Saturday, 7 April 2012

Easter Sunday - what the happy ending might mean for us.

Acts 10:34-43
Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’

John 20:1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Throughout my own spiritual journey and life as a priest I have met two kinds of people who call themselves Christians. On the one hand there are those who start from a position of self confidence. They are the ones who seem to be in the know and sure of where they stand. They know what is good and what is bad, what is permitted and what is forbidden, and they seem to be sure of their spiritual standing.

And I wonder whether that describes Simon Peter up until the small hours of Good Friday. He seemed sure of where the Lord was going, even though it earned him the rebuke, ‘Get behind me satan’. He had boldly proclaimed that he would follow Jesus even if it would cost him his life.

It wasn’t until he was actually confronted with the truth that his foundations were sand that he crumpled. It took a slave girl challenging him about being a disciple of Christ and his denial before he was broken.

And maybe another example of this kind of person was St. Paul. So sure was he of his spiritual viewpoint and the inherent wrongness of the spirituality of these new followers of the Way, these people who proclaimed a crucified Messiah, that he began to travel throughout Palestine in order to have them arrested.

It wasn’t until he was confronted with the truth on the road to Damascus that he, too, crumpled. It took Jesus showing him the depths of his arrogance for him to realise the truth.

So perhaps Peter and Paul are good examples for us of how we can be so self-confident of our spirituality and our place within God’s kingdom, and yet be so very wrong. These are the first kind of believers in God, the ones who start from a position of self-confidence.

And then there are the other type of believers, the ones who aren’t sure that they should really be there, that surely someone else more important, more self-confident, more at ease with Jesus should be taking the lead.

One example of that was the Samaritan woman at the well at Sychar, the woman who had lived with five husbands before the man she was currently living with when she encountered Jesus. Clearly she was lacking in self-confidence, having gone to the well to draw water in the middle of the day when it was so very hot and she could therefore be sure that there was no one else there to bully her.

Except Jesus was there, wasn’t he. And their encounter changed her so that she took her testimony to the whole town and many believed in Jesus because of her.

And then we get to the woman who is amongst my favourites of all the followers of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, as we remember her at this break of day. Mary’s not a big player in any of the Gospels. She doesn’t appear much, but we do know that she was someone who had been deeply troubled, out of whom Jesus cast several demons. Some have even referred to her as Mad Mary.

And what we find in this story is that in her bitterness and grief at the loss of perhaps the only man who had ever believed in her, she goes to the tomb for the sunrise, signalling the end of the Sabbath. In some accounts she’s there with others, waiting to anoint Jesus’s dead body, but maybe this story suggests that she was there on her own. Why? Perhaps because she felt she had nowhere else to go.

Grief makes us do strange things. But when she gets to the tomb she finds the stone has been removed. So what does she do? Remember, Mary is one of those without self-confidence, so she runs off to find someone important, Simon Peter and the beloved disciple. They come running back with her and do what? They confirm her story. The grave has been desecrated and the body stolen, and then they leave her, on her own, weeping.

No one stays to take care of Mary. And so she who has nothing, and has no self-belief, collapses in floods of tears. And it is she to whom Jesus reveals himself. She is the one, not the self-confident disciples, who is the first person to receive the good news that Jesus had risen from the dead. And she is the one who is told to go and tell the disciples that the Lord is risen.

And so the message to us is I think quite simple, and yet we miss it over and over again. Jesus chooses the ones without self-confidence to be the ones who proclaim the good news, and he does it over and over again. And they are the ones who have to learn to bear the responsibility for sharing the Gospel. Meanwhile the ones who think they know it all have to be humbled before they are ready to receive it, and ready to share it.

This seems to be a theme throughout the Bible, and it’s one that I cannot help but return to. Over and over again God chooses the weak to shame the strong, and he chooses the foolish to shame the wise. How many people who start from a position of self-confidence do you know who have become effective ministers of God’s love?

Then think about the ones you know who despair at their failures and who yet seem able to communicate over and over again the simplicity of the message that they have discovered God loves them. And for the self-confident there seems to be the need for some kind of crisis to show them who they really are before they are of any use as servants of the Gospel.

