomy - Moses restates the Ten Commandments, and expands on them at length, as a rule of life for the Israelites. Moses believes God is just and righteous; God has made a covenant with the Israelites; this requires them to behave with justice and righteousness to other Israelites, because that is what God does.

    “Justice and Righteousness” - these two words are like mirror images, because to do what is just is to do what is right and, vice versa, to do what is right is to do what is just – these two words run right through the OT like a vein of precious metal through rock.

    In his life and teaching Jesus extends Moses’ idea of God’s covenant of justice and righteousness to apply to all people, Israelites and gentiles alike. And it is Moses’ rule of life that Jesus summarises for us when he says: ‘You shall love the Lord your God’; and ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. Love of God and love of neighbour go together like two sides of the same coin.

    In our 2nd reading, St Paul encourages the Corinthians to be generous (2Corinthians 9:6-15).
    Paul is organising a collection for the poverty-stricken church in Jerusalem among the gentile churches he has planted. He has just told the Corinthians about how generous the Macedonian Christians have been - and he clearly had already told the Macedonians how generous the Corinthians would be - now he urges the Corinthians to be generous too.

    He tells them what every farmer and gardener knows – you reap what you sow: ‘The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows generously will also reap bountifully’.

    He tells them they must not think they are under any compulsion to give more than they feel they can, because, he says, ‘God loves a cheerful giver’.

    But he reminds them that God has given them quite enough so that they can afford to be generous. ‘God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance’, he says, ‘so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work’.

    And he tells them that by being generous, not just to the needy in Jerusalem but to all others, they will both glorify God and benefit themselves spiritually. ‘You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God … because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you’.

    We must, I think, listen very carefully both to Moses’ warning and to Paul’s urging.
    Moses warns against breaking God’s covenant of justice and righteousness. Consider the situation that faces us today. The global crash continues to blight the lives of so many of us, and looks set to do so for years to come. And the gathering environmental catastrophe threatens to unpick the very web of life on this planet on which we all depend, as we are slowly, perhaps too slowly, coming to realise. Could it be that both crises result from a failure to keep God’s covenant? I rather think they do. Both crises are driven by human greed - by people who always want more and more, because they reckon they are worth it – such people worship Mammon in place of God, I think.

    Paul urges generosity as a positive value. God who is just and righteous will generously supply more than enough to allow us all to flourish. But it is in our own interests to respond justly and righteously, by taking no more than we need and generously sharing the surplus with those with little.

    I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that anyone here is greedy or ungenerous - though none of us is perfect. But it is plain for all to see that greed and lack of generosity are deeply embedded within the globalised world we live in. To change this won’t be easy, but it is necessary. Both as a society and as individuals, we need to cultivate justice and righteousness; we need to know when we have enough, we need to recognise when our neighbour has too little, and we need to listen when God calls us to share what he has so graciously given us. If we can’t do that, the future for the human race is dire.

    So as we enjoy this harvest bounty, let us rededicate ourselves to justice and righteousness.
    Let us love God and thank him for his good gifts. Let us also love our neighbours and share his gifts with those in need of them. And let us pray that all without exception may have enough.

    In this way we can join together to pronounce this blessing on all our communities:

    Blessed are we when we sing God’s praises
    and walk together faithfully on God’s earth.
    Blessed are we when we proclaim God’s justice
    and share together the fruits of creation.
    Blessed are we when we are guided by God’s wisdom
    and live together in harmony with God’s world.

    Sunday 9 October 2011

    The golden calf

    The story of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:1-14) is a strange and ancient story.
    The setting is Mount Sinai more than 3000 years ago, at the start of the 40 years that the children of Israel wander as nomads in the desert, after their escape from Egypt and before they arrive in Canaan, the land promised to their ancestor Abraham.

    The characters are the Israelite people, Aaron the priest, Moses the prophet who is Aaron’s younger brother – and Yahweh, translated as the Lord. Yahweh, the Israelites were convinced, was the one true God, with whom they had a special relationship.

    The story is part of the foundation myth of the Israelites, through which they understood their special relationship with God and its implications for how they should live. But does it have any relevance for us today?

    Let me reflect on the characters in the story, before addressing that question.

    But before that I must go back a bit to set the story in context.
    Three months after Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt they reached Mount Sinai. There Yahweh spoke to Moses and gave him what we know as the Ten Commandments, and a lot of other detailed instructions about how to behave, which Moses relayed to the people. The Israelites confirmed their covenant with Yahweh, saying ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient’.

    Moses then climbed the mountain a second time, where Yahweh speaks to him again; this time giving precise instructions for building the portable tabernacle in which Yahweh will dwell with his people, and how Aaron and his offspring are to lead the people in worshipping him. We are told that ‘Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights’.

    That's when we come to the story of the Golden Calf in today’s reading.

    Turning to the characters, we begin with the Israelites.
    Can you empathise with them? I can.

    They must have felt very insecure – as refugees surely do today - they had left behind all that was familiar in Egypt, however onerous their slavery had been. And now Moses had left them - perhaps he would never come back? perhaps the messages he brought from Yahweh were an illusion? No doubt they felt a need for the reassurance of something familiar and concrete to focus their hopes for the future on. It is very human to seek something to live for, something to give meaning to life – it is sometimes said that there is a God-shaped hole in every person which must be filled one way or another.

