Diocese of Derby Lent Course 2013 Faith on Trial
Introduction Lent is a time of examination – of ourselves, our faith, and our discipleship. As we follow our Lord’s journey toward the Cross, and prepare ourselves to receive the gift of new life, so we need to take stock and seek God’s guidance. The theme of this year’s Lent Course is that of ‘trial’. We will use the events of Good Friday as a lens through which to examine the journey of Lent which takes us to that momentous point, and from which we can be prepared to receive the miracle of Resurrection on Easter Day. Each week there is a particular focus on the theme of trial: week one: week two: week three: week four: week five: week six:
religion on trial politics on trial the crowd on trial the King on trial ourselves on trial Christianity on trial
Users guide This Lent course is designed to be really easy to use, so please enjoy using it! Each session can be completed in an hour and a half without the time feeling too rushed however, you can stretch the material to last for two hours without it beginning to feel too thin. It might be a good idea to read through the material before either working on it by yourself or facilitating a group as they are using it. This is about as much preparation as you need to do! A lot of thought has gone into the flow of this material so that it has an aim and direction all of its own. Your key task is to provide space either for yourself or for others to engage with it and creatively find its relevance for you and your context. With that in mind please do leave a good 15-20 minutes at the end of each session to really get to grips with the "action" section. It is very tempting to skip through that and imagine that you and others will do that reflecting and practical planning after the session. Be realistic - you probably won't! Practicalities For each session you will need at least one set of these notes and a Bible. You may want to also have the following, but they aren’t absolutely necessary: • The recording of Bishop Alastair reading his reflections • Some pens and paper • Some quiet music to play while you do the exercises or the group does the individual exercises to help those folk who find silence hard work. If you are using this material with a group each individual might want their own set of notes. This isn't necessary but some people might find it helpful. Please do bear in mind that sometimes it is profoundly unhelpful to give people something to bury their heads in when you are trying to get a group discussion going! You need to think about what sort of group culture will be helpful in your context.
Some tips for group facilitators •
You do not have to be an expert on theology, biblical studies or life! Your task is to support people, including yourself to think creatively. The material and the group do the teaching.
Think continually about boundaries. You know a lot about the group of people who turn up, even if you don’t know much about the individuals in the group. You know they want to learn. You know they want to do that learning with others. You know that they are all potentially both creative and wise and potentially harmed and have the ability to harm others. Your role is to help the group maintain the safest space possible for everyone. You might want to start each session or the course by reminding everyone of their responsibility to keep the space as learning space not as space for pastoral care and of your role as learning facilitator not counsellor. And don’t forget you can contract with the group as you go. For example, check that the group are ok discussing a particular question that an individual has thrown into the room.
If things get tricky for whatever reason you can try the following: o Say what you see... "I'm seeing there are people who are uncomfortable with this conversation, what do you want to do about that?" "I’m seeing we seem to be going round in circles in this discussion, what do we need to do differently to make the discussion more effective?" "I’m seeing that you really enjoy telling long stories from your own experience Mrs Smith, what do we as a group need to do to see their relevance more quickly?"
Mix them up... rather than all sitting round in a big group discussing, get folk to give their opinion to the person next to them for thirty seconds, a minute, two minutes, then make sure they swop over. This also works as a really good strategy to get everyone in the mood for participating in group discussions particularly if you’ve got shy group members or one very extrovert, enthusiastic and opinionated group member!
Have a cuppa... Often a little break, even a thirty second pause for a stretch, is just enough to help the group move on in a more positive way.
Stay in the washing up bowl, don't get dragged down the drain... your role is to support learning and the personal transformation that can occur through that, you can’t do that if you get dragged into the centrifugal force that is personal or group resistance to change.
And finally... Enjoy yourself!
If you would like any further help in group facilitation skills please contact Esther the Lay Ministry Officer; 01332 388674 or email@example.com
Session 1: Religion on trial This week’s session is based on John 18:12-27. You need to read this passage out loud as a group at the beginning of your time together. Read or listen to these thoughts from Bishop Alastair
Annas, who was the father in law of the High Priest, had been High Priest himself, and four of the sons of Annas had been High Priests. Here we have an example of a family of sons and son-in-laws, who had established a ‘monopoly’ on this job. Some of us might recognise that one of the temptations of religion is that often it tends to become controlled by small groups. Sometimes we see this in parishes, especially in villages. Similarly in larger churches it is often a small group who labour mightily and do wonderful things, but become a closed circle who control what is considered to be normal and proper religious practices and beliefs. This ‘monopoly’ of control develops from the best of motives, but the result can be dangerous. Jesus did call small groups, but to be leaven servants, sacrificing themselves for others. In the case of this incident in John’s Gospel this small group did not just control the religion that collaborated with the Romans to keep order, the group also oversaw the traders in the temple. We can recall that Jesus went and knocked over the tables of the traders in the temple. Those businesses were owned and controlled by the High Priestly family. Thus, Jesus had already upset them by the disturbance He caused in the temple in challenging the way they were using this holy space.
In the reading we observe that Jesus was arrested by the soldiers, who would have been Roman, and the Jewish police. Now that is a very strange alliance, since these two groups would normally have been enemies. However they come together to make this arrest, and to bring Jesus to be tried at the bar of religion. The Sