Saturday, 31 March 2018

Holy Saturday: Is this how it ends?

Resolution is so attractive.

As we come to the end of a piece of music we long to hear a cadence that will bring it to a comfortable close – without that we are left in limbo, no que for applause, no sense of satisfaction that we can turn off the radio and get on with the next task.

Yet ‘Resolution’ is not what Holy Saturday is about.

Jesus’ body has been lovingly taken down and he is buried with quiet dignity in the tomb of Joseph of Aramathea.

And then – nothing.  The tomb is closed, sealed and guarded.

Is this how it all ends?  It looks like it. 

The narrative is in suspension.  We know of another ending, yet on Holy Saturday this seemed, to those who lived it, to be the ending.

Part of the gift to us every Easter weekend is that realisation of Saturday, in between Friday and Sunday.

Before the message of the angels dressed in dazzling attire, before the joy of running disciples or those who saw a different future as a stranger warmed their hearts and broke bread with them at sunset – before all that spoke and hinted of resolution – there is waiting, and wondering, and questioning, and silence, and waiting.

As there often is on a journey of faith. 

Friday, 30 March 2018

Good Friday: A Sacrament of Divine Love

I think we probably underestimate Pilate.

What happens with the crowd seems to absolve him.  His conversations with his wife make him into a puppet.  All in all he is not a lesson in decisive leadership.

Yet, maybe he knew exactly what he was doing and just maybe he had caught on to the essense of Jesus’ message.

Crucifixion was a mandatory Roman sentence for three classes of criminal: Pirate, rebellious slaves or enemies of the state.

Look at Jesus from Pilate’s point of view.  On his desk would be reports from those who spied on Jesus whilst he taught in the temple.  Rendering unto Caser that which is Ceaser’s was hardly a ringing endorsement of the Emperor’s authority and actually it was a dismissal of the idea that Cesar merited any concept of divinity. 

This was the Jesus who breaks social taboos and values those at the margins instead of discriminating against them.

This was the Jesus who preached not only about the love of God but also his justice.  That God expects the strong to look after the weak.

None of this was welcome to Pilate. It conflicted with his world view that power and might were the best weapons in calming the indigenous population and securing public order.

Pilate was right – Jesus was a subversive, he was an enemy of the state – he was deserving of crucifixion.

So Pilate sentences Jesus – but gives the impression such a judgement was forced on him by the crowd.

Jesus dies because his message of love and justice threatened the authorities and was rejected and misunderstood by the populous.

By not compromising that message of love and practical compassion Jesus suffered the brutality of crucifixion.

The cross is not there in order that God might change his mind about us, but that we might come to understand God. The God, who in Christ, never gives up on us, stands alongside us in love and justice.

In a hymn by Brian Wren it goes like this:

the love that freely entered
the pit of life’s despair
can name our hidden darkness
and suffer with us there.

The suffering of Jesus, on this day we call Good Friday, is a sacrament of divine love.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Maundy Thursday: Not so much an answer but a presence

After celebrating Passover and speaking of his death in bread and wine Jesus and the disciples move out of the city to the foot of the Mount of Olives to the fragrant, peaceful Garden of Gethsemane.

Sometimes our deepest thinking is done when we break away from routine or busyness.

With just a few disciples for company Jesus now moves away from the bigger group to pray.

Although the gospels are written in Greek some writers have him addressing God in Aramaic, as Abba – an unusual, but not totally uncommon, name meaning Father or Papa.  A respectful yet deeply intimate term.

Paul Gerhardt, in his hymn, O Sacred head, reflects this sense of intimacy with God in the verse that ends:
O make me thine for ever,
and, should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
outlive my love for thee.

Jesus has a crisis in Gethsemane.

He would have known what crucifixion meant and he knew it was coming his way.

The crisis boiled down to a question: Was this the only way?  Could there be another way?

In our painting Jesus is seen almost clinging to the rock in utter despair.

This isn’t quiet, gentle prayer.  This is raging, questioning, desperate prayer.

We are never honest if we only ever talk of prayer in serene and bright tones.

Of course it can bring comfort but there are times when its outcome is challenge – challenge to take the hard road.

Surely this account of Jesus is one of the most precious we have in scripture.  At his deepest point of need, when hardly anything seemed to make sense, when questions filled his mind and he felt so alone – Jesus does not walk away from God, but instead, turns to God and prays. 

The mystery of suffering, in all its forms, sometimes comes close to overwhelming us.

One way to see it and go through it is to believe God’s response to suffering isn’t so much an answer but a presence.  His presence, to stand alongside us, to hold us, and share the suffering with us.

There is just a hint at Gethsemane that Jesus found a certain equilibrium as he prayed – enough of one, at least, to end those angst filled intercessions with the words: Not my will, but yours be done.

Perhaps the battle of Good Friday was won on Maundy Thursday by Jesus in a garden called Gethsemane.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Palm Sunday: Crossing the Rubicon

Well it’s Palm Sunday this weekend and in the Jesus narrative things will never be the same again. 

I was watching the eccentric Classics Professor Mary Beard on TV this week as she chronicled the life of Julius Caesar.  She told that part of the narrative when he marched on Rome, a somewhat disgraced general from Gaul and turned his fortunes around by bearing elected Consul and then Dictator for five years, before his brutal end in the Senate.

The story goes that once he crossed the Rubicon river just outside Rome there was no going back.  He set his face to the city.

I may all be a myth, especially as no one really knows where the Rubicon river is, until Mussolini designated a small stream just outside the eternal city with the name in the 1920’s.

Yet the term Crossing the Rubicon has entered our language.  A moment to make a life changing decision, a seminal incident in our journey that sets our course and from which we cannot turn back.

As Jesus made his way from Bethany to the city, riding on a donkey, he Crossed the Rubicon – there was no going back.

This coming week, together, we enter once more the sacred story of Holy Week. The week when everything seems to be turned upside down, yet this is also the week when, in the words of Desmond Tutu we affirm that:

Goodness is stronger than evil.
Love is stronger than hate.
Light is stronger than darkness.
And life is stronger than death.

All made possible, bearable and liveable because God is with us.

May we all have a blessed and meaningful Holy Week.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Our local 'ecumenical' cathedral

Hauke in The Lady Chapel at St Albans Cathedral
St Albans is just 17 miles from Amersham and its Cathedral contains the shrine of Britain’s first Christ martyr.

Back in the early 90’s, when we lived in Hitchin, its Refectory was one of the very first places we took our new born son – I remember the sense of triumph we felt at managing to have an outing that included baby, buggy, changing bag and coffee!!

During my time in Hitchin I sometimes drove over to the Cathedral and served as duty chaplain for the day.  On one such visit I bumped into a Canadian Baptist Minister, we exchanged addresses and about five years later actually organised a Manse Exchange with each other.  All of that as a result of some ‘holy hanging around’ – as one of my colleagues cheekily describes chaplaincy!

Well, last week I was back at St Albans Cathedral (I used to call it St Albans Abbey but I see that isn’t what they call it now!) and it’s just thrilling to see the ‘ecumenical’ aspect of its ministry.

It has a number of ecumenical chaplains: Free Church, Roman Catholic and Lutheran and runs services in the Lady Chapel for all these traditions.

Last Wednesday I had been invited to take the Free Church service in the Lady Chapel.  Hauke, our Time for God volunteer came along and read the lesson – with many people engaging him in conversation afterwards.

I think St Albans is exemplary in its ecumenical hospitality and it was really very special to lead a Free Church service in this sacred space which started life in the Catholic tradition, moved on at The Reformation to the Anglican and is now a place where all are welcomed with the hospitality of Christ.

At the end of our time last week we ended the service by gathering around the shrine and used the ‘Alban Prayer’ – it goes like this:

We thank you for this place built to your glory and in memory of Alban, our first martyr. Following his example in the fellowship of the saints, may we worship and adore the true and living God, and be faithful witnesses to the Christ, who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Risks - in the name of love

Yesterday was International Women’s Day and this coming weekend we celebrate Mothering Sunday.

We are looking at the story of Moses in the Bulrushes on Sunday and in preparing for this I’ve noticed afresh just how many women figure in that story.

