Archives for posts with tag: crucifixion

‘To be a Christian is to be attentive to signs of God’s action in the world, and this is especially true in Holy Week and at Easter when – the faithful believe – Jesus by his death and resurrection revealed the nature of God’s relationship with humanity.’ Sometimes one finds profound theological statements in unlikely places. That sentence was from the first editorial in the Guardian on Wednesday 17th April. It is perhaps a slightly different way of putting the profound words ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only son …’

The three hours’ devotion service on Good Friday is concerned with sacrifice, about Jesus’ sacrifice, his terrible suffering and death. The service is unlike any other one in our Christian year. What makes it special is that we try to get really close to Jesus in his last hours, to understand what happened to him and what he did; as we often say in a theological context, to walk alongside him, or maybe rather to have him walk alongside us, in his time of trial.

To say the service is unlike any other one is not quite right, because every time we celebrate Holy Communion we remember Jesus’ sacrifice – ‘in the same night that he was betrayed, he took bread, and when he had given thanks to thee, he broke it and gave it to his disciples… and likewise after supper he took the cup; and when he had given thanks to thee, he gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of this, for this is my blood of the new covenant’. The heart of the Eucharist service is a memorial of the Last Supper, before Jesus’s crucifixion and death. I’m not in any way trying to take away the significance of the holy Eucharist, but I am saying that the Good Friday service takes you further and takes you deeper in understanding, or rather, shall we say, in appreciating, what Jesus went through.

What I am going to try to do now is to address that question of understanding. I hope that you will more fully appreciate what Jesus suffered, what he went through; and to some extent you will understand why, at least in the historical sense of who did what to whom.

I’m not going to touch on the mechanics of the crucifixion or the literal historical data; what I want to concentrate on is trying to explain it. Why did Jesus have to die?

Perhaps today it’s more a question ‘Why did He die?’, not necessarily why he had to die. You could say, following the words of the Creed, that Jesus’ death was for us – ‘who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate’. Jesus himself said that ‘greater love hath no man than that he should lay down his life for his friend’. (I am quoting from the Book of Common Prayer, 1662, and the Authorised Version of the Bible, 1611, so it is necessary to point out that ‘man’ means ‘human being’). Or again, we hear that Jesus is the ‘propitiation for our sins’, making up for what we have done that is sinful.

There is a powerful romantic theme that occasionally people do heroic things where they suffer in somebody else’s place. St Paul, in his letter to the Romans [5:7-8], contrasts what you might call ordinary heroism, risking your life or even losing your life, to save someone else whom you might not know particularly well, but have nothing against, and what Jesus appears to have done, which is to give his life not for just anybody but for people who definitely don’t deserve it, who are sinners.

We don’t really talk about ritual sacrifice much these days. The idea of going to a temple and slaughtering some animal to give it ritually to God is completely alien to us in our modern world. But I think we know how it was supposed to work: that nobody could measure up to God’s perfect standard, and to the extent that you fell short – an example of falling short would be Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden – to the extent that you fell short you had to ask God for forgiveness, to make it up to him, to turn away God’s wrath.

This is allied with the idea of the Last Judgement, either at the end of the world, (if we can imagine that), or at the end of a person’s life. And again, although we couldn’t really describe with any certainty what to expect at that End Time, as it is called, there is a very common idea that there will be some kind of last judgement; and indeed in the Bible at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel there is a picture of the last judgement, the division of the sheep from the goats. ‘The Son of Man shall come in his glory and all the holy angels with him. Then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory and before him shall be gathered all nations. And he shall separate them one from another as a shepherd divideth the sheep from the goats’ (Matthew 25:31-32). In that context, Jesus is taking the punishment that sinful man would otherwise deserve.