So if you come here today wondering at your own failings, faults and insecurities, looking around at the important people who seem to run the whole show, then welcome; welcome to you who are to be given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. But be prepared, because Jesus has a knack of saying to us, ‘Go now, and tell them that the Lord has risen.’ He is risen indeed. Amen

Good Friday - Through their eyes part two.

Reading 1
Luke 22:39-46
Jesus Prays on the Mount of Olives
Jesus came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground. When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’

There are moments in life when we realise we have run out of choices. It could be the space between breaths as you see the car pulling out of a side road ahead of you, when your heart skips a beat as you see a child begin to fall off their bike, or the final breaths of a loved one. For Jesus those moments are drawn out, and the fate that he faces is beyond all that we can imagine.

He is Light from Light and he is choosing to let himself be extinguished purely because the Father has asked him to. The eternal one, through whom all things were made, was offering himself to be unmade, to taste death for us; for you, for me.

In our mortal lives the fear of death touches all of us without exception, particularly in the months after we’re bereaved. Yet we know we’re going to die, it’s a part of what it means to be human. But for the Son of God death is surely an impossibility.

And for the one who is perfect he is going to immerse himself in the depths of the worst humanity has to offer. In some way, beyond what we can conceive, he is going to allow himself to be connected up to everything that everyone ever as or will do wrong. Every petty thought, every perverted act, every dismal failure, he, the perfect one, will connect himself to that.

Is it any wonder that he sweated tears of blood? The humanity which he cradled in his divinity was about to accept the suffering of all humanity, and maybe of all creation. Think for a moment about the suffering you carry in your own self. Think of how unbearable it can sometimes be.

Remember the anger, pain and wretchedness that scar our lives from time to time? Remember how unbearable that can be for just ourselves? Jesus was being asked by his Father to take on not just yours, but everyone’s.

When we remember that, when we dwell on it and let its truth seep into it becomes easier to understand why the Son of God should be afraid. And it is also easy to understand his frustration with his disciples who seemed oblivious to the needs of the one they followed.

Reading 2
Luke 22:54-62
Peter Denies Jesus
Then they seized Jesus and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance. When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, ‘This man also was with him.’ But he denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I do not know him.’ A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, ‘You also are one of them.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I am not!’ Then about an hour later yet another kept insisting, ‘Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I do not know what you are talking about!’ At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.

Peter, not you. Why did it have to be you? It could have been only more bitter to Jesus if it had been his mother herself. From the moment we saw the fear in your eyes when you told Jesus he could not be put to death, and he said those bitter words, ‘Get behind me Satan’, we knew that even you, with all your words and all your boldness, would fall.

It will be a long while before you forgive yourself this, yet even though the Lord’s words seemed cruel - to warn you of what you would do - it was necessary for you to go through this shame, to show you that you were not who you thought you were.

How else could he have shed light on your inner nature? The Lord could have let you go on for the rest of your life, believing in a false picture of yourself, seeing light where there was no light, seeing bravery where there were only empty words. But that would have been a greater cruelty, for you would never have faced the truth about yourself. The wound would have festered.

And how about us? What illusions do we carry around about our own importance? How does our picture of ourselves compare with everyone else’s? Remember the Lord’s words that the first will be last and the last first. Where do we naturally see ourselves as standing in this queue? How do we treat others that we think of as having a lesser social status?

Do we demean them? Do we look down on others, maybe just for poor driving or keeping us waiting in a checkout queue? Do we think of someone as a lesser human being if they’re fumbling around with something we understand easily. If so then it is likely that we are of the same mind as Peter, that we are ones who see ourselves as more important and better than we really are.

Only when we are honest with ourselves can we begin to understand our motivations and put to death Peter’s denial of the Lord within each of us.

And the Lord says to us, ‘When you deny me, I am looking for you. See my penetrating eyes. I know you. You have crumbled yet within you there is still the rock you can be. But first you have to know who you are. First you have to see yourself in the light.’

So the question is - do we see the world through Peter’s eyes?

Reading 3
John 18:33-19:3 - Mike
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’

After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, ‘I find no case against him. But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ They shouted in reply, ‘Not this man, but Barabbas!’ Now Barabbas was a bandit.

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and striking him on the face.

