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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.

Samantha Brick And True Beauty

Samantha Brick’s article
in the Daily Mail two days ago in which she bemoans the disadvantages of beauty has caused a (social) media firestorm. The Telegraph reports that some of the criticism seems more nasty than the narcissism of the original piece. In The Guardian, a male journalist has parodied it. In The Independent, a female journalist has defended Ms Brick. All the reaction seems to be in the ‘quality press’ – is this such a deep and important article?

I’m not going to enter into whether I think Ms Brick is beautiful. It only matters that her husband thinks she is. There are worse things to suffer in this world than jealousy for good looks. And in my case, I have a lovely wife and the most beautiful daughter. All I will say is that I find this a particularly sad debate to have in Holy Week of all weeks. My mind has gone to the final Servant Song in the book of Isaiah, one which Christians have traditionally seen as a prophecy of Jesus and his passion. These verses seem apposite:

Just as there were many who were astonished at him
—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of mortals—
so he shall startle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him
(Isaiah 52:14-15a)

he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
(Isaiah 53:2b-3)

Does that put all this palaver about beauty into context?

Lent, Holy Week And (Heading For) Easter

Last week, I was asked to give an extended talk to a midweek group on this theme. This is the text I had before me when I gave the talk.

I have a series of questions for you this afternoon. Here are the first two. Can you eat chocolate in Lent? And if so, when?
To answer these vital questions, I bring you to another question: how many days are there in Lent? If you answered ‘forty’, then I invite you to count the number of days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day (for Easter Day is when Lent ends). The answer you will come to is ‘forty-seven’.
So what happened to the so-called forty days of Lent? Well, they are still there if you exclude the Sundays. And that’s the clue to my initial question about eating chocolate in Lent. Sundays were never regarded as fast days. They were still feast days. Hence, if you have given up chocolate for Lent, you can still eat it on Sundays.
I think this illustrates the muddle we get into about Lent. We utterly confuse the beginning and the end of Jesus’ public ministry. The forty days of fasting make us think that it commemorates Jesus’ time of testing in the wilderness immediately after his baptism. But the way that time ticks down near the end, with Passion Sunday two weeks before Easter and Palm Sunday a week before, makes us think instead about the end of Jesus’ public ministry. Which is correct?
The answer is that Lent is connected to Easter. In the early Church, baptismal candidates would be baptised on Easter Day, and Lent was their season of preparation. It was similar for those who wanted to be readmitted to the life of the Church after excommunication. Both groups needed a period of reflection and repentance. Eventually, however, the Church came to see that a season of reflection and repentance would be good for everyone. No Christians are exempt from the need to examine themselves before God, and giving over a particular time of the year for everyone seemed to be a good idea. It doesn’t change the fact that this is something we need to do all year round, it’s just that sometimes dedicating a specific time to this underlines it. Similarly, every Sunday is a celebration of the Resurrection – that’s why we worship on a Sunday and not on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath – but we still give particular stress to the Resurrection itself on Easter Day and in the Easter season that follows.
This, then, is why we give things up for Lent – not to mimic Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness but for another reason. Fasting is the giving up of something good for a season in order to dedicate that time especially to God. If we give up something in Lent, it is for this self-examination in the power of the Holy Spirit. Churches may try to reflect this in the tone of their Lenten worship. Liturgical churches will omit the Gloria in Excelsis during this time, they will have no flowers in the sanctuary and they will avoid hymns that include the word ‘Alleluia’. How this sits with the idea that Sunday is still a feast day, I have never been sure. It also requires a tricky navigation in order to reflect a sense of discipline but not of dreariness. At its best it provides a suitable contrast for what is to come on Easter Day, although when we get to thinking about Good Friday in a few minutes, I shall want to pose some questions about how we regard the darkness of that day.
But let us now move onto Holy Week, which we begin on Palm Sunday. I cannot think of Palm Sunday without remembering a neighbouring Anglican church which always brought a donkey into worship on that day. The reason I cannot forget – and was not allowed to forget while I was there – is that the donkey had a name. He was … Dave the Donkey. You can imagine the comments.
