April 21, 2011
Maundy Thursday Eucharist.
Exodus 12, 1-14. 1 Cor. 11, 23-26; John 13, 1-17, 31b-35
“Do this to remember me”.
Today we remember and give thanks for the gift of the Communion service.
What are we remembering?
We are remembering a life: the life of the one who revealed God to us, who was our window into God, yet who lived his life as a servant. That life of service is symbolised in John’s meditation on the Last Supper by the washing of the disciple’s feet. we remember that washing of feet which were dusty and smelly from walking outside was an unpleasant task which would normally have been done by the lowliest servant. I once heard a priest say that the nearest modern equivalent would be emptying bed pans. Yet at the Last Supper, we remember that it was Jesus, the Teacher, the Master, who did this menial task.
We are remembering meals: not just this last meal that Jesus ate with his disciples, but the many meals he ate during his life and the people he shared them with: Pharisees and rich members of the Council, family and friends, women of the streets, outcasts and crooked tax men. We remember he even dipped his bread into the same bowl as the man who was about to betray him and contribute to his death.
We are remembering a death: for the disciples as for us, never again would bread be broken, without the memory of his beaten and broken body walking through Jerusalem and hanging on the cross; never again would wine be poured out, without the memory of the blood flowing from his wounded head, hands, side and feet. Paul says: “as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”.
“Do this to remember me”.
So do we just remember, just look back?
The Last Supper may have been a Passover meal. The point of the Passover Seder was that the ritual was repeated to make every Jewish person present, from the eldest down to the youngest child, feel as if they personally were present at the Exodus, they personally had been freed from slavery. So that they personally would commit themselves to maintaining that freedom for themselves and everyone else.
The point of Holy Communion is that it becomes a New Passover, not just the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples, but the First Supper of the new age of freedom from sin and at-one-ment with God.
As we share the bread, we too become part of the body of Christ. So we commit ourselves to living a life like his – a life of service, a life which will remember and honour him.
As we take part in the meal, we commit ourselves to share as he did in his meals, to ensure that our political, social and religious lives become inclusive – to remember and honour him.
As the bread and wine are shared, we commit ourselves to doing as he did, to forgive and re-establish relationships with those who hurt and betray us – to remember and honour him.
As the bread is broken and the wine is poured out, we open ourselves to the possibility that we may be broken, we may be destroyed, we may have to die – to remember and honour him.
As we share in Communion, we remember and give thanks for the one whose gift of a life freely laid down brought healing to our relationship with God, and we give ourselves to do the same – to remember and honour him.
As we eat this meal we anticipate the coming of the Kingdom, the Wedding Feast of the Lamb and the resurrection to eternal life, opened to us by the life and teaching and death of Jesus – and we remember and honour him.
“Do this to remember me”. Amen.
April 17, 2011
Sermon for Palm Sunday Psalm 118, 1, 2 & 19-29; Matthew 21,1-11.
I don’t know if any of you are planning to be in London on Friday week to watch the Royal Wedding. I only did it once, for the wedding of Princess Alexandra in 1963! Somewhere at home I have a set of black & white photos that I took, which are the only memories I really have of the occasion, apart from seeing many of the Royal Family as they swept past my corner of Horse Guards Parade in their big shiny cars.
It’s not something I’ve ever done since. It was a great feeling at the time, but as I’ve got older I’ve got less keen on being present in large crowds on such public events. It’s too easy to get lost in that sort of crowd: not lost in the physical sense, but lost in the sense of losing control of emotions, and sometimes of common sense. And nowadays these occasions are almost always a magnet for groups bent on highjacking them for their own purposes, or causing damage to people and property, as we have seen from numerous protest demonstrations in recent years.
I’ve enjoyed sometimes being present in large groups of Christians for services – there is something about singing hymns, and receiving communion in a really large crowd that lifts the spirits and makes you feel closer to heaven. That’s the sort of atmosphere I imagine on that first Palm Sunday.
But what, I wonder, was it really like?
Although the story of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem on a donkey is told in all four Gospels, what actually lies behind the story remains a puzzle. When you hear the story read after hearing Psalm 118, as we did this morning, it’s very obvious that the psalm has had an influence on the way it’s been recorded. That is even clearer when you hear the citation from Zechariah 9, which Matthew has included in his version. Matthew is so keen to make every detail of Jesus’s entry fit the prophecy that he has Jesus riding on a she-donkey and her foal at the same time! (A physical impossibility, and a totally unrealistic scenario to anyone who’s ever tried to lead a donkey with a foal; it’s hard enough to get them to go in in a straight line, let alone ride them!)
As so often happens, the account has been written with hindsight, from the point of the post-Resurrection community, who believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah, and searched the Hebrew Scriptures for passages to support this understanding. In Matthew and John the citations are explicit, but they are there just under the surface in the other Gospels too. The Evangelists see the entry into Jerusalem on a donkey as Jesus’s way of proclaiming himself as the Messiah foretold by the prophet Zechariah, a humble Messiah with a message of peace, who would nevertheless free his people from oppression by foreign powers. They portray him as being recognised and welcomed by large enthusiastic crowds, acclaimed as ‘the Son of David’ (a royal title) and causing an upset in the entire city.