Have you ever felt manipulated? You know what the right thing to do is, but everyone wants to do the other thing. I wonder whether Pilate was scared? Or whether he just didn’t understand? The Jews believed in one God, a foreign idea to a Pagan ruler, and Pilate might long ago have given up trying to comprehend them. But this man standing in front of him was causing more public interest than he was comfortable with.

I imagine that Pilate would have called Jesus before him, expecting some kind of rabble rouser, someone pretending to greatness. Instead what he finds before him is a weary man who has been up all night being questioned by angry priests and yet who answers his questions with clarity, wisdom, elusiveness and mystery; a man whose innocence couldn’t be clearer if it was shouted from the rooftops. Pilate can see that there is no reason for him to take this any further and simply wants to be rid of this distraction.

But at the same time there is a sense that he worries what may happen if he doesn’t appease the Jewish leaders. He doesn’t want to execute Jesus, and in another of the Gospels his wife warns him of a dream she had about Jesus. Yet at the same time he can foresee trouble if he lets Jesus go, and in a volatile city, with a volatile people, at a national festival, he cannot be seen to lose control.

And so he does the easy thing and fobs the choice off on to the Jews themselves. Who do they want released, Jesus or Barabbas, the criminal. The crowd, egged on by the religious leaders, choose Barabbas and Pilate lets them have their own way, thinking that his conscience is clean. But is it?

How often, when faced with the right choice or the easy choice, do we take the easy way out? Pilate thought he’d avoid the guilt but I wonder, did he really? Or did this just had to the mounting dehumanising of his deepest self that the abuses of power bring to those who start with the best of intentions?
How often do we try and save face? How often do we not quite tell the whole truth because we’re scared of what people will think of us? How often do we mask incompetence with authority? Pilate asked the question, ‘What is truth?’ and if we’re honest we know the answer, but do we live up to it? Are we really people of truth? Are we really different from other people?

So the question is, do we live like Pilate in the world?

Reading 4
Mark 15:33-39
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’

What have we done? We have killed God. Surely such a thing has never before been dreamt of, that a people chosen by their God should turn on him and kill him, and that God would allow them to do that. Why didn’t he destroy us? We killed God. We killed God and God let us do it.

With the soul of the universe wreathed in tears the Father can no longer bear to look upon his Son. We have drained him of all that he is. The humanity that he had taken on has become a stain too dark. The Father turns away, not because he is ashamed but because he fears for what the brightness of his love would do as he watched his Son carry the weight no one should ever have to carry.

And this work remained incomplete until the Father turned away from Jesus, for unless the Son was truly separated from the Father this work cannot be accomplished. Unless the Son truly tastes death there can be no life for us. And this pain of love casts a dark shadow over the land. The darkness in the depths of our hearts is like a bitter hunger that feeds on the separation, and humanity believes it finally has its triumph. But even though the Father turns away from his Son, it is only that he may turn us back from ourselves.

In this time between times, from the deepest darkness to the return of the light, when God allows humanity to do what it has always wished, finally to kill God, he will let us. Only when our anger at God, at each other, at ourselves, has been spent can we begin again. But you, O Son, surely this knowledge is too brutal, that even your Father must turn away from the Son of Man.

O my people, what have I done to you?
How have I offended you
How have I offended you?
Answer me! Answer me!

Holy God,
Holy and strong,
Holy and immortal,
Have mercy upon us.

Throughout this week we have wondered again at what the crucifixion of Jesus means for us as we have pondered what it meant for others. As I said last Sunday, each time we come to this part of the year I see it with new eyes because the mystery of what Christ accomplished by dying for us transcends any systematic theology that we can attach to it.

This year, for me, it has hung on just a few verses squirreled away in the letter that St. Paul wrote to the Colossian church. Chapter 2: 13-15 reads like this:
And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

If you’ve never read this letter, go away and do so as it is a hidden treasure. But for me, this week, St. Paul has captured in these words much of what we have seen. On Monday night we saw Simon the leper and Mary of Bethany. Through Jesus these two, who were the cast offs of society and religion, were instead included as friends of God.

On Tuesday we considered how Judas was confronted with his own jealousy of those who were in the inner circle around Jesus, and here we see what I have come to think of as ‘The Desolation of Light’. Everyone has a choice when confronted with Jesus. We can go with him but it means walking this path, of the selfless laying down of what we want, day after day, to do what God wants. That’s the way of the cross.