Traditionally, we see the Triumphal Entry as the beginning of the week which led to Jesus’ death, and this has been held in the Church since the fourth century AD. However, there is no certainty in Mark’s Gospel, the first Gospel to be written, that Mark understood Palm Sunday to begin that week. It comes in chapter 11 of his account, but he doesn’t mention the Passover until chapter 14. Nevertheless, it is fitting in that the way Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey ramps up the tension between him, the religious leaders and the power of Rome. In his recent book ‘Simply Jesus’, Tom Wright calls the clashing of these three powers ‘The Perfect Storm’, and that is what we are about to face in Holy Week. We can have all the fun we like, waving palm branches and singing ‘Hosanna’, but the reality is that the conflict is being ramped up, and the subtext of Palm Sunday is that this is going to end badly for someone. Blood will be spilt. It happens that because we know the rest of the story, we know whose blood it will be. But if you were in that crowd when Jesus rode in on the donkey, you probably wouldn’t have seen that, just as his disciples couldn’t understand his repeated prophecies that he would be betrayed, suffer, die – and be raised from the dead.
But let us move on from Palm Sunday, without immediately doing what many Christians do, which is jump over several days. If we’re lucky, we’ll only jump to Maundy Thursday with the Last Supper and the washing of feet. Some will at least jump to Good Friday. Many, though, take leave of absence until Easter Day itself, missing out the unpleasant, gory parts of the story. It’s why in the Lent Course this year we’ve tried to reflect on some of the incidents while Jesus was in Jerusalem during that final week, as the tension increased.
It’s common in more Catholic circles to take a particular journey with Jesus leading up to the Cross, a journey you will have heard of – and perhaps experienced – called The Stations of the Cross. Some churches have icons depicting the story, as did an ecumenical church I served in Chelmsford. Some dramatise it – my first experience of the Stations was to walk around the streets of the City of London, seeing actors perform the story. As a crowd, we walked with the action. In one previous appointment, I joined with the local Anglican and Catholic clergy in each taking a meeting once a week in Holy Week to explore the Way of the Cross.
This, though, comes after Maundy Thursday, with its encircling darkness. You feel the discrepancy between Jesus and his disciples. They aren’t picking up all he has warned them about, so much so they are still arguing about status and greatness and looking forward to a good Passover meal. All the time, Jesus knows what is coming. The betrayal happens, you get those evocative words in John’s Gospel, ‘And it was night’, and the lights go out. We’ll be reflecting that here in our Maundy Thursday service when this year we follow the Tenebrae tradition. Candles will be extinguished, one by one, until finally all is dark.
At least, I keep calling it ‘Maundy Thursday’, but there is an argument for it being Tuesday. There are a couple of days missing from the sequence of the Gospels in Holy Week, and one possibility is this: could all the trials Jesus faced really have taken place in one night? It might also explain the problem with night-time trials, which were illegal.
But whether the trials drag over forty-eight hours or are compressed into one night, Jesus is arrested in Gethsemane after one of the most powerful scenes in the Gospels for showing how much he identifies with us. Not only does he identify with our sin at his baptism and on the Cross, we recognise his full humanity in the Garden as he wrestles in prayer with the suffering that is to come.
All that goes, though, and off he is taken to trials that are a mixture of stitch-up and political expediency. Pontius Pilate is in a weak position, politically. Although he has all the power of being the imperial power’s official representative, he had previously offended Jewish sensibilities about the Temple. The Jewish leaders had sent a delegation to Rome to complain about him, and now he knew that one further false step could lose him his job. So although at first he resists their requests, ultimately he cannot deny their pressure. The loser, in human terms, is Jesus.
And now off he goes, on the Way of the Cross, the Via Dolorosa. Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, may have horrified many, but it did not spare any detail as to the true nature of first-century Roman floggings, torture and execution. Many prisoners died just from the flogging. But Jesus carries his cross beam, the visual sign to all who watch that he is a condemned man.
He is on his way. It is his great journey. It reminds us, amongst other things, that we have not ‘arrived’ spiritually. So often we talk about faith as if now we have found Jesus Christ we have arrived. But we haven’t. It’s like that wonderful U2 song ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’, where Bono affirms his belief that Jesus died for his sins but still insists he hasn’t found what he’s looking for. Why? Because he’s still on the journey. He hasn’t come to the fullness of God’s kingdom yet.
And neither has Jesus. The climax will be the Cross. In the eyes of the world, he will be humiliated there. In his own estimation – and his Father’s – he will be enthroned there. When he is ‘lifted up’ he will draw all people to himself.
