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On Good Friday

I

Avonmouth

The sun was shining as he woke up that Friday morning but the light through the curtains seemed at odds with his emotions. It had been a turbulent week. They had gathered to worship with their palm crosses and their processions, children singing and laughter ringing out. Was it really just five days ago?

Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!

He stepped outside and the cold air hit him like a train, shaking his senses. As he walked to Church once again his thoughts drifted back through the night. The previous evening they had gathered together. The mood was light as they ate and drank and shared stories of times past. But when they paused to hear those familiar words the atmosphere changed.

This is my body. This is my blood. Remember me.

That ancient meal, shared between friends so long ago and so far away seemed so close to them now. They knew what was coming and as they made their way into Church the silence hung heavy in the air. The words of compline echoed off the bare stone walls as they waited. Watched. Prayed.

As the night watch looks for the morning, so do we look for you, O Christ.

He arrived at Church that day with a heavy heart, knowing the story they were about to hear and dreading it all the same. This would be the day when they would once again crucify the king.

II

Jerusalem

It had been quite a week. They had joined the excited crowds entering Jerusalem for the great feast but his heart was not in it. The others were acting all triumphant, as if they had actually achieved something just by coming here but he couldn’t see it. He had expected the rabbi to be as joyful as the others but there was a tear in his eye too.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

All week the rabbi’s mood seemed to darken and he couldn’t understand it. Those angry words, hurled against the priests, the scribes, the temple servants. Doesn’t he know how this town works? These are the good guys. What is he playing at? And then there was that perfume. A whole jar, wasted! Doesn’t he know how much that could have been sold for? But what did he say?

Leave her alone.

Thirty coins seemed like a bargain for a few tips on the rabbi’s whereabouts. It’s not like anyone would know what he was doing. Would they? All evening he waited for the right moment as they shared that ancient meal. Then the rabbi leant over and spoke those words which made his blood run cold.

What you are about to do, do quickly.

How did he know? How could he know?

III

Avonmouth

As they began to gather inside, sheltering from the bitter wind, the mood was light. For the frozen few who had followed the cross through the village the smell of freshly baked hot cross buns was a blessing beyond measure. This year it was the turn of the Evangelical Chapel to lead the service and the people had turned out in full force. They heard the story read once again and the words rang out, cutting him to the bone.

Crucify him! Crucify him!

But it was the singing which jarred him back to the present. The singing and the flags. It was as if they had journeyed back too far, back to that triumphant Sunday with the palm leaves and the children singing.

The spirit lives to set us free, walk, walk in the light!

Had they not heard what he had just heard? Had they not seen the messiah, the king, beaten, bound and nailed to a cross? Had they not heard him crying out in agony? How could they think this was the right song for this day of all days?

We know his death was not the end, walk, walk in the light!

Do we know that? Do we really? Because right now, in this story, on this day, nothing is certain. In this story, on this day, all he can do is cling to the foot of the cross, far from the flags and the hot cross buns. Watching. Waiting. Praying that this is not the end of the story but knowing? No. He cannot go that far.

IV

Jerusalem

It was only a kiss. He left the table and slipped into the darkness, his mind swirling. How did he know? He went to find the priests, not for the first time and not, perhaps, for the last. “Follow me” he said, words which he himself had heard so long ago. He led them out to the hillside where he knew the rabbi would be.

Would you betray the son of man with a kiss?

It was only a kiss. He followed at a distance as they led the rabbi forcibly away. He tried to ignore the looks on his friends’ faces. What would they do to him now? He didn’t sleep that night. His mind swirled deeper into darkness. What had he done? It was only a kiss!

Crucify him! Crucify him!

When he saw what they were doing to the rabbi he stood frozen to the spot. His soul lay crushed under the weight of the coins in his pocket. As he felt the waves of horror and shame crash over him he began to run. He staggered into the temple and threw those hateful coins at the feet of those he had conspired with. As the darkness threatened to engulf him he heard them say:

What is that to us? See to it yourself.

There was no light, only darkness. There was no hope, only anguish. There was no life, only death. As his body hung from a tree darkness came over the whole land. The earth shook and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Far away a voice cried out…

It is finished.

V

Avonmouth

Reflecting back a few days later I began to realise why that song had caused me such pain. We had been living the story so deeply that year that I was unable to hear the message of hope and freedom on Good Friday. It was the wrong time. Perhaps that is why the story of Judas seemed so helpful as I tried to understand my emotions.

Judas, in spite of his repentance, was unable to see how things could possibly change. The only way out that he could see was death. For Judas it would be Friday forever. The contrast with those leading the service that Friday was clear. They were unable to dwell in Friday’s story. They had to look forward to Sunday, to make sure that we all knew the end. They allowed the joy and the hope of resurrection to drown out the confusion and sorrow of crucifixion.

