One of the great remnants of this country’s Christian heritage is that Good Friday is still a national holiday (we even still close shops for one day a year! Hooray!). For most of our society, and sadly, much of the church, this holiday that was for allowing time to stop and contemplate the love of God revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus, became mostly a chance for a final family holiday before winter. One thing this current lockdown creates is an opportunity for us in our “bubbles” to slow down again, stay present, and walk the whole Easter journey, not just skip to the Easter eggs on Sunday. How can we possibly celebrate Easter Sunday if we don’t first go through the cross and the grave? No cross, no glory!
This year, many of us will relate much more personally to the pain of the world, the sorrow of suffering, the fear of death, and a sense of exile and disappointment. Good Friday is a day that speaks loudly, and clearly into this experience. The next three days are great opportunities for families for intentional discipleship, and meaningful conversation with friends and neighbours that connects our faith with the very real experiences of life. It might be the optimist, or evangelist in me, but I simply don’t believe that people have no interest in God.
People are still desperately looking for hope. People deep down still want to believe in the enduring power of love, and desperately want to believe that good triumphs over evil. Just look at your average Disney movie. We see the seeds of this in the outpouring of love and neighbourliness in our communities at the moment. We need to point them to the reason we can be sure of these things, and the fullest expression of what love is. Today, we point to the cross.
We struggle with the reality of evil and suffering. We should. In my experience, the thing people wrestle with is not a question of “is God real”, but rather, “where is God in the midst of our struggling, pain and sorrow?” Without an answer to this deep struggle, people often jump to a rationale that goes something like this: There is suffering in the world, therefore either God does not care about suffering and is therefore not good, or is powerless to do anything about it, so can’t help me.
The cross shows us a different reality. We may want a neat and tidy answer for why God allows suffering, but he doesn’t give it. What he does give us is himself. The profound claim of the Christian faith is that despite our sin and the evil we have perpetrated in God’s good creation, God is not distant or indifferent to our plight. The astounding claim we make as Christians is quite the opposite - that God condescended from glory, put on human flesh, and became part of his creation, partaking in all of the joys and struggles of the human experience.
Where is God in the midst of sorrow, injustice and suffering?
Walking in our shoes, right there with us!
In this Holy Week we get to see a God who isn’t distant or indifferent, but experiences the fullness of sin and evil and the fullness of its consequences. We see Jesus tempted, betrayed, abandoned, lied about, unjustly tried, mocked, stripped naked, shamed, spat on, ridiculed, beaten, whipped, hit, his meagre possessions taken and gambled for, publicly shamed, physically tortured, and nailed to a tree in the most extraordinary form of torture imaginable. Innocent, yet treated as though guilty and cursed. A man of sorrow. Jesus, God in flesh, takes upon himself all of the sin, the evil, the injustice and the suffering of the world, experiencing the greatest enemy of life - death.
God is not indifferent to our suffering. God is not absent!
God is also not powerless to save.
Ironically, it is through the darkness, through the valley of the shadow of death, through the “weakness” of God, in sacrificial, self-giving, love, that the fullness of sin and evil is taken to the grave and defeated through the resurrection. Death is swallowed up in victory, defeated through death, and has lost its sting. Jesus’ words to his followers are this: In this world you are going to have troubles, but take heart, I have overcome the world.
Without walking the path of the cross in our homes, and without contemplating the cross as the true glory of God, it’s little wonder our children struggle later in life if they encounter the reality of sin and injustice. If our faith is little more than disconnected bible stories, moralism, or self-help, God won’t seem to be the steadfast hope we need in times of trial, and they will look elsewhere. Likewise if we don’t take seriously the call to take up our own cross and to follow Jesus, it’s little wonder we slip into lives of privileged comfort at the expense of the poor. We need to proclaim the cross and Christ crucified.
The cross helps make sense of our guilt, our shame, and our experiences of injustice, suffering and death. Our Christian hope isn't in believing the right thing so we can go up to heaven when we die, it is, as we declare in the creed each Sunday, that because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, “we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” That's why the last exclamation in the bible, the second last verse, is “Amen. Come Lord Jesus!” Sin, evil and death (and COVID-19) do not get the final word! But then that’s jumping ahead to Sunday...
Until then, as you continue reading the gospels this weekend, can I encourage you to look through two lenses:
Pretend you are hearing the story for the first time. Try putting yourself in the shoes of someone hearing the story for the first time. Perhaps imagine being an ethnic minority, living under oppression, holding on to the promises of a saviour you have left everything to follow, who you believe is God’s anointed. Watch him at every scene. Listen to every word he speaks. Where are you? What are you thinking? What happens to you emotionally at each scene?