This is the wonder of the Christian faith. What the world considers shameful we say is glorious. Our Muslim friends have a big issue with the Cross. The Qur’an can be read as denying that Jesus died on the Cross, but that he was snatched away and someone else died there instead. They have a terrible problem with the idea that Jesus would have to endure this. Indeed, if he did die on the Cross it is for them one further strike against the idea of his divinity, because surely God would not be humbled and humiliated like that.
Yet the Christian says yes, that is precisely what happened, and that is the wonder of the Christian faith. Our Lord was even willing to taste the worst humiliation in identification with humanity at its basest in order to bring salvation. Our account of God is not about One who is remote from suffering and evil, it is about One who is deeply involved with blood-stained hands in fight against it.
All of which brings me to two contrasting stories. See what you think of these.
Story number one: I am in a vestry before a Good Friday service. The steward prays for me before the service. The whole tone of his prayer is about how Good Friday is the worst day of the year. He seems to miss the word ‘Good’.
Story number two: I am an enthusiastic young twenty-something Christian, and I am at the annual joint Free Churches Good Friday service in my home town. It is being held at the Baptist church, but my Methodist minister is speaking. He introduces a worship song that was popular at the time. It begins with the lines, ‘I get so excited, Lord, every time I realise I’m forgiven.’ The congregation sings it – like a dirge. Michael, my minister, berates the assembled throng for this. “Can’t you understand on Good Friday the joy of being forgiven through the Cross?” he asks.
How do you respond to those two stories? Had the church steward missed the heart of the Gospel? Was my minister belittling the sufferings of Jesus? Somehow we have a difficult tension to hold together on Good Friday – both the sorrow for our sins which took Jesus to the Cross, and yet joy that he was willing to do that for us. Like so much of life, we have to live with tension. It’s like the question of the tone you set for a funeral. Is it to grieve, or is it – as is more and more requested these days – a celebration of the deceased’s life? Grief or celebration? Actually, I think you need both at a funeral.
And the greatest tension – or paradox – is on the way at this point, the tension between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Some major on one, but not on the other, yet we have to hold to both. One of the greatest theologians of the last fifty years, a German called Jürgen Moltmann, says we need to speak both of ‘The Resurrection of the Crucified One’ and ‘The Cross of the Risen One’.
But in terms of our own lives, we are awaiting our own empty tombs. We shall die and await the great resurrection of the dead. We live in that time between Good Friday and Easter Day. We live on that one day we so rarely mark in the Christian calendar, because we are too busy getting ready for Easter morning. We live in Holy Saturday. (Not Easter Saturday, by the way, because Easter only starts when the Resurrection has happened.) Holy Saturday is that time when Jesus is still in the tomb. That is where we spend a lot of our lives. Suffering is real. It takes its toll. Prayer seems unanswered, and God’s great deliverance has still not come. It’s quite appropriate that Holy Saturday this year is when one of our church member’s ashes will be buried in Bisley churchyard. She awaits her great deliverance, her resurrection after her suffering.
And so I won’t move on in this exposition of the season to talk too much about Easter itself. We’ll have plenty of opportunity here on Easter Day and in the succeeding weeks, when we are going to delve deeply into the meaning of the Resurrection. We’re going to close these reflections at Holy Saturday, because it is where many of us exist. Often we are in that cold tomb, with grave clothes wrapped tightly around us.
Pete Greig, the founder of the 24-7 Prayer movement, wrote a wonderful book about his experience of … unanswered prayer. While all the wonderful stories of answered prayer were happening as 24-7 prayer burgeoned around the world, his wife Sammie suffered a brain tumour. Greig puts his reflections on that experience in a book called ‘God On Mute’, and he shapes a spirituality around Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Day. He has this to say about Holy Saturday:
No one really talks about Holy Saturday, yet if we stop and think about it, it’s where most of us live our lives. Holy Saturday is the no-man’s land between questions and answers, prayers uttered and miracles to come. It’s where we wait – with a peculiar mixture of faith and despair – whenever God is silent or life doesn’t make sense.
As we turn to explore the silence of God, we are compelled to address the problem of unanswered prayer more literally than we have done so far, examining the times when God simply doesn’t reply to us when we pray. It’s not that He’s saying ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘not yet’ to our prayers; it’s that He’s not saying anything at all. We pray and pray but God remains silent.
But … Sunday is coming. And we can eat chocolate.