The tension inherent in all our Easter celebrations is that we know the end of the story. We know that Jesus is risen but we have to let the story play out in its own time. This incident occurred because the different churches were retelling the story at different speeds. When we came together the different parts of the story clashed.

We cannot fully celebrate Easter Sunday if we have not mourned on Good Friday but we cannot allow ourselves to wallow in Good Friday without allowing ourselves a glimpse of the hope that is to come on Easter Sunday.

Maundy Thursday Reflection 4/4

Luke 22:39-46 – They go out to the garden of Gethsemane

Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you will not fall into temptation.’

He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’

An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. ‘Why are you sleeping?’ he asked them. ‘Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.’

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

When the meal was finished they went out to an old, familiar haunt. Familiar enough that Judas knew just where to find them.
The disciples were tired, it had been a long evening and the mood was sombre.

“Stay here and pray” he told them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation”
Again he knew. The pressure of the crowd can be great. The temptation to keep your distance, to keep yourself safe, to deny that you know him.
“Pray that you will not fall into temptation.”

He walked away into the trees to do the same.

“Father” he cried out, “If you are willing, take this cup from me”.
Honest words. Vulnerable words. Knowing the answer but still asking the question.
“If you are willing, take this cup from me”

And then, “Not my will but yours be done”.
The hardest prayer that anyone can pray, the prayer of a true servant.
The Creator of the universe who made himself nothing.
The Lord of all who took on the nature of a servant.
The Son of God who became obedient, even to death.
On this darkest of nights, at the lowest of ebbs, Jesus’ humbling of himself was complete.
“Not my will but yours be done”

And in that moment, as he submitted himself completely to what was to come, he was comforted by an angel.
As if God the Father was saying “Yes, my will shall be done but you are not alone, I am with you”

And so he continued to pray, harder than he had ever prayed before. Knowing that he would need all the strength he could find to get through the next few days.

When he had finished he staggered back to the disciples but they were asleep.
“Get up!” he said, shaking them until their weary eyes opened. “Get up! Keep praying! Pray that you will not fall into temptation.”

But as they rose from their slumber they heard voices entering the garden.
A familiar figure approached and kissed Jesus on the cheek, and there was no more time for prayer.

Maundy Thursday Reflection 3/4

Luke 22:14-22 – Jesus and his disciples share a meal

When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfilment in the kingdom of God.’

After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, ‘Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’

In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him!’

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It’s a strange thing, sharing bread and wine.
In many ways it shouldn’t be anything special at all.
After all they’re just everyday things. It’s like sharing a cup of tea and a digestive biscuit, or a pork pie and a pint of ale. There’s nothing special about it.
And yet, somehow, it is the most special thing of all.

When the disciples sat down to share that Passover meal it would have been strange if there hadn’t been a jug of wine and a basket of bread on the table. It would have been just as strange if their Rabbi hadn’t taken it and blessed it.

Baruch ata Adonai elohaynu
“Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.”
“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the World, Who brings bread out of the earth”
It was all so…normal. And yet this night it seemed so strange.

“This is my body, broken for you”
What did he mean, his body? This bread was their nation, rescued from slavery and brought to freedom. Passing through the water of the Red Sea on the way to the promised land. What did this have to do with Jesus’ body.

“This is my blood, poured out for you”
What did he mean, his blood? This wine was the rejoicing of countless generations, celebrating their freedom and praising God for his saving love. What did this have to do with Jesus’ blood?

“Do this in remembrance of me”
Why would they need to remember him? what was going to happen?
Some of them began to worry.
One of them sloped off into the night.

“The Son of Man will go, as it has been decreed”, he said.
This was no accident. This was not Jesus finally giving in to the will of his enemies.
This was Jesus Christ, the servant king, laying down his life,
Consciously, willingly, faithfully allowing his body to be broken and his blood to be poured out.

And as we share these ordinary, everyday miracles of bread and wine we take his brokenness into our own broken bodies so that we too may be willing to lay down our lives for others.

Maundy Thursday Reflection 2/4

John 13:1-17 – Jesus washes his disciples’ feet

It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel round his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped round him.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’

Jesus replied, ‘You do not realise now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’

‘No,’ said Peter, ‘you shall never wash my feet.’

Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.’

‘Then, Lord,’ Simon Peter replied, ‘not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!’

Jesus answered, ‘Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.’ For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he asked them. ‘You call me “Teacher” and “Lord”, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

How many times had they sat down to this Passover meal? They had all done it since they were kids. They loved it when Jesus told them about the time he’d stayed behind and his parents had freaked out. They’d all laughed when he told them that one. Well all except Mary that is, she hadn’t quite forgiven him for that yet! Everyone knew the ritual, the routine. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.

He’d wanted to keep it intimate, just the thirteen of them in that small, hot room. It was all a bit last minute but the owner had managed to squeeze them in and when they got there it was all laid out ready.