What are the powers of darkness at work against Jesus? Note that although the authority of Jesus seems to be being taken from him, he is in fact still in control. “This is my hour, the hour for which I came, the hour for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23-27). He gives the Temple guards permission to arrest him on Thursday night, “This is your hour, and the power of darkness” (Luke 22:53). He says to Pilate, “My kingdom has a power independent of you.” John 18:36-38. He chooses silence under trial, and when Jesus finally speaks, it is from the cross. Let these words, from the Word of God on the cross, be the words that tell you about who God is.
Lastly, note in the reading from John’s gospel today, that it starts and ends in a garden. This should draw your mind back to the garden of Eden, and to the tension in the biblical narrative that needs to be resolved. Which garden ended up with a tomb in it?
What are we learning about God?
What are we learning about what it means to bear the image of God?
Why did you wash their feet? I don’t understand, it makes no sense.
Why did you do something so demeaning, so distasteful, when you did not have to? Why humble yourself and wash the feet of your own disciples? You are the Messiah, it makes no sense for you, of all people, to do something that should be done by the least of all people, not by the greatest. It is not what we want our Messiahs to do.
Unless… unless we have got it wrong and that, somehow this is a measure of what Messiah means? Not that it is defined in greatness but that somehow, in your world the first will be last, and the greatest, least and servant of all?
But if we are to follow you, does it mean that we must follow your example too? Are you suggesting that we too should make ourselves humble? That we must wash the feet of the people whom we would rather ignore, or scapegoat, or deride?
Must we too become the servants of the least among us? the refugee, the disabled, the homeless, the addicted, the anti-social, the child?
Was that what all of this was about? To try and put us in our rightful place, not at the centre of our own world, but at the centre of yours, where we are no longer the most important person? Is that it? Were you trying to teach us this simple truth, that other people, all other people, should matter too?
Is that why you washed their feet?
A prayer of response Messiah I come, Brought to my knees by astonishing grace. In the presence of such humility From one so great What can I do but kneel and praise?
Messiah I come, Challenged to bow to the King who kneels. I want to pour out mercy and bring tender healing, But I am proud, judgmental, and self-absorbed And you are the only one who can lead me to first-becoming-last greatness.
I would wash and serve, wash and love, Like you do. But first Lord Jesus, Wash my feet, cleanse my heart Till I am – like you – Humble and ready on my knees.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” And with those words of Jesus, the disciples looked at one another.
It’s easy to see the betrayal in others - harder in ourselves!
Simon Peter takes it beyond just looking at others - he wants a name (v24)
The emphasis throughout these scriptures is on the extraordinary betrayal of Jesus, by Judas, one of his disciples. He’d left everything to follow Jesus and was one of the twelve. Note the very specific naming: 12:4 - Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him) 13:2 - During supper, when the devil has already out it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him... 13:26 - he gave it to Judas, son of Simon Iscariot
The irony in the text is that Judas wasn’t the only one to betray Jesus that night. Peter ends up disowning Jesus three times.
Where are we quick to judge the actions of others?
Where do we seek to use the words of Jesus to reveal the shame of someone else, rather than to reveal our own?
The word of God must speak to us, to reveal our own betrayal, and our own need for forgiveness and mercy.
The great tragedy in the story is that Judas never goes back to Jesus for mercy and forgiveness. In Matthew 27:3-5 we read even more tragically, that he goes back to the chief priests and elders, returns the silver, saying “I sinned by condemning innocent blood”. Judas confesses his sin to those who were supposed to mediate between God and those who had sinned, and they said to him, “What is it to us? See to it yourself”. Again, note how easy it is for them to point the finger at someone else, without considering their own complicity and sin, which at this point is greater than even Judas’ betrayal. How easy it is for us also. In “seeing to it himself,” Judas knows he is guilty under the law and takes upon himself the punishment of the law. Hanging was the legal penalty for capital offences under Jewish law (Deut 21:22-23), and the guilty person was thought to be under God’s curse. In contrast to this judgment and consequence for Judas under the law, Jesus, the innocent one, is hung on a tree, cursed, and yet declares the guilty forgiven. Peter, although he also betrays Jesus, encounters the forgiveness of Jesus, and his life is reborn and he becomes one of the first messengers of the gospel and a leader in the church. As we walk through Holy Week, let's not miss the magnitude of our own sin, but equally importantly, let's not miss the astonishing grace, mercy and forgiveness of God toward us. Don’t miss how great his love for you must be to go to the lengths he would to restore you to himself. In our bubbles, or phone trees, let’s share our testimonies and encourage one another with stories of God’s great mercy in our lives.
