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The Seven Last Words From The Cross

Here is an extended meditation/talk I gave a couple of days ago for Holy Week.

I want to take as a theme this year the sayings of Jesus on the Cross. I shall offer some brief thoughts on each of them, because between them they give us a picture of the Gospel message.

Father forgive them, for they do not know what they do
Who killed Jesus? I worked with a Jewish woman who told me how she grew up facing taunts of ‘Christ killer’. I said that was unfair, as the Romans as well as the Jewish authorities were implicated in the death of Jesus. Here, as Jesus pronounces these amazing words, he has Roman soldiers at his feet.

In showing that both Jews and Gentiles were co-conspirators in the execution of Jesus, the Gospel writers tell us that the whole world is guilty of causing this, the greatest injustice of history.

However, in Jesus offering forgiveness to his tormentors, it equally means that his Good News is open and available to all. All have sinned – no exception – but also, the Gospel is for all – no exception.

There is no-one here who is beyond the forgiving love of God. It doesn’t matter what you are ashamed of, it doesn’t matter what you can’t forgive yourself for, Jesus offers you forgiveness from the Cross.

For there is no-one in the world who is potentially beyond the reach of God’s love in Christ. People we like, and people we despise. People we think are deserving, and people we consider unworthy – because all of us are unworthy, not only those who have done what is socially unacceptable, as opposed to those of us who – in our eyes – are basically good, but have only committed minor foibles. All of us are sinners in the sight of God, all of us are in need of forgiveness, and that forgiveness is open to all of us. He died for our friends and our enemies. Housewife and paedophile, businessman and war criminal, Jesus offers forgiveness.

Is that scandalous? Yes, to some. But this is love. This is mercy. This is grace. And without it we’re all dead.

With this, we remember our humble status, yet our loved status. As the forgiveness of God on Christ lifts us from our knees to our feet, so we also recognise his love for others and treat friend and foe alike with dignity.

Today you will be with me in paradise
In this second saying, we see the grace and mercy of God in Christ exemplified. You remember the story. Jesus is crucified in the middle of two criminals. As in life, so in death, he is in the midst of the world of human sin. And just as in the world, the responses to Jesus are mixed. One is mocking, the other is longing.

Mockery gets you nowhere – a sobering thought for our culture today. But to the plaintive, desperate cry, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” the heart of Jesus responds in love: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” The thief knows no Scripture, he hasn’t taken confirmation classes, and he has no chance to avail himself of the sacraments, but the cry for mercy is enough.

But what and where is Paradise? I grew up opposite a park, and within the park was a walled-off rose garden, with a separate door for entry. In a similar way, the biblical scholar Paula Gooder points out that ‘paradise’ is not in the Jewish usage some luxury beach with white sand. Rather, it is a Greek word, derived from a Persian once, referring to an enclosed garden. It therefore does not strictly equate to ‘heaven’, but Gooder suggests an enclosed garden within Heaven. Many Jews believed that after Adam and Eve’s sin, the Garden of Eden had been sealed up from humankind until the end of time, when it would be opened to humanity again. So when Jesus promises paradise now to the penitent thief, he is promising a return to Eden within Heaven, and thus a sign that the kingdom of God is coming. The thief had asked to be remembered when Jesus came into his kingdom, and thus Jesus indicates that his kingdom is closer at hand than might have been expected.

So this mercy is more than forgiveness: it is the promise of being part of God’s kingdom, his new creation, his restoration of the universe to the way it was meant to be. It is more than wiping the moral slate clean, it is invitation into the intimate presence of God. 

Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother
I guess we all know those people who remarkably think of others in the middle of their own suffering. Jesus was all that and more. Even before the Cross, during Holy Week, he gave words of comfort and hope to his disciples, knowing they were going to face terrible grief. He promised that he was going to prepare a place for them, that he would come back for them and that he was the way to that place.

Now, here he is, hanging on the Cross, and there is Mary his mother. Joseph is certainly dead, otherwise there is no need for him to think, as the eldest child, about arrangements for his mother’s care. But this is especially awful. Surely no parent should have to watch their own child die.

Some of the most heart-rending funerals I have taken over the years have been precisely such deaths. I remember a dear friend who died at the age of 41 from breast cancer. Not only do I recall the grief of her husband and that of her two children who were primary age at the time, also fixed in my mind is the pain of her elderly parents. She died in November. She had already bought and wrapped Christmas presents for her children, gifts she would not see them open. But she planned for them.

Jesus plans for his mother in the midst of suffering for the sins of the world. He matches her up with ‘the disciple [he] loved’ – whom I take to be John.