The Passion Suite

Are you looking for something different to mark Holy Week this year? Come to St Paul’s Church Addlestone (directions here) on Monday night at 7:30 pm and hear the Kairos Ensemble, a band of four Christian jazz musicians, perform their piece The Passion Suite. Entrance is £5 – a bargain.

Here is another taster of their music:

When Did The Last Supper Happen?

Like many churches, we’ll be marking the Last Supper and the institution of the Lord’s Supper this Holy Week on Maundy Thursday evening. However, it has long been known that the chronology of ‘Holy Week’ is problematic in the Gospels. The ‘Synoptic Gospels’ (Matthew, Mark and Luke) tie the Last Supper to the Passover, but John places Jesus’ execution on the day of Passover.

Theories to resolve this have abounded for years. One involves the idea that Jesus and his disciples used an unofficial calendar. A particular version of this theory has them using an Essene calendar, that varied from the mainstream. However, for many it is a further problem to see Jesus having any crossover with the Essene community at the Dead Sea, since his teaching was so radically different, especially his rejection of an ascetic approach to faith.

Others argue that the Synoptic Gospels got it right, but John put the Passover detail into his account of the crucifixion for symbolic reasons. While John is hugely different from the other three Gospels in many ways, I’m not sure that the way John incorporates this detail into his account easily reads as symbolism rather than history.

A further argument is that Jesus brought the Passover meal forward to an earlier date, knowing what was going to happen to him. This, too, is appealing to some, but if the last theory sits loose to John and history, this one risks not taking the historical detail of the Synoptic Gospels seriously.
Today’s Guardian reports another attempt to resolve the different narratives. In an article entitled Last Supper … or penultimate supper? Scientist challenges Maundy Thursday, the sub-editor makes it sound like a scientific solution to the dilemma. Which it isn’t. Although Professor Sir Colin Humphreys is a metallurgist, he seems to be using similar methods to resolve this conundrum to those used by biblical scholars. He is not the first to assert that the number of trials Jesus is subjected to in between his arrest in Gethsemane after the meal cannot be fitted into one night. Combined with the evidence that there are some missing days in the Gospels’ accounts of Holy Week, others have brought the Last Supper forward, as I have already indicated above.
I first heard a version of this theory in 1989 when I visited the Holy Land for three weeks, and Dr Jim Fleming, formerly of the Ecumenical Institute for Theological Research and the Biblical Resources Centre (now the Explorations In Antiquity Center in the USA) proposed to us that the Last Supper probably took place on the Tuesday. However, Dr Fleming seemed to lean on the Essene calendar theory.

Professor Humphreys tends towards the Wednesday. His work depends upon the crucifixion being in AD 33 and Jesus using another unofficial calendar, one that would have identified him with Moses. It will be interesting to see whether these two factors command assent from scholars. Watch this space.

Sabbatical, Day 71, Easter Sunday: Jesus Returns To Life

Vodpod videos no longer available.
more about “Damaris Trust Holy Week 2009, Easter …“, posted with vodpod

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! In this final Damaris Trust video for Holy Week, Krish Kandiah and Peter May talk about how Jesus’ resurrection from the dead gives us hope when considering what happens when we die.


A great service for Easter Day at St Andrew’s this morning. ‘In a packed programme tonight’, as the Two Ronnies used to say, we had the Easter liturgy, renewal of baptismal vows, Holy Communion (of course) and people invited from the community to remember deceased loved ones.

In the middle of all that, there were two highlights for me. Firstly, the worship band shrank at one point to the younger members only. So Emily on vocals , Dan on guitar, Bradley on keys  and the drummer whose name I don’t know – they’re all round about thirteen years old – led us in Tim Hughes‘ ‘Happy Day‘. Here’s a version by the original artist:

Emily is a great singer, Dan a quiet and efficient bandleader, Bradley filled in subtly and the drummer guy is top drawer.

The other highlight was Lee’s sermon. Taking Mark 16:1-8, he made a virtue of the strange and sudden ending to Mark’s Gospel. He said we have to write our own ending to the Easter story in our lives. I thought that was great. 

For all that, it’s been quite a mixed day emotionally. On the one hand, I have entered Easter with a renewed confidence in the truth and importance of the Resurrection. Not that I ever lost my belief in the bodily Resurrection of Christ for one moment, but sometimes when life or circumstances aren’t the most encouraging, it can feel far away. Reading Tim Keller (sorry to mention him again!) and Tom Wright (see this excellent article from The Times yesterday) has done much to fortify my faith.

But other things have been weighing me down. My friend Will says today, in talking about his service this morning, 

Before the prayers of intercession, I reminded our congregation that for many the joys of Easter are still crowded out by their own personal Good Fridays. I know I have friends who will this week spend more time agonising in the Garden of Gethsemane (Jen and Mike, we are praying for you and Luke). For some, Easter is more like the women in Mark who hid when afraid.

And as he mentions his friends Jen, Mike and Luke, so I have been thinking about the three couples I mentioned last Sunday who have separated. Some events today have reminded me of them. Debbie and I feel such pain for them. And if that is how we feel, how do they?

More trivially, our eighteen-year-old cat is suddenly looking old, frail and weak. We are beginning to think the end might be near. The children realise, and on top of the fact that they have been asking questions about death as we’ve come through Holy Week, Good Friday and today. Mark in particular keeps asking whether he will die on a cross like Jesus.

I’m also starting to get more regular questions about how much longer the sabbatical has to go. The answer is that – with having tacked a week’s leave onto the end – I shall be back on duty four weeks today. The official Methodist literature on sabbaticals talks about planning your ‘re-entry’, which rather makes ministers feel like Apollo astronauts. The idea is that there should be a managed, phased re-introduction to active ministry.

Which makes me think of two words: ‘fat’ and ‘chance’. At least I hope it won’t be like my last sabbatical, when the superintendent asked me to come back early due to a crisis with the circuit treasurer. However, a sabbatical grants you new vision in all sorts of ways. It is then a huge challenge to share that vision with churches that are used to things being a long way different from such visions. I’ve always been a restless traveller on the outer fringes of Methodism: right now I feel somewhere out beyond Pluto.

Of course, it may just be a version of what anyone feels when a good holiday is coming to an end and they have to return to work. (Not that I’m suggesting the sabbatical is a holiday!) Time will tell.

Sabbatical, Day 70, Holy Saturday: Jesus’ Body Lies In A Tomb

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This is the Damaris Trust video for Holy Saturday (not Easter Saturday, please: we’re not into Easter until tomorrow). Pete Greig talks about where God was on the day that Jesus lay dead in a tomb. He discusses our experiences of feeling in this inbetween state, and the hope that we can cling to.


One of the themes of John’s Gospel after Jesus dies is that of secret disciples. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus arrange for the burial of Jesus’ body. Joseph follows Jesus secretly for fear of ‘the Jews’ (i.e., the religious leadership); Nicodemus had come to see Jesus in chapter three ‘by night’. I mention that, because this morning I have had forwarded on to me the Premier Radio campaign to get Christians to sign up online to declare they are Christians. I first read about this a week ago on Jason Clark’s blog, where he expressed reservations about the initiative.

Now I have seen it for myself, I share Clark’s concerns. The declaration amounts to an assent to certain doctrines. Yet as the Epistle of James says, ‘Even the devils believe.’ Clark proposes an alternative that includes a strong element of discipleship action, and I don’t see how you can exclude that from any understanding of what a Christian is. I would add that the declaration also woefully omits any sense of faith being about the grace of God. It’s all couched in ‘me, me, me’ language. 

