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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean of Sheffield, then Durham.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

On Saint George's Day

This great church*, one of John Loughborough Pearson’s masterpieces, was no doubt dedicated to St George in honour of the fifth Duke of Northumberland, in whose memory his son had it built. This sixth Duke, who also had George as a middle name, left his mark on Alnwick Parish Church where I was once vicar. He liked gothic to be gothic, “noble, honest, earnest” says Pevsner’s Buildings of England. Pearson said of his own churches that the effect on people coming through the door should be “to bring them to their knees”. As this one does. It’s one of the best Victorian churches in England.

Let’s not dwell on all that we don’t know about St George. What we can be confident about is that he lived in Palestine seventeen hundred years ago, that he was a soldier, and that he was martyred under the Romans for his Christian faith. And what we know for certain is that he became patron of England as a result of the crusades. In Sheffield Cathedral where I was once dean (and where the Bishop was David Lunn, once vicar of this parish), there is a military chapel dedicated to St George. It was railed round with a remarkable, rather fierce, screen of swords and bayonets. The bayonets were pointed upwards because in peacetime they were at rest (though I believe that their exceedingly sharp points are now seen as a health and safety hazard and the bayonets have been turned round).

So what does it mean for us to celebrate St George as both patron of this church and patron of England? 

First, this church. We can see George as an emblem of so much that Christianity represents: destroying the dragons of tyranny and falsehood, standing for the truth against the lie, pursuing justice, cultivating virtue and nobility of character. And doing these things to the death, laying down his life for his friends out of the greater love that Jesus speaks about in St John’s Gospel. This was St George the martyr, who looked persecution in the face because, as we heard in today’s gospel, “if the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you”. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” A martyr is literally a witness. For us, the legend of St George will always stir us up as God’s witnesses to fight against evil and follow Christ, as we pledged to in baptism as his soldiers and servants all our lives long. It’s two days since we renewed our solemn promise to do this in the power of the resurrection. St George and Easter go together. If we are risen with Christ, these are the things we seek that are from above, where he is now as our risen Lord. And that transforms the whole of life.

What about England? First, let’s not forget St George’s cosmopolitan background – born to a Greek family in the Roman Empire in what we now call Turkey, and dying in Palestine. And remember that he is not the unique possession of England, for he is also patron saint of Bulgaria, Ethiopia, Greece, Lithuania, Portugal, Palestine and Georgia among other places. So if George is our patron, then his name impels us to pursue those same God-given values of truth, justice and self-giving love. Righteousness exalts a nation, says the Hebrew Bible, and on St George’s Day that should be our aspiration as English people whose patron saint bids us live according to the virtues of generosity and service. If we are going to “cry God for England and Saint George”, this is what we are raising his flag for. And that much all people of good will can sign up for, whatever their faith: to want to be a good nation that embodies all that God looks for in a human society.

But this vision of goodness has been severely tested in recent times. The way in which the cross of St George has been harnessed to the world-view of far-right extremists has profoundly unsettled those of us who love England for its fairness, its tolerance, its reasonableness, its kindness and its welcome to peoples from every part of the world and of every culture and faith. My Jewish mother came to England as a refugee from Nazi Germany in the 1930s and made a home here. Not long afterwards her parents were hidden underground in the Netherlands for the rest of the war. But England’s hospitality to an asylum-seeker, I wouldn’t be here now. How could it be that “Englishness” should be associated with a fear of refugees, pulling up the drawbridge against migrant workers, with a narrower vision of nationhood St George, because of his own background, would never have countenanced. That our politics should be haunted by these toxic ideas is a worrying commentary on our times.

I believe we need to return to the roots of our identity and recover a better vision of our vocation as citizens of England. Patriotism means doing what is right and good out of love for our country, the soil that gave us birth, made us aware, shaped our values, and bestowed on us so many precious gifts. It asks in return that we give our best selves to playing our part as a people among the family of nations, and lead by living out an example of all that ennobles human character. I’m sure we all endorse that vision here today. It’s entirely different from the nationalism that cries “England first!” and collapses into the self-serving accumulation of power and resources at the expense of others. Christianity is incompatible with that idea of nation; for the church of the risen Christ is a worldwide catholic community that transcends all human identities. In the gospel, what matters most is playing our part in serving God’s purposes of love and truth and justice, how we serve well and live together before the one to whom we must all render account.

Which was the pattern of St George our martyr-saint, according to the stories told of him about how he laid down his life for his friends. It can be very costly indeed. We’ve seen the hatred of Christians acted out yet again in the shocking massacre of Easter worshippers in Sri Lanka’s churches. We mustn’t be under any illusions. Persecution of Christians is a fact of life in many parts of the world, something the British government is now recognising. When religious freedom is compromised, we are all victims, as Jews and Muslims will tell us from their own bitter experience of antisemitism and islamophobia. These are threatening times for many people of faith and conscience.

Jesus prayed that the cup might pass from him – who wouldn’t? But in the end he drank it to its bitter dregs. “They will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me” says Jesus. As the Master is, so must the disciple be. St George laid down his life as a witness to that everlasting love without reservation and without compromise. It’s a tough vocation: tough for our church, tough for our nation, tough for any of us. But nothing less than this is the cost of good nationhood, good discipleship and good citizenship. It asks everything of us. But it gives everything too. In every time of trial we sing “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” That’s how to slay dragons: by worshipping our most glorious Lord of Life, and living as his Easter people.

It was the way of St George because it was the way of his crucified and risen Lord. On this day of celebration for church and nation, we give our thanks and praise.

*St George’s, Cullercoats, 23 April 2019
John 15.18-21

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Easter Day at Southwark

“While it was still dark.” The sun has not yet risen, but the Son of Man is risen. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him.” Who are they? Not mischief-making soldiers, not friends stealing the body to pretend a resurrection, not even the demonic emissaries of death and hell. No. They are none other than the powers of the Eternal God, the powers of grace and truth laying claim on the One whom the grave could not hold. For “love is strong as death”, as it says in the Hebrew scriptures; “many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it”.
On Good Friday St John’s passion story ended in the garden where he was laid to rest. And now we are back there in the darkness and the grass is wet with dew and birds are still silent and the tomb is empty. It’s the first day of the week and like the disciples we are perplexed, maybe a little afraid in this sombre place of death. Would we have the courage to peer inside that rocky cave? And if we did, might we begin to glimpse what it could mean and find ourselves wondering what if…what if?
We mustn’t miss the symbolism of the garden and the first day of the week. It takes us back to the creation story in Genesis when in the picture language of ancient myth, God placed our first parents in the Garden of Eden and invited them to take care of it. In John’s story that we heard just now, it’s here in a garden that the risen Jesus appears to Mary, and she imagines him to be the gardener! On this first day of the week when God once said “let there be light” and now there is light, for the sun has risen and the Son of Righteousness has risen too. So this paradise, this garden (which is what the word literally means) is once again a place of creation. Here is where the new creation begins, the new heaven and the new earth, the promise that everything will be different now that this last Adam has come back from the dead and a new day has dawned over all the world.
But let’s stay with the half-light of breaking dawn. Night shadows still linger in the garden before the full light of day has dawned. That empty tomb and those what ifs? What if this deep magic is true? If only it could be! What a difference it would make to our lives. What a new perspective it would bring to the world. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a hope to live and die by? I think many of us are living in this twilit kind of world a lot of the time: puzzled, but open to what could happen; feeling for God in the dark, if only we knew where we might find him; not expecting too much of life yet wishing we could have hope and envying those who do. 
Easter is the answer to that search. It changes everything. I can’t prove to you that the tomb was empty and that Jesus rose from the dead. But there is evidence that has touched the lives of people down the centuries, convinced them that the resurrection changes everything, that what happened in that garden matters more than any other event in human history. This has been going on ever since the days of Mary Magdalen and Peter and John who were the first to come to that garden before dawn on Easter Day. It has been happening across history in every place under the sun. It happens today. And it’s why I am here as a priest speaking to you about it on this Easter morning.
What evidence? I mean that the resurrection of Jesus touches lives and transforms them. It really does. I was brought up in London in the 1950s in an entirely secular family. I was a chorister and that played a key part in my formation. But I became a convinced Christian as a schoolboy because I saw the difference faith was making in my friends, a faith clearly rooted in the cross-and-resurrection of Jesus. It wasn’t just a matter of ideas and beliefs. It was being lived out in front of me with hope and love and real joy. I was profoundly moved by it. I still am as I look back more than half a century. That kind of evidence spoke for itself. And as I read the New Testament I saw that this was how the truth of the resurrection began to take hold on people across the world. In St John’s story, we can see it as a journey from darkness through twilight into the full light of day, from the grief and puzzlement of the disciples in the garden to the joyful meeting with the risen Jesus when he calls Mary by her name and she recognises him and acclaims him as her Lord. 
All of us are somewhere on this journey of faith and hope, somewhere between the shadow of death and the full light of resurrection. So let me say something specifically to those of you who are being baptised and confirmed this morning. In a sense, you are standing by the empty tomb where those disciples stood on the first Easter Day. Ahead of you lies a lifetime of discovery – finding in your own experience what it means to say that Jesus is Lord and to live by his light of life. At times, the light will be strong and steady, a sun high in the sky to brighten your days and strengthen you to travel well. At other times it will be more like a fragile candle flame, a precarious light amid the encircling gloom where we see just enough to put one step in front of the other on the rough steep path of faith and discipleship. What matters is your memory of today and the empty tomb  and your baptism in the risen Christ that change everything and remind us he is risen. Easter faith is his gift to you today, and a hope that I pray never dies. And because he loves you to the end, he will see you through to the end when travelling days are done and you will see him face to face.
Such small beginnings in that garden before dawn; such big truths for those first witnesses to grasp hold of and take to others; such great hopes welling up within us, such dreams that are dreams no more but the fulfilment of everything we have longed for. This is resurrection. This is Easter. This is what it means to be truly alive. Can there be any day but this? So let there be flowers and songs and feasting and fun, and most of all, alleluias without end. 
Southwark Cathedral, Easter Day 2019. John 20.1-18

Friday, 19 April 2019

Holy Week at Southwark: Good Friday

I THE PRAETORIUM – PLACE OF HUMANITY
John 19.1-6
The Praetorium, Pontius Pilate’s headquarters in Jerusalem, is a place of truth in St John’s Gospel where the archetypal encounter between truth and falsehood is played out. Inside, Jesus speaks to Pilate about bearing witness to the truth, and Pilate asks contemptuously, “What is truth?” For St John, truth is at stake in his story of the crucifixion. In one way, truth itself is crucified in the passion, just as truth is always the first casualty of war. 
But precisely because it is truth that is on the cross, Good Friday is the day when truth is displayed before the world as never before: the truth about passion and pain and man’s inhumanity to man; the truth about this innocent victim who has proclaimed himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life; the truth about how his suffering turns out to be redemptive; and above all, the truth of Jesus’ reign that demonstrates to the whole creation how God so loved the world. 
“So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Behold the man!’” Ecce Homo, the subject of hundreds of paintings and sculptures from the middle ages to the present day. In the bombed-out ruins of Coventry Cathedral where I once worked, there is a colossal marble statue by the great twentieth century sculptor Jacob Epstein, showing Christ at this moment of the passion, being brought out of the Praetorium. “I wished to make in Ecce Homo a symbol of a man bound, crowned with thorns and facing with a relentless and overmastering gaze of pity and prescience on our unhappy world.” Epstein’s parents were Jewish refugees from Poland. When he carved the piece in the 1930s, he was not to know what would become of Polish Jewry during the Nazi holocaust. But it seems to be etched into Jesus’ face, this solidarity with every victim, this determination that suffering will not have the final word. 
“Behold the man!” To Pilate, he is no man in particular, any man who happens to get in the way, one of the many fools who try to disturb the elegant ordered world of Roman imperial politics. But St John capitalises the word “Man” as if to surround Jesus with a halo. Behold – not any man but every man, behold the embodiment of the family of man, behold the one in whom our humanity is displayed in its perfection. O yes, his is a broken humanity, a mortal humanity, a crucified humanity. Jesus knows where the scourging and the mocking and the purple robe and the crown of thorns will lead. When Pilate leads Jesus out to the crowd and announces Ecce homo, they both know that the his destiny is inevitable. 
But John’s portrait of the Man outside the Praetorium moves us, not only for its sadness but for its infinite nobility. St John wants us to recognise and respond to the dignity of Jesus in his passion, from his arrest in the garden right up to the moment of his death when he acclaims that he has finished the work he came to do. And on this solemn day, faith sees in the crucified Jesus the Man who was loyal to his Father’s will, the Man who lived for others, the Man who emptied himself and loved to the end. In him we see our own humanity exalted, literally “lifted up” so that we can see once again what it is that we are called to be and do in the world of today. And we glimpse how we can be part of God’s reconciling purpose for humankind for whom the cross stands for all time as the sign of grace and truth and everlasting love. 

II THE PAVEMENT – PLACE OF KINGSHIP
John 19.13-16
A pavement doesn’t sound a very evocative place. But like the Praetorium, its name Gabbatha stood out for St John because of what Pilate said there. The first time it had been Ecce Homo, “Behold the Man!” This time it’s another “behold!”, an even stronger one. Ecce Rex Vester, “Behold your King!” 
Does Pilate mean this ironically, no more believing him to be a king than the crowd? Or is he recalling those baffling conversations in the Praetorium where he had interrogated Jesus about his being a king, only to be told that “my kingdom is not from here”? What we can say is that each time, Pilate is speaking beyond the words he utters. “Behold the man!” – but not just any man. “Behold your king!” – for the purple robe and crown of thorns proclaim him to be a King indeed. And although Pilate cannot know it, and the crowd cannot know it, and even his faithful followers can no more than glimpse it, we know, because we have read this far in St John’s Gospel, that the cross where he will be lifted up is nothing less than his enthronement. 
There is a great mystery here. Crucifixion was an execution reserved for the worst criminals who even at the hour of their death were permitted no dignity, no final act of clemency. Yet in the spectacle of this condemned man who is led out to die, harried and mocked by soldiers and the crowd, John dares to claim that we are gazing upon royalty. The quiet nobility of his bearing, the dignity with which he takes the insults hurled at him, there is a presence about him that is nothing less than transfiguring. At Gabbatha and Golgotha, there is one kingship, one glory, one grace and truth.
In this scene at the Pavement, I seem to be witnessing a drama of universal significance. “Behold your King!” Whose king? I think St John is saying that he is King not only to his own community but to the entire human family. More than that, I seem to see him brought forth before the entire world, the created order of which he said, “all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” - this cosmos in its glory and splendour, its brokenness and potential, all that already is and all that is yet to be. He will bring all things to their Omega Point, the consummation at the end of time. And because the cross gathers up the fragments of the whole of life so that nothing is lost, it is the cross that sets forth his reign of triumph before the cosmos. 
Back to the Pavement. You would expect this King who is led out to his people to be greeted with acclaim, like he was on Palm Sunday. But a shadow has fallen across this crowd. When they see him they shout “Away with him! Crucify him!” “He came to his own, and his own people did not accept him”: in those words, the crowd speaks for a human race that has turned away from the light. “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.” Can it be that the light will go on shining in the darkness, and the darkness not overcome it? 
St John says to us on Good Friday: yes it can! Because the cross where Jesus reigns is an immortal throne built on grace and truth. The light that shines out from it never fades. The life it gives birth to never dies. He is lifted up in glory and draws all people to himself. As God’s redeemed crowd standing at the cross today, we acclaim him. “Love so amazing, so divine / demands my soul, my life, my all.” Behold our King!

III THE SKULL – PLACE OF DEATH
John 19.16b-19
If you had to invent a name for the place where death reigns, you couldn’t do better than Golgotha, “The Skull”. Those hard semitic consonants echo the hardness of this site outside the city wall, named not because of its shape so much as its fearsome reputation as a place of execution and death. St Matthew says that the cross was visible from a distance, the “green hill far away”. But green feels too gentle, too kind. You need to imagine it as a barren bleak place red with blood, strewn with bodies and bones and the machinery of torture and death, the detritus of Rome’s way of carrying out efficient capital sentences. On this hill there is no dignity and no mercy. 
On Good Friday we shouldn’t gloss over the particularities of death. One way of viewing the cross is to see it as an emblem of human suffering and pain, a sign that even the eternal God himself knows what it is to be cruelly used and to die. “Every man’s death diminishes me” wrote John Donne. We gaze upon this landscape of death that even Jesus was subject to, and are silenced, made to ponder our human condition, our own mortality, and all the other crucifixions we see acted out where inhumanity is a fact of life, and life itself is cheap. You look at Grünewald’s famous crucifixion painting in the hospital at Colmar, and you realise how for him, the cross is a universal image of suffering humanity designed to move all who saw it to pity. 
We ask what meaning can there be in suffering when want to believe in a God whose purposes are wise and good? I think suffering is simply a fact of the world as it is, the risk inherent in any creation worth worth living in. What we must do is to care about it, respond compassionately, try to alleviate it as best we can; and where it is the result of human cruelty or neglect, recognise its causes and put them right. On this holy day we gaze on Christ crucified and learn to be sensitised to this, to act in God’s name to help build a gentler, kinder world.
And to act in God’s name brings us close to what St John wants us to grasp in the passion account. In the Gospel, Jesus is revealed to us as God’s beloved Child, God’s own self in our midst, the sign of what God wants for the world he loves. On Good Friday, we see in Jesus’ suffering a vision of how God himself suffers on the cross, how God knows what it is to be abused, to be in pain, to die. Our crucified God is truly a god of compassion, suffering-with, because of his suffering-in the tortured body of his Son.
Golgotha is a profound paradox. For St Mark it’s a godforsaken place of absence. In the desolation and darkness, Jesus cries out in agony and despair “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” But for St John, it’s a hill of profound presence. He has no dark, no desolation, only a marvellous radiance, because God has been in this all along. Yes, the cross should disturb and disquiet us. Yet it’s also the source of all our consolation and hope because this is where God proclaims that he is love, and that he is with us in all our ordeals and suffering and pain. His is a heart that aches for his hurting world. Was there ever a more moving symbol of it in our time than the cross hanging so nobly in the burnt out shell of Nôtre Dame this week? It was glimpse of transfigured night.
At Golgotha we behold the Man. And we behold the King in whom we recognise – and bless - our God of pain and mercy, the Saviour of the World, our God of tender love.

                     IV THE CROSS – PLACE OF ACCOMPLISHMENT
                                                                     John 19.25b-30
So the Cross stands for the suffering of humanity and God’s involvement in it. But John tells us that God suffers not only with us but for us. For him it’s all contained in that last single word Jesus cries from the cross in his passion story: “It is accomplished!” We might imagine it was more natural to think of Good Friday as a day of despair or resignation as the other gospels do. St John stands out for his sense of completion, something accomplished, brought to its conclusion. “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” Jesus had said. On the way to the cross he had prayed, “I glorified you by finishing the work you gave me to do”. Tetelestai! It is done.
Endings and beginnings seem to meet at Golgotha. The cross feels like a great full stop, a closure, an end. We hear in Jesus’ words an unmissable tone of satisfaction, fulfilment, even triumph. Perhaps that takes us by surprise? Not if we’ve been paying attention to the way St John has told his story. This end is not, for him, the petering out of a life that began so well. It is not the tragedy of a wasted career, the snuffing out of a guttering candle flame. Rather, it’s the great light that has never shone more steadily, more brightly than at Golgotha. This is Jesus’ moment of culmination. His life, said Jesus speaking of himself as the good shepherd, was not taken from him. He laid it down of his own accord.  On the cross he draws all humanity to himself. On the cross there is vindication of all that he came among us to be and to do. On the cross his work of love is accomplished. He is bound to the cross not by the nails but by love alone. He reigns over us as the king of love. This is where we recognise glory, full of grace and truth, where we understand what it is to say that he loves us to the end. 
If this is what he is in his incarnation and his resurrection, then this is what he has always been. In particular, this is what he is in his death at Golgotha. How can God suffer and die? we ask ourselves. Other faith communities find this the most baffling question Christianity poses. There are those for whom Good Friday is a real stumbling-block. A crucified man like Spartacus we can make sense of, even if he is innocent or even heroic. A crucified God is another matter altogether. I doubt we could ever reason it out. But faith takes us to a place where I believe we do see how love drives God to embrace the cross and in doing so, embrace his whole creation in a supreme act of self-giving, what Jesus calls laying down his life. If God is not crucified, there is no God as Christians understand him.
I imagine the cross as St John’s burning bush. It’s the place of transfiguration where we take off our shoes because we are on holy ground. We look into this sacred fire, and listen to the voice that speaks out of its midst. What do we see? The flame of love, its glory and its light blazing with divine passion for the world, for the human race, for each of us. And what do we hear? The word that says: I am what I am, all that it means to be God. Here at Golgotha are revealed his nature and his name. I am all that love means, he seems to say, all that meets our longings, hungers and hopes, than which nothing greater, nothing more glorious could ever be conceived, the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end of all light and life and love. 
“It is accomplished.” In my end is my beginning. We gaze on the burning heart of God and sense that the sun is rising on another world. There is a new creation. The day breaks and the shadows flee away. After this long and gloomy winter, spring has come at last. 

V THE GARDEN – PLACE OF REST
John 19.38-42
St John’s passion narrative begins and ends in a garden. It’s in a garden that Jesus is betrayed and arrested. It’s in a garden that his body is laid to rest. And at dawn on Easter Day, it will be in the garden that his tomb will be empty. The garden is the link between suffering and renewal, passion and resurrection, living and dying and living again.
We’ve reflected on Jesus’ cry from the cross tetelestai! “It is finished.” There is nothing left to do. He has loved the world to the end. It’s a magnificent resolution of the conflict that has run through St John’s story. But we need to be brought back to a quieter place where we can gather up the events of Holy Week. The body of Jesus needs to rest and so do we. The garden and its tomb is that necessary place. Here the friends of Jesus lay him. It was the day before Passover, the day of Preparation, like this year - Passover begins at sunset tonight, and we wish all our Jewish family and friends Chag Sameach, a joyful festival. And preparation is what this garden breathes – preparation for resurrection, for new life, for how all of history will be turned in a new direction because of Easter. 
But we must stay with St John in the garden. For it’s here that we glimpse how this finished work, this end, is also a beginning, a threshold across which a new world is glimpsed, a door held open to us that no-one can shut, a gateway to possibilities we only dared to dream about. It’s like the mythological garden God planted at the beginning of time and placed our first parents in it. Beyond the full stop of today’s “it is finished”, another sentence begins, opening up the promise of redemption, healing and reconciliation. That word paradise simply means “garden”. The Elysian Fields of mythology tapped into the longing for a paradise of peace and rest. Like singing “Somewhere over the rainbow”, an end to trouble and the fulfilment of our dreams. We mustn’t dismiss these primordial hungers of the human soul.
“In my end is my beginning” was Mary Queen of Scots’ motto, embroidered on a cloth before her execution. T. S Eliot plays with it in his poem East Coker. It starts out with a gloomy recognition of how things are, “In my beginning is my end”, echoing the Prayer Book funeral sentence, “In the midst of life we are in death”. Yet from there Eliot finds his way to a place of expectation: in the midst of death, we are in life. St John would recognise it that way round. If Good Friday is an end, then it brims with hope and possibility. Love is not eclipsed by suffering, nor its glory by death. Jesus’ death is both the end but not the end. So the grave has lost its victory and death has lost its sting. 
And this joining up of ends and beginnings makes the garden a tender place, a point of rest where we look back and look forward, and take in the cross and resurrection as Love’s work. One work because the Love that lays down its life is for that very reason unconquerable. So it is raised up in triumph. One day Love will reign across the universe, over every creature, over our broken world and in the heart of every human soul. Love is his meaning and will be to the end of time. We celebrate the Love that gives us back our humanity, heals our wounds, sustains us in life and comforts us in the face of death. 
This is my friend / in whose sweet praise / I all my days / could gladly spend. Our Friend indeed, our beginning and our end. This Friday of the Cross is a Good Friday. It is right to give our thanks and praise, and celebrate this solemn day. For Love has done its work.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Holy Week at Southwark Address 5: Crucified Before Friends (Maundy Thursday)

This Holy Week we’ve been reflecting on the cross in the various “worlds” in which Jesus is crucified, the stages on which the passion is acted out in front of its different audiences. So far, they have been big and public: the worlds of the city, of religion, of politics, of the crowd. In all of them there has been tension and hostility, chaos and confusion as we are pulled this way and that by a narrative whose pace can leave us breathless. Tonight’s world is in complete contrast: a quiet, peaceful, hospitable world in which friends gather to be together in intimacy and share food and drink as a sign of the love they have for one another.

“A new commandment I give you, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also must love one another.” Jesus’ words give us the name by which we know Maundy Thursday, the day of the mandatum novum, the great command to love. It is love that sets the tone of this Paschal Triduum, these great days that begin tonight and take us through to Easter. Love is its meaning, love is his meaning; it always was and always shall be. 

Where do we first learn love? As infants at the hands of our parents and our siblings, in the circle of intimacy we call home. This is why those who have not been fortunate enough to have received “good enough parenting” can find it difficult to love and to trust later in life. And so on the night before he dies, Jesus gathers his disciples, his friends, into the intimacy of an upper room, a family foyer to call home for a while as together they perform the ancient ceremonies of Passover time, and tell the story of redemption and speak about the love that has brought them here and welcomed them.

This upper room is not only a place to speak about love but to express it, act it out. The work of love comes first, and only then the words. In an action that has become so familiar to us but which must have startled the disciples at that last supper, Jesus girds himself with the towel and performs the foot-washing. There is so much that he wants them to learn: about courtesy, about humility, about relationships, about service. But more than anything else, this is an enacted parable about love: what it is, where it comes from, how we recognise it, what it is for.  

There is only one test of love, he says; and it is this: to honour it as covenant, to keep it with integrity and loyalty, to be self-forgetting, and as he will shortly say to his disciples in this same upper room, to lay down your life for your friends. This is far more than emotions. It is a decision we make to love like this, an act of the will.  If you can’t contemplate dying for someone, it’s arguable that you haven’t truly begun to love them.  

It’s worth reflecting whom we would dare to die for, what would impel us to give up our lives for someone else.  For most, it is those whom God has given us to be intimate with: family, close friends.  These loves have clearly defined human faces.  For some it is love of nation and homeland: ‘the love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test’ as the hymn puts it, in words that are questionable but are deeply meant for all that. For others again, it is a genuinely altruistic love for the weak and vulnerable of our world who have little hope in life other than because of those who, literally or figuratively, lay down their lives for them in love and service.  Whichever it is, this is the test Jesus applies.  To love is to be committed to going wherever it leads, loving even to the point of death.  “As I have loved you” says Jesus. 

And the point of this is, as I’ve said, that Jesus not only speaks about love but embodies it. The criterion of love he first applies to himself, as John puts it, loving ‘to the end’. St Paul says that he lays aside his glory in order to take the role of a slave; self-abasement, self-emptying, the ultimate act of self-giving we call kenosis. In a few hours he will be arrested and tried and led out to die a criminal’s death.  And all for us, every human child: that is the measure of love that it goes right to the end.  It is cruciform, has the shape of a cross.  St Paul puts it like this: ‘God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us’.  Tomorrow we shall bear witness to how this takes place in the sight of earth and heaven. Tonight, in the foot-washing and in the gifts we lay on the altar of this Last Supper, we bear witness to it as the intimate circle of Jesus’s friends, his companions, literally those who break the bread with him.

What Jesus is saying is that love is always sacrificial, always giving its all, always giving it to the end.  ‘Love’s endeavour, love’s expense’ is that it withholds nothing, lays itself down for the sake of others. We don’t need to be told when we are loved like this.  We know it whether it is in our marriages, partnerships and friendships, or in the care we received when we most needed it.  We know it when we observe how the commitment and generosity of good people takes them to the most dangerous and risky of places, to the most vulnerable people in our society, to the most desperate in our world, the people we shall especially hold in our hearts and prayers in the great intercessions from the cross on Good Friday.  Above all we know it when we gaze upon Jesus on the cross and find ourselves looking straight into the face of God. 

God’s love is always moving among and between us and bathing this world in its light. As Julian of Norwich said, we only exist at all because God loves us: creation is the evidence that God is love because he steps back, so to speak, out of hospitality as he opens the door to us and gives us space to be. In all our personal stories, we glimpse how God so loved that he gave, and so loves that he goes on giving, laying down his life for his friends which is how he meets and embraces us. 

It happens in every act of healing care and compassion we know.  It happens when reconciliation brings together broken peoples and communities and mends them.  It happens when our hearts are glad because some beautiful piece of music or a poem or painting has touched us.  It happens in the birth of a child and the greeting of a friend and the touch of someone we love.  It happens at deathbed farewells to those who are dear to us, and at the graveside where we entrust them to the earth for cherishing. 

And it happens at the altar in the visible words of love: bread and wine, taken, blessed, broken and given.  In all these ways, and a thousand others, each moment, each hour, each day, love comes to us. She bids us welcome, invites us to her banquet, compels us to sit and eat. And then we are close to glimpsing what lies at the heart of creation. We know that despite everything, love is its meaning, God’s meaning.  

And God’s meaning is the cross-shaped love that is symbolised in the foot-washing and in the bread and wine of eucharist: self-emptying, self-giving, unwavering, unfaltering, persevering to the end. In the intimacy of the upper room, in the sight of friends, the love of Good Friday is already being made visible, poured out, demonstrating its credentials as the greatest power there is in all of life. 

It may not always seem like it as we look around us at a world of pain. But we do not lose heart. Amor vincit omnia says the old tag, love overcomes all things. God has plenty of time to finish his work. We wait for it with a hope that rises like sap in this springtime of grace and peace. And we wait together as loving friends. In these holy days our crucified and risen Lord is showing us the most profound truth of all, the truth for which we would gladly live and die. He is showing us “how grandly Love intends / to work till all creation sings / to fill all worlds, to crown all things”.*

Maundy Thursday 2019 (John 13.1-17, 31-35)
* Hymn by Brian A. Wren, “Great God, your love has called us here”.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Holy Week at Southwark Address 4: Crucified by the Crowd

There’s a word that St John might have liked in connection with his passion narrative. It’s ochlocracy, mob rule, the sway of a crowd. More than any other gospel, John’s underlines the role of the throng in deciding the fate of Jesus. They plead, they shout, they threaten, they argue, they mock, they sneer. And they kill, short only of hammering in the nails and pressing down the thorns. It is the crowd that secures Jesus’ arrest, screams for Jesus’ crucifixion, plays into Pilate’s fear of the emperor’s displeasure, convinces itself that its real king is Caesar and not God, taunts the Son of God and clamours for the release of a murderer. The turbulent atmosphere, electric with pent-up rage acts as a foil for the majestic figure of Jesus as he moves through the story towards his death.  
Listen to some of their lines, so memorably set to music in the fierce crowd scenes of Bach’s St John Passion. To Pilate’s question, “Shall I release for you the King of the Jews? they cry “Not this man but Barabbas!” – the robber, the murderer, the bandit. To his Ecce homo, “Behold the man!” they clamour “Crucify him! Crucify him!”. When Pilate tries to reason with them, they answer, “We have a law, and by that law he ought to die because he made himself the Son of God”. When he tries vainly to let this innocent man go free they ambush him: “If you release this man you are no friend of Caesar. Everyone who claims to be king sets himself against the emperor”. Pilate presents Jesus to them a second time. No longer “Behold the man” but now “Behold your king”. And they cry: “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!”. “Shall I crucify your king?” he asks. To which they reply, in the ultimate blasphemy for a people who since their wilderness days had called on Adonai as the Lord. “We have no king but Caesar!” 
The power of the crowd is the engine that drives much of the narrative along. The crowd is a major player in St John’s passion story, as essential indeed as the chorus in a Greek play. But whereas in Greek tragedy the chorus is there to comment on the action, interpret what is happening, suggest how the audience might respond, in the Fourth Gospel it is on the stage in its own right as a relentlessly hostile character. In the crisis of the passion I spoke about yesterday, John depicts the mob as the implacable enemy of the truth Jesus has come to bear witness to. They swallow all the falsehoods fed them by their corrupt leaders whether religious or political. Not once is there a glimmer of sympathy for Jesus in his plight, any hint that there might be more than one side to this drama they are instrumental in seeing played out to its bloody outcome. Leaders with no self-doubt should always worry us. When a crowd is like that, we should be deeply afraid.
No doubt there were good people in the throng who were also watching to see what would become of Jesus. We know that his mother and her sister were there, with Mary Magdalene and the disciple whom Jesus loved. Maybe Nicodemus who first came to see Jesus by night and who would bring spices to anoint his body, and Joseph of Arimathea the secret disciple who was afraid, who would bury Jesus and be the last person in this life to honour his sacred body. But if they were there that Friday afternoon, they remained hidden in the crowd, afraid to show their faces to a mob baying for death. Who can blame them? Would we have had the courage to behave any differently, for all that we had also been there on Palm Sunday to wave our palm branches and shout hosanna to the coming king? 
The religious authorities know how to work a crowd. They play on its fickle emotions like a musical instrument. You can hear the hatred behind every refrain. Pilate, instead of restraining the mob simply gives into it out of fear, and that has the effect of escalating the violence. But what is it about the power that the crowd finds it has? Why is its hold over individuals so strong?
This was a theme that fascinated the 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard. He identified the frightening ease with which people lose touch with themselves, lose themselves in the pack and start behaving in ways that are unpredictable, irrational or even evil.  He wrote that “one can only say of people en masse that they know not what they do… A demon is called up over whom no individual has any power”. He never tired of pointing out that it takes huge courage for someone to emerge from the hiding place the crowd provides and become an individual making decisions on the basis of conscience and belief. It took great courage for individuals in Nazi Germany like Sophie Scholl, Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer to stand for truth and conscience against the lies of the mob. I guess every atrocity in history has only been able to happen because of good people who stood by and watched the crowd and did nothing, or people who at any other time could never have imagined themselves doing harm to their neighbours and friends. Such is the coersive force of the crowd. We’ve seen it played out in our own day in the rise of populism across the world, in the bullying that is the new normal on social media, in the upsurge of nationalisms that wouldexclude the immigrant and asylum seeker and the stranger in our midst. 
Where does the cross belong in this landscape?
I want to go back to that notorious saying of Caiaphas I’ve already quoted a couple of times: “It is expedient that one man should die for the people so that the whole nation may not perish”. We’ve seen how the politics of expediency leads quickly into a politics of negligence which in turn gives birth to a politics of cruelty. What was never the conscious intention to begin with simply “happens” because of the dynamic of events and of participants in them. In particular, the need for the crowd to find someone to blame for the disturbance that threatens its safety and stability, the disaster that overtakes a society and risks destroying it. First century Judaea was part of a particularly febrile Roman province, that of Syria. We know that it was unstable, fragile, prone to messianic eruptions of violence and rebellion, yet always overshadowed by the imperial power that at any moment could sweep in and destroy it, as happened at the hands of Titus in the generation after Jesus when Jerusalem was overrun and the temple destroyed and what Caiaphas had most feared came to pass, and the nation perished.

Jesus sees through these fears that are driving Caiaphas and Pilate and the crowd. His is a kingdom not from this world, whose values are based on the truth that he has come into the world to bear witness to. He is no more interested than Pilate in the advent of some heroic deliverer who will redeem the people and set them free. He does not believe in this for a moment. For all the hosannas of Palm Sunday, his is not a messianic kingdom, for the truth he speaks about is not like that. And precisely because he will not base his witness on the vain hopes and false assumptions of the people, precisely because he will not accept and own the projected expectations they have of him, he becomes progressively isolated from them. And because nothing so fuels hatred as disappointed hope (which is one way of reading the story of Judas the betrayer), they turn on him. He must be driven out, banished, and must symbolically carry with him all the frustrated longings, the pent-up violence, the false ambitions he has been carrying all this time. It is not only expedient that he should die. It will be cathartic, cleansing, clarifying. So they shout “Away with him! Crucify!”
None of this happens consciously. Crowds have a mind of their own, but they often aren’t aware of why they behave as they do. Yet this kind of behaviour is familiar to all of us. The “othering” of people because they are female, or transgender, or black, or Jewish, or Moslem, or disabled, or gay; the subtle, then more overt ways in which they are separated from the group, marginalised, excluded from favour or full participation, even persecuted. My mother’s Jewish family were victims of the holocaust in Nazi Germany. They knew what it was to be blamed for the collective ills of a society, punished for it, banished either to another country (the fortunate ones like my mother) or to the death camps. But even in the school playground this dynamic can be acted out as many of us can remember; even in the workplace or local church or our own home. It may be in microcosm. But it is painful because it is a kind of crucifixion. The memories never go away and healing can take a lifetime.
The French philosopher René Girard has written about violence in religion. This is an aspect of the “dark” religion I spoke about on Monday, the shadow in which destructive forces can lurk. We are familiar with what happens when a crowd that is fuelled by religious passion decides to turn on some innocent victim. Girard’s image is that of the scapegoat, the innocent animal that in the Levitical code of the Hebrew Bible symbolically took the sins of the people upon it and was driven out into the wilderness to die. You may recall the bleak painting of this scene by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Holman Hunt. This ritual was prescribed on the Jewish Day of Atonement as an act of cleansing and purification. It’s a key theme of the passion, Jesus being driven out of Jerusalem to be crucified at Golgotha among the unwanted human detritus of every city – its bandits and abusers and murderers, crucified on that “green hill far away / without a city wall” as the hymn says, far enough away for eyes to be safely averted lest the sight of shed blood pollute a civilised society. 
It’s one of those “but fors” of history. But for the crowd that is so large a character in the passion story, there would not have been a crucifixion, for there might not have been a critical mass of violence and hatred. The paradox for us in Holy Week is that this “but for” means everything. For in Jesus’ casting out and ignominious death we see nothing less than redemption. Glory is how St John speaks of it, this Place of a Skull that turns out to be precisely where Jesus accomplishes his work of self-giving love and is enthroned as Lord and King. Christian theology speaks of the atoning sacrifice once for all, the Lamb of God who “takes away” – key words in the light of what I’ve been saying – who takes away the sins of the world and whose precious memory is invoked at every eucharist of his broken body and shed blood when we sing Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. Have mercy indeed: on this world that is so addicted to violence, on us who know the violence that lurks in our own hearts. Have mercy on our broken humanity, and grant us peace while there is still time to learn to be God’s people once again, to turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.
There are two consequences I want to draw out before I conclude. The first issue for any of us who covet spiritual intelligence is how we are going to emerge from the crowd – whatever crowds we populate - and free ourselves from the unconscious forces that control us or threaten to, so that we can become truly human again, the individual men and women God meant us to be. This is one gift of the cross, one dimension of what it means to be redeemed, because the man who was crucified, whose life of truth and love has led to him to hang there for us, has come, he said, that “we may have life and have it in all its abundance”. The passion of Jesus is to remake us in the image of God that he himself embodies. To achieve what’s known as individuation, becoming the unique individual human being we were meant to be should be the lifelong goal of our human journey. It means discovering what it is  to be our best and truest and most authentic selves. The cross and resurrection will be at the heart of this transformation that enables us to follow Jesus in living cross-and-resurrection-shaped lives.