And how much more moving that he does this, given that during his public ministry he had been ambivalent about biological family. He had said that his true family were those who did the will of God.

Perhaps this points up the theme of the Cross. It exemplifies the fact that what Jesus is doing here, he is doing not for himself but for others. It makes me ask myself how much I am willing to go through suffering for others, and to remain focussed n others while I do so.

Furthermore, perhaps we can take this as indicating how through his death Jesus would create a new family of God, one that gathers around the Cross. That is what makes us God’s family today: nothing less than Christ’s atoning death for us. Nothing else gives use Christian unity within a church or with other churches: only the Cross does that. It is what we need to emphasise time and time again.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Is the hardest of all the words from the Cross? It appears in Matthew and Mark. To draw out some meaning, I want to concentrate on its setting in Mark. I believe these words fit a wider pattern that you see in the second half of Mark’s Gospel, as the shadow of the Cross becomes ever darker.

Three times Jesus predicts the Easter events – in chapters 8, 9 and 10. On each occasion he goes into great length about how he is going to be betrayed, suffer at the hands of the religious leaders and be killed. Then he adds a brief statement that he will rise again. The events of Jesus’ betrayal, suffering and death are then told in some considerable detail by Mark, but he has only eight verses about the Resurrection.

In other words, we have a pattern that gives great attention to unjust suffering but then just has a small note of hope with the Resurrection.  Could the words, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ fit this scheme? I think so, and here is why.

The words are not original to Jesus. They are the opening words of Psalm 22, where David is struggling with unjust suffering. For twenty-one verses he emphasises this. But the final seven – the last quarter of the psalm – look forward with hope. When Jews quoted the first line of a Psalm, they usually had in mind the whole Psalm. It was rather like the way we quote a song title – we have the whole song in mind. So we should take seriously Jesus’ expression of desolation from God, it isn’t simply that he felt abandoned. However, he knows there is hope. There is much darkness, but there is a little light.

This would have made sense for Mark’s first readers, who were almost certainly Christians in Rome suffering under Nero’s persecution. Their pain needed to be taken seriously, and they needed a little glimmer of hope, without it going over the top into a cheap triumphalism.

Can this help us and those we love when we are struggling? I believe it can. When we face pain and agony, when perhaps this also has an effect upon our spiritual lives, we need people alongside us who can take the reality of that dark experience seriously, and not belittle it. Yet we also need a word of hope. Not someone who comes alongside with such a relentless cheerfulness that they are plain annoying, nor someone who is a Job’s comforter, explaining how it is all doubtless caused by our sin. We need the quiet, gentle promise that light is coming. All this is in a suffering Jesus who rose, and who spoke of his own God-forsakenness on the Cross.

I thirst
This is a poignant, if not ironic, saying, coming as it does in John’s Gospel. Back in chapter 4, John records Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. He promises her that she will never thirst again – he means in a spiritual sense.

Here, though, the One who made that promise is himself thirsty. Crucifixion has dehydrated him. Someone offers him a sponge dipped in sour wine, on a hyssop branch.

The detail of the hyssop branch is unlikely to be accidental, especially for a writer like John, who loves imagery and symbolism. The hyssop was used in the Passover … and John records Jesus’ death as synchronising with the Passover. A branch of the hyssop herb was dipped in the blood of the lamb and daubed on Israelite door posts to indicate to the Angel of Death that he must not inflict his terrible plague of slaughter there. So, for the Christian, hyssop is used to strengthen Jesus as he offers his blood as the Lamb of God, saving his people from death.

Not only that, I wonder whether another meaning might have any significance here? Jews believed the bitter and sweet aroma of the hyssop plant could repel evil spirits. I’m not suggesting, obviously, that such a claim is true, but could it be that we have a symbol here of Jesus’ conquest of evil forces on the Cross? Some New Testament passages speak of the Cross as a victory over the forces of evil, for example: Colossians 2 arguably contains such an image. Forces and spirits that work by fear are conquered by love. Those that work by brute force are defeated by apparent powerlessness.

Certainly, Jesus thirsts. Not only does he thirst physically, he thirsts for righteousness and the victory of redeeming love.

Now if ‘I thirst’ indicates some kind of victory at the Cross, then we might ask whether there are any other signs of triumph at Calvary. I believe there are, and they become apparent in the final two sayings of Jesus as he hung, dying.

Father, into your hands I commit my spirit
Jesus may have been forsaken by God, but in these words from Psalm 31, he expresses a word of trust as he anticipates reunion with his Father. He will be vindicated – we shall see that in the Resurrection. He models for us the trust we may have when we draw near to death. Even Christians sometimes feel fear as death approaches, or even as ageing takes its course. It is said that William Williams, the author of ‘Guide me, O thou great Redeemer’, feared death and was unsure of God’s love for him. The theory goes that this explains the final verse of that hymn:

When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of deaths, and Hell’s destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side.