But there is a little question mark. It is easy to miss this, but particularly in the context of this very solemn, contemplative service, when we are trying to get as close as we can to follow in Jesus’s footsteps on the way to the place of the Skull, Golgotha, where he was crucified, the little niggle, if you like, is quite a major issue in fact. It is this. God gave his only son. What does the word ‘gave’ mean, here? God is, after all, the creator and sustainer of everything and

everyone. Did He give his only son over to be hurt, to be whipped, to be insulted, to be humiliated, to be tortured and ultimately killed in the most bestial way? Because if he did that, how can we say that God is a loving God, that God wants the best for all of us, and if there is evil in the world, it has come in against God?

As you know, sin isn’t just, isn’t really at all, a question of doing bad things. It has a very particular meaning. It is about being separated, divided off from God, cut off from God. And the ‘salvation’ that we talk about, that we believe in, the eternal life – ‘so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life’ – that salvation is coming together with God, being united eternally. So in that context how could God give his nearest and dearest over to be horribly hurt and then killed? Something doesn’t add up.

At the very least it looks as though there is a paradox. How could the good God hurt anyone, least of all his own son? And if you were concerned about that, put yourself in Jesus’ position. You would feel uniquely deserted. We will say, towards the end of this service, the terrible words of Psalm 22: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ It’s what Jesus said as he suffered. There is no more terrible protest in the whole of literature. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

But at the end of the Stations of the Cross, these days the last station is usually the station of the Resurrection. These days, particularly since the Roman Catholics dusted off the old idea in their second Vatican Council in the sixties, the most important message to the world from Easter is the message of what they call the Paschal Mystery, the ‘unity of the death and resurrection of Jesus’. The Paschal mystery; the mystery is that unity, that putting together, of opposites; that everything to do with Jesus is the opposite of what you would expect.

Think of the Sermon on the Mount. Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Don’t retaliate. The exact opposite of the normal thing to do. In the Beatitudes, everything is back to front. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ You would have thought in the context of being close to God himself – the most theological situation you could possibly be in – that the last thing you would possibly want, in heaven with God, is to have weedy people round you who have no particular spiritual gifts. But they are blessed. ‘Theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. That’s crazy.

It’s more straightforward to understand ‘Blessed are they that mourn’. For ‘They shall be comforted’. That is a contrast, but it is an understandable one. You might hope for comfort. Jesus assures it.

But ‘Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven.’ Doesn’t sound happy – but happiness is assured.

Think of the Magnificat, the most revolutionary text this side of Karl Marx. ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.’ ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate.’ Why don’t we sing that verse of ‘All things bright and beautiful’ any more? Mrs Alexander wasn’t saying it was right when she wrote that verse. We shouldn’t just shut it away. It’s shocking, and it’s meant to be.

There’s a sort of tension on Good Friday, there’s another sort of paradox; in a very sacramental way, for Jesus to be uniquely alive, alive in a new way that no-one had ever seen before, the opposite had to be true. He had to be very, very dead. But except in the very minimal sense that God, the creator and sustainer of all things, must be behind everything, everything that happens, I think we can explain Jesus’ suffering, not in terms of cruelty by his father, but in terms of the waywardness of sinful man.

When you look at the details of the trial before Pontius Pilate, there isn’t an inevitability about what happens. It is the active badness, the active sinfulness of the chief priests and scribes which catches Jesus. Pilate gave them a good way out if they had got carried away by the mob, by offering Jesus as the prisoner to be released in the traditional way at Passover time. But they positively chose – it was deliberate – to release the bad man and to kill off the good one. It was another paradox, and another counterintuitive.

But as you go through the Good Friday service, metaphorically walking behind the cross with Jesus, I do suggest that you can hold your head high and recognise him truly as your king, because that tomb will definitely be empty. This is Jesus working out the way to salvation: salvation, a relationship with God, a close relationship with God. That tomb will definitely be empty.

One implication of that is that there’s no need for a priest to stand between us and God. Jesus is the great high priest, who has opened the sanctuary to us. In the letter to the Hebrews [chapter 10], we will hear that the Lord says ‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more,’ and the letter goes on to say, ‘where there is forgiveness there is no longer any offering for sin. Therefore my friends since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way, that he opened for us through the curtain, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience’.