    So ‘the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come make gods for us, who shall go before us”’. Aaron went along with them. He took their gold jewellery – their rainy day savings, I suppose – and he made it into a golden calf, just like the familiar idols they had known in Egypt. The people shouted, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt’. And they worshipped the golden calf with sacrifices - and they ran wild in an orgy of feasting.

    Oh what faithlessness! The people are breaking the first two of the Ten Commandments they so recently vowed to keep: ‘I am the Lord your God… you shall have no other gods before me’; and ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol’. They are putting something made by human hands, an idol, in place of Yahweh, the God who made all things, to whom they are bound in a covenant.

    So what about Aaron?
    With Moses away Aaron is the Israelites’ leader. He is a levite, a descendent of Levi, an hereditary priest of Yahweh. Yet he makes the golden calf, an idol, when the people, or some of them, came to demand he do so - because, he later tells Moses, he was frightened of these people.

    But I don’t think he joined in the people's idolatry. In fact he seems to have tried to divert the people from it. He declared that ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord’ – that is to Yahweh, not to the idol. Perhaps he believed that he could present the golden calf as a symbol to represent Yahweh, to help the Israelites worship the one true God. But if so, he was terribly wrong – they worshipped the golden calf as an idol - and then they ran amok.

    Aaron was surely a weak leader, and he displayed bad judgement.

    Then there’s Moses.
    Moses is a prophet, someone who converses with Yahweh and articulates Yahweh's wishes to the people.

    On the mountain Moses receives the insight to see that the Israelites needed something concrete on which to focus their worship. And he also receives a vision, written on tablets of stone by Yahweh, of what would provide just such a focus without replacing Yahweh by an idol.

    Moses also receives the insight that the Israelite people are wilful, inclined to ignore Yahweh’s wishes when it suits them; ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are’. He feared that Yahweh in his wrath would wreak a great vengeance on the Israelites. So he pleads with Yahweh to spare them, reminding Yahweh of his promises to Abraham, Isaac and Israel. ‘And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people’, we are told.

    But unlike Yahweh, Moses is entirely unforgiving. After the passage we heard, we are told of his fury when he came down from the mountain and saw what was going on. He broke the tablets of stone on the ground. He took the golden calf, ‘burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it’ – rather like rubbing a puppy’s nose in its own dirt, I suppose. And then he incited the sons of Levi to slaughter 3,000 of the Israelites who had worshipped the idol and were still running amok. There is blood on Moses’ hands, and not for the first time.

    And where is Yahweh in all this?
    Yahweh worked through Moses to teach the children of Israel, 1st that it is wrong to worship an idol in place of the one true God, and 2nd that the one true God is faithful and will keep his promises.

    Moses understood that Yahweh is not like one of the jealous, vengeful gods of popular belief in the ancient Middle East. Yahweh is faithful to his people - Yahweh can be relied on to keep his promises. Yahweh does not go in for collective punishment. But Moses also believed that Yahweh would in the fullness of time individually punish those who disobeyed him; he heard Yahweh say, ‘Nevertheless, when the day comes for punishment, I will punish them for their sin’.

    Our Christian understanding of the one true God has moved on from the Israelites’ ideas about Yahweh. In particular we have Jesus Christ’s example of loving self-sacrifice, and we have his message that God will forgive our sins if we only repent. Our God is not just faithful, but also merciful. I believe that Moses probably misheard what Yahweh had to say about punishment. God does not punish his people – we bring punishment on ourselves when we fail to repent

    So is anything in this strange story relevant for us today? I think so.
    First, surely, we must all recognise that we are not so very different from the Israelites – like them, like all human beings, we are all too likely to be ‘stiff-necked’, to put something we create in place of God. Pleasure, possessions, money - country, class, tribe - party, markets, economic systems – how easy it is to make any of these into a golden calf. When we do, we lose touch with the kingdom of God in which all people can flourish - and bad things happen. Isn’t that what the global crash is about? Isn't that what the gathering ecological disaster is about? That is why God forbids idolatry, I think. We must always be on guard against golden calves, focus our worship and attention on God our loving Father, and work to make his kingdom a reality.

    Second, I think Christian leaders should reflect on Aaron. Aaron made an idol for the people to worship - perhaps out of fear, perhaps because he thought people needed a concrete image to help them worship the one true God. He was weak, he was wrong. Is it possible that some Christian leaders today allow the dogmas and rituals of their churches to obscure the God that Jesus shows us? They should take care they do not – and that includes me when I lead MP and talk to you from this pulpit!

    Sunday 11 September 2011

    Debt forgiveness

    When I first read today’s NT reading (Matt 18:21-35), I thought to myself ‘How topical’!
    Jesus tells us a story about debt forgiveness, as an analogy for how the kingdom of heaven works. And debt forgiveness is the big political issue being debated in Ireland just now. The question is, should distressed mortgage borrowers have part or all of their debts cancelled, or not?

    I think it’s worth reflecting on what Jesus is teaching Peter and the disciples through the story, before asking what relevance it might have for the debt forgiveness debate.