But there are problems with accepting the Gospel accounts as a record of what might actually have happened. Scholars tell us that, at this period, the Zechariah passage was not seen as a Messianic prophecy; it only became so when Christians used it to support their belief that Jesus was the Messiah, though not one who behaved in a way many of his contemporaries expected. If there had been that understanding of what entry on a donkey meant, and the whole city had been in the uproar that Matthew describes, then Jesus would have been arrested by the Romans that same day.
The great pilgrim festivals were times of extreme tension in Roman occupied Jerusalem, especially during the Procuratorship of Pontius Pilate. The Jewish authorities knew they had to crush any nationalistic demonstrations, or they risked a backlash which would destroy the fragile balance of power they had negotiated with the Roman authorities. Jewish writers of the time recount a number of incidents whenPontius Pilate reacted with severity to popular demonstrations, resulting in deaths and executions. The Jewish leaders would be quite prepared to sacrifice one prophet from the provinces to prevent any such incident during a major religious celebration.
So if we try to reconstruct what happened, when and why, on the basis of the Gospel accounts and biblical scholarship, what might we arrive at? If we’d been there what might we have seen? What might have been in Jesus’s mind when he entered Jerusalem?
Biblical scholars agree that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah. So his entry on a donkey wouldn’t have had that in mind. There is always the possibility that, although pilgrims usually entered the Holy City on foot, he used a donkey because he was tired, or unwell, or someone provided him with one. But Jesus (like the Old Testament prophets) sometimes did things as an acted parable, to make a point. His entry on a donkey, surrounded by the ordinary people from Galilee that he lived among and associated with, might well have been done to point the contrast between a procession of the Kingdom of God which he proclaimed, and one of the Roman Empire. God’s Kingdom was one where the poor were blessed and the meek would inherit, the sort of people who used donkeys as to carry goods and themselves; the Roman Empire was maintained by force and celebrated by triumphal processions of horses and chariots, weapons and captives and the booty of war.
All the Gospel writers place the entry into Jerusalem in the week before the Passover Festival. But many scholars think they may be telescoping together an number of events from different visits to Jerusalem in their account of Holy Week (just like the writers of today’s docudramas do for dramatic effect). The descriptions of Palm Sunday don’t fit very well with what happened at Passover; but they do fit very well with the rituals of the autumn festival of Tabernacles. On that festival the pilgrims approached Jerusalem waving branches of palm, myrtle and willow. Psalm 118 was recited during the approach to the Temple and while pilgrims circled the horned altar. Like Passover, it was a celebration which commemorated the liberation of the Hebrew people from Egypt; in the psalm the pilgrims are blessed as those ‘who come in the name of the Lord’ and they in turn shout ‘hosanna’, which means ‘God save us’.
Rather than disturbing the whole city, this incident may well have been of significance only to those who accompanied Jesus. He and his disciples might well have been part of a large group from Galilee, who would have been excited at the prospect of introducing ‘their’ prophet to the big city, a noisy and exuberant group. But as long as it did not pose a challenge to the religious authorities, or a threat to the Romans, no-one else would have taken much notice.
What did alarm the Temple authorities and eventually bring Jesus to the notice of the Romans was what the Synoptic Gospel writers say he did next, which was to go into the Temple and overthrow the tables of the money-changers. He couldn’t have cleared them all out, as the Gospels claim. The trading area of the Temple covered many square feet, and no one person or group of people could have destroyed them all. It is likely that Jesus was again making a symbolic protest, as the Old Testament prophets did, against the misunderstanding of the covenant faith represented by Temple worship, which placed the main emphasis on sacrifice and celebration, not on justice and righteousness.
But what he did, and what he said about the coming destruction of the Temple, and its replacement by a ‘spiritual’ temple, were a direct challenge to the political, religious and economic elites of Jewish society. In acting in this way Jesus did the wrong thing, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin were perfectly willing to sacrifice one person to save themselves and the Jewish people from a Roman clampdown. We can only speculate whether Jesus knew that his action would end with his arrest and death; but anyone with any sensitivity to the political realities of the time would have been naïve to expect any other outcome.
When we look back on something, we often see things in quite a different way from the way we did originally. When we look at the film of Charles and Diana’s wedding, we can’t feel the same optimism as we did at the time. We know how it all turned out. When we look back at the first Palm Sunday, we can never recapture the joyous anticipation of the Galilean’s entry into Jerusalem, whenever it took place; we know the story of the rest of Holy Week, as our Palm Sunday hymns testify; we know it ends badly. Our joy will always be tinged with dread.
But we also know about the resurrection, and so we look at the scene through the eyes of the Evangelists, and we too hear the people’s shouts as greeting Jesus as God’s Messiah. ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ means something quite different to us now from what it meant to those who shouted it on the way down from the Mount of Olives.
