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.
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?
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?
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 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?
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.