    The story Jesus tells is about a king who wishes to settle accounts with his slaves.
    The king has lent 10,000 talents to a slave - an unimaginably large sum, in today’s money well over €1billion. The slave cannot repay it, so the king threatens to make him bankrupt – to sell him, his family and all his possessions to recover what he can. But when the slave appeals for mercy, the king out of mercy forgives him the debt and lets him go free.

    But slave #1 has lent 100 denarii to another slave - a more modest sum, equivalent to roughly 100 days wages, say €10,000. As slave #1 leaves the king’s presence, he sees slave #2, grabs him by the throat and demands to be repaid. He ignores slave #2’s pleas for time to pay and has him thrown into the debtors’ prison.

    When the king hears about it he is furious. He calls slave #1 to him and says, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?’

    Jesus expects us all to see that slave #1 is a nasty piece of work. How unjust it is for someone who has been forgiven such an unimaginably large debt to force another to pay a modest one! So the king acts justly when he hands slave #1 over to be tortured until his whole debt has been paid.

    But the story isn’t really about debt forgiveness.
    Consider the context in which Jesus tells it. Peter has come to Jesus to ask, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ To which Jesus replies, ‘Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times’.

    Now, the Rabbis believed that God would only forgive a sinner three times, based on an obscure text from the prophet Amos; and since nobody could be more merciful than God, no one should forgive another more than three times - ‘Three strikes and you’re out’, as it were.

    Peter went beyond that to suggest seven; perhaps hoping that Jesus would commend his greater mercy. But in his response Jesus teaches Peter and the other disciples – and through them us – that there should be no limit to our mercy toward our neighbour.

    Jesus tells the story to explain why this is so. He concludes it saying, ‘So my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’ God’s mercy, Jesus is saying, is without limit. God forgives each one of us an unimaginably large amount of wrong. Therefore God expects us to forgive whatever modest wrongs other people have done to us. And if we don’t, we will forfeit God’s forgiveness ourselves.

    The story is about the forgiveness of sins, not about the forgiveness of debts. It is about how Jesus’s disciples must be forgiving of the people who do them wrong, if they wish to receive God’s forgiveness for the wrongs they do.

    Even so, does the story have any relevance to the debt forgiveness debate?
    Only, I think, if we can identify clearly people who are suffering and need to receive the mercy that God shows us. This is not necessarily easy, so it is quite possible that Christians will conscientiously come to differing conclusions - this is my view for what it's worth.

    The debate centres on ordinary people who took out large mortgages to buy overpriced houses during the recent bubble. No doubt they were foolish, but they did so to a chorus of experts advising them it was the right thing to do, that there would be a soft landing. Now they find their houses are worth a fraction of what they paid, and more and more can no longer keep up the mortgage payments, because their pay has been cut or they’ve lost their job.

    Many, particularly young families who bought at the height of the bubble, face a lifetime of scrimping to pay a never ending debt, effectively making slaves of them. Without relief they will suffer terribly for their foolishness or just plain bad luck. And for many, relief must involve more than just rescheduling payments and extending mortgage terms – it will be necessary to forgive part or all of their debt.

    There are some who argue against this, to avoid something they call ‘moral hazard’. But Irish banks have been given untold billions of Euro with which to pay back the money they so crassly borrowed from bondholders. In effect we the people of Ireland, and our friends in Europe, have forgiven them their debts, even though bondholders have forgiven nothing. What about the ‘moral hazard’ of that? Is there one law for high finance and another for the little people? I suggest it is our Christian duty to forgive the foolishness of ordinary folk and reject arguments about ‘moral hazard’. It is the morality of Mammon and nothing to do with Christian morality.

    We must as a society – we remain a Christian society – find ways to help those crushed by impossible debts.

    Sunday 14 August 2011

    Clean & Unclean

    Address given at Templederry & Nenagh on 14th August 2011, the 8th Sunday after Trinity, year A.

    To be ritually clean was all important to Jews of Jesus’s time.
    Jewish law forbade anyone who was unclean from approaching God in worship, and such a person would be shunned by all pious Jews. They believed that a person or thing was made unclean by contact with a wide range of things, from a mouse to pig meat, to a dead body, a menstruating woman, or a gentile. And this uncleanness was, so to speak, infectious. If a mouse touched a pot, the pot became unclean and anything put in it became unclean. Anyone who touched or ate anything from the pot became unclean. And anyone who touched such an unclean person became unclean themselves.

    No doubt these ideas had their ancient roots in sensible, practical hygiene. But by the time of Jesus they had nothing to do with good sense or hygiene. Religious leaders had elaborated in religious law a complicated system of purifying unclean things to make them clean, which included ritual washing of hands before meals. For the scribes and Pharisees, following the correct washing rituals had become as important as keeping every other aspect of the Jewish Law, including the Ten Commandments. The rituals had got quite out of hand.

    This is the background to today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 15:10-20).
    Just before the reading, a party of scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem has challenged Jesus, saying ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.’ Jesus chides them, calling them hypocrites, for insisting people obey the details of a man-made tradition while ignoring the spirit of God’s law expressed in the Ten Commandments.

    Then he turns to the crowd, telling them, ‘Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out that defiles’. As he explains to Peter, ‘What ever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer. But what comes from the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.’