Simon the Leper and Mary could be a part of that because the Light exposed their desire to be a part of who Jesus was. But Judas, when exposed to the Light was made desolate by it. He could not lay down what he wanted for himself, and so was destroyed by the very light that he sought to snuff out by betrayal. At some point in our lives God confronts us with our true selves. He shines the Light on to us, and then we have a choice.

We can shed our own desires and walk in that path, or we can challenge it. Inevitably if we follow that second route it will leave us in a place of desolation because the Light of Truth is so powerful that we see ourselves for what we are. Judas refused the Light and killed himself because he could not bear what he saw.

Peter saw himself and dissolved into bitter tears when he realised what he had done, but he turned back from his desolation to restoration. Pilate’s wife had some idea of just how dangerous this light was going to prove to be and urged Pilate to step away from it. And the religious leaders, like those who are always concerned for their own reputations, were exposed for who they truly were.

As St. Paul put it, Jesus publicly nailed their motives to the cross, making an example of them for all the world ever to see, and their moment of triumph turned out to be desolation in the face of the Light of the World. For every one of us when we seek to be important for our own ends we need only to look at the public spectacle of the cross and be humbled.

And so it comes to us. And I think we have three choices, based on the different people with whom we have walked this Holy Week. For some of us we are like Simon the Leper or Mary of Bethany. We already feel wretched because people have expended energy in words or actions telling us how useless we are.

When we come to the Light of Jesus what we actually see is how God sees us, with eyes brimming with tears at what others have said about us or done to us. The first time we glimpse that, and see the tears God has wept over us, then we perhaps breathe out for the first time in years as we begin to understand that Jesus came firstly for us.

Or maybe we’re like the Peters of this world, desperate to follow Jesus but so concerned with our public status that we are unable to live out the challenge of the Christian way of laying aside the self. When the Light is shone on us, as for Peter, it is a light that causes desolation when the Light exposes our true nature to us, and presents us with a choice.

Will we allow ourselves to be restored and to change, or will we build up a wall of self-righteousness around us, preserving us from the Light of truth? Peter took the first action - the hardest way, but it was the second one which describes the path to utter desolation.

And that was the choice taken by Judas, Pilate and the religious authorities. So concerned were they with being in charge, with being in the right, that they could not permit the Light to touch them. And so instead of being a Light of salvation, of death and restoration, the Light of Christ showed them up for what they were really like and nailed their motives to the cross.

And so that is how it is. When we allow the Light of Christ to shine on us we can see ourselves as forgiven, or as sinful in need of forgiveness, or simply as those who will turn away from the desolation of discovering how much we really need forgiveness, and just walk in the other direction. Christ, by his life and by his death, calls us to lay aside our desires for the greater good of the kingdom of God, and asks us to follow him. Will we?

Reading 5
Matthew 27:59-61
When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

And so we end, as is fitting, with Mary Magdalene, rendered powerless by the actions of men, waiting unknowingly to be remade into the first apostle, the one who will be sent to the other apostles.

What must it have been like for her? She was powerless. For maybe three years she had followed Jesus; been at his side, been a trusted woman, a trusted disciple. And then, at the end, after all she has done she is powerless, as a man about whom we have never heard comes and takes away the body of Jesus.

Those of you who have lost a close friend, someone on whom you depended, someone who in some way had set you free to become who you were always supposed to be, will have some inkling of how bereft she would have been. And so along comes Joseph. And he is well meaning and caring but somehow he just kind of takes over, quietly moving the women to one side.

Put yourself in Mary’s shoes. A man who perhaps you barely know, has the power to go to Pilate and ask for the body. And Mary feels powerless, no decisions for her to make. And he takes the body of Jesus to his own tomb, and Mary has no say in the matter. And he puts the body of Jesus in the tomb because he thinks that’s the right thing to do, and Mary can only watch as someone else takes charge of what, in her own mind, she should have been doing.

And then he just goes. He leaves. And Mary Magdalene and the other Mary just slump to the ground. It has all been done for them. They, unimportant women, though dearly loved by Jesus, were just shunted out of the way whilst men got on with doing all the important jobs.

