About Me

My photo
Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

A Dark and Dreadful Death

This is the sixth in our series of sermons on St Mark’s passion narrative. Throughout Lent we have walked the via dolorosa with Jesus. Today we have arrived at its awful destination: Golgotha, crucifixion, darkness, desolation and pain. It is a world away from Palm Sunday with its hosanna acclamations and royal expectations. If ever you needed a reason not to trust a crowd, it is Palm Sunday. For look what has become of this king! The mob has bellowed for his crucifixion. He cannot, will not, save himself from this destiny, St Mark’s three fateful ‘musts’ that have pointed to this journey’s end. Today, on this Sunday of the Passion, we contemplate him as the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.

If we are honest, part of us does not know what to make of him hanging there. The trouble is, we know this story too well. We know, or think we know, what lies beyond the end of it, which is next Sunday’s theme. We also know how the other three evangelists tell it and they colour our reading of St Mark. If we only had this first among the gospels, it would both appal and baffle us. We would be baffled because Mark does not explain why the innocent Son of Man should undergo such suffering. We would be appalled because Mark does not spare us the agony: the darkness that falls on the scene, the desperation of this man’s last cry, the hopelessness of this death. And worst of all perhaps, he endures all this alone, taunted and mocked on every side, deserted by his friends, abandoned by God. This is a narrative of dread. We should tremble to read it.

Let me explore some of the themes in this part of the story. The first is the darkness. Forget about eclipses, even though they are recent memory this year. Mark’s darkness is altogether deeper than a mere shadow. It’s the darkness of judgment in our lesson from Amos which Mark quotes earlier in the gospel in a famous apocalyptic passage. ‘In those days after that suffering, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and that stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken’ (13.24-5). Jesus is speaking just before the passion narrative begins. He says that the kingdom of God cannot come until there is an utter collapse of the present world order: the great stones of the temple will be toppled, human communities and relationships will disintegrate, the entire cosmos will fall in an instant like a house of cards. Mark expects us to remember that saying, so that when we hear of the sun’s light failing in the middle of the day, we recognise what it represents. It is the end of the world, and it is the end of Jesus’s world. He must be extinguished like the sun. He must collapse and die as everything dies round him.

That is dreadful enough. But my second theme is darker still: Jesus’s last word from the cross. Was ever a cry more desperate and more desolate than this awful cry with which he dies? Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? We must tread carefully here, for we are on holy ground. Our Lama Sabachthani crucifix in the north quire aisle captures something of it: the figure of Jesus whittled down to its bare essentials like the skeleton of a dead tree, his back arched in agonising pain. ‘Was ever grief like mine’ he seems to say to us. But this is more than physical suffering. There is a godforsakenness of the soul as the world ends for him and his existence is snuffed out. ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ The quotation is of course from Psalm 22, one of the psalms like 69 that so profoundly influenced the way in which the evangelists shaped their passion stories. These psalms end on a note of hope that God does not forget his suffering children and will bring them to a place of deliverance and thankfulness. Does Jesus anticipate the rest of the psalm when he cries out in its opening words, as if he can envisage his own resurrection? I doubt it. I believe that as the abyss opens up beneath him, he takes to his lips the words no doubt learned from childhood that so aptly echo his despair. God has handed him over, betrayed him. He has turned his face away. He may cry, but there is no answer. Elijah will not come to save him.

At the instant of his death, an extraordinary event takes place not far away from Golgotha. This is my third theme: ‘the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom’. For the evangelists, this was remembered as deeply significant on that terrible Friday afternoon. But what did it represent to them? The ‘veil’ hid the holiest part of the temple where only the high priest was allowed to go once a year on the Day of Atonement. Does this violent tearing symbolise the passing of the old religion with its worn-out dependence on rituals and ceremonies? For now a new and living way to God is opened up through the blood of Jesus.

And Mark sees this as another scene in the apocalyptic drama acted out on the cross. Like the darkness at noon, like Jesus’ wrecking of the money-changers’ tables in the temple precinct, the rent veil stands for judgment on Jerusalem and its religious institutions. The old must be swept away before the new comes. When Mark wrote, probably in the 60s of the first century, the temple was about to be destroyed by the Romans. The unthinkable would happen. Was this not a sign of the end of days? In his description of the tearing of the temple veil, Mark uses a word he has already used early in his Gospel. At Jesus’ baptism, he says that the sky is ‘torn open’ as the dove descends and the voice from heaven speaks, and Jesus announces that the kingdom of God is at hand. The rending of sky and curtain is linked to a new world order we call the kingdom. But this can only happen if he drinks the cup we heard about early on in this series, this cup that will not pass from him. He must drink from the pressed grapes of the vine-press of the wrath of God. If he is to save the world, he must be utterly crushed.

What strange work is set before us in Holy Week at Golgotha! But what do we need to do as we watch these events unfold? Mark answers his own question. Forget the crowds shouting hosanna one day and crucify the next; forget the disciples who forsook Jesus and fled, forget the cynics who hail him as king, or the thieves and soldiers who mock him. There is an individual who stands out from the crowd and sees differently: the centurion. Maybe he is in charge of the soldiers who have crucified Jesus. Watching, this gentile Roman, this Jew-hater, this military man whose trade is power and cruelty, has an epiphany. ‘Surely, this man was the Son of God.’ Not just innocent, not just a good man, but the Son of God. The centurion isn’t a bystander now. He has become a participant whose words form the climax of the entire Gospel in one of the Bible’s great recognition-scenes. Mark sees this not just as one man’s confession of faith but as speaking for all humanity, for us as we acknowledge the majesty of this crucified Messiah. Bach took it this way when he gave these immortal words to the full chorus in his St Matthew Passion, the two greatest bars of music ever written. The only reason Mark is writing his Gospel is to make believers out of us, to draw us from being bystanders to participants as we become subjects of God’s kingdom and follow the crucified Lord. In last week’s preacher’s words, God renounces all power but the power of love, yet faith is possible in the teeth of suffering and ridicule. In the darkness, we can still believe.

Which means that we cannot simply watch him hanging there, but must summon up an act of faith that acclaims him as our Lord, and puts right our perspective on the world as God’s, with ourselves as loyal followers and subjects. To mould the church’s faith and our own in this cross-shaped way is the only reason we observe Holy Week with such care and devotion. By remembering in this way, we place the cross at the very centre of our lives, this everlasting sign of God’s ‘tender love towards mankind’, this saving death that sets us free to live again, this life freely poured out for us. Yes, indeed. ‘It is a thing most wonderful’.

Durham Cathedral, Palm Sunday 2015
Amos 8.9-12, Mark 15.33-41

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Lifted Up

I want to say something briefly about the paragraph I put in the notice sheet today. There was never going to be a good time to tell you that Jenny and I will be leaving Durham when I retire later this year. It will be hard to say goodbye to all of you and all of this when September comes. But that is not for another 6 months, and that’s still two equinoxes and many festivals away. As we celebrate 12 years here this coming Friday, St Cuthbert’s Day, we are deeply thankful for all that it has meant to live and work among you. Thankfulness is what matters most. That’s why we are here at the eucharist. So let me press on with my sermon.   

‘So must the Son of Man be lifted up’ says the Gospel.

In the New Testament, height is exhilarating and it is ominous.  As an exhilarating word, it means victory, kingship, or simply being near to God.  Jesus ‘ascends’ to take up his throne; he reigns on high; he is ‘above’ all things.  He is transfigured on a mountain; he ascends to his Father from a hill top; he goes up into high remote places to be alone and pray.  The New Testament calls him our ‘high priest’ who has passed through the heavens and has the skies beneath his feet. As an ominous word, however, height can stand for anxiety, threat, even evil.  When the devil tempts Jesus, he takes him up a high mountain, and then up on to a pinnacle of the temple. He has to climb up to do battle with Satan and triumph over evil. One New Testament letter refers to the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places; today’s reading speaks about the ‘ruler of the power of the air’. In the gospels, there is a turning point when Jesus must leave Galilee and ‘go up’ to Jerusalem to face suffering and death.  In the Old Testament, the Hebrews always ‘went up’ to the city and its temple for the joyous pilgrim feasts. When you fly El-Al to Tel Aviv you are ‘going up’: that’s what the name means. But for Jesus at Passover time, ‘going up’ will mean not living but dying. ‘I was glad when they said unto me, let us go to the house of the Lord’. But for Jesus it will be his death sentence.   