There are the brave midwives who go against King Pharaoh’s orders and end up saving Israelite babies rather than destroying them.  Love wins!

There is Miriam, the elder sister of baby Moses who watches him sale down the Nile in his basket and then suddenly appears the moment he is picked up and suggests that she finds an Israelite woman to wet nurse him – and so, actually, brings him back home straight away to be looked after by their own mother.  Miriam shows such clever cunning!

Of course Moses’ mother is there in the story – in fact she might even have been one of the midwives, the one called Puah, a nickname meaning ‘Bubbles’ because she was famous for keeping the babies quiet by blowing bubbles to them!  The mother of Moses did everything in her power to protect children.

Lastly there is the Princess of Egypt who ends up fishing Moses out of the water and adopting him.  Such a plucky rebel!  Her father the King had issued a decree that such babies should be got rid of but this woman speaks truth to power, adopts one and brings him home to the palace to be brought up in the Royal Family. 

I think all these inspirational women are heroes in the early story of Moses – each one lived with the courage of their convictions and took risks in the name of love.

Friday, 2 March 2018


We sang a hymn all about the cross on Sunday and it was a good one: Lift high the cross.  It felt appropriate too as the sermon had been based on Jesus’ invitation for us to ‘take up our cross’ and follow him.

Lent is, in some ways, the season of the Cross, after all it’s the destination of Jesus as he travels south from Galilee towards Jerusalem with its ‘greenhill outside the city walls’.

In his book: Hanging by a Thread Sam Wells, the Vicar of St Martin in the Fields captures our attention with a provocative one liner: There was a time when the cross was an answer…Today the cross is a question.

He’s asking us to re-examine the place of the cross in our faith.

I did that the other day talking to a friend who comes from the Roman Catholic tradition.  He, very genuinely, asked me why all the crosses in our church were empty?  I replied with what is probably a very usual answer for Protestants; something about us believing Jesus is no longer hanging there.  He understood my response but challenged me as he shared how important it is for him to see a bodily representation of Jesus upon the cross, reminding him that actually we don’t believe in an empty cross but Jesus physically dying upon it.

Well it made me think as he said it and I’ve been thinking about it ever since!

Later in his book Sam Wells says: On Good Friday Jesus doesn’t conquer.  He’s humiliated…

There’s so much truth in that statement.  Jesus shows us the heights of our humanity by dying with forgiveness, meeting violence with peace and laying down his life for a message of justice that was rejected by the power loving authorities.  He shows us another way.  A better way.  Yet it is a way of love that ultimately ends in personal suffering and humiliation. A tough way that even brings a cry of dereliction from his lips as he prays: My God, My God why have you forsaken me?

I think it was the Queen, in a message sent to the people of New York after 9/11 who said: Grief is the price you pay for love. 

Strikes me that if we seek to love like Jesus it will not be easy to go the distance and often it will appear foolish to those who look on. 

Some hymns we sing about the cross carry a sentiment that I’m not sure rings true with the awfulness of that first Good Friday.

Sir John Bowring was not only a Victorian Governor of Hong Kong but also a hymnwriter.  In the cross of Christ I glory is one of his and has this line: …from the cross the radiance streaming adds more lustre to the day.  I sort of get what he is saying but I don’t find it the most helpful interpretation of Calvary.

What happened at Golgotha was cruel, agonising, unjust and evil.  Jesus suffered because of love.  He was killed because his way of life threatened the status quo.

It’s mind blowing to then realise his invitation to us is ‘take up your cross and follow me’. 

Brian Wren’s hymn about the cross is one I find deeply disturbing, challenging and comforting all at the same time.

Here are a few verses:

Here hangs a man discarded,
a scarecrow hoisted high,
a nonsense pointing nowhere
to all who hurry by.

Yet here is help and comfort
for lives by comfort bound
when drums of dazzling progress
give strangely hollow sound.

Life, emptied of all meaning,
drained out in bleak distress,
can share in broken silence
our deepest emptiness.

And love that freely entered
the pit of life’s despair,
can name our hidden darkness
and suffer with us there.

Cross -words to make us think and ponder afresh the ‘one who hung and suffered there’.

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