Good Friday 2014: Crucifixion

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It’s Good Friday. The long road to Calvary has reached its awful climax and all we can do is watch in horror as the kingdoms of the world go to war with the Kingdom of God, as those who want Jesus dead unleash their most brutal, terrifying weapon.

Crucifixion was barbaric and brutal and slow – the word ‘excruciating’ means ‘to torture on a cross”. Its primary purpose wasn’t just to kill – after all, there are far more efficient ways to get rid of an enemy – but to humiliate, to horrify, to send a message. Crucifixion was all about communicating power – that’s why the Romans crucified rebels and revolutionaries, as the ultimate deterrent, as a means of stamping their authority on the world.

This didn’t originate with Rome. It’s said that, when Alexander the Great besieged Tyre, he crucified 2,000 of the city’s inhabitants, nailing them to crosses lined up across a beach. Woe betide anyone who crossed Alexander.

It’s no surprise then that Jesus was crucified. The Romans and the Temple authorities recognised the world-shaking challenge of his teachings, perhaps more than we do. After all, if we take Jesus at his word then everything must change, the status quo must be rejected, abandoned, cast aside as meaningless in the light if God’s holiness, love and grace. To some this is recognised as hope and salvation; to others it’s a threat to be overcome, a blasphemy that needs to be crushed.

And so those who perceived this threat engineered not just Jesus’s execution, but his utter humiliation and his irrevocable defeat. He was scourged and mocked and beaten, paraded to Calvary so weak that a random member of the crowd was drafted in to carrying his cross. And that very cross alluded to more than just physical death, it implied that Jesus would be rejected and cursed by God in accordance with the law of Moses.

Look at this scene again. Everything here speaks of defeat and death; even geography proclaims that Jesus is doomed as he stumbles towards Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. Jesus is defeated, both physically and spiritually. This is the end.

And yet…

And yet there are glimmers of truth here, breaking through in moments and mockery and realisation that, in the upside down world of Easter, feel prophetic. The ‘thief’ on the cross – more rightly understood as a revolutionary – realises, at the last moment, the futility of his actions and aligns himself with Jesus. The sign above the cross and the crown of thorns may be mockeries but they’re also true.

And the centurion who sees something that makes him proclaim that this is the Son of God? He becomes a symbol of God’s triumph on the cross; the power structures and the tools of intimidation used by this world aren’t just defeated, they’re transformed.

Crucifixion was one of empire’s greatest weapons. But we no longer fear the cross, we see it as a symbol of hope and salvation. We don’t commemorate Good Friday as the end, but as part of a transforming, resurrecting cycle that climaxes a couple of days later with a garden and an empty tomb. The power of death and hell, of evil and compromise and oppression is shattered at the very moment they appeared to have won.

But first there were the nails, the spears, the jeering troops. We can be resurrected, but often with pain and never without change. God’s grace costs us nothing, but that’s not to say a price wasn’t paid. The pain of Good Friday was real.

And yet Sunday is still on the way.

Maundy Thursday 2014: Treason (John 13:18-30)

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When did Jesus know that Judas had turned traitor?

It’s hard to discern from the gospels, partly because it’s hard to get a grip on Judas’s motivations. Was he in it for the money? Was he a nationalist who wanted to force a confrontation between Jesus and the authorities? Did he finally get tired of listening to teachings he disagreed with? We don’t know, and a thousand and one theories and apocryphal texts don’t make things any clearer.

But Jesus knew, and that puts a scandalous slant on the story of the Last a Supper and washing the feet of the disciples. It’s not just the fact that a king kneels to serve his servants, controversial as that may be; no, here we have a king serving his betrayer, which is far more tragic and horrifying.

Our ideas of grace and love sometimes only extend so far. Embracing the broken and the lost is one thing; extending that to those actively plotting against us is something else entirely. What are you doing Jesus? At least tie Judas to a chair so he can’t go and sell you out.

But no; he washes Judas’s feet. He shares the Passover meal with him, and the implication is that Judas had a place of honour – it sounds like he’s sitting next to Jesus, which means that the Son of God is intentionally sharing a meal with a traitor.jesus said love your enemies – this is him living that out. It may even be the greatest example of that philosophy – after all, this betrayal came from within. This betrayal was personal.