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus uses the image of height in a striking way.  ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up’. What is this ‘lifted up’?  Jesus goes on to hint at what it means. ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…’  He gave. In St John, this means the incarnation, the Word made flesh. But it means more than that. It means giving to the fullest extent, loving ‘to the end’.  And if we still do not understand, we need only go to the next occasion Jesus speaks about being ‘lifted up’ when, St John adds: ‘he said this to indicate by what death he would die.’  To be ‘lifted up’ means being crucified. It means toiling slowly and painfully up another of those gospel summits, the hill of Golgotha.  It means being strung up in the sight of heaven and earth.  It means ropes and nails and mocking soldiers and sour wine.  It means the passion of the Christ, his dying and death.  The phrase comes three times in St John’s Gospel, just as three times in St Mark, the Son of Man must be betrayed to sinners and be put to death.  These are the things we begin to think about as on this Refreshment Sunday, Lent moves towards Passiontide as inevitably as Jesus moves toward the cross.

In the crucifixion, Jesus’ ‘hour’ has finally come. At one level it’s the ‘hour’ of disgrace, dishonour. To be lifted up on Golgotha is, paradoxically, to be abased, like humankind in the psalm becoming ‘lower than the angels’, so low as to share the fate of bandits, thieves and murderers; a suffering servant ‘despised and rejected by men’.  Yet in this terrible degradation St John sees something else.  He speaks of it as a kind of splendour, a transfiguration. It’s the paradox only the eyes of faith can discern.  Jesus is ‘lifted up’, he says, because in his humiliation he is exalted as a king on his throne, the one who reigns in triumph on the tree as the ancient passion hymns put it.  St John speaks often about Jesus being ‘glorified’ – and if we were to ask him where most of all we see the glory of the only begotten Son, full of grace and truth, he would not hesitate to answer: here, at the cross, where love is poured out, where God’s self-emptying, begun in the incarnation, is complete.  So the last word of Jesus from the cross is very different from the other gospels.  It isn’t the desolate cry of St Mark, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’; nor the trustful, obedient prayer of St Luke, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’.  It’s a single word in Greek, tetelestai, ‘It is accomplished!’: a shout of victory, for the work of God is finished, and the salvation of the world is assured.

Today we stand near the threshold of Passiontide, and begin to contemplate ‘this thing most wonderful’, Jesus lifted up on the cross for the world.  What does God want of us as we tell once more this strange and wonderful story that will take us through Holy Week and on to the day of resurrection?  I think there is only one thing God wants of us. It is that we should recognise who and what we are by recognising who and what Jesus is.  I mean that we must acknowledge in a new way that we are the subjects of the Son of God who hangs there, and give him our allegiance as our king. Passiontide is a time to ask ourselves: what does it mean to be his disciples, to walk in the way of the cross, to bear witness to the man of sorrows? We need to recall the ashen cross on our foreheads at the beginning of Lent and how we were reminded to turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.  It’s time to look forward to renewing our baptism vows at Easter and reawaken the memory of how we were marked with cross when our Christian journey began.  As the earth is renewed at springtime, it’s time for us to renew ourselves as God’s people who belong to the King of love and truth.