Perhaps we sing, with Paulus Gerhardt in ‘O sacred head, sore wounded’,

Be near me Lord when dying,
O show thy Cross to me.

For when we see the Cross and hear Jesus committing his spirit into the Father’s hands, we know we are in a safe place.

A further thought here: Jesus is in control of his own destiny here. He chooses this moment to give up his spirit into the Father’s safe keeping. Others may have thought they were in charge of events, but they weren’t.

More than that, this is not a request on Jesus’ part, it is an announcement. He has decided to do this. Strangely, somehow, he is still running the show. This is another reason to place our trust in him, even at the bleakest of times.

It is finished
Saying that something is finished may not sound like a word of triumph. It’s over. It’s the end. All gone. Nothing left. It might in those terms be what you expect from someone whose life is about to end in an unjust way. It’s all gone pear-shaped. Down the pan. Finito.

But what Jesus says here is far from despairing. It’s a word of victory. ‘Finished’ here more means ‘accomplished’. It’s about the fulfilment of purpose. I have achieved what I set out to do. Strange as it may sound, it is as if Jesus has a sense of satisfaction as he dies. Mission accomplished! He has drunk the cup of suffering. He has absorbed the sins of the world. He has conquered the powers of darkness, taking all they could throw at him and turning it back on them, much like in a judo contest, where you take what your opponent throws at you and you use it against him. The cry from the Cross is a shout of triumph; the cry from Hell is a howl of anguish.

Darkness may cover the land on Good Friday, and the disciples may disperse in despair. But what they do not see at the time is Jesus turning in his report to Heaven, and the Father saying, “Well done!”

There is a saying you may know that originated in black majority churches: ‘It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.’ We can leave Good Friday in doom and gloom, and there is a place for that. Yet even in the bleakness of Jesus’ death, the ear of faith hears words of victory that give hope: it is finished. All is accomplished. The work of the Messiah, the Suffering Servant is done, and in a couple of days God will confirm it. He will pit a great big tick by the work of Christ in the form of the Resurrection.

This Easter, do not be afraid to walk into the darkness. Because we are walking towards the light.

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Silence And Darkness

The last of the Tenebrae candles is extinguished, as I suffocate its fire with the snuffer. Peter has denied Jesus. The congregation sits in near-perfect darkness, observing the silence they read about in their orders of service before the light of the final candle died. I have a little assistance as I oversee the service: I have brought the reading light I bought for my Kindle and attached it to the lectern. Together, we enter the dark silence of God. Or should that be the silent darkness of God? Perhaps it is both.

I resurrect the candle flame, and we are to continue sitting in silence. However, the presence of light makes that silence more difficult. People shuffle. I become more aware of the cramp in my toes, and wish I could take my shoe off to put my foot on the cold stone floor. “Could you not wait?” said Jesus.

We leave in silence. The clearing-up is done in a quiet not usually experienced.

This morning, we gather at Holy Trinity church to begin our silent walk of witness to St Hugh’s for our united service. On a cool, bright morning we prepare to remember darkness. As we pass by the Chinese takeaway, the children of the owners are sitting in the window, munching prawn crackers and watching us with innocent puzzlement. Our cross is large, and only tall, strong men are able to carry it. We walk in silence, surely in contrast to the crowds who witnessed Jesus carrying his cross beam. It was a public holiday then, and it is today. But not for us the usual jollity. Instead, we are solemn.

The quiet, slow pace cannot continue for me, though, as I have no time to attend the united service in Knaphill. Instead, I walk home, unlock the car and drive to Addlestone for their united service. Before I engage clutch and gear lever, I check my mileage: it may be the holiest day of the year, but it is also the first day of a new tax year and I have to enter in my records how many miles I have driven in the last twelve months. Even on Good Friday, I am not in a bubble that insulates me from the usual world.

As Richard leads the service, we are invited to write on paper crosses those things we would like to bring to the foot of Christ’s Cross. While singing the Taizé chant ‘Jesus, remember me’, we do just that. I name some fears and feel some peace in placing them at the Cross.
Richard asks us to leave the service in silence. If we want to talk, we can do so over hot liquid caffeine in the vestibule. Except the silence is broken by an announcement that the teas and coffees must be brought into the worship area, because outside the staff of the Addlestone Food Bank are preparing to serve those in need. Noise and chatter, yes, and no silence – but it seems like a fitting response to the ministry of the Cross, as does my conversation with a colleague from another church about the hosting of an Alpha course.