It’s not a question of buying off God’s wrath. It’s the other way round. God will raise Jesus from the dead, in the Easter morning miracle that we will joyfully celebrate. There it is. There is forgiveness and there is no longer any offering for sin. There will no longer be any blood sacrifice.

But first we must follow Jesus. To come out into his blessed light, we must follow him into the darkness.

This is an edited version of a reflection originally given by Hugh Bryant at the Three Hours’ Devotion service at St Mary’s Church, Stoke D’Abernon, on 19th April 2019.

Sermon for Evensong on the 11th Sunday after Trinity, 31st August 2014, at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon

Acts 18:5 – When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with proclaiming the word, testifying to the Jews that the Messiah was Jesus.

Who was right? Was Jesus the ‘Messiah’, the chosen one of God, the King, enthroned in the kingdom of God, or not? Jews and Moslems both recognise Jesus as a prophet, but neither accepts that Jesus was himself divine. Therefore they have both regarded Christianity as a challenge to the orthodoxy of their true religion. In places, Islam is doing this right now. Before Mohamed came along, the Bible is full of conflicts between the Jews and Jesus, and later between the Jews and the disciples.

On Jesus’ cross, Pilate had a sign fixed up in three languages, ‘This is the king of the Jews’. For the Romans this was ironic. They could not understand why it was so contentious among the Jews for someone like Jesus to be their king. Since it was clear that the Jews did reject Him – demanding His crucifixion and freedom for the acknowledged criminal Barabbas instead – the distinction of kingship was ironic at best.

Jesus himself was clear that He was the Messiah. He did not contradict Peter when Peter worked out for himself that Jesus was the long-awaited King [Matt. 16]. But what was coming was not an insurrection against the Romans, but something much more important.

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom’ (Matt.16:21-28).

The ‘Son of Man’ is Jesus’ way of referring to himself, as Messiah, chosen one of God. Jesus repeated what the prophet Daniel had written in the Old Testament [Daniel 7:13], ‘I saw in the night visions, and behold, one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought him near before him.’

Was Jesus saying that the end of the world was just about to happen? Because if so, He seems to have been wrong. After all, 2,000 years later, we still pray,

‘Lord of all life,
help us to work together for that day
when your kingdom comes
and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth.’

[Common Worship, Services and Prayers for the Church of England (2000), London, Church House Publishing, p197 – Holy Communion Order One: Eucharistic Prayer E]

I always pray that prayer very fervently. I feel that we need justice and mercy to be seen in all the earth: because, in so many places, there is no justice and mercy.

We have only to think back over the last week’s news. Are Islamic State, ISIS, full of ‘justice and mercy’? Is there justice and mercy for the poor people in Africa with Ebola? Would the children in Rotherham, who suffered abuse for so long and who were not taken seriously by the forces of law and order, did they receive any ‘justice and mercy’?

It doesn’t look as though Jesus got this right, on the face of things. Surely if the Son of Man had come in power with his angels and set up His kingdom, the Kingdom of God, then surely in the words of the Book of Revelation, ‘… there [would] be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither [will] there be any more pain.’ (Rev.21:4)

But, because it was Jesus who said it – and it seems unlikely that he was mistakenly reported, because three of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, have Him saying almost identical words – just because Jesus Himself did say this, it must be reasonable to assume that he wasn’t just mistaken, just because the end of the world didn’t in fact happen during the lifetime of any of His disciples – but rather we ought to look at the possibility that it doesn’t mean what it seems to at first sight. It doesn’t literally mean that Jesus was saying that the Kingdom of God was synonymous with the the end of the world, and that that End Time was about to happen, in the early years of the first century AD.