How can the recognition of our own sin, and God’s amazing forgiveness in Jesus, produce mercy in us for others who fall short?
How can we mediate this grace and mercy of God in our world today?
If someone came up to you and spoke those words, what would you show them?
Jesus feeding the poor? Jesus healing the sick? Jesus eating with outcasts?
These things are all certainly true to Jesus’ ministry, but if we want them to see all the fullness of the glory of God in Jesus, hopefully, our answer is the cross.
Before reading on, it’s well worth going back to read the whole of John chapter 1, making notes of who Jesus is, and what he has come to do. He is life (v4), he is the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness didn’t overcome it (v5), he gave the right to become children of God to all who receive him (v12), He is the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us - we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (v14). He is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (v29), the Son of God (v34), the Messiah (v41), the one who Moses in the Law, and the prophets wrote about (v45). Perhaps the best summation is that the purpose of Jesus' incarnation was to make known the very character of God (v18). Jesus himself says, if anyone has seen me, they have seen the Father (14:9).
These are the themes that are coming to a climax now in our reading.
We see Jesus wrestling with this vocation in today’s reading and the cost of obedience. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life”. “What should I say?” “Father, save me from this hour”? That would mean renouncing his mission, and Jesus chooses instead the way of self-sacrifice and obedience to God’s will: “Father, glorify your name”.
In our culture, glory is to be sought for ourselves (“you can be like God”) and is associated with words like fame, adoration, beauty, money, success, approval, winning. These self-seeking ambitions are the work of darkness, but the glory of God is found in the costly, self-sacrificing, forgiving, redeeming and reconciling love - the power of God that overcomes all tyranny, evil and death. The glory of God revealed on the cross is the light that overcomes the darkness (John 1:5). In John’s gospel, Jesus’ death is not referred to as his crucifixion, but his “glorification”. It is when Jesus is “lifted up,” that he will “draw all people” (including the Greeks/non-Jews) to himself. His death on the cross is his coronation as king and the fullest expression of the love of God. It is through his death and resurrection that the "ruler of this world be cast out" (v31). It is therefore the cross that we must proclaim.
This theology is inherently practical and relevant. We live in a world that is facing the spectre of death in a way most of us have never encountered. The numbers touted on the news are staggering (though maybe not so much for those in the world for whom each day is a battle against death through poverty, injustice and violence). The reality of death is in our daily news feeds in a way not experienced in a generation. This can produce much fear. The good news of Jesus is that through his own death, Jesus defeats death. On Good Friday we can confront the reality of death, and violence, injustice and evil face on, but with the hope that death doesn’t get the last world. It no longer rules over us. Death has been swallowed up in victory, so with Paul we can rejoice, death, where is your victory, where is your sting?!
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus”
As we love our neighbours this week by ensuring they have food, dropping off their medications, and keeping them from loneliness and isolation (or perhaps in the majority of cases, loving our neighbours by maintaining physical distancing and not selfishly pursuing our own ambitions and leaving our bubbles!), let’s make Jesus known fully, and show his full glory, not holding back the good news of the cross, and Jesus’ victory over death. As Philip experienced, sometimes people come to us and say, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”, but like Philip, we also need to be prepared to go to neighbours and say, “We have found him… Come and see” (John 1:45-46). How might we creatively do that amidst our physical distancing? Perhaps a small way is to incorporate the cross if you participate in the window Easter Egg Hunt promoted by our Prime Minister. Here are some examples to download.
The invitation for all people at the end of today’s reading is to respond to Jesus in faith and to become the children of God (1:12) sons and daughters of light (12:36).
The scene in today’s gospel reading takes place straight after Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead. We’re told they’re in the middle of a dinner for Jesus, and Mary comes up and anoints Jesus with expensive perfume. For reference, in today’s dollars, the cost of the nard would have been the equivalent of $38,000! Yep - take a moment to let that truly sink in. Picture a jar opening and $38,000 pouring out in front of you, on to someone’s feet!
Imagine yourself being there. What’s your gut reaction? Mary just took her most valuable possession, likely her inheritance, since women wouldn’t inherit land, and poured it out on the feet of Jesus! Others will declare Jesus to be the anointed Messiah, the promised Son of David, Mary’s actions show a whole hearted, fully devoted belief that expresses itself in costly worship. Notice her posture, bowed down, humbly kneeling at the feet of Jesus, worshipping him in adoration and love. We’re told the whole house was filled with the fragrance of perfume.
Again, imagine yourself being there. Think how strong that perfume must have been. Other gospels report that it was also poured over Jesus’ head, and would have flowed down over his clothes and body. Could it be possible that the fragrance from this act of costly love and devotion stayed with Jesus on his skin and clothes all the way through the rest of Holy Week - all the way through the pain, the mocking, the rejection, injustice and evil? A reminder of the enduring power of love?
What produces this sort of worship in a person’s life? I’d say the testimony of Jesus by his words and deeds. Remember Mary was the one who took the invitation to sit at the feet of Jesus and to hear his teaching. She prioritised the word of God in her life, over the voices of her culture. She’s also just seen the power of God’s incarnate word and his power over the grave. Even without yet witnessing the full extent of God’s love and power in the death and resurrection of Jesus, she’s seen enough to respond in faith. Like the fragrance that fills the room bears witness to the pouring out of the oil, so Mary’s life bears witness to the pouring out of the love of God in Jesus.
Standing in contrast to Mary is Judas, whose avarice and self-interest brings only the fragrance of death to others.
(Note: “the poor will always be with you” - is not a rebuke of almsgiving - see the following line that Jesus is quoting in Deuteronomy. For context, there was a rabbinic conversation at the time as to what was more important, almsgiving or looking after the deceased. Jesus is speaking into this contemporary conversation. We often criticise a faith that is focussed on worship and praise without any action toward the poor, but it’s clear we should also be very careful of a purely social justice driven ministry that fails to worship or proclaim Jesus as the center of our testimony and behaviour. Jesus calls us to both. Love of God and love of neighbour.)
Also in the room is Lazarus. He’s just been brought back from the grave! We see that his life is now a testimony to others, and many are coming to faith in Jesus through his witness. People who experience new life tell others, even though some (here, the chief priests) would have them silenced. What opportunities do we have to testify to Jesus in word and deed this Holy Week? What acts of costly worship and faith can we offer to bear witness to Jesus, the King who brings fullness of life? What would hold us back?
Lastly, don’t miss the two big ironies in this text. One, the chief priests are plotting to send Lazarus back to the grave - even though Jesus has just shown the grave has no power over him! And two, at the center of this story, is Jesus. Having raised someone else from the dead, he is now about to die as a sacrifice for others. The invitation for all of us today, is to have Jesus and his offer of life as the center of our stories too.
How would your life change if you knew, in your deepest being, that Jesus had the power over death, and you need not fear the grave?
How would your life change if you knew, in your deepest being that God was truly a good Father who provides for his children? That we didn’t have to hold tightly to our possessions?
I think we’d be free to live lives of great worship, generosity and love. Lives that fill our communities with the fragrance of costly, sacrificial love. A loving, non-anxious presence amidst a world of turmoil and pain.
Palm Sunday: John 12:12-13Palm Sunday is a day that we celebrate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. It’s a day of joy as we and our children wave palms, celebrate and sing songs of praise, recognising the Lordship of Jesus. It’s right that we do this, and even Luke tells us that if people didn’t, nature itself would cry out in praise (Luke 19:40). All of creation has been groaning in bondage, waiting for its redemption, and today, Jesus is recognised as the promised one who will bring salvation. Hosanna!
But Palm Sunday also carries with it a warning about our particular visions of the Jesus we celebrate. In the midst of our own struggles and sorrows, our hope of redemption can become far too small. In today’s reading, the words and images paint a picture of God acting in a way that is radically different than what people were expecting. The words the crowds are shouting are quotes from Psalm 118. Hosanna (meaning “he saves”) comes from v25. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, follows in v26. But what comes next, “Blessed is the king of Israel” is not in the psalm. For those with ears to hear, we know that something is off. The hope of creation is being reduced to redemption for one group.
The symbols in the picture reveal an even clearer picture. The branches from date palms had become a symbol of Jewish nationalism. During both wars with Rome, images of palms were stamped on coins minted by the rebels. What John, and the other gospel writers, are at pains to show us, is that the crowds are expecting a national liberator, whereas God has come to bring salvation to all the nations (“For God so loved the world…”).
By riding in on a donkey, Jesus is showing that the way he establishes his Kingdom is going to be different than other kings. The donkey is in fulfillment of the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9. The triumphant king is “gentle and riding on a donkey”. He is not a man of chariots and war horses, swords and bows (Zech 9:10), but one who will bring peace to all nations. His Kingdom brings life, not conquest.