The rushing from Knaphill to Addlestone has seemed so inappropriate for reflection. It is only now I have got back that I can home in on the value of the silence and the darkness. Today and tomorrow, as I remember Jesus lying in the tomb, I can prepare for a different kind of rushing on Sunday. In three morning services, I shall be facilitating joy. I have to link the two. Today is not merely about despair, and Easter Day is more than the happy ending. They belong together. The silence and darkness of betrayal and death, with the noise and light of an empty tomb.

Good Friday Experiences

I began Good Friday today with a united walk of witness here in Knaphill. Beginning at the Catholic church, we walked to the King’s House Coffee Shop, then to the Methodist premises, followed by the Baptist church, and finally to Holy Trinity C of E. At each stop someone read a portion of the Passion story. Different people volunteered to carry the big cross on each leg of the journey.

Most moving for me was the final leg, when a man with learning difficulties asked to carry the cross. Nothing like as physically big as his predecessors in the task, he struggled in places and had to be helped by two other men. It was a small glimpse of Jesus falling down and needing help from Simon of Cyrene.

As the one co-ordinating the walk, I found myself at each stop standing on one side of the person with the cross, while on the other side was the reader for that particular episode from the story. In a tiny way, it was like being one of the two thieves either side of Jesus.

In these two ways, I found myself entering into the Passion story in new and unexpected ways this year. The sadness was in having to leave the following united service at Holy Trinity fifteen minutes in to get to the tail end of a united service at my other church, Addlestone Methodist. I arrived at that, just as they were singing the closing hymn. Having to flit between the two communities felt like it undermined a sense of belonging. Can you belong in more than one community at once? If missional Christianity includes earthing ourselves in a particular place by incarnational ministry, does this militate against it?

I wasn’t the only minister facing this issue: the Methodist deacon left at the end of the service to go to his other church, and two of the New Frontiers church leaders came over from Chertsey, where they used to be based and still share with other Christians.

Unlike in Knaphill, there had been no united walk of witness in Addlestone. Some of the people in Addlestone said how much they missed it. A discussion on why we think the procession of witness on Good Friday is important would be interesting. As I’ve said, it hit home for me today in unexpected ways. On other occasions, I’ve watched passers-by as Christians walk behind a cross on this day of the year, and wondered whether they felt we were doing it as a reproach against them. I don’t suppose most Christians do have that attitude, but I’m curious to know how it’s perceived, if at all. A judgement? An anachronism? Other reactions?

In contrast, my wife and children didn’t come with me on any of these events or services. They needed something more child-friendly. Happily, the nearby church of Holy Trinity, West End Village had a suitable act of worship for children for Good Friday. Too often we are so caught up with the solemnity of the day that we exclude children by the tone of what we offer. Holy Trinity West End knew better. They provided a service called ‘Paradox’. It included two songs, a very short talk by the Rector, and plenty of crafts. Rebekah had her photo taken with her cross on which she had chosen to write, ‘Jesus died for me.’ If Christ died for all creation, then he died for the children – don’t we owe it to them also to find a way of including them in on this most holy of days? I’m glad Holy Trinity did.

I’ll be interested to know your thoughts on our experiences. But I’ll stop typing there and go back to finishing preparations for Easter Day.

Good Friday: Seven Last Words From The Cross

Obviously it’s too late for this year, but I thought I’d share with you a resource I used in a meditation for Good Friday this morning. For some time now I’ve received regular emails from the Audiopot website. On this site you can find radio-style broadcasts in MP3 format on Christian themes. It was set up by a long-standing evangelical missionary organisation, HCJB Global, whose activities have included radio and media for many years.

Recently, they posted on the site a series of four-minute meditations on the ‘seven last words from the Cross’. I downloaded them (you need to register free of charge on the site in order to do that or to preview them in full). There is no compulsion to pay for the downloads, but they ask if you can donate 50p per item to help towards the cost of the site. And that is almost certainly why these MP3s are not in a podcast and/or with an RSS feed.

I don’t know what the reaction of my congregation was this morning, because I had to rush off to another service, but I thought they were worthwhile. They ranged from a woman who lives on the ‘peace line’ in Belfast speaking about ‘Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing’, to the mother of a soldier killed in friendly fire reflecting on ‘Woman, here is your son’ and an elderly dying minister talking about ‘Into your hands I commend my spirit’. Nothing trite, triumphalistic or easy.

If these interest you, then I suggest you register on the site and search for ‘Seven last words’.

