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.