We have to acknowledge that the early church did think that was what Jesus was saying. St Paul’s teaching about marriage, in 1 Corinthians 7, where he seems to suggest that it’s best to remain celibate, although ‘it is better to marry than to burn’, reflects the idea that the earliest Christians had, that the Apocalypse was really imminent: think of Jesus’ teaching about signs of the end of the world in S. Matthew 24, and parables like the Ten Bridesmaids – ‘Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour’. Of course as well as the early Christians, other prophets of doom have been forecasting the end of the world ever since – and no-one has got it right so far. It must mean something else. One alternative, of course, is that the Jews and the Moslems are right, and Jesus was just a prophet, nothing more.

Even in today’s world, with all its tragedies and strife, is it still possible that the Kingdom of God is with us? I believe that for us too, even 2,000 years after Jesus, heavenly things do still happen.

In among the unheavenly things which I mentioned from the news this week, in the Middle East, in Africa with Ebola, and nearer to home in Yorkshire, I truly had a heavenly experience – yes, ‘heavenly’ really is the right word – when I went to the Proms on Friday. I heard Mahler’s Symphony, No 2, the ‘Resurrection’ he entitled it. In the 5th movement, the mezzo, the soprano and the great chorus of two choirs, over 200 singers, sing:

Oh believe, my heart, oh believe:
O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube

Oh believe, my heart, oh believe:
nothing is lost for thee!

Oh believe, thou wert not born in vain,
neither hast thou vainly lived, nor suffered!

Whatsoever is created must also pass away!
Whatsoever has passed away, must rise again! [Must rise again!]
Cease thy trembling!
Prepare thyself to live!

[From ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’: Friedrich Klopstock (1724-1803) and Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), translated by Ron Isted]

Imagine what an uplifting, amazing moment it was. Huge forces – the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, with 65 string players, 26 brass players, 17 woodwinds, 7 percussionists, the mighty Willis organ of the Royal Albert Hall, and two choirs with over 200 choral singers as well as the two soloists: and in the audience a full house, a complete sell-out, all 6,000 seats and promenade spaces taken.

And they raised the roof. Resurrection. It felt as though it was really happening there. Wonderful. Suddenly it gave me a clue about Jesus’ really being the Messiah, the King.

Resurrection, Jesus’ resurrection, was the coronation, as it were, of Jesus coming into His kingdom. The disciples did live to see it. Indeed they didn’t ‘taste death’ beforehand. In a real sense, the King had arrived. His resurrection was his coronation.

If it had been the end, the end of everything, then there would be nothing more to say. But it wasn’t the end – and clearly Jesus’ coming into His kingdom wasn’t a cataclysmic revolution. The perfect world pictured in the Book of Revelation didn’t miraculously come about.

We must remember what St Paul said, in Romans chapter 7. ‘The good which I want to do, I fail to do; but what I do is the wrong which is against my will.’ [Rom 7:18, NEB]. Even that saint, Saint Paul, fell prey to temptation.

That was because God has not abolished good and evil. God’s kingdom on earth is like any kingdom, in that there are crimes as well as good deeds. God is not a sort of puppet-master who controls all the people, stopping them from doing harm. We believe that God is omnipotent, all-powerful, so He could control everyone, could, theoretically, make us into robots. But He plainly hasn’t done.

Instead He has shown us, by giving us His only Son, that He cares for us. His kingdom is real. Even so, even in God’s kingdom, we still have to choose the right and the good over the bad. We still need to pray; and our prayers are answered.

But we do also have a sense, a belief, as Christians, in a Kingdom of God in the other sense, of a life after death, a spiritual realm at the end of time: strictly beyond our powers to imagine or describe it, but maybe along the lines of the vision in Revelation chapter 21. We can’t say what it is precisely, but we may be able to say what it does – that it takes away pain, sorrow, crying, even death.

God’s kingdom involves an End Time, as well as a Kingdom on earth. In one sense the End Time is ours personally, in our death. In another, there will be, Jesus has taught us, a Day of Reckoning, when, in the words of Matt 16, ‘He will give each man the due reward for what he has done’.

Then at that End Time – and at any time, in fact – we will need to be ready, for Jesus may be there, and He may say to us, ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’ [Matt. 25:35f] We know what we have to do. It is the King who has commanded us.