Taking The Good Friday Journey

Last year, Nick Baines wrote a helpful and provocative post about embracing the desolation of Good Friday (and, indeed, Holy Saturday) without importing the triumph of Easter Day. In it, he argues that we should restrain ourselves from singing the joyful songs that come from knowing the outcome of Easter, and embrace the darkness.

I can see his point, and it has much to commend it, especially in evangelical Christian circles where we can default into triumphalism at all sorts of inappropriate times. Think of the ways in which some funerals become only a celebration of the deceased’s life, and leave little room for grief. That isn’t limited to evangelicals, or indeed Christians. It is part of a wider cultural movement that does not want to feel the sting of death.

I can see Nick’s point too, when I consider the members of churches who avoid Good Friday worship, but who will be at church early on Easter Day. We have people in our churches who can’t cope with the Cross. Not that anyone should cope with it in the sense of managing it – you could say it is meant to be unmanageable – but there are many who wish to live in denial of it, even referring to it as a tragedy or a defeat, completely failing to appreciate the magnitude of its victory.

Yet I wonder too whether this last group of people might be the very ones who especially need the linking of Good Friday and Easter Day. Not that I mean to let anyone off the hook in contemplating the sufferings of Christ, but because it is central to our faith to believe in the victory of Christ, and you can only appreciate that when you link the death and resurrection of Jesus. And given the way I have heard some church people say that Good Friday is ‘the most tragic day of the year’, I do wonder whether they believe the Gospel.

Like it or not, we cannot approach Good Friday without a measure of interpretation. It is there in the inspired writings of the Gospels, although we are perhaps so used to the text that we don’t always see it. And one thing is for sure: for the Gospel writers, the death of Jesus was not a defeat.

And also, whether we like it or not, it is (near) impossible to read the text as if we don’t know what is going to happen next. When I hear people ask me to read something ‘as if for the first time’, I know they are going to ask me something I probably can’t achieve. The trouble is, we do know the ending.

So how do you prefer to approach Good Friday? With a knowledge of the ending? Or trying to enter into the story as if you don’t know what will happen? What are the pros and cons for you?

Sabbatical Day 69, Good Friday: Jesus Is Crucified

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Here is the Damaris Trust video for Good Friday. Andrew White talks about the importance of Jesus’ death on the cross on our behalf. He discusses what this means for his ministry of reconciliation in Iraq.

We went into town this morning for the annual open-air united service in Chelmsford High Street. A band from the church where we are worshipping led the music, and the choir from our children’s school dazzlingly performed a selection of songs from a musical entitled Resurrection Rock.

A nun from a local community spoke. Hers was a serious address where she spoke of Bad Friday and Good Friday. Today is only Good Friday because it is about redemptive suffering. Anything else would be Bad Friday. Suffering isn’t good for its own sake. She spoke passionately as one who had spent years in the Democratic Republic of Congo, serving women and young girls who had been raped by HIV positive men, young boys who had been brutalised into becoming child soldiers and mothers who had watched children die from diseases we find easily preventable in the West.

And from that, she made a connection between Good Friday and Easter Day. For whenever we, who believe in Christ’s redemptive suffering and conquest of death, minister to those in need or work for justice, we are doing Resurrection work. In that sense, she asked, is the Resurrection happening today?

Later, Rebekah – who had understandably described that part of the service as ‘longer than church’ – posed again the question, “Why do we call it ‘Good Friday’ and not ‘Bad Friday’?” I tried to explain how God took the Bad that was done to Jesus and turned it for Good. She found that hard to grasp.

In the back of my mind I was thinking of Tim Keller‘s The Reason For God, and his chapter on the Cross. He explains how forgiveness and love inevitably involve both substitution and exchange. When we forgive someone, it always comes at a cost. If I forgive you a debt, I take on that debt. He doesn’t get into the question of Pauline language and whether to speak of penal substitution, just that forgiveness must in some sense involve the substituting of the debt, and that this consitutes and exchange. The notion of exchange, he says, is fundamental to love. If I love my children, I will exchange my freedom for their well-being. I will not only give them attention when it is convenient to me, for if I do that they will only grow up physically. Love means I will attend to them when it is inconvenient. I give up my freedom to serve them in love. This, says Keller, is like what Christ does for the world on the Cross.

I shall be interested to plug those thoughts into those from a book that is on its way from Amazon: Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision by Tom Wright. I’d like to see how this compares and contrasts with Wright’s more cosmic vision of salvation. The Reformation tradition has tended to take Luther’s question of “How can I find a gracious God?” and insert the word ‘personally’ after ‘I’. That is critical, but I know that in this book, Wright is saying that such a question makes the sun orbit around us rather than vice-versa. We’ll see …