PASSION SUNDAY – 22 March 2015

Back at the beginning of Lent, I invited you to prepare for Holy Week and Easter by going back and looking at the four gospels – at how the four writers summarize the events of Jesus’ last days on earth.

I’m not sure how you’ve got on with that – or IF you have got on with it, but in any case I have a confession to make: with a slight pang of guilt I reached last Thursday and realized I hadn’t actually done it myself – but I have now!

And I do recommend it. As you re-read what we think of as familiar passages of scripture – there’s a compelling sense of certain ideas, different ideas, leaping out from the page. And reading all four gospels in close succession gives a very clear sense of the differences – the tweaking of details, the different emphases that the four writers give. Even with something as simple as the entry into Jerusalem – that we will next week on Palm Sunday – the four gospel writers can’t even agree on the number of donkeys involved, or whether they’re tame or not.  And when we read the accounts of Jesus’ death – only Luke is topical enough to mention a total “eclipse of the sun”.

And so one result of this exercise – of reading the 4 gospel accounts together – is to remind us that the Bible is not a history book. It IS a record of God’s dealings with his people throughout history – but an historical fact file it is not.

As we attempt to mark Holy Week and Easter in a meaningful and compelling way, then, perhaps we need to be clear that we are not simply trying to stage a re-enactment – to recreate the events of Holy Week “as they really happened” – because, actually, it’s rather difficult to say exactly what happened when.

What we are invited to do – what the gospel writers have attempted to do – is to enter into the story of our faith: to sense the power of the disciples’ raw emotions, the power and mystery of Jesus’ own words and actions that are reflected in those accounts and then, in the rich symbolism of the Church’s liturgy, to encounter that same strength of emotion and that same compelling mystery for ourselves.

This morning I want to focus on the two key events – the Last supper and the discovery of the Empty Tomb. As with much else – there is disagreement among the gospel writers about the nature of the Last Supper:  Matthew and Luke agree with Mark – the earliest Gospel writer – that the disciples were gathered to celebrate the Passover. John, on the other hand, says very clearly that this was “before the Passover”. What is clear is that Jesus knew this last meal was coming and would be significant – in busy Jerusalem, bursting with pilgrims, the room would presumably need to have been organised in advance.

There is a common sense of scandal in all four gospels – that Jesus could be betrayed by one of those sharing the meal with him – a serious breach of hospitality.  And in John’s gospel, this upset is taken further as Jesus leaves the table and starts to wash the disciples’ feet – something the slaves would normally do before the meal began. And having overturned expectations in this way, he then tells the disciples that’s the way they should now behave – setting as his legacy to them a model of service, not power.

And then, of course, we musn’t underestimate the strangeness – the horror even – of Jesus’ command to eat and drink bread and wine. “This is my body” – “this is my blood”. That’s pretty weird on any level – it’s especially weird for Orthodox Jews who don’t consume animal blood, let alone human blood. We can’t really be surprised that the earliest Christians were sometimes accused by their Pagan neighbours of being cannibals. Taken literally, Jesus’ words are rather odd. And yet – that is part of his legacy “do this to remember me” – and yes, we are in the middle of doing just that. But let Maundy Thursday remind us of the strangeness of what we do – to see it with fresh eyes, and perhaps to understand what our neighbours struggle to comprehend.

However we understand the Eucharist – what we share with all Christians is a conviction that we are responding to Christ himself and that, by doing so, we are brought closer to him: that it is his new life that now pulses through our veins with every heartbeat, as we are gradually remade in his image. Quite a bit to reflect on and in our celebration of Maundy Thursday then. And we’ll attempt to do that by meeting in a strange place. Rather than celebrating the Eucharist in church, we meet in the Community Centre for a shared meal – and then to share Communion in a way that will feel “different” and strange – and that I hope will give us a sense of the emotional journey onto which the disciples were pitched by Jesus’ actions.