We know what comes next. We know who Jesus chooses as his first witness to the resurrection, but Mary Magdalene, our Mary, knew nothing of that. She was simply powerless. And maybe that’s you. For the last week we have thought of all the mistakes that people made in their dealing with Jesus, of the sins and the betrayals. And Mary, Mary did nothing wrong.

She was just, as always, at the bottom of everyone’s pile. Mad Mary. Pushed to one side. Forgotten by everyone. Except she was not forgotten by the Lord. And if Mary’s story is your story, then neither are you forgotten. We are a part of the upside down kingdom where the first are last and the last first. Mary was last in everyone else’s eyes, everyone, that is, except God’s.

Maundy Thursday : Church hierarchy - how did we get it so wrong?

1 Corinthians 11:23-26
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

John 13:1-17, 31-35
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.’ For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

The last time that I had the pleasure of taking Holy Communion to the residents of Mockley Manor, our local care home, there was a degree of excitement amongst the staff, to the extent that the care manager was beginning to pull her hair out with the way the staff were so distracted by their new arrivals. What could cause such disruption you might ask?

In the corner of the main sitting room, where we have our communion service, were two glass boxes. They were very warm and in one was a number of eggs and in the other were about half a dozen brightly coloured and very fluffy chicks. They were so sweet, drawing on everyone’s emotions with their ‘cheep cheep’ sounds.

And during the course of the service another egg hatched in the incubator and we were treated to the sight of another chick taking its first faltering steps into the world. Now you can see why there was so little work being done. The staff and residents were caught up in this miracle of new life and everyone was taking it in turns to hold and stroke these beautiful fluffy yellow chicks.

It’s hard to believe, when they’re that small and that cute, that very quickly they begin to turn on each other to form a social hierarchy where chickens of higher rank will quite literally peck those of lower rank, and from there we get the term, ‘Pecking order’. The dominant chicken pecks the one beneath who in turn pecks the one beneath and so on.

We feel sentimental about them because they’re all soft and fluffy, but the reality is that they are putting energy into deciding who is boss. And it’s not just the chickens. Have you ever watched closely when cows are herded from one field to another? There is a very clear pattern of hierarchy and dominance.

It’s established by the way two cows will approach each other. There will then be some form of threat followed by some form of physical contact and possibly even fighting. After that the pattern of dominance and subordination will have been established and will be observed in all forms of social interactions, and it is usually found that the dominant animals will lead the grazing and will often be first into the milking stalls where they produce more milk.

Being at the top of the chain is evidently good for them. And so it continues throughout the lives of all social animals; wolves with their alpha male and female, lions, chimps and of course, humans. Social hierarchy has a very clear reason for existence: it brings order and once you know where you are on the scale you know how to function there.

Which is fine if you’re at or near the top of the hierarchical ladder. Like the happy dominant cows who produce more milk, if we’re achieving well and rising up the social or employment scale, gradually becoming more dominant, then so we become more at ease and more content.

But to get to the top of a hierarchy means that someone else has to be pecked. Someone else has to be trodden on. There are only a limited number of places at the top, and if you want to be going up, then someone else must be coming down

And so we come to John’s account of the night Jesus was arrested, and what is so very significant about John’s narrative is that, in contrast with the other three Gospels which focus on the last supper, in John’s account there is no mention of bread and wine. None whatsoever! Of course we have no idea why that was exactly.

It may be that John was well aware of Mark’s account, there are certainly hints that was the case, and simply wanted to include something else to give a bigger picture. But I suspect there was more to it than that. John wrote a very detailed meditation of Jesus’s life and the prominence of this story of foot washing indicates its importance.

Jesus’s actions are deliberately chosen to completely upset the social ordering that humans, like all other animals, indulge in. He acknowledges that he is their Lord and their teacher. There is no false modesty but a simple honesty. He is quite clearly the dominant male in their hierarchy and they are there because they are following him.

And there are plenty of stories throughout the Gospels of how the disciples then fought amongst themselves to establish who was next in the pecking order. Peter, James and John would have been next since they were the ones with whom Jesus is recorded as having as his closest supporters, the ones he took with him when he wanted just a small group around him such as at the transfiguration.

Several times we hear of rows erupting about importance and so finally, on the last night of his earthly life, Jesus takes demonstrative action, and the writer, John, believes that what Jesus was doing was of such great importance to the infant church that he recorded this as the final sacrament rather than the Lord’s supper.