As the week goes on, we are going to see that the people’s expectations of God and of what they thought God’s Messiah would do, and ought to do, is radically different than what happens. We’ll see the scope and cost of redemption are both far greater than we could ever imagine - requiring a love of enemies that extends even to the point of dying for them. By the end of the week, instead of “hosanna”, the croud will call out “crucify him,” and rather than “blessed”, will consider him cursed. They will choose Barabbas (which literally means “son of the father”) as the image of God they prefer, over Jesus, who is the true image of God. They fail to rightly judge the true character of God and what God is doing.
It’s easy to look back and criticise, but we can still be the same today. Our expectations for what God will do, and how he should act are often quite different than reality. Our understanding of Jesus is also sometimes formed by cultural expectations, and hopes and dreams that have become small in scope, and far less than God’s promised - restoration and renewal of all of creation.
The new observation for me in this text this week was regarding the palm branches. The people “took them” from the tree. My mind went back to Genesis and the first garden, where the people “took from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”. In taking from the tree they ignore God’s word, and judge for themselves what is right and wrong. In taking from the tree in this passage, the people are right in judging Jesus as King, but as we’ll see during the week, fail to rightly interpret the scriptures, and therefore fail to rightly judge what God was doing in Jesus, and how he would save them. In the coming weeks their own smaller hopes will have to eventually die in order to give way to God’s greater plan, which liberates them, and us, from the true enemies of sin and death. God’s original blessing was for all of creation, and so salvation must also come not just for one nation but all of creation.
It struck me that this is the symbolic journey of our palms on Palm Sunday. Symbolically we wave them at the beginning of the week in hopeful praise, then turn them into crosses to carry for the year, before finally they are burned on Ash Wednesday, and used to impose crosses on our foreheads - reminding us of our mortality, and our greatest need - resurrection and the forgiveness of sin.
This Palm Sunday, what palms of misplaced cultural hopes and dreams do we hold that may need to be placed before the feet of King Jesus, become shaped by the cross, and finally, be purged in the holy fire of God’s Spirit and love, in order for God’s Kingdom to come more fully in our lives?
Grace and peace to you and to all in your "bubble". I hope you are all slowly adjusting to this new season of life. It's a lot to take in, finding yourself more alone, physically away from loved ones, trying to homeschool, maybe while also working from home, and explaining to little ones why they can't go to the park. Some of you are also working extremely hard on the frontlines of our essential services.
The pastoral word I know that I need to hear, and that I want to encourage you with, is pause. Breathe!
The last week has been a sprint for many of us as we've strived to get things in place before we entered phase 4 of physical distancing. Thank you for every act of love that has helped enable us to continue with common prayer and worship in the coming weeks, and to ensure our connectedness online and via phone. The thing is, we can't keep up that pace for the long haul. The Christian faith is often described as a walk. For good reason. As we find ourselves trying to establish new rhythms in our own homes, let's ensure that these rhythms prioritise prayer and scripture reflection. Think of the story of Mary and Martha in Luke's gospel.
Amidst the cacophony of voices from news cycles, social media updates and our own internal voice that often leads to harsh judgment of ourselves and others, we need to stop and hear the word of God. I was encouraged by the lectionary reading from a couple of days ago.
19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
In response to the work of Jesus, we are exhorted to three things (and note the order - it's important):
1) Draw near to God. God is not into physical distancing! He is with us, promises to never leave us or forsake us! The wall that divided us has been torn down in Christ, and God invites us to be in his presence. How might you take up that invitation? What might it look like? Use the parish prayer book for morning and evening prayer. There are two especially for families.
2) Hold fast to the hope we have. As many of the things we tend to build our lives on are slowly stripped away in a time of crises like this, we recognise our need to hold on to the sure and certain hope we have, the rock we can build on instead of the sinking sand. God's Word. Listen to Pachelbel's Canon - remember the unchanging baseline we've talked about in recent sermons, like God's unfailing, constant love. Hold fast to this!
3) Consider how we can encourage one another towards love and good deeds. Yes, I get the irony that follows about meeting together, but now's the chance to be creative. Now's the time to find new ways to love and worship, just like the Israelites had to do when they were exiled in Babylon, far away from the temple in Jerusalem. Psalm 137:1 "By the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down. Yea we wept, when we remembered Zion." Their practices changed, God didn't!
Start brainstorming ideas about how we can be family in the days ahead. Who can you "invite for dinner" online over zoom, facebook, or skype? Who can you pray evening prayer with over the phone? The exhortation here is to build up habits that draw us into community and make us stronger in love, not to allow this season to produce habits that weaken our ties.
This starts in our own hearts, so pause, breath, and hear God's invitation to draw near.