They started eating straight away, telling each other the story that they all knew so well.
Each family gave it their own particular spin but it was all the same story.
They were lost in the familiarity of it when they noticed that Jesus had stood up and was filling a bowl with water. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.

Surprise surprise, Peter was the first to speak. “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
“Yes”, Jesus replied, and then in that infuriating way of his he said “you’ll understand later”
“But you can’t wash my feet”, Peter cried, “that’s the servant girl’s job!”
“If you won’t let me wash you then you can have nothing to do with me.” Jesus said.
“Well then don’t just wash my feet, why not wash my hands and my head as well?”
In for a penny, in for a pound. That’s Peter through and through!
But Jesus just looked at him and said “you are clean, only your feet need washing.”

Nobody else said anything while he carried on round the table.
Washing. Drying. Washing. Drying. Washing. Drying.
When he’d finished and got back to his seat he looked around and asked,
“Do you understand now?”
Nobody spoke.
“You call me Lord” he said, “You call me teacher, rabbi, and you should, that is what I am.
“But now I, your lord and teacher, have knelt before you as a servant and washed your feet, so you also should do the same for one another.”

Christ does not call us to strive for greatness. He doesn’t ask us to seek fame, or popularity, or riches, though we so often do. He tells us to kneel in the dust, to take on the role of a humble servant girl and wash the feet of a dirty and worn out world so that when people look at us all they see is Jesus.

Maundy Thursday Reflection 1/4

Mark 10:35-45 – On the road to Jerusalem

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’

‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked.

They replied, ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.’

‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said. ‘Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?’

‘We can,’ they answered.

Jesus said to them, ‘You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.’

When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So picture the scene. Jesus and his disciples are steadily making their way towards Jerusalem. He’s been hinting that something significant is going to happen there although the disciples don’t really seem to understand what. They take a break, perhaps finding some shade under the trees by the road, and James and John, sensing their opportunity, corner Jesus and ask the question that’s been on their lips for so long.

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
“What do you want me to do for you?” replies Jesus.
“Let us sit by your side in your glory.”
The allure of power rears its ugly head yet again. It is a temptation Jesus knows all too well, one which he has fought against for his whole ministry. And now his friends, his closest friends, have fallen into that trap.

“You think you can drink my cup and share my baptism? Then you shall. But the seats at my right and my left are not mine to assign.”
Courage. Bravery. Suffering.
In the upside-down kingdom of God even these do not lead to glory.

The other disciples realise what Jesus is talking about.
How dare James and John corner Jesus like that.
How dare they ask that question.
How dare they ask it first anyway.

So Jesus tries to get them to understand.
“You know how the Gentile rulers lord it over them? You know how their great ones are really tyrants? It is not so among you.”
And there it is, The Kingdom of God. “It is not so among you”.
Jesus carries on,
“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came, not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

But these weren’t just words for Jesus, he lived this out.
This kind of service sits and eats and laughs and cries with the outcasts of society.
This kind of service lays hands on the leper and washes the disciples’ dusty feet.
This kind of service feeds the hungry crowds and welcomes the embrace of a child.
This kind of service receives the jeers and the torture and the betrayal and the worst that humanity could throw at him and still laid down his life as a ransom for many.

Essay Writing

(To the tune of ‘Donkey Riding’)
.
Were you ever in Bristol town
Where balloons all fly around
Get those ideas written down
Writing one more essay
.
Hey ho, away we go
Essay writing, essay writing
Hey ho, away we go
Writing one more essay
.
Were you ever bored and tired
Drinking coffee so you’re wired
Feeling totally uninspired
Writing one more essay
.
Hey ho, away we go
Essay writing, essay writing
Hey ho, away we go
Writing one more essay
.
Were you ever round the bend
No sign of this essay’s end
Who said deadlines are your friends?
Writing one more essay
.
Hey ho, away we go
Essay writing, essay writing
Hey ho, away we go
Writing one more essay
.
~ ~ ~
[this goes some way to explaining the lack of content in the blog in the last few weeks - regular service will be resumed one day...]

Churches and Sustainable Communities conference (part 3)

This week I am reflecting on a conference I attended at the weekend, see part 1 and part 2 for more information.

Sir John Houghton

After lunch we had a short, informal session with Sir John Houghton who is a highly respected climate scientist, former head of the Met Office, founding member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and president of the John Ray Initiative.  He has recently published his autobiography, In the Eye of the Storm, which is a great book.  It gives a fascinating insight into the development of meteorology, a discipline which exploded through the second half of the twentieth century with the development of computers and satellite technology.  Sir John was at the forefront of the field all the way through those changes and the book charts his journey as he faces storms of public opinion, bureaucratic obstinance and powerful vested interests. Read the rest of this entry

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