We know that it was not the nails that kept him hanging on the cross, but only love. ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ ‘Rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us’ says Ephesians of God’s infinite grace towards us. So love must beget love, his love drawing out of us our belief, our faith, and most of all our love for the One who first loved us: On Mothering Sunday, this rich language carries a particular association: the sheer cost of begetting and birthing and nurturing the bundle of life that is each of us. Our mothers carry all their lives the marks of what it cost to bring us into the world. Julian of Norwich knew this when she famously said: ‘Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother; I am the Light and the Grace which is love, I am the One who makes you love’. ‘Love’s endeavour, love’s expense’ is what good mothering means in both its agony and ecstasy. This is how God is, in the wideness of his mercy.

So we gaze on the One we have pierced, high and lifted up in majesty on the cross; we place our hands in his wounded side, and are thankful: for ourselves, indeed, but also on behalf of all humanity, this ‘world’ that God so loved. We shall hear in next week’s gospel how Jesus says: ‘When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all people to myself’. One day that great expectation will be fulfilled. The cross seems a strange and lowly place to begin – or do I mean accomplish? - this project of salvation. But the weakness of God is stronger than mortals, his foolishness is wiser than our human wisdom.

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man’s mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.

Love has its reasons of which reason knows nothing but faith understands everything. For as Julian said, ‘Love awakens our desire, and then gives itself to us as its ultimate fulfilment and goal.’ And as we come to desire him with all our heart, we learn to be God’s people once again and give our life, our soul, our all to this ‘love so amazing, so divine’.

Durham Cathedral
Lent 4, Refreshment/Mothering Sunday, 15 March 2015 
Ephesians 2.1-10, John 3.14-21

Sunday, 1 March 2015

The Cup of Pain and Mercy

This is the second in our Lenten series of sermons on the Passion Narrative in St Mark’s Gospel, Christ our Passover. Today we find Jesus in the upper room eating the Passover meal with his disciples, and afterwards, in the garden of Gethsemane where, as he faces his last ordeal, he prays to his Father. This part of the story is framed by two of Jesus’ most portentous sayings. Last week’s passage ended: ‘the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born’. Now, the same word shatters the silent agony of Gethsemane, when the disciples are heavy with sleep. ‘Arise, let us be going. Behold, my betrayer is at hand.’

We heard last week how at supper, Jesus foretells that one of his friends will betray him. This word has already featured in Mark’s Gospel near the beginning, when Judas Iscariot is introduced as a disciple. Literally it means ‘hand over’. It is not by itself a sinister idea: in Greek, paradosis simply means that which is ‘delivered’ or ‘handed on’, the same as the Latin traditio: the church’s ‘tradition’ is what is received from others and passed on to the next generation. In St Paul’s own account of the last supper, he uses the same word: ‘I received from the Lord what I am handing on to you’.

However, in the passion narrative, two things give this innocent word a darker nuance. The first is that it is now carrying the sense of Jesus being passed over from one kind of power to another. Up to now, he has been obedient to his Father’s purpose as the one announced in his baptism and then his transfiguration as God’s Son, the beloved. In his freely-chosen submission to God, he lives out the prayer he has taught his followers: ‘your will be done on earth as in heaven’. But now he is handed over to a different authority, the ‘principalities and powers’ of this age who have quite other purposes in mind for the Son of Man. He becomes the passive victim, no longer the agent who goes around doing good, but now one who is ‘done to’ by others. And the first act of these others, as we shall learn next week, is to arrest him, not with the weapons of truth and justice but with violence, seized by bandits who are armed with swords and clubs.

But there is a bigger context here. For St Mark sees paradosis, this ‘handing over’ as nothing less than the act of God himself. Three times in the gospel Jesus has foretold that the Son of Man ‘must undergo great suffering, and be rejected… and after three days rise again.’ Why this necessity? This is the great mystery the Passion Narrative draws us into. The sheer length and detail of the story in all four gospels tells us that the evangelists saw the crucifixion as inescapably central to the gospel. It was not an accident. It was not mischance. It was intended all along within God’s purpose of redemption. ‘The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ says Jesus earlier. In the upper room, the cup of wine that is ‘my blood of the covenant poured out for many’ is the way to the promised future he has taught his disciples to pray for. ‘Your kingdom come.’ ‘I shall never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’ In the gospels, without the cross, there can be no kingdom, no future when God’s passover people will be freed from all that enslaves them. He must suffer. Es muss sein.
This cup of destiny features in both parts of today’s text. At the last supper, the cup of wine, along with the broken bread, is a living symbol of a death that is like the passover lamb. It heralds the day of salvation in which a redeemed people ‘pass over’ from death to life. It is both a memory and a future promise. It looks back with gratitude for a redemption that has been won, and looks forward to the kingdom of peace, that messianic banquet where people will sit and feast in the presence of God himself. At the passover meal, the cup is a symbol of a people’s destiny. And this is the destiny Jesus takes upon himself as the true Israelite looking forward to the long-promised day when God acts, and he drinks it anew in his kingdom.

