Gardens and Gates (Matthew 19:13-14)

This morning at church, Easter was accompanied by a dedication service, a happy baby boy grabbing for the mic and being blessed in the name of Jesus. And as part of all this, the pastor quoted from Matthew’s gospel: “Let the children come to me.”

It’s not an Easter reading, not traditionally, but in other ways it’s something that’s deeply, intrinsically bound up with today. Because the disciples are driving children and their parents away from Jesus, self-appointed religious gatekeepers conspicuously jangling the keys to the Kingdom. Jesus, however, snatches that job from them, throwing open a welcome to those others would reject.

The Church sometimes acts more like a machine than a family, gears grinding too many of the faithful between their teeth. We build walls and guard the gates and set up metaphorical machine gun nests upon the parapets. The gatekeepers are real, their swords are being sharpened. And yet Jesus still calls people to him, hanging out in gardens, cooking fish on beaches, eating dinner with sinners. Each of these welcomes is a transformation, a liberation, a resurrection.

So Jesus meets Mary the marginalised. He meets Peter the denier. He’s raised to life and in that first dawn of the new creation he doesn’t go to temples, he doesn’t shake hands with priests, he seeks out the ignored and the forsaken,  the broken and the lost,  the victims of racism and misogyny, ableism and homophobia. He appears on the margins, he seeks the mourning, he walks through locked doors and brings hope, not through the righteousness of saints but through the wounds torn through his wrists. In doing so he sabotages the machine, because he threw himself into the gears; never forget that the gatekeepers sought to keep out God himself.

Easter embodies grace, bleeds forgiveness, resurrects hope. Nails pick the locks on our gates and build a Kingdom out of the broken. And the gatekeepers can dance with joy over this, or they can keep feeding the machine. But machines rust, they erode, they crumble; resurrection grace, nail-pierced love, Calvary’s redemption? They shine forever.

Other posts for Easter 2017 are here.

Stations: Dismas

dismas-crossBut while Jesus sets out towards Calvary’s hill, another man is beginning a similar journey. We remember this man as a thief, a bandit, but it’s possible that’s a quirk of translation and that he was just as much a political prisoner as Jesus himself. What you call this man depends on how you view his cause: if you think the Jews had a point and were right to violently rebel against Rome, then he’s a freedom fighter; if you think, say, stabbing tax collectors and collaborators to death in a dark alley somewhere is indefensible then maybe he’s a terrorist.

Either way, he’s facing death, heading towards a cross and nails just like Jesus. We don’t really know his name, although tradition knows him as Dismas; we don’t know what brought him to this point, what got him into criminality, how he got radicalised. His life, like thousands of others, was lived in parallel with those who’d go on to become more famous, never intersecting ’til the last possible moment.

His anonymity is the power of his story. Two thieves hang either side of Jesus, one spitting curses, the other seeking mercy, two responses to Jesus in the face of infinity. Dismas, either through second-hand knowledge or the insight of a dying man, recognises the King beside him. Maybe, for a criminal fighting for every gasp of breath, the Crown of Thorns was a prophecy.

“Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”

And Jesus, lungs screaming, turns to Dismas and promises that they’ll walk side by side into a different world, whispering hope through the pain.

Dismas is immortalised in that moment of grace, his image part of so many Easter scenes, his name even running through cult films. His hanging body comes to be an embodiment of mercy, forgiveness overriding everything so that while we don’t know the nature of his crimes, we do know where he found himself after taking that final walk.

And as we watch, grace threads its way around the nails and the wounds and the grain of the wood as Jesus looks at the man next to him and remembers.

The other posts in this series can be found here.

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 inaugurates 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?

The other posts in this series can be found here.

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?

The other posts in this series are here.

Dispatches from the Ploughshares Factory: Issue 2

Somewhere in Shropshire there stands an angel born of knives, 100,000 surrendered weapons transformed into art and beauty and memory. The sculpture was made by artist Alfie Bradley, using knives confiscated by over forty police forces across the UK. Britain doesn’t have much of a gun culture, but knife crime remains a lethal problem. The angel stands as a monument to lives lost, a beautiful sculpture, yes, but also disturbing, reminiscent of something from Game of Thrones or Doctor Who. Somehow that’s appropriate; we can reject the tools of violence and war, turn them into things of beauty, but maybe the sharp edges that remain remind us where the art came from, reminds us that peace in a broken world is an ongoing process, an ongoing battle rather than something to take for granted.

Because peace is something worth fighting for; after all, it’s so easily taken away. We saw this only a few days ago, when a white supremacist gunman opened fire on worshipers at a mosque in Quebec. Six people were killed.

And so, last Friday, rings of peace surrounded Canada’s mosques as people stepped forward to defend the right to worship without fear. “Houses of worship are sacred and must be protected,” said the organiser, Rabbi Yael Splashy,  but they’re sacred because they’re full of people made in the image of God. We need to protect that inherent dignity rather than allow us to be consumed by demonised language, dehumanising rhetoric.

Of course, dehumanisation is an attitude born out of seeing people as problems to be ‘fixed’ rather than individuals of intrinsic worth. Just look at how much money is spent on keeping the homeless at bay rather than helping them; defensive architecture is big business. In Manchester, spikes were placed in a doorway to deter rough sleepers. Humanity wins through, however and the spikes have now been removed because locals kept covering them with cushions. A similar thing happened in Liverpool, when an anti-homeless ramp was turned into a tea stall. I see that and I see hope, but I also remember the Homeless Jesus statue, and hope and apathy in an awkward dance.

A different Kingdom breaks through, shines out of the cracks, and swords are turned into ploughshares. And yet we can’t stop, can’t relax; harsher visions soon take hold and peace needs to be proactive. But still we proclaim a better world; the ploughshares factory remains at work.

The original post in this series is here.