This is not how we live. It’s alien, the idea that Judas should be here, among the Twelve, among all the other disciples who went out and performed miracles in the name of Christ. It’s not right. It’s not fair.

But this is Easter, and at Easter the rules lie broken in the shadow of the cross. The king rides a donkey. The traitor receives fellowship. ‘Tis mystery all, the immortal dies. And death? Death no longer has the last word. There are moments throughout the Easter story when we have to push aside our instinctive human reactions and see things like the washing of Judas’s feet not as crazy or tragic but as the coming of God’s kingdom.

Amid the blood and horror of Gethsemane and Golgotha, the kingdom comes; the Son takes his throne. And this is expressed through strange moments we struggle to understand. But that’s why grace is a scandal – it offends our sensibilities, yes, but is that because our sensibilities are forged by Earth more than they are by Heaven?

Judas walks away from the Last Supper and John makes it clear that the night has come. But this is not the end – a new day starts at nightfall; a new order is being born. A traitor is loved and, In this, the kingdom comes ever closer.

No Stumbling Blocks: Disability, Autism and the Church (Leviticus 19:14)

World-autism-awareness-day“Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD”

Leviticus 19:14 is one of those verses that you’d hope was unnecessary. The idea that someone would deliberately trip a blind person, or exploit someone’s deafness, is reprehensible and offends our sensibilities. Don’t put stumbling blocks in the way of the blind or wheelchair users or those with autism or…

Parenting autistic children is a whirlwind of emotions – love, compassion, joy, frustration, anger, exhaustion, happiness, doubt, occasionally all within five minutes. It’s the invisible stuff that most defines autistic life – always knowing where the exits are, always building extra time into itineraries to make room for the epic putting on of shoes, always having to be one step ahead of your child’s individual quirks and traits and obsessions. People don’t see these things, the battles and the bargaining and the UN level diplomacy that it often takes to get out of the door and into school, McDonalds or Church.

That last one is important. Having an integrated view of disability in church has pastoral implications. If members of a congregation are deaf, preachers need to stand where they can be lip-read. If congregants are blind, maybe notices need to be spoken rather than printed. How easy is it for a wheelchair user to get to communion? How often do we use video clips with subtitles? Is the music too quiet? Too loud? Who decides?

These questions need to be asked, and there are never easy answers because need is individual. And that’s fine, because this is about community and compassion and an ongoing dialogue that reflects God’s heart for the most vulnerable. Asking these questions is an opportunity and a gift.

Take autism as an example. Many people on the ASD spectrum have sensory issues – they’re sensitive to noise, for instance, or may have an extreme reaction, positive or negative, to various tactile sensations, and if you’re a parent of autistic children you’re constantly aware of these sensory needs.

So maybe there are unacknowledged ways in which being more aware of our sensory environment can enhance worship. After all, a church service is all about creating a sacred space in which we can worship and receive from God and so exploring that environment with all members of our communities is important. Again, ask the questions: maybe a more structured, even liturgical, service would be helpful. Maybe there are ways we can use touch and smell and taste in worship. Maybe messy or café style church is good for kids who struggle to sit still, or maybe a bit more structure is good for everyone.

None of these things are right or wrong, they’re going to differ depending on the needs of individuals at any given time. Disabled members of the community aren’t just passive observers who have programmes done for/to them, they have a voice and needs and gifts that need to be encouraged and put at the centre of church communities.

So let’s not be nervous. Let’s not be exclusionary. Let’s open the doors, remove the stumbling blocks and embrace the diversity of God’s kingdom.

For a Time Like This: Purim and doing the right thing (Esther 4)

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There was a time recently when I should have helped someone in need but didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I was totally polite and friendly, not arrogant, and so I was able to delegate the situation to someone else without looking like a complete swinebag. It’s always easier when you can do that.

But the moment has lived with me ever since. It exposed my hypocrisy and excuses and tendency to take the easy option. I can rationalise it – other people are often better placed to help, I don’t know the full situation and therefore don’t want to risk opening a can of worms, I don’t know what the heck I’m doing – but the fact remains, someone needed my help and I didn’t give it.

