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?

Stations: Judas

 

Judas – The Departue by Ghislaine Howard

 

As Jesus kneels praying the prayer of his life, another man pulls on his jacket and prepares to commit treason. His name, his deeds, even his payment have become icons of treachery and Betrayal,  and although his motives remain murky, their outcome remains the same – no-one ever names their baby ‘Judas’.

He walks through Gethsemane at the head of  a mob, and every betrayal in history is pulled towards this point; every lover who slept with a best friend, every fifth columnist trading secrets, every CEO who raided the pensions of his employer, every knock on the door in the middle of the night as an informer puts down the phone, every parent who returned the love of their children with cruelty and abuse. Betrayal comes to us so easily, and sometimes we convince ourselves that it’s for the greater good; maybe Judas though that provoking a confrontation between Jesus and the authorities would be for the best, maybe he felt a Messiah who loved his enemies could only be a fraud, maybe Judas simply believed himself to be the hero in his own story.

Or maybe he was just in it for the money. It’s hard to say.

Loyalty, however, that’s something else. It takes work to be loyal, to resist the temptation to take the easy way out, to just follow orders. It’s hard not to become a monster if all your life you’ve lived among them. I can’t say I have sympathy for Judas, but I’m also not convinced he set out to become history’s greatest villain; in some ways he’s the banality of evil, selling out the Son of God for silver then hanging himself when he couldn’t handle the guilt. It’s an all too human act of betrayal, with all the terrible consequences that entails.

But wait, listen to what Jesus says: “Do what you came to do, friend.” He looks at his betrayer and calls him ‘friend’, an act of grace and maybe even forgiveness just before the mob closes in and the swords are drawn. And that one word, ‘friend’, sits at the heart of the story, the idea that Jesus welcomes us back, the idea that the everyday betrayals we see all around us could, in the shadow of the name ‘Judas’, be prevented, could even be forgiven, even if the consequences are rightly about to hit us like a freight train.

Judas takes his silver and walks away, but we stand in his footsteps, decisions to make. Do we take the money and run? Or do we take the harder path, steadfastness on the road to the Cross?

Stations: Gethsemane

Despair stings sharply in the middle of the night. The darkness, void and yet full of fear and uncertain futures, is a claustrophobic absence of light, never ending,  a mockery of eternity.

The journey towards Calvary begins, in some ways, in Gethsemane. Knowing what’s to come, Jesus retreats there to pray, even as the despair begins to bite. He knows that things will end in violence, in pain, he knows that one of his friends is now on his way to commit the ultimate treason, and so he walks through the garden, praying from the depths of his soul. He wipes his brow and the back of his hand feels wet with blood. This is sorrow; this is despair; this is stress and anxiety and fear and all the things we’re told that, as good Christians, we shouldn’t be faithless enough to feel. That dismissal, that abandonment, is just another blow; too many of us sleep, like the discities,  and miss the agony of those before us, the stories of worry and fear that surround us.

Still Jesus prays, desperate prayers, desperate for a Plan B. He knows what’s coming, knows that he’should about to meet the Cross and the nails, the scourge and the punches of men just following orders, the disappearance of those who’d been at his side for three years; now his prayers bounce off the ceiling, or at least a canopy of leaves. Later he will find strength to take the next step, and the next, and the next, the walk of a condemned man towards his execution. But let’s pause here, in Gethsemane; don’t sleep, don’t turn away, don’t theologise. Pause and reflect, reflect on the spiritual suffering of a young man weeping in a garden alone, reflect on how this is also the suffering of God in some ineffable way, reflect on how God now weeps with us and knows us in our darkest times.

The journey starts here, more in despair than hope. How like so many of our own journeys; how like so many of our gardens.

Guerrilla Gardening and the Gospel (John 20:11-18)

noli-me-tangere-ca-1500I’ll be honest with you. I’m not a gardener. I don’t have the patience or the aptitude and my favourite plants are dead and waiting for me on a plate.

But I’m fascinated by guerrilla gardening, a branch of street craft in which public spaces are turned into ‘gardens’. This isn’t the formal nurturing of city parks or green spaces, it’s a radical attempt to reclaim public spaces for everyone, a mission to bring beauty to places where a lack of care or investment has turned them into blighted concrete wastelands. And I see the reports of this happening and something nags at the back of my brain, and while I wouldn’t see turning a roundabout into a sea of sunflowers necessarily as prophetic, I do wonder if there’s a spiritual dimension to all this, a theology of radical urban gardening.

There’s a moment towards the end of John’s gospel – just a moment – when Mary Magdalene looks at Jesus and doesn’t see her friend, she sees a gardener. And while we tend to see this as her being blinded by grief and loss, there’s more to it than that. It’s a case of spiritual face blindness. Prophetic mistaken identity.

Pastor Brian Zahnd tells the story in a sermon of being in an Italian art gallery and trying to guess which passages from the Bible inspired the various paintings. One picture depicted a man and a woman, the man dressed in a sun hat and carrying a hoe, and Zahnd struggled to figure out which story this represented – until he realised it was John 20. Because while the agricultural uniform looked a little out of place, in reality it’s no more bizarre than all those pictures of Jesus carrying a lamb and acting as a shepherd. Jesus is, in fact, a gardener.

Guerrilla gardening is all about reclaiming the world around us – abandoned spaces, neglected places. It’s about cultivating beauty where previously there was nothing but garbage, growing life where the ground was barren. And in doing so, those spaces blossom and flourish, they bring new life. And what makes this so powerful and inspirational is that it’s not happening in carefully tended gardens, it’s not even the expansive random beauty of a  wilderness,  it’s in parking lots and waste land and at the bases of lamp posts. Dead spaces are resurrected, and when you witness this in action, if you have the eyes to see, you can see something of the gospel in all this.

Mary mistaking Jesus for a gardener ties the whole Easter story back to the book of Genesis, when the original gardeners failed in that role and ended up in exile. Now a greater Gardener rises up in the springtime and starts tending those in his care. It’s the reclamation of Eden, the end of the exile, the return to the Garden. The explosive blossoming of new life and new creation we see on Easter Sunday is also seen wherever the Kingdom breaks through into the world around us. The Gardener is still at work, but he doesn’t just work in the places we reserve for him, he doesn’t just work within the limits of a walled garden. He goes to work in the dark places, the broken places, the abandoned places, the barren places.  And in doing so he brings new life to the dead places, just as he’s been doing ever since he broke out of his borrowed tomb and bumped into Mary.

Jesus is a gardener. His garden is our lives. Let’s remember that every time we see a corner of a parking lot turned into an oasis, every time we see wild flowers bursting through the cracks in the pavement.