And so Jesus, the Lord and Rabbi, the one who was clearly at the top of the hierarchy, shed his outer robe, tied a towel around himself, and came to wash their feet. And you can see just how upsetting this was with Peter declaring that he could never let Jesus perform what was actually the menial act of someone who was a servant or a slave, someone who was right down at the very bottom of the social order.

And then Jesus tells them that this is what they must all do for each other, and in so doing the Son of God upsets the balance of all nature and calls us to step outside what comes naturally to us as animals. He has given us an example to follow that goes way beyond doing the shopping for someone elderly in the village, or putting a cheque in an envelope in response to a request from a good cause.

Jesus told us that we are to create a community of equals. The beliefs in being superior or inferior are not meant to be a part of the life of Christ’s church. Authority is redefined by a towel and a basin, and this is meant to be the normal practice for us, and I have to ask, is it?

On Friday evening I went to the installation of the new vicar at St. Patrick’s. Now I always feel awkward at these things, just as I did on this occasion, and in reading this passage I realise now why that is. Just as in my own installation here the service ran counter to the Gospel.

Firstly the clergy had special reserved seats right at the front. There were people standing at the back for the whole service - those who hadn’t got in early enough to find a seat, whilst we were treated as important guests, those at the dominant end of the church hierarchy, who had seats set aside for us with the best view. And of course we were all wearing robes, to show again our importance.

And then the priest, as it was with me here, is treated with great honour as a new leader, someone who has come to bring order and direction, and I find myself thinking, ‘What on earth are we doing?’

The very first action of a new priest should be to wash the feet of everyone present. The clergy should be the ones who are standing at the back, and the church cleaners, the ones who put out the rubbish for you and make sure there’s always loo roll in the toilet even though you don’t see them do it, they should be the ones at the front in the special guest seats.

How did we get it so wrong?

And it has happened over and again in ministry that when I have tried to move people into positions of responsibility I have had other people say to me, ‘Have they earned it?’ Of course they haven’t! That’s the whole point! That’s the Gospel, that the ones who are at the bottom don’t have to begin to assert some kind of dominance in order to get some kind of recognition and gradually work there way up.

That is anti-Christian. John gives this story such prominence in the life of Jesus that it must be a defining feature of what church life is like. Yes of course we will have people who are more able and gifted in some things than others. But it does not, in any way, make them more important.

This requires such vigilance in ourselves because we are animals of this planet. Our natural instinct is to try and live the patterns of dominance and submission that so many of us have been marked by in our lives so far, and Jesus says, ‘It must not be so amongst you. Love one another as I have loved you.’

So if Jesus, the Son of God, the hands through whom you were created, if he should wash your feet, then how much more should we wash each other’s feet. And when we are tempted to try and rise up the church social hierarchy, let us instead remember the image with God having a towel around his waist, and do our best to destroy all vestigies of that hierarchy as being of the world, the flesh and the devil.

It was not his way, and it must not be our way. You and I were sent as servants, to lay down our lives as he laid down his. Amen

Holy Week - Through the eyes of those who saw it - Part One

Monday of Holy Week
Mark 14:3-10
While Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred days wages. and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’ Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them.

The first thing that this story tells us is that Jesus was a welcome guest in the house of an untouchable, a leper called Simon. Can you imagine how his disciples would have felt on edge? Who is the least popular person that you know? Who is the one that all the important people shun? That’s the house where you’ll find Jesus eating and drinking. Will you be there with him? And if so, will you be joining in, or will you be standing around the edge somewhere, hoping no one actually see you there?

Or maybe it’s you. It may be that tonight you sit here with the burden of being someone who at some point in your life was the one left on the outside. It is a burden which sits timelessly on the surface of our unconscious, waiting for a quite moment, when there are no distractions, to remind you of the times when you were the one that nobody wanted.

It’s a voice that can be unceasing and which can shape all that you do. Its words have the power to mould your actions - ever to appease others or maybe to confirm what they said about you.

What must it have been like for Simon the leper to have God to dinner?
In the midst of what you think of yourself, what kind of affirmation would that be?
How would you respond?