And the same is true in the garden. After singing the passover hallel psalms of redemption, they go to a place whose name means ‘pressure’, Gethsemane where olives grew and their oil was crushed out of them. Here the life of Jesus begins to be pressed out of him as he faces the inevitable end that he has spoken about for so long. ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I will but what you will’. I said just now that for Mark, for Jesus, there is no question but that the passion is intended by God all along. And this is both the reason for his agonised prayer and the answer to it. Jesus does not dispute who it is who holds out this cup to him. Did he have in his mind Psalm 75: ‘In the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed’. These are the grapes that are crushed in the vineyard of the wrath of God. ‘He will pour a draught from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.’
Can this be what his Father is holding out to him commanding him to drink it and die? No wonder he begs God to take it away. St Mark will tell of how on the cross, Jesus prays Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, ‘my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ Gethsemane is the first stage of a terrible godforsakenness. Jesus takes upon himself the fate of the wicked of the earth from whom God turns his face away. They and he have no choice but to drink. As St Paul says, Christ became a curse for us. It is the hour of darkness. Nevertheless, in the midst of this mental and spiritual agony, Jesus’ obedience does not waver. He hears the echo of his own words: he must undergo this. ‘Not what I will but what you will.’ Once more it is the language of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘your will be done on earth as in heaven’. What he prays, and teaches us to pray, he himself lives out in his steadfast obedience. If ever the words of this prayer were fulfilled, it is here in Gethsemane: ‘lead us not into temptation’, or rather, ‘save us from the time of trial’, peirasmos, that ordeal at the end of days that makes or breaks the human sufferer.

In Gethsemane, Jesus tells his disciples: ‘sit here while I pray’. I see in this an echo of the story in Genesis that the evangelists will have had in mind as they told of the passion of Jesus. When God commands Abraham to take his beloved child Isaac and sacrifice him on a mountain far away, he tells his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’ Here is Jesus walking away from his young men, his disciples with only his trusted intimates. Does he hope against hope, does he pray that like Isaac, he will avert the fire and the knife while a ram caught in a thicket is offered instead? Here in Gethsemane, he learns that there is no escape. He too is a Son like Isaac, an only Son of a Father’s love yet that makes a terrible claim upon him. He too must ascend a mountain, Golgotha, be offered on that altar and submit to the will of the Father who requires this awful act of obedience.

So the cup means both pain and mercy. In being ‘handed over’ by God and man, by his submission to his Father’s will, by drinking of the foaming wine and becoming a curse, by his cry of despair in the darkness, by all that he endured, we are ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven. Because he does not refuse the cup the Father offers him, it passes from us. And yet, a cup is still held out to us. We remember it at every eucharist. Only now, it is gift. It is salvation. It is life. It is the promise of the kingdom. And even when the cost of walking the way of the cross is that we shall undergo our own Gethsemane ordeals, we know that they are endurable because Jesus has walked this via dolorosa before us and transformed the cup of destiny. George Herbert gives us the words in a meditation called ‘The Agonie’. It looks on the cross as the place where the cup of pain and mercy is filled to the brim and offered.

Love is that liquor, sweet and most divine
Which my God tastes as blood, but I as wine.

Durham Cathedral, Lent 2, 1 March 2015 (Mark 14.22-42)