Jumping ahead now, in the gospel accounts of Easter morning, we are told variously that those who went to the tomb did so “late in the night after the Sabbath”(Matthew),  “in the deep dawn”(Luke),  “on the first day, while it was still dark” (John)  and “extremely early [when] the sun had already risen” (Mark). Strange that I had THAT final image in my mind all along – but many of you (who completed the Easter survey) had latched onto Mathew’s night-time account. That again shows the value of reading all four versions!

And so to our Easter celebrations. This year we’re going to try to capture the powerful sense of finding light in the darkness – starting our First Eucharist at Midnight as tip from Easter Eve to Easter Morning.

The final hour of Holy Saturday will be marked with a vigil – readings and silence, over on the Community Centre, which will provide us with a warm gathering point for the midnight service. At midnight, in the darkness behind the church, the Easter Beacon will be lit – as the light of the Resurrection breaks through. From that blazing new fire, a single flame is carried round to the main doors, where the new Paschal Candle is blessed and lit. And as we enter the church, still in darkness, the symbolism of that single light piercing the gloom will be made even more profound by the contrasting darkness of night.

Gradually then, as the church is filled with more and more light and the first Alleluias are sounded, we move on to take bread and wine again and perhaps understand more deeply what Jesus was asking of his disciples at the Last Supper – and feel more deeply our share in the new life that was revealed to the disciples that first Easter morning.

And as we emerge once more, into the darkness of the early morning, perhaps we might be reminded that ours is a Gospel of Hope, not complacent self-assurance. We might have a renewed sense of the light of truth shining in a world that is still far from perfect, where Christ’s example of service to others is still as strong as ever if the gloom of sin and suffering is to be dispersed.

I realize that the midnight service, in particular, is not going to be possible for everyone. And there will, of course, be other celebrations of the Eucharist on Easter morning – in all of our churches.

But if you possibly can – do come and try both of these new ventures – on Maundy Thursday and Holy Saturday – not only to refresh your own understanding but also to help others here in experiencing Easter afresh.

A final thought, and a look back to today’s gospel. (John 12: 20-33)

And, in John’s gospel, this episode really is the beginning of the end: Here, among the hoards arriving in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, are some Greek-speaking Jews, who approach the disciples asking to see Jesus.

Their earnest desire to see him leads on to Jesus’ own reference to “The Son of Man” who must be “lifted up” –   and, in the passage which follows, their struggling to make sense of his words.

And as Jesus speaks of the ear of grain that can only bear fruit if it first falls into the earth and dies, we are in no doubt that he is talking of himself and of what lies ahead for him.

And I think the key point to keep in mind when we do finally enter Holy Week is this.

No matter what shape our services take, no matter which ones most of us get to,  our journey through Holy Week should be filled with that same longing to see Jesus – to encounter the living God in everything we do.  Our celebration of Easter should be filled with the knowledge that, having died once and for all, Christ now lives for ever and the joyful expectation that he can and will bear much fruit in us.

Journey Towards Easter

As we prepared for Lent, I asked our regular worshippers at Wilton to think about how we usually mark Holy Week and Easter and to think afresh about the Biblical events and experiences that we are trying to capture in our services, to see if might be able to do so more effectively.

Thanks to the 40+ who took the time to write down their thoughts for me: alongside the things I’d more or less expected there were some fresh insights that I wouldn’t have thought of. Inevitably, it’s going to be quite a challenge finding a sensible course between some very different view-points! What emerged, however, were some broad themes and ideas that I hope will help steer us towards something more “do-able” for some and more profound for all of us.

It seems to me that there are five main strands within the answers you have given: Devotions, Fellowship, Walking together, Children, and Music and meditation.

Firstly then, devotions: A number of you would like to see Stations of the Cross and “Experience Easter” as clergy-led groups activities. And, by contrast, a number of people mentioned the creation of a Prayer Labyrinth and other opportunities for private devotions. The notion of Contemplative Prayer – of simply “being still in the presence of the Lord” – also has an appeal to some of you, if we can find the right time.