Maybe your response would be like the woman with the alabaster jar of ointment.
Imagine how long she had saved - almost a whole years wages.
Think of that. How much would that be to you?

So grateful was she for being recognised and valued, no longer someone’s rubbish, that she wanted simply to do something in return. She wanted to give something to God.

And in the midst of the male bluster, she was the one who quietly stepped in, and broke the top off her alabaster jar with a loud crack that would have silenced the room.

She understood what no one else did, that the end was very close. Through her eyes we see how to value Jesus. All that she had she gave to him.

Those are so like the words in our wedding service at the exchanging of rings. All that I am I give to you. All that I have I share with you. She was offering herself to Jesus with a responding love like that of a bride or a groom.

And so how about us?
If we don’t wish to give like that it is not because we are ungrateful.
It’s just that we haven’t yet realised the depths to which Jesus will go to reach us.
We haven’t yet seen him through her eyes.

May the Lord open our eyes to see that we owe him everything - all that we have and all that we are, for he comes still into our homes and into our lives with the words, ‘You are important to me. You are worth the life of God.’ Amen.

Holy Week - Tuesday
Luke 22:3-6
This reading follows on immediately from last night when Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus at the house of Simon the Leper.

Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve; he went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers of the temple police about how he might betray him to them. They were greatly pleased and agreed to give him money. So he consented and began to look for an opportunity to betray him to them when no crowd was present.

I always wonder about Judas. What must the last few days of Jesus’s life have been like through his eyes? I suspect that the reason that we are so fascinated by him is because he turned on Jesus after having lived, worked and ministered alongside him for three years. And so we worry that if Judas, who had actually been there and witnessed it with his own eyes could be turned, could get it so wrong, then what about us? If an eye-witness could lose faith then could it happen to me?

So what did Judas see in that last week? What finally made him turn on Jesus? Matthew and Mark link the story with last night’s narrative about Jesus being anointed by a woman at Bethany. It was as if that act of dedication and love was what finally inspired Judas to betrayal; that there was something which took place in his mind that spurred him on, and I find myself wondering if it was jealousy at the root.

And jealousy can quickly turn to contempt, and I wonder whether that was finally what took Judas over. I am pretty sure that he would have had his doubts about Jesus. There are some suggestions that his name, Iscariot, may have linked him with a group of assassins. Another possibly was that he came from the south of the country whilst Jesus and his closest associates were Galileans, from the north.

So right there we have grounds for Judas comparing himself unfavourably with others. It can be hard to fit in when you’re different and you start to look with jealousy on the leader and other followers who all seem to have so much in common. And so you need to protect yourself. What do you do? In your own mind you start to look less favourably on the leader.

If the leader doesn’t matter so much to you, then it doesn’t matter if you feel like you’re not on the inside of the group. Once you start to hold the leader in contempt you can feel more at ease and fool yourself that it really doesn’t matter. Except it does. Why else would it hurt so much to be on the outside?

I wonder if that’s what Judas did. I wonder whether, by the time he had got to Jerusalem for this final time, Judas had already decided he didn’t like what Jesus stood for simply because he was jealous, maybe of Simon Peter, James and john, or maybe of the attention that Jesus was himself getting. And once you have got yourself into that kind of mind set it is very easy to be tempted to try and rid yourself of the one who is causing you so much internal angst.

And then the woman comes and pours expensive anointing oil all over Jesus’s head. Judas sees not only the way she lavishes love on Jesus, but also the way he treats her tenderly, affirming that her story will be told whenever his story is told. Instantly she’s an insider, and the jealous root in Judas that he has allowed to blossom into contempt for Jesus and hatred for his followers who, to him, seem all to be on the inside, finally takes over and he decides to betray Jesus.

Could it be me doing the same thing? Could it be you?

I think that the biggest problem for us in our spiritual journeys is comparison. We look at other people and the relationship they have with Christ and we want to be like them. Or we see what they’re doing with their lives and we want to be like that. That jealousy is at the root of betrayal. And the Lord says to us, ‘Do not be concerned with how others live their lives. You have your own life, your own calling, your own direction with me. Walk the path that you share with me, not the path that someone else shares.’

So maybe Judas was jealous. And perhaps we should consider how we view the lives of others and remember that each of us has our own calling, and we should value what the Lord has called us to do rather than what he has called another to.