Stations: Terror

It may be a plane crashing into a tower block or a car driving through pedestrians. It may be a fanatic with a gun or a suicide vest, it may be waterboarding in a rendition centre, it may be a burning cross erected on someone’s lawn. Whatever form it takes, we’re never free of violence in the name of politics and religion and ideology.

Jesus is in the hands of the authorities, and he needs to be shown his place – or rather, everyone else needs to be shown their place. That’s what this is all about – crucifixion is the Empire’s ultimate deterrant, a public spectacle to quash rebellion. The vicious, inhumane torture received by Jesus was all part of the branding, all part of the theatre. This is tantamount to a lynching, a state-sanctioned act of terror.

There’s an issue of identity here. The violence is to demonstrate Jesus’s weakness, his impotence in the face of power. It’s intended to subvert the values of the people watching, to take control of the narrative. Jesus isn’t tortured to get a confession or to extract information, he’s tortured to stop his ideas taking hold and to demonstrate the superiority of one worldview over another.

The violence isn’t just physical – Jesus is mocked mercilessly, in an attempt to break him before death. That’s why he’s given a purple robe, a symbol of royalty. That’s why a crown of thorns is forced onto his brow, piercing in both pain and mockery. They think they’re undermining his whole message.

And yet that message endures, because the mockery points to the truth, and in doing so reveals a king who stands alongside the abused, the broken, the wounded and the terrorised. He stands not with the executioners but with the crucified, and through the mystery of the Trinity, God lies beaten, mocked, bruised and scarred and yet not beaten, healing in the heart of the agony.

As I write this, a terrorist attack has taken place in London and people have died. And there’ll be many voices shouting how to respond and about how to exercise power. And while these questions need to be asked, pause a moment: pause and remember those killed, and in the midst of those thoughts and those prayers, see Jesus alongside the bleeding, the wounded and the dying. See him there and remember how the Kingdom is shaped by its wounded King, our God-with-Scars, not by terror, not by fear, not by hatred, not by rage.

And now Jesus picks up his cross and in agony sets out upon his final walk.

Always Listen to Old Ladies (Acts 6:1-6)

So, the early church – shining example of ecclesiastical perfection or not?

It’s easy to romanticise those first few years after Pentecost, but chapters like Acts 6 point to a far more complex situation. Here we read that, while the Hebrew speaking widows in the church were being looked after, Greek widows were getting overlooked in the distribution of food. This cultural faultline was a problem that festered away under the surface until eventually the apostles had to jump in and sort things out. But why did it get to be a problem in the first place? Because no-one was listening to the Greek speakers? Because no-one was listening to the women? We can admire how the apostles dealt with the situation, and that’s fine, but why was no-one talking to each other in the first place? Why were vulnerable people being overlooked over something as important as food?

Maybe this particular organisational problem was caused by everyone taking their eyes off the basics; no-one was looking out for a whole group of Christians, part of their own extended spiritual family. There were hungry people out there who weren’t being fed, and it seems that even the apostles had been dropping the ball. You’d’ve thought they would have been on top of things – after all, these were the guys who had picked up leftovers after the feeding of the five thousand and the four thousand. But hey, even then they only counted the men who ate; They weren’t so accuate about the women and children.

So yeah, the apostles eventually sorted out the logistics of distributing food to a whole bunch of widows who were at risk of starving. They had fixed an important problem, but take a step back: someone had to listen to those widows. Someone had to be relationship with them, someone had to advocate for them. I don’t know, this may be heresy, but I reckon the apostles found out about this problem because of some old lady, who’s already sorting out all the church’s cooking and cleaning in the first place, finally cornered Peter at the end of a meeting and wouldn’t let him leave until he promised to get the whole thing sorted.

(Always listen to busy old ladies. They know more about what’s going on than you do.)

(Don’the you think it’s odd that one of the people chosen to distribute food while the apostles focus on preaching the Word is, in the very next story, arrested and executed for preaching the Word? Maybe it’s harder to separate all these things than we might think.)

Problems begin when everyone’s busy having debates about, say, the mechanism for feeding vulnerable elderly people, but no-one’s actually doing the cooking, no-one’s loading up the van, no-one’s getting the food out there, no-one’s in relationship with the people they’really serving, no-one’s even doing the washing up. And by the time the gears of bureaucracy finally turn, there’s already been too many scared elderly people wondering where their next meal is coming from.

For the church to truly be the church we need to constantly have our fingers on the pulse of our communities. We can’t get so caught up in theological debates and organisational maintenance and political campaigning that we miss when someone living next door doesn’t have enough to eat. Because that’s where Jesus wants us to be, and sometimes the first to realise that aren’t priests or CEO’s.

It’s all those busy old ladies.

Stations: Conspiracy

Alt-Truth, Alt-Facts, fake news and tinfoil hats. Suddenly authority is a purely subjective concept and now it feels like up is down and left is right. The abuse of power wears us down, cynical maneuvering leaves us demoralised, and the engines of the world grind on.

The mob seizes Jesus, and he first becomes a victim of religion. An ecclesiastical kangaroo court the breaks its own rules and looks for false witnesses in order to condemn him for blasphemy, but the outcome’s never really in doubt – they’ve been looking for an excuse to get rid of him for months. He challenges their theology, he challenges their power, and so he’s lined up with all those before and since who asked the wrong questions, who sinned the wrong sins, who spoke out against abuse and paid the price. Ossified faith will work to crush the Son of Man himself.

Later Jesus finds himself before the 1%, the establishment, becoming a mild curiousity to the king who killed his cousin. Herod’s comfortable with the whole situation, seeing Jesus as less of a threat and more of a jester. He wants Jesus to show him a miracle, because he’s king of these parts and kings demand to be entertained. When Jesus won’t perform he’s mocked, an expensive purple robe thrown across his shoulders. He’s mocked with wealth, his identity belittled, and when the king gets bored he sends him away. The squabbles of the little people really aren’t his concern. But hey, it buys him a little more kudos with Rome.

Then on to Empire, the State, Pontius Pilate, a man who got where he is by moving in the right circles and now he’s there, he just wants a quiet life. He doesn’t particularly want to execute Jesus, he can’t find a legislative reason to end the man’s life. A couple of times it looks like he’d rather debate philosophy: “What is truth?” he asks, but he already knows the answer – it’s whatever he says it is. Pilate may see Jesus as innocent, but he’ll still treating him as an imperialist, a claimant to the Crown.  None of this is true, at least not in Pilate’s conception of the world, but he’s a politician, he needs to play the angles. And so he makes one last attempt to wash his hands of responsibility for this whole mess: he hands Jesus over to us.

Yes, us. He asks us to choose between Jesus and another leader, another worldview, another ideology. The mob makes its choice – some are paid off, some are silently scared, some are True Believers. But the end result is that Jesus is condemned. Because it’s not just the edifice of religion that becomes toxic, it’s not just those living in ivory towers who mock those they see as beneath them, it’s not just politicians that make decisions based on fear and expediency, it’s all of us. And the innocent pay the price.

And as we get closer to the Cross, things don’t get any better.

Stations: Malchus

So the mob moves in and panic erupts and Peter draws his sword and suddenly the servant of the High Priest is clutching his ear. First blood spills and Malchus screams and Peter prepares to strike again, because let’s face it, he wasn’t aiming for an ear, he was aiming for Malchus’s head and missed.

It’s not an unusual scenario, lashing out when angry and cornered and scared. Every fist fight, every beating, every glassing in a pub car park,  every shot fired in panic, every indriscriminate carpet bombing… Someone lies bleeding on the ground, someone else vows revenge. Violence never ends anything.

Jesus, of course, calls for this to stop, tells Peter to put away his sword; they haven’t needed weapons in the three years so they’re not going to start now. After all, when Jesus rode into town a week earlier, he did so on the back of a donkey,  not waving from the back of a tank.

But it doesn’t end there, can’t end there. Jesus cannot leave Malchus bleeding in the grass, moaning with pain. The Cross inaugerates a Kingdom built on peace and grace and defeats the violence of the world. For this to be true, Malchus cannot be mutilated in the name of Jesus; the Cross of Christ can’t give his followers an excuse to crucify everyone else.

And so Jesus reaches out and Malchus is made whole again. And Malchus fades from view at this point, but this is an invitation to reflect on how he felt, how he responded to an act of grace from the revolutionary he was there to arrest. In the light of one last miracle on the road to the Cross, does Malchus see the sword swinging down, only to be replaced by an act of compassion from an enemy and a rewriting of all the rules, even as Jesus is dragged away towards trial?

Feeding the Five Thousand: What happened to the leftovers? 

So the feeding of the five thousand is a pretty well known story: Jesus miraculously multiples five loaves and two fish to feed a massive crowd. It’s a Sunday School classic. But here’s my question: what happened to the leftovers?

We learn from the story that, after everyone had eaten their fill, the disciples collected twelve baskets of leftovers. But even if those baskets were lunchbox-style things, that’s still a lot of food going to waste. Those leftovers may have been binned, I guess, or the disciples might have dived in next time they felt peckish. Or, as I’d like to think, they took those baskets into town and helped people out – after all, there were plenty who lived hand to mouth at the time. The same conversation can be had about a couple of other miracles: John 21’s miraculous catch of fish, for instance, or the feeding of the 4,000.

That last one gives us a hint as to where we can go with all this. It’s a parallel story to feeding the 5,000 but this time there are seven baskets left over. This isn’t a coincidence – the twelve original baskets represent the tribes of Israel, while the seven baskets represent the gentile nations. These miracles are royal metaphors, the Messiah inaugurating a different Kingdom, a Kingdom in which, among other things, the hungry would be fed. These baskets existed because everyone had eaten their fill.

So. Today millions face starvation in South Sudan in a world where obesity kills more people than hunger. It’s a problem if you retrieve perfectly good food from a dumpster but we accept it being thrown away in the first place. Food waste is something we need to tackle; what we eat – or don’t eat – is a justice issue. From a Christian prespective, the blessings we receive should always be used to also bless those around us; the edges of our harvest should always be up for grabs. It’s one of the ways we show which Kingdom we’re living for.

It’s easy to hear the great old stories of faith and miss the finer details, details which nevertheless point to how applicable they are to life in the here and now. We ignore them at our peril; we’re blessed to be a blessing, and even our leftovers can be sacred.