The second consequence is about our common life. We’ve seen how dangerous, destructive, even demonic, the crowd can be, how it can create innocent victims and then turn on them in vengefulness and hatred. What could it mean for the crowd to be redeemed so that it becomes not only a safe place but also a joyful one where people can flourish and find their truest selves? It may be fanciful to speak about the church as a redeemed mob, but as the people of God, his new humanity, isn’t that what it’s meant to be? 

Earlier in the Gospel Jesus has said, “If I am lifted up, I shall draw all humanity to myself.” In being drawn closer to him, we are drawn closer to one another as a community and  in relationships of grace and truth and love. This crowd of humanity is making the journey from the malign to the benign, from self-serving to self-giving, from cruelty to kindness. In John’s Gospel this society of friendship is born in little ways. It is found in the upper room where it learns to how to  love to  wash feet and to serve. It’s found again gathered round the cross, the mother and the beloved friend who are bequeathed to each other and who will care for each other once Jesus has gone.

This is the power of love that changes crowds, changes each of us, changes everything. In Holy Week we gather in this sacred space that exists for the coming together of God’s people. Here we tell the story of God’s great acts that make us the first fruits of a new humanity. I love to think that a crowd intent on crucifixion can become a crowd acclaiming a resurrection. In the light of this transformation, can we, the church, begin to grasp how the power of the crowd could be turned to good and noble ends in the service of God? “See how these Christians love one another!” We  are never more truly ourselves than when we offer ourselves to the crucified and risen Lord, this King whose reign of truth and love we gladly make our own.

John 19.13-16

Holy Week at Southwark Address 3: Crucified by Politics

Last night, while I was speaking to you in this Cathedral, another Cathedral was on fire. It was shocking to come out of evensong to be confronted by images of Nôtre Dame engulfed by a catastrophic blaze.

That great church is, to millions of people (and not only francophiles like me), the mystic heart of France. It’s the emblem of a nation’s soul. It’s been movingnti watch how this disaster has been felt so deeply by people of many faiths and no faith at all, as well as by Christians across the world. That it should happen in Holy Week heightens the sense that something very terrible happened last evening to this ancient place of pilgrimage and prayer.

Today we try to express the solidarity we feel as fellow Christians especially as those who love these great cathedrals like the one we are sitting in now. We reach out to the people of France in their grief - a sorrow we share as fellow Europeans and her nearest neighbours and friends on this continent.

In the past hours, everyone has been clear that Nôtre Dame will rise again. Of course it must, of course it will, as certainly as we shall celebrate the resurrection this coming Easter morning. Meanwhile, we pray for the people of France as together we continue on our journey through these days of Holy Week, towards the resurrection that beckons to us from the other side of the cross.

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The story of the crucifixion is deeply political. We can’t get away from the way politics and religion are intertwined in the passion narrative. Yesterday we looked at the world of religion before which Jesus was crucified. We saw how “dark” religion could resort to coercion and violence to achieve its ends, in this case, Jesus’ death. Tonight I want to look at the way St John shines a light on the politics of the passion story, shows us that when Jesus Christ stands before Pontius Pilate, it’s nothing less than two kingdoms, two world orders, two civilisations that are encountering each other.

We are inside the Praetorium, the seat of Roman authority in the province. The religious authorities have handed Jesus over to Pilate, to the only jurisdiction competent to try him and condemn him to death. As I said yesterday, religion, theology, the idea that Jesus might have committed blasphemy by claiming to be God’s Son was of no concern to Romans. What did concern them was any movement that would undermine the authority of Rome, for instance by denying to the emperor the absolute loyalty that was due to him on the part of all who were his subjects. Hapless Pilate was the local guarantor of Roman order. It was a shrewd move on the part of the temple authorities to construe Jesus’ offence not as religious in character but political.