    In other words, Jesus says, what matters to God is not ritual observance, but the state of our hearts, because it is the state of our hearts that leads us to bad deeds. No wonder the Pharisees took offence! If Jesus is right, their whole theory of religion is wrong, their rules and regulations about purity are pointless. Instead true religion requires them to look inside themselves, to control their human impulses which lead to bad deeds. It si these which offend God, which lead them into sin

    We Christians don’t have rituals to purify ourselves as many religions do, including modern Jews, Muslim’s and Hindus.
    Though that doesn’t mean we don’t have taboos – I’ve yet to see horse on the menu in Ireland, though it is a delicious meat!

    But we have built up great edifices of ritual and tradition over time, as all religions have. No doubt ritual and tradition can be helpful – but only to the extent to which they help us look into our hearts and strive to live as God intends us to live, loving God and loving our neighbours as ourselves. In today’s reading Jesus teaches us that we must not let our rituals and traditions get in the way of this. But unfortunately ritual and tradition all too often do just that, causing disputes between Christians.

    Some issues are quite trivial, such as whether or not to share the sign of peace. Others are more serious. Details of ritual and tradition keep Christians of different denominations from recognising each other’s baptism, or sharing in the Lord’s Supper. And our Anglican Communion is threatened by schism over disputes about the ordination of women and the acceptability of homosexual behaviour, in which people appeal to tradition to make their cases.

    Christians engaging in such disputes should, I think, reflect on Jesus’s teaching in today’s Gospel. What matters is the state of a person’s heart, and the deeds it prompts, not their ritual observance and tradition.

    And all Christians should also reflect on Jesus’s advice on how to deal with Pharisees.
    This what he says: ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into the pit.’ In other words, he says, leave it to God to deal with those who wrong.

    When we conscientiously disagree about what is right or wrong, we should not try to bludgeon our opponents into accepting our view. We must do what our God given conscience and reason tell us is right. But we should leave those with whom we disagree to go their own way. If that causes schism, so be it. If they are wrong, if they are ‘the blind leading the blind’, our heavenly Father will deal with them in his own way.

    As he will deal with us if it is we that are wrong! We need to pray for guidance, and listen carefully to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, so that we do not fall into the pit like the Pharisees of Jesus's day.

    Sunday 7 August 2011

    Walking on water

    Address given at Dunkerrin and Shinrone on 7th August 2011, the 7th Sunday after Trinity.

    Have you ever been out on the water at night in a small boat in a gale? I have, and I can tell you I was terrified!
    I was a teenager, and it was a wild night. To get back to the cottage on an island in Lough Derg, my mother and I had to row less than a hundred yards. It was blowing a gale, with a big sea running, and waves breaking. With one oar each, side by side, we pulled against the wind, inching forward, sometimes being thrown sideways as the wind caught the side of the boat, shipping water all the while. We made several attempts and were thrown back, but eventually we made it to calmer waters, and arrived safely on the other shore. By that time I was shaking like a leaf, terrified. My mother probably was too, though she never let me see it of course. It taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten: respect for the water – it’s not our native element, and we underestimate the power of wind and wave at our peril.

    Today’s reading from St Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 14:22-33) brings this memory back to me. The same event is recorded in Mark’s and John’s Gospels. I feel I can identify with the disciples, even though I suppose I wasn’t in real danger, as they must have been. The Sea of Galilee is renowned for the fierce and dangerous storms that suddenly appear out of nowhere, and abate just as quickly. I see it in my minds eye as rather like our Lough Derg – it’s about 40% bigger in area and wider, but not so long. And sailors know how quickly a squall can blow up on Lough Derg.

    The disciples had got into trouble in one of Galilee’s notorious storms.
    Immediately after feeding the 5000, Jesus sent the disciples off in a boat, while he told the crowds to go home, and went off up the mountain to pray by himself.

    The disciples had set out in the evening light, unaware of the coming storm. Mark tells us that Jesus ‘saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind’. I imagine the night was bright and moonlit for Jesus to be able to see the little boat.

    ‘Early in the morning’, Matthew tells us, Jesus ‘came walking toward them on the sea’. The Greek words translated as ‘early in the morning’ literally mean ‘in the 4th watch of the night’. In those days, with no clocks, time during the night was counted in 4 watches of 3 hours each. So sometime between 3 and 6 am, Jesus, walking on the high ground after praying all night, saw the little boat struggling through waves and spray, and came down to help.

    But what is this about Jesus walking on the sea?
    Should we imagine Jesus far from land, in the middle of the lake, walking on the water, stepping over the waves? This is how most Christians have imagined the scene, I suppose, and many artists have depicted it. But we should be aware of a possible problem with translation here. The Greek words translated as ‘on the lake’ could equally mean ‘towards the lake’, or ‘at the lake’, that is by the lake shore.

    The truth is that there are two perfectly possible interpretations of this passage. The first describes Jesus miraculously walking on the water in the middle of the lake. In the second, the disciples’ boat is driven by the wind to the shore, Jesus comes down from the mountain to help when he sees them struggling in the dim light of dawn, and Jesus walks through the surf towards the boat. Both interpretations are equally valid. Some will prefer one and some the other.

    When the disciples saw Jesus they were terrified, believing him to be a ghost, until Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid’.