Secondly – Fellowship – and in particular eating together. Some kind of shared meal on Maundy Thursday was suggested by a surprising number of you. It was further suggested that this might include some of the elements of the usual service, such as the washing of feet to recreate Jesus’ actions, and could possibly end with a simple Eucharist. The appeal of walking together appeared in various guises: to those of you who made the Midnight Pilgrimage last year, I have to say that 3 of you really enjoyed that experience and wish to repeat it – whereas for the rest of the group, once was enough – AND, in some case, MORE than enough! The desire to do something like it is clearly expressed, however, and somewhere within the Easter season we might a more rewarding route and time to do this..

And for those who can’t walk far – there’s the indoor pilgrimage of Experience Easter. Other powerful comments related to both the Palm Sunday procession and also to the Good Friday Procession of Witness – and meeting together with the Baptist congregation at both. There’s clearly a strong sense among many of us that, in stepping out into the public eye – witnessing to our faith and risking whatever reaction we provoke – we in some way identify ourselves with both the loyalty of those who stood by Jesus to the bitter end and also the inadequacy of those who fled. Lots of things kicking around there – and plenty of food for thought.

On to children – and how we make some sense of it all for them. We DO already in fact attempt to relate the Easter story not only the 130 something children at our school but also the Beavers and Cubs. But what about families coming together? Although Palm Sunday last year was rather more “inclusive” than previously – with its focus on joyful expectation, rather than the gloom of the long Passion Gospel – there was really nothing else geared towards parents and children together, until Easter Sunday morning. Room for improvement there I think.

Music and meditation are intertwined – not least because the one service that drew almost universal appreciation was the “Last Hour” on Good Friday afternoon. Here it was the combination of good music, sung by the choir, of Scripture and the opportunity to reflect and to feel close to God that really helped a number of you: I have heard loud and clear that the previous format – with the veneration of the cross – was not what many of you wanted to see: and in any case, the Cathedral can do that so much better! So why compete when we can offer something different?

All those elements need to find their way into what we do this Eastertide – and I’m already working towards what I hope will be a better shape for our services and devotions this year. Of course I – and you – will be relying on other people to make it all work – choir/servers/readers/ringers/clergy/sidespersons and I need to have a number of conversations before I can gauge quite what will be possible. A definitive overview of services and events will be published mid-March. I deliberately called this survey “Journey towards Easter” – so that we could see it as a preparation for Easter, not just a reciting of personal preferences. And of course that journey has begun.

Lent, we heard on Ash Wednesday, is a season of self -denial and self-discovery, as we recall Jesus’ time in the wilderness. And, as we engage with that process of preparation, it’s worth taking a moment to think back to this gospel from the First Sunday in Lent – and Jesus’ baptism. As he comes up out of the water, we read, “the Spirit immediately drives him out into the wilderness.” That’s a strong phrase – to be driven out. And the original Greek verb εκβαλλει is even less delicate – suggesting him being thrown out, or hurled into the wilderness. We’re more used to thinking of the Spirit as “the comforter” – one who sustains us in our weakness – not one who drives us into the hard places. So perhaps there’s an important point being made – that sometimes, in order to understand ourselves – and in order to understand God’s will for us – we DO need to be taken away from what we know – certainly from what we know we like or think we depend on.

As we journey towards Easter then, perhaps we could make good use of the time to ask ourselves what we really do know – about the events of Easter and how they inform our faith. How well do we understand what it is we are trying to re-create and experience in our church services? How well do we really know the gospel accounts – and how much do we only half-know from hymns or Sunday school stories of long ago? Could we all make time to look again at the gospels this Lent – to re-read the four different accounts of the events leading up to Easter? And perhaps to make a note of where the different gospel writers agree or disagree with each other – then to see if we can understand what they were getting at. We might also begin to get a better picture of the human beings who marked those final days and weeks with Jesus – and so begin to understand what they can teach us about him and about ourselves.

And if we can find time to do that – to read, think and pray our way through the four Gospel accounts – then I hope and pray that, whatever schedule of services we end up with, we will enter Holy week with a deeper understanding, with greater expectations and with a greater sense of journeying together –  and that the joy of Easter will then shine in and through us all.