What kind of man was Pontius Pilate? I know no better words to sum up his character than these, from a sermon by the Victorian preacher F. W. Robertson. “Pilate had been a public man.  He knew life: had mixed much with the world's business and the world's politics: had come across a multiplicity of opinions, and gained a smattering of them all.  He knew how many philosophies and religions pretended to an exclusive possession of Truth: and how the pretensions of each were overthrown by the other.  And his incredulity was but a specimen of the scepticism fashionable in his day.  The polished scepticism of a polished, educated Roman, a sagacious man of the world, too much behind the scenes of public life to trust professions of goodness or disinterestedness, or to believe in enthusiasm and a sublime life.  And his merciful language, and his desire to save Jesus, was precisely the liberalism current in our day as in his - an utter disbelief in the truths of a world unseen, but at the same time an easy, careless toleration, a half-benevolent, half-indolent unwillingness to molest poor dreamers who chose to believe in such superstitions.” 
What is at stake in the Praetorium is power, and how it is wielded. As St John presents it, this dialogue between Jesus and Pilate is the archetypal clash of civilisations. Pilate is the spokesman of one kind of civilisation, the city that is, many would say, the crown of human achievement. Who does not admire Roman civilisation with its hierarchies of authority, its love of order, its legal system, its arts and letters, its politics? Whether you walk the Roman Forum or the camps and townships of the Roman Wall where I live, you cannot but celebrate “the glory that was Rome” and like St Benedict and St Bede, reflect on the benefits it brought as it shaped European civilisation down the centuries. 
Yet all this belongs to a kingdom of this world, a civilisation that for all its splendour was destined to crumble into dust. Civilisations, like human beings, are mortal. World empires have their day, and then, maybe wasting away over centuries or perhaps quite suddenly through some dog-leg in history no-one could foresee, they dissolve leaving behind them only artefacts and tombstones and texts to remember them by. And although Pilate’s imperial Rome had four centuries left to run, and the best emperors like Trajan and Hadrian and Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius were yet to come, this kingdom would fall one day, all “pride of man and earthly glory”. 
Contrast the kingdom Jesus speaks for as he faces his accuser in the Praetorium. His replies to the agitated Pilate are amongst the noblest words ever uttered. “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Fighting, not only with physical weapons as Peter has already tried to do at Jesus’s arrest in the garden, but the armoury of rhetoric and resistance we resort to when we are threatened. This king only has one weapon, as he goes on to tell Pilate. “You say that I am a king. For this was I born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” This is the language, not of the coercive power that Pilate knows about, but the different kind of power that belongs to this kingdom Jesus is speaking of. It is the power of truth. 
Politics is often as uninterested in truth as Pilate was when he tossed the question into the air, “What is truth?” and left without waiting for the answer. But truth is everything in life, not simply truth-telling but truth-living, truth that means integrity, authenticity, trustworthiness. When the prologue to the Fourth Gospel says of the incarnate Word that “we beheld his glory, as of the only-begotten of the Father”, he is affirmed to be “full of grace and truth”. Or as he himself has said only hours before when he was with his disciples in the upper room, “I am the way, the truth and life” or as we might translate it, “the way that is the living Truth”. What confronts Pilate in the Praetorium, if only he could see it, is living Truth embodied before his very eyes, living Truth that has walked this earth and befriended humanity, living Truth that unveils the mystery of God, the mind and heart of Divinity. 
Pilate has no understanding of any of this, though I dare say he was perhaps haunted, if not by old tales of gods who disguised themselves as human beings, or if not, then by his own uneasy conscience. It’s true that Pilate half-believes that Jesus is innocent, sees through the protestations of the crowd, knows what his duty is. It’s also true that Pilate did not plan any of this, did not personally wish Jesus harm. Which only makes him all the more guilty, I think, of the terrible betrayal he commits in handing him over to be crucified. A better man than he, less compromised by his office, less inclined to please the mob, less afraid of the circumstances he finds himself caught up in would have acted differently. He would have acted not out of expediency but principle, not out of fear but justice, out of care and respect, even, for a fellow human being. 
“It is expedient that one man should die for the people so that the whole nation may not perish.” Those words taint the memory of Pilate as much they do of Caiaphas who uttered them. Between them, Caiaphas and Pilate, the emblems of religion and politics are the vice that hold Jesus tightly in their grip until he is nailed to the cross. It’s as true to say that politics crucified him as much as religion did. But it’s differently true. From early on in the gospels, faith leaders have had the consistent intention of having Jesus put to death because he is too great a risk to keep alive, this man whose words and works have threatened to bring the architecture of organised religion crashing down. 
With Pilate and the political system he represents, it’s more a case of events and how they conspire to bring about Jesus’ death. If you had heard Pilate’s account of what took place it might have gone something like this. Passover is always a volatile time. With myriads of pilgrims surging through the narrow streets of the city and emotions running high, you can never predict what is going to happen next. It took just a few hours for the mood of the crowd to turn ugly, egged on by religious leaders who were baying for blood. Events happened at a speed that took people by surprise. Politics calls for swift decisions at times like these, and because the stability of the body politic is at stake, it’s not principle but expediency that rules. What has to give in order for things to quieten down? A life has to give: that’s the answer, given up, laid down, offered on behalf of the people. And all in the interests of solving today’s problem as efficiently as possible.
Sometimes innocence is up against the politics of wickedness. I recently read the war photographer Don McCullin’s autobiography. You can see his shattering images at an exhibition at Tate Britain that is on at the moment. They make for difficult viewing, and the book for difficult reading. You are exposed to so much pain, so much needless suffering, so much that human beings have wilfully inflicted on one another in places like Viet Nam, Biafra, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Iraq. These are among the contemporary places of crucifixion. McCullin speaks of photography as “bearing witness” to human atrocity, seeking in his own way to uncover the truth of things. He writes about how he can never “un-see” sights that will haunt him for the rest of his days. Which is why he has taken to photographing Somerset landscapes to calm his troubled soul and find peace in his old age. 
More often, I think, innocence is up against the politics of muddle and confusion. A crisis happens. Leaders have to respond. With what insight, what capacity to think beyond the short term, resist the temptation of expediency and consider the larger narratives of history, that is the question every wise leader ponders. Failure to do this results in crucifixions beyond number. The fact that they are the result of negligence rather than ill-will does not make them less terrible to those who suffer them, or less culpable on the part of those who bear responsibility and hold the lives of others in their hands. The politics of our time are branded with this casual irresponsibility about consequences. Take Brexit. Take the proliferation of food banks and the rising tide of homelessness on our streets. Take the threats to the planet posed by the climate emergency and the alarming collapse of the world’s biodiversity. Muddle, confusion and negligence are written all over these crises and our lack of collective will to address them. 
The word crisis literally means “judgment”. It’s a word often on the lips of Jesus in St John, meaning not so much last judgment as the choice we must all make between standing for truth or for falsehood, light or shadow, wisdom or folly. “I came into this world for judgment” he says, “so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind”. And this is precisely what we see when we watch Jesus being interrogated by Pilate – or is it the other way around? - this clash of civilisations, this collision of two cities, this eternal drama of falsehood and truth. Pilate does not know it, but this crisis of the crucifixion is God’s judgment on him and on the politics of negligence he stands for. It is God’s judgment for all time on our great refusals when it comes to taking decisive action for the good of our neighbour and the future of our race and our planet. “I said you are gods” says the Psalm about failed human leaders, quoted by Jesus earlier in this gospel. “I said you are gods; nevertheless you shall die like mortals.” That day has come. It is here, at Golgotha. “Now is the judgment of the world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.”
I said yesterday that the cross is God’s judgment on the kind of religion that oppresses and destroys people. Today we see how it is also a judgment on the politics of wickedness and the politics of negligence. But judgment does not stand alone in God’s dealings with the human race. In the Praetorium, the judgment-hall, Jesus tells Pilate that he is bearing witness to a kingdom “not of this world”, that he has come into the world “to testify to the truth”. We are back to the grace and truth we behold in the Incarnation as we gaze upon the face of the Son of God. Back to tenderness and self-giving love. They too are a judgment upon us insofar as we refuse to contemplate a life based on those values. Could there be a politics based on grace and truth, on tenderness and self-giving love? 
That’s the question the cross puts to us in Holy Week. The future of the planet, the future of the human race depends upon it.  

John 18.33-40