    However we interpret the Greek, the significance to the disciples is perfectly clear: In the hour of their need, Jesus came to them, to help and reassure them.

    Only Matthew adds the detail about Peter trying to walk on the water too.
    It’s a charming vignette, and so in character for Peter, from the other things we know of him. He was brave and impetuous, but he often found it hard to live up to his good intentions. Remember, it was Peter who swore undying loyalty to Jesus only to deny 3 times that he knew him just a few hours later.

    When Jesus said ‘Come’, Peter bravely ‘got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus’. But his courage failed him and he started to sink. ‘Lord, save me!’ he shouted, and ‘Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

    Whether Jesus was miraculously walking on water, or whether he came through the surf on the shore to help the disciples in the boat, Peter surely learned this: It is not always easy to follow Jesus, but Jesus is always there to catch you when you stumble and sink.

    Finally, is there anything we can learn from this story, 2000 years on?
    Well, surely the same things that Peter and the disciples learned! They were privileged to know Jesus the man and to sail the Sea of Galilee with him. But we are privileged too to know the spiritual reality of the living Christ.

    In life the wind is often against us. Life for every one of us sometimes feels like a desperate struggle, with ourselves, with our circumstances, with temptations, with sorrow, with the consequences of bad decisions we have made. But none of us need struggle alone. In the hour of our need, Jesus will come to us as he did to the disciples long ago, to help and reassure us. Just listen for his voice saying, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid’!

    If we seek to follow Jesus, we will find like Peter that it is not always easy. It will test our faith at times. Our faith will not always be enough and we will have doubts. But when we feel ourselves going under, if we cry out ‘Lord save me’, Jesus will be there for us, just as he was for Peter, reaching out his hand to catch us. Jesus is always there to save us when we are sinking. Just listen for his voice saying, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’

    Sunday 17 July 2011

    Teeth will be provided!

    Sermon given at Templederry and St Mary's, Nenagh, on 17th July 2011, the 4th Sunday after Trinity.

    Have you heard the old joke about the hell-fire preacher?

    Reaching the climax of his sermon about the day of judgement, in ringing tones he declares the fate of thosewho fail to meet the standards of God’s Kingdom: ‘They will be thrown into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’. At which point an old woman puts up her hand and says “But Rector, I have no teeth”, to which the hell-fire preacher replies “Madam, teeth will be provided”.

    Joking aside, it is always worth pondering the parables Jesus uses to teach his followers. The parable of the weeds of the field in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (-30, 36-43) is no exception. So let’s look at it a little more closely.

    The images Jesus uses in his parable would have been very vivid and familiar to a Galilean audience.

    Weeds were one of the curses against which a farmer had to labour before the discovery of weed-killers - and I guess they still are. In this parable the weed is no doubt bearded darnel, a kind of rye-grass. In its early stages darnel is indistinguishable from wheat. Only when they both produce seed-heads can they be told apart. But by then their roots are so intertwined that the darnel can’t be weeded out without damaging theroots of the wheat. Weeding would only reduce the yield of wheat.

    The wheat and darnel can’t be safely separated while they are growing, but in the end they must be, because the grain of the darnel is slightly poisonous. In quantity it causes dizziness and sickness. So the master in the parable gets the reapers to separate them at harvest time. The darnel will be bundled up and burned, while the wheat will be threshed and gathered into the barn.

    The idea of an enemy deliberately sowing weeds in someone else’s field would also have struck a chord. It was a crime forbidden in Roman law, which prescribed a punishment for it, so we can be sure it happened.

    Jesus tells the crowd that the parable is about the kingdom of heaven, and Matthew records him later explaining it to his disciples, to help them – and us – understand what he meant by it. It is one of several parables recorded by Matthew in which Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to different things – others are a mustard seed and yeast mixed with flour and water to make dough. Jesus is teaching by analogy, and I feel sure we should not take it too literally, but rather look for the underlying messages.

    It is the devil, says Jesus, who sows the weeds, the children of the evil one, in the field which is the world.

    We all know instinctively, don’t we, what is right and what is wrong. We have been created as souls with consciences, in the image of God, to use the imagery of the Book of Genesis. But we all also experience insistent little voices within us which tempt us to do what our God-given conscience tells us is not right. Theologians call it original sin. Jesus personifies it as the work of the devil. But in these post-Freudian times I think it may be easier to think of it as the bad part of ourselves, that part of own psyche which allows and even encourages us to damage ourselves and others.

    Let me illustrate how insidious it is with some examples. Advertising campaigns play on our innate greed by whispering, ‘Because you’re worth it’. They also tell us we can be rich and happy if we buy a lottery ticket, or bet with Paddy Power. It is the thin end of a very fat wedge. Further down that wedge we find unscrupulous interests that seek to persuade us that we and our communities will benefit if we only permit them to build a casino resort in Two-mile-borris. Rev Brian Griffin has taken a brave and principled Methodist stand against it, drawing our attention to the evidence of the damage such developments have done elsewhere. I think we should applaud and support Brian Griffin's stand.

    However, Jesus warns us against pulling the weeds in case we uproot the wheat.

    He is teaching us not to be too quick in our judgements of others. We are all too liable to classify and label people as good or bad without knowing all the facts. And people can change. We can be redeemed from sin by the grace of God, and equally we can disfigure a good life by a sudden collapse into sin. As Jesus says elsewhere, ‘Let he that is without sin cast the first stone’.