I don’t like saying this about Premier Radio, and especially about their Chief Executive Peter Kerridge. I met him a few times in his previous appointment, when he worked as an avowedly Christian radio professional on a community commercial radio station in Harlow, Essex, called Ten 17 radio. He was training Christian leaders (including me) to create snappy ninety-second ‘thoughts for the day’ that would be broadcast on their breakfast programme, in the midst of Top 40 hit singles. We could be as religious as we liked, so long as we were lively and entertaining. It was a great vision.

Equally, I don’t want any of this construed as sympathy for the National Secular Society’s campaign for ‘debaptism’. Their requests that churches delete records of baptism at the request of those who renounce Christian faith amounts to an altering of history that would make Soviets and Maoists proud. People are free to accept or reject faith anyway. It all amounts to a silly campaign from a tiny group of self-important self-appointed self-publicists.


Tonight I’ve been to Chelmsford Cathedral. There was a Service of Light and Confirmations. I went for the confirmations. Five of the twenty candidates came from the parish church where we are worshipping. Another used to be part of that parish. It was great to support them.

I found the Easter Eve liturgy curious in one respect: already we were proclaiming ‘Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia!’ I had never uttered those words before Easter morning. I am sure there is a good reason, but I can’t see it. I thought we would still be marking the waiting period.

The Bishop of Chelmsford made a thought-provoking point at the beginning of his brief address. He spoke about how the tomb of Jesus was in a garden. Gardens are places of rest and new life. He then compared it with Eden, the symbolic place for the beginning of human life, and said that the Garden containing Jesus’ tomb was the place where new life and new creation began. (Sounded very Tom Wright!) You may have thought of that many times before, but it was a new and fresh thought for Easter this year for me.

See you tomorrow, when I shall be celebrating that Christ is risen!

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 …

Sabbatical, Day 68, Maundy Thursday: Jesus Prays Before He Is Arrested

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You have just watched video number five from Damaris Trust for Holy Week. Nick Pollard talks about Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest. He discusses the significance of this, and what the command to the disciples to ‘watch and pray’ might mean for us.

I should add that today is very significant for me, both as 9th April and as Maundy Thursday. For it was on 9th April 1976, which was Maundy Thursday that year too, that I found faith in Christ.


When I was at theological college, we never got to celebrate Easter together. It always fell in the – guess – Easter vacation. So we celebrated it ‘proleptically’ (along with Holy Week and Good Friday). That is, we celebrated it in advance of it happening. And what follows here is something of a proleptic post. Three days ahead of time, I’m typing a few thoughts here about the Resurrection. It’s part of a synchroblog today suggested by Slipstream, the Evangelical Alliance‘s network for ‘younger leaders’. (I ended up in it because I was part of its predecessor, Leaders’ Digest, before anyone gets sarky about my age.)

And the Resurrection is the great proleptic event of all history. Mind you, even the Apostle Paul doesn’t use such a fancy word as ‘proleptic’. Just as Jesus regularly did, he uses an agricultural image. He calls it the ‘firstfruits‘. Ancient Israel celebrated two harvest festivals. One was the great ingathering at the end of the summer, rather like the harvests we still mark in a post-industrial, credit crunch, Web 2.0 world. The other was in the late Spring, when the ‘firstfruits’ appeared, and is the festival that was happening when Pentecost erupted in Jerusalem. The appearance of the first fruits promised what was to come. 

In that sense, Jesus’ resurrection is ‘proleptic’ for us. It promises our resurrection at the end of time, and with it the new heavens and new earth promised in Revelation 21. As Tom Wright has correctly reminded us, it’s about so much more than ‘going to heaven when we die’. How right he was to say that ‘heaven is not the end of the world’. It’s the foretaste of the new creation. You want hope in what I just called our ‘post-industrial, credit crunch, Web 2.0 world’? You have it – in the Resurrection. Jesus has the currency the world craves.

And it’s not just for the world: it’s something we need as disciples of Jesus to renew us over and over again. Yesterday, I bumped into a friend. She is on the leadership of a church where a number of people are going through major pastoral crises. “We just need to get to Easter,” she said. I think you could take her comment more than one way. It’s not just about getting to a certain point in time. It’s that getting to Easter puts you at the place of hope.

A second thought on Resurrection: it’s twenty-five years since Michael Green wrote his wonderful book ‘The Empty Cross of Jesus‘. Opposite the contents page he wrote this:

Michelangelo once broke out in indignant protest against his fellow artists who were for ever depicting Christ in his death on the cross. ‘Paint him instead the Lord of life. Paint him with his kingly feet planted on the stone that held him in the tomb.’

But Michelangelo continued to isolate the death of Christ, from the Pietà of his youth in St. Peter’s to the unfinished Pietà in Florence … so did the theologians and the preachers.

The point Green makes in the book is that it’s dangerous to separate the death and resurrection of Christ in our thinking or our emphasis. It’s something Jürgen Moltmann stressed in a different way. In ‘The Crucified God‘, he says we should speak of both ‘The Cross of the Risen One’ and ‘The Resurrection of the Crucified One’.

Why is it important to hold Cross and Resurrection together? Because when we emphasise one at the expense of the other, dangerous distortions creep into our thinking and discipleship. When we overlook the Resurrection, we preach that ‘Jesus died for your sins’ but turn it into legalism: ‘You’d better be grateful and live a good life.’ Atonement has to connect death and resurrection. When we overlook the Cross, we enter tawdry triumphalism and entertain a faith that cannot grapple with suffering, like those who come to worship on Easter Day having avoided Good Friday. Or we are like the church steward who once prayed with me in the vestry before a Good Friday service and referred to the day as a tragedy.

A third and final reflection. (Oh why not, I’m not getting to preach this Easter due to my sabbatical, so here’s my chance!) I want to dig out a favourite story. In my first ministerial appointment, one couple (who had left the Methodist church for the URC anyway!) disdainfully nicknamed me ‘Laugh-a-minute Faulkner’. Why? Because I committed sacrilege in my sermons by usually opening them with a funny story. I know, terrible. Write the disciplinary charge now.

One Easter, the churches in the town decided to hold a united service on Easter Sunday evening. There was to be no sermon, but I got the gig for the five-minute thought for the day. I recounted a story I’d heard from Tony Campolo, in which he told how on the afternoon of Easter Day, Russian Orthodox priests would get together and tell one another their biggest belly-laughs to celebrate the joy of the Resurrection. More soberly, I then cited the poet Patrick Kavanagh who said that the Resurrection is ‘a laugh freed for ever’. I concluded that I had ample theological justification to tell a joke.

Which I proceeded to do.

You can guess which two people didn’t laugh.

You can guess which two people refused to share the Peace with me.

Now I know how to be miserable. Ask Debbie about my Scrooge impersonation around Christmas. But one thing I know about the Resurrection is that it’s the reason for great joy. If I can outdo Larry for happiness at the thought of the Resurrection – it’s what has held me together when I’ve had crises of faith – then something was desperately wrong with this poor couple. In every sense of the word they were sad.

Maybe on Sunday, the truth that ‘Christ is risen, he is risen indeed’ can force a smile onto the stoniest of faces. After all, why be stony on the day the stone was rolled away?

Finally, here is a list of the other blogs confirmed as participating in this synchroblog, as of yesterday afternoon:

Sabbatical, Day 67: Jesus Is Anointed With Perfume

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Above you will see the fourth Damaris Trust video for Holy Week. Rob Parsons talks about an anointing in Luke’s Gospel which has parallels with a similar situation that occured in the days leading up to Jesus’ death. He discusses the ideas of love and forgiveness presented in the story.


Quite separately, here’s another video. Some have suggested that ‘Stand By Me‘ began as a gospel song before co-writer Ben E King popularised it. See what you make of this ‘world’ version of the song. (HT: Gavin Richardson.)


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As to the sabbatical, it hasn’t been the most eventful of days. There have been conversations with friends, but they have been of a sensitive nature and I can’t therefore reflect on them here. I’ve read more Tim Keller, added to my Mark Heard collection by plugging some gaps at emusic, and cursed clouds that floated in front of the moon just as I had a nice photo lined up.

The other main thing I’ve done, you’ll see in tomorrow’s post. There is a synchroblog sponsored by Slipstream about the Resurrection, and I’ve typed some thoughts. I’ll put the post up in the morning, and update it later in the day with specific sabbatical news.