That’s one reason why I’m not too keen on Palm Sunday processions. Acting out the story, pretending that 21st century English people can feel like first century Jews just doesn’t work, and sometimes can be a means of avoiding the hard work that is necessary to tease out the many layers of meaning behind the story that the evangelists tell. Too often people come and take part in the joyful festivities on Palm Sunday and Easter Day, but avoid the hard realities in between.
And so often people get hung up on the donkey, especially trying to find a real donkey, as if having a real donkey somehow makes the whole experience more real.
It’s not about the donkey! It’s about the person who rode the donkey and what he was trying to tell us, in his life and in his teaching, about the nature of God, and what it meant to be committed to the Kingdom of God. It’s about how we live, how we serve, how we cope with political and economic reality in all its potential for evil, and how we can accept suffering and come through it to experience resurrection. It’s about looking back after the events and seeing new significance and new meaning in something that didn’t seem to be anything unusual at the time.
Palm Sunday is about starting Holy Week and the journey to the cross with Jesus – but always with God’s assurance that it leads not to death, but to life.
April 3, 2011
(John 9, 1-41)
We heard last week, in John’s story of the Samaritan Woman at the well, how our prejudices and preconceptions can get in the way of our being open to, and bringing others to receive God’s grace.
John’s Gospel gives us another story this week on a similar theme.
On the surface, the story is about the healing of a man who was blind from birth; but the accompanying dialogues make it very clear that what is really being discussed here (as so often in the New Testament) is spiritual blindness, and what can be done to cure it.
Spiritually, all of us are like the man in the story – born blind, because of the world we are born into. I don’t believe in the concept of original sin in the way it’s usually presented. I don’t think it has anything to do with the Fall, or the Garden of Eden, or sex. But I do believe in original sin as a description of the situation we all find ourselves in, born into an imperfect world, to imperfect people. A world where some societies and some people have more than their fair share of the world’s resources, and with a history of enmity between peoples which infects children from birth; with institutions which use power and violence to settle disputes and achieve dominance. It is extremely difficult to escape these influences and the blind spots they create in us; and it is almost impossible in our own strength to begin to live in a different way.
We may also be blinded to the humanity and the needs of others by our upbringing. However good our parents, however much they try, they are imperfect human beings like us, and all of us make mistakes which prevent our children growing into the complete human beings God meant them to be. All of us have blind spots which are a result of our upbringing.
Our blind spots are major road-blocks on our spiritual journey; but we have a choice about what we do about them.
First of all, we need to acknowledge that we are blind. Then we need to go and find a way to heal them, or at the very least, respond to offers of healing when they come our way. Healing may not come immediately – the man in the story went through several stages of belief in Jesus as a prophet, and as one sent from God, before he worshipped him as the Son of Man; but unless we know that we have blind spots the healing process won’t even start.
We also need to remove those things that get in the way of healing – our fear of coming into the light, being more comfortable in the dark, sticking to our prejudices and preconceptions. We also need to be ready to part company with those who don’t realise they have blind spots, or who are happy to remain with incomplete sight. The old proverb “There’s none so blind as those who do not wish to see” remains true.
The Pharisees in the story stand for such people. They were so committed to their spiritual blindness that they were prepared to call good evil – to pronounce that someone who was manifestly doing the work of God must be a sinner. That sort of blindness to the Holy Spirit at work continues today – in those sections of the church who maintain that no matter what good they do, some people will be condemned to eternal punishment because they don’t sign up to the right doctrinal formula. The leaders of the synagogue were happy to dismiss the views of those who were just ordinary members of their congregation, who were ignorant or who weren’t as holy as they thought themselves. Doesn’t that sort of thing still go in between some of the ordained leaders of the hierarchy of the church and the laity? Jesus warned us against ‘the blind leading the blind’; we still don’t always take notice of his warning.
Ultimately, the Pharisees in the story were so committed to their particular form of spiritual blindness that they threw anyone who challenged their view out of their fellowship. How often has that scenario been repeated in the history of the Christian church? How much is it still happening with the splits in the Church of England over the ordination of women as priests and bishops, and the attempts to enforce conformity in the Anglican Communion by the Anglican Covenant?
For those of us who have committed ourselves to the Christian faith, it is to Jesus that we must go to heal our blindness. We need to learn from him how to open our eyes to the Holy Spirit at work through other people, no matter who they are and what faith they profess. We need to learn from him about the real nature of the God we profess to believe in. Even the disciples, who had spent years in Jesus’ company, still thought of God as one who would strike a person blind because of their own sin, or their parents’ sin. People continue to ask “Why me?” when something bad happens to them, as though God sends illness or disability or natural disaster as a punishment for wrongdoing. Jesus points us to a world where sickness and disability and disaster, which happen because of the way the world is and has to be, become opportunities to show the love of God and give God glory by doing so. That is what it means to walk in the light, and to bring the light of God to others.
Helen Keller, who lost her sight at the age of 19 months, was once asked if blindness was the worst thing that could happen to a person. She say no; the worst thing was not to lose your sight but to lose your vision.
May the story of the healing of the man born blind inspire us today to go to Christ, and to allow his teaching to heal our blindness, so we may walk in the light and bring that vision to others.