    We are not entitled to make a final judgement about the righteousness of any other person – only God has that right. It is God alone who can discern the good and the bad. It is God alone who sees all of an individual and all of a person’s life.

    Of course we can’t help forming opinions of others, using our reason which is also God-given, and we are right to do so. And it is surely also right that we should let such opinions guide our actions when appropriate. But we must never forget we may be mistaken, as I may be in my opinion of those promoting the Two-mile-borris casino (though I don't think I am). And we would do well to remember the Quaker maxim – ‘There is something of God in every person’ – and do our best to find it.

    But of one thing Jesus assures us – we will be judged eventually, every one of us.

    ‘Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

    When Jesus talks about the ‘end of the age’, I don’t think he would wish us to take it literally as the final moment of time. Rather I think we should see it as a time which will come to us all – as certain as our own death – in which we see ourselves as God sees us: in one piece from our conception to our death; how we have touched those we have met for good or ill; all the good in us, and all the bad too.

    At this time we will see clearly: we will burn with torment and shame for the sins we have caused and the evil we have done in our lives. We will weep and gnash our teeth. But for the good we have done, we ‘will shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father’.

    Let us pray then that by God’s grace and mercy his angels may find us more like the good seed than the weed seed, and gather us up to shine in the kingdom, not burn in the furnace.

    Sunday 8 May 2011

    The road to Emmaus

    An address given at Templederry & Killodiernan on the 3rd Sunday of Easter, 8th May 2011

    Going to Emmaus, Robert Zünd, 1877, Kunstmuseum St. Gallen

    St Luke is an immensely skilled story-teller.
    In today’s NT reading (Luke 24:13-35), he has given us one of the world’s great short stories, as he relates what happened between Jerusalem and Emmaus on that first Easter day.

    He is economical with words, but he paints a vivid scene. There is suspense and character development too. And like the best short stories it leaves us with more questions than answers.

    Let’s try to enter the story in our imaginations.

    Two disciples of Jesus, Cleopas and his friend, set off walking on the road to Emmaus in the late afternoon.
    They walk into the setting sun – Emmaus is about 7 miles west of Jerusalem, much the same as the distance from Templederry or Killodiernan to Nenagh. Their journey will take 2 hours, more or less. And as they walk, they talk – trying to make sense of the shocking events of the last 3 days.

    They had hoped that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah who would redeem Israel. But the chief priests and leaders had handed him over to the Roman authorities to be condemned to death and crucified. Their belief in him was shattered, their dreams turned to ashes. And early this very morning, some women of their group had astounded them by claiming to have had a vision in which angels said this Jesus was still alive. The shock of his crucifixion must have unbalanced them. And yet …

    As Cleopas and his friend walk and talk, they fall in with a stranger walking the same road. It is Jesus, Luke tells us. But for some reason they do not recognise him, even though they know him so well. Will they recognise him later? We are kept in suspense.

    When they explain to him what they are talking about, this stranger/Jesus says, ‘Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ He goes on to interpret for them all that the Hebrew Scriptures have to say about the Messiah. Their hearts are strangely warmed by this conversation. Yet still they do not recognise him.

    When they get to Emmaus they press this stranger/Jesus to stay and eat with them because it is late. Finally, only when ‘he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them’, they recognise the stranger to be Jesus. He promptly vanishes – but everything is changed for them, changed because they recognise the risen Christ.

    Cleopas and his friend recall how their hearts burned within them while Jesus expounded scripture to them on the road. They hurry back to Jerusalem to find the other disciples to tell them about meeting Jesus. But before Cleopas and his friend have a chance to tell their story, those who remained in Jerusalem tell them excitedly, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon’.

    Luke’s story of the road to Emmaus leaves so many questions hanging.
    For instance, why did Cleopas and his friend not recognise Jesus until they ate together? I can’t believe it was just because the setting sun was in their eyes.

    The Gospel stories in which the disciples meet Jesus after his resurrection are mysterious. His friends find it hard to recognise him – not just the disciples on the road to Emmaus, but Mary Magdalen who mistakes him for a gardener, and Simon Peter and other disciples who meet him as they are fishing on the shore in Galilee. He appears and disappears suddenly. The risen Christ is not just Jesus’s corpse magically brought back to life. The stories, I think, are about spiritual meetings - not physical meetings, as you and I might meet as we come and go.

    And Christians have continued to meet the risen Christ in ways which change their lives. Just as Paul met Christ on the road to Damascus. Just as St Francis heard Christ speak to him in a ruined church outside Assisi. And just as innumerable others have felt Christ’s presence make their hearts burn right up to our own day. This should not surprise us – after all, in the last words of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, ‘Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’.

    Cleopas and his friend recognise Jesus when the stranger says grace before their supper – when he gives thanks for the food they are about to eat: ‘He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them’. This is quite simply what Jesus used to do at the start of a meal. He did it at the last supper, but the Gospels record him doing so many times before. I think he intended his Eucharistic action – the Greek word literally means ‘thanksgiving’ – as a sign that God’s kingdom is present with us. God’s kingdom in which we take God’s good gifts, processed by human hands, give thanks for them, and share them with our neighbours. May God grant that like Cleopas and his friend we too may encounter the risen Christ in the Eucharist, which we with all other Christians re-enact to this day as Holy Communion.

    I would love to know what Jesus said to Cleopas and his friend, what made their hearts burn so.
    How amazing it would be to hear Jesus open the scriptures in person!

    But I will never know. Any more than I can know what Jesus meant when he said ‘Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Or know what happened when Jesus appeared to Peter. Luke simply does not tell us.

    Yet that surely is as it is meant to be. I feel certain that the risen Christ reveals to each one of us just those things which are right for us, which we need to know. We recognise this is Christ at work because we feel our hearts warmed. But there are other things which we will never know, which we are not meant to know, and which would do us no good to know.

    Saturday 23 April 2011

    Good Friday Vigil - Watching & Enduring

    It was my privilege yesterday to lead the Three Hours Vigil in St Mary's, Nenagh, meditating on Christ's last words from the cross. We heard readings from scripture and reflections on them. We listened to Theodore Dubois' The Seven Last Words of Christ performed by the Exultate Festival Choir and Orchestra. And we spent time in silence and prayer.

    The Three Hours Vigil:
    Watching and Enduring

    Meditation on the Last Words of Christ
    Good Friday, 22nd April 2011

    ·         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.
    o       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.
    o       We are watching with Jesus, but we are not enduring. Jesus is enduring. He is enduring not just physical, but spiritual torments of desolation, as life drains from him.
    o       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, we shall 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.

    12.00 .      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.” (Mark )

    Reading    Mark 14:26-50


    ·         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 as the Eucharist, as 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 knows 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 how unreliable they are, but even so, how it 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

    Lord Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane you faced in prayer
     the devils last and greatest temptation:
     to take the easy way, the sensible solution,
     that was not the will of your Father.
    Give us grace, Lord, to listen
     to the quiet insistent voice
     that draws us up the Calvary path,
     far from the world’s highway:
     the path that leads to the cross,
     but also to the empty tomb
     and the glory of resurrection;
     for your name’s sake. Amen
                                                                John Kingsnorth (adapted)

    12.20                        The Trial

    “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.” (Luke 22:67-69)

    Reading    Luke


    ·         One thing that strikes me about Luke’s story of Jesus’s trial is the sheer variety of people involved. 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? Surely not. 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.
    o        A few years ago I saw a TV series on Christ’s passion. It gave 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?
    o        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; he offers to have him flogged; and he seeks the approval of the rent-a-mob crowd to release him. But 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?

    Music         Introduction
    O all ye who travel upon the highway,
    Harken to me, and behold me;
    Was e’er sorrow like unto my sorrow?
    For the Lord Almighty hath dealt bitterly with me;
    Call me now no more Naomi, from today call me Mara.

    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?

    O God our Father, whose Son was unjustly tried
     and sentenced to death,
     yet commanded us to love our enemies:
     strengthen those who suffer for the sake of conscience.
    When they are accused, save them from speaking in hate;
     when they are rejected, save them from bitterness;
     when they are imprisoned, save them from despair.
    And to us your servants give grace to respect their witness
     and to discern the truth: for the sake of Jesus Christ,
     our merciful and righteous judge. Amen
                                                                Episcopal Church, USA (adapted)

    12.40         The 1st Word

    “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

    Reading    Luke 23:32-38

    ·      We have come to spend three hours in vigil from 12 to 3; but if we had arrived at Calvary at , 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, and 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”

    Music         First Word
    Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.
    And the people clamoured,
    “He is death guilty; take him; let us crucify him!
    Be his blood on us then, and on our children!”
    Then they did crucify Jesus and the two thieves,
    One on his right hand, the other on his left hand.

    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”?

    Lord Jesus Christ,
     you asked forgiveness for those who crucified you,
     for they did not know what they were doing.
    We acknowledge that we are often caught in the web of the world’s sin;
     that we fail to recognise the deceitfulness of our own hearts,
     the depths of our own self-seeking;
     that we crucify you afresh.
    Forgive us, O Lord, all our wrong doing,
     against you, our neighbour and ourselves,
     and help us to forgive those who cause us hurt;
     for your mercies’ sake. Amen
                                                                Llewellyn Cumings
     13.00         The 2nd Word
     “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise (Luke )

    Reading    Luke 23:39-43

    ·         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?
    o        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.
    o        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.

    Music         Second Word
    Verily, thou shalt be in paradise today with me.
    Amen, so I tell thee.
    Hear, O Lord remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.


    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 me.”
    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.” 

    Lord Jesus Christ,
     you spoke the word of promise
     to the criminal who turned to you
     in the last hours of his life.
    We thank you that it is never too late
     to repent and to believe in you.
    Reassure all who, nearing death,
     acknowledge their sins
     and seek your grace and forgiveness.
    Have mercy on all people, O Lord,
     and on us, unworthy sinners as we are,
     for you are our Saviour and Redeemer. Amen
    Llewellyn Cumings

    13.20         The 3rd Word

    He said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” (John 19:26-27)

    Reading    John 19:25b-27

    ·         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 the child you have loved and nurtured suffer the prolonged torture of crucifixion. It took hours, not just the 3 hours of this vigil. Yet 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.
    ·         It’s 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.