Today is Purim, the Jewish commemoration of events told in the Book of Esther. Long story short – Queen Esther, at great personal risk, rescues the Jewish exiles in Persia from genocide. It’s a raucous celebration, full of noise, gift-giving, dressing up and, in some case, getting incredibly drunk.

But the story of Esther has got mixed up with my failure to help, and so Esther 4 has become the most convicting part of the narrative. Here Esther is revealed to be the one person in the Jewish community in a position to prevent mass murder. She’s scared, sure, because one wrong move means her execution, but nevertheless she does what she’s got to do. Because, as her uncle reminds her, “Maybe a time like this is the reason you became queen in the first place.”

I have no idea if, in another time and place, I’d’ve supported Martin Luther King or insisted on having the front seat of the bus reserved for me; if I’d’ve supported an abhorrent dictatorship or been swept along with it. In one sense it doesn’t matter; the here and now is what counts, not some authoritarian parallel universe.

“Maybe this is why you’re here.” Not necessarily to save a nation but to redeem a moment. To take a stand, to say the right words, to say no words at all but to weep and embrace and be present. To refuse to participate in cultures that wound and demean. To lend a mobile phone or to make sure your mates all get in a cab at the end of the night. To try to make the world better and promote hope and holiness, even in the smallest ways.

Recently I failed. But I’m not Esther; the fate of a nation is not in my hands. And there are many more days on which to get things right.

Lent 2014: Ash Wednesday (Psalm 51)

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It’s been a while since I’ve seen a street preacher, especially one that fits the stereotype. Maybe they’ve gone out of fashion, those wild-eyed would-be prophets, loud of voice and high in volume, each one carrying a hand-painted sign proclaiming a single word.

REPENT.

Nowadays those signs have faded from view; you just don’t see them as much. Some of them have mutated into marquees and hang outside churches. It’s probably safer that way. Besides, ‘repent’ is a word only church folk use, sometimes for good reason, other times as a way of shaming those who are already scared and hurting and vulnerable.

Ash Wednesday‘s traditionally a time of repentance, a way of entering Lent with honesty – yeah, I’ve screwed up, I admit it, I’m sorry. And I’m not into shaming or yelling about the indiscretions of others on the street, but I know that there are times I need to admit my guilt and actions and apologise, to confess to both God and those around me.

Yeah, even for things no-one knows about. Like hurling abuse at tailgaters the other day.

Psalm 51 is a traditional reading for Ash Wednesday. It’s King David’s hymn of confession – here’s a man who slept with someone else’s wife then committed murder to cover it up. He’s pouring out his heart and guilt to God, almost as an offering. After all, he knows a ritual sacrifice isn’t going to cover it, God’s more interested in his heart.

But it doesn’t end there. We sometimes think of confession as a guilt trip, but often it’s a moment of release. Stop carrying around the baggage of your wrongdoing, stop running from your past.

Turn around.

That’s what ‘repent’ means, ‘to turn around’. And looked at in that way, there are so many metaphors we can use – it’s the moment we head back home, the moment we start a new journey, the moment we return to God.

Because that’s what Lent’s all about, a journey towards an empty tomb via a cross. Rebirth, resurrection, new life, all these things… But we have to turn towards them; something has to die before it can be reborn.

I was going to talk about how sometimes the church needs to corporately repent of how it props up and creates systems and attitudes that hurt and oppress others. I still think that’s true, but I’m a part of that church, and I can yell at the system all I want, but it won’t change anything, because I’m as broken and guilty and as loved and wanted as anyone else in God’s eyes.

The change starts with me turning around, facing a new direction, running back towards God. Look at the Psalm again; David prays that he would change and be forgiven before he prays for his city. Somehow he knows that our hearts and our structures are all connected, and transformation starts with individuals.

No; the transformation starts with Easter, with a specific individual; with a cross and a garden and death defeated in ashes. This is the message of Easter; that forgiveness and a new start are both possible. Maybe today’s a good day to do a u-turn and start a new journey.

(By the way, I’m having an eye operation tomorrow. If anyone fancies sparing me a prayer feel free…)