    Music         Third Word
    See, O woman, here behold thy son beloved.
    See yon mother bowed in anguish,
    Who beside the cross doth languish,
    Where on high her son is borne.
    Is there mortal who not feeleth
    To behold her where she kneeleth,
    So woeful and all forlorn.

    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.
    Lord Jesus Christ,
     in your last hours of pain
     you took thought for your mother
     and commended her to the beloved disciple’s care.
    Help us, when trials overtake us,
     to have thought for our loved ones
     and for those in need about us.
    Make us to know that we are members of your family,
     and that nothing can separate us from your love:
     for your name’s sake. Amen
                                                                Llewellyn Cumings

    13.40         The 4th Word

    “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)

    Reading    Matthew 27:45-49

    ·         Time has moved on as Jesus labours at dying. 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 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.
    ·         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’. Isn’t it comforting to think that there is no place we might go, where Jesus has not been before us? Even Hell!

    Music         Fourth Word
    God, my Father, oh why hast thou forsaken me?
    All those who were my friends, all have now forsaken me;
    And they that hate me do now prevail against me,
    And he whom I have cherished, he hath betrayed me.
    Even the vine that I have chosen and that I have planted:
    Wherefore art thou now so strongly turned into bitterness,
    That I by thee am crucified?

    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.
    Lord Jesus Christ,
     who endured the darkness of spiritual despair
     that you might bring us to God:
     be near to all who suffer alone
     and are conscious only of pain and darkness.
    In the immensity of your compassion
     reveal yourself to them, O Lord,
     that they may know that they are not forsaken
     but are surrounded by your love:
     for your tender mercies’ sake. Amen
                                                                Llewellyn Cumings

    14.00         The 5th Word    

    “I thirst!” (John 19:28)

    Reading    John 19:28-29

    ·         Time is starting to move very slowly now for Jesus on his cross. On Golgotha it is nearly , 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. 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.
    o        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.
    o        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.
    o        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.
    o        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.
    o        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 the way to enter God’s kingdom.

    Music         Fifth Word
    I am athirst.
    And the Jews, then passing by him, all did rail upon him,
    And wagging their heads at him, they said unto him,
    Vah! Thou wouldst fain destroy the temple,
    If thou be Jesus, Son of the Father,
    Now from the cross descend thou,
    That we behold it, and believe on thee when we behold it.
    If thou art king over Israel, save thyself then!”

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

    Lord Jesus Christ,
     you thirsted in anguish of body and soul on the cross:
     thirsting for drink;
     thirsting for the accomplishing of God’s work;
     thirsting for the salvation of the world.
    In your infinite longings for us, O Lord,
     lead us to yourself, the fountain of living water,
     that we may find our thirst quenched
     in knowing you and doing your will,
     now and forever. Amen
                                                                Llewellyn Cumings

    14.20         The 6th Word

     “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)

    Reading    Luke 23:44-46a

    ·         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.

    Music         Sixth Word
    Father into thy hands I now commend my soul.
    For thou art my God and my Father.

    As we keep silence under the cross, let us look our own death squarely in the eyes, and ask for the grace to be able to pray with Jesus, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

    Lord Jesus Christ,
     who in the hour of death committed yourself
     into your Father’s hands:
     be with us when the time comes
     for our departure from this world.
    May your grace sustain us at the end;
     may we know ourselves accepted by our Father;
     and may we pass peacefully into your presence,
     where faith turns to sight,
     where we shall see you face to face,
     and we shall be forever with the Lord. Amen
                                                                Llewellyn Cumings

    14.40                        The 7th Word

    “It is finished!” (John 19:30)

    Reading    John 19:30-42

    ·         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 (), 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 () 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.

    Music         Seventh Word
    It is finished!
    And he did bow his head and rendered up his spirit.
    And it was about the sixth hour, and the sun was darkened,
    And darkness covered the earth until about the ninth hour;
    And the veil of the temple was rent, and all the earth did quake;
    And the rocks were rent, and all the graves were opened wide.

    Christ, we do all adore thee,
    And we do praise thee forever,
    For on the holy cross hast thou
    The world from sin redeemed.
    Christ, we do all adore thee,
    And we do praise thee forever,

    As we move into our last period of silence in front of the cross, let us use the beautiful words of the C14th Latin prayer Anima Christi to focus our thoughts. It goes like this:
    Soul of Christ, sanctify me
    Body of Christ, save me
    Blood of Christ, refresh me
    Water from the side of Christ, wash me
    Passion of Christ, strengthen me
    O good Jesu, hear me
    Within Thy wounds hide me
    Suffer me not to be separated from Thee
    From the malicious enemy defend me
    In the hour of my death call me
    And bid me come to Thee
    That with thy saints I may praise Thee 
    For ever and ever. Amen.

    Lord Jesus Christ,
     you willingly suffered on the cross
     all that was necessary for our eternal salvation
     and drained the cup of sacrifice to the last.
    We thank you for your great work of redemption,
     achieved once for all at infinite cost,
     by which we are reconciled to God.
    Help us to rest our faith on what you have done
     and to know that the way to the Father’s presence
     is open to us all through the cross,
     now and forevermore. Amen
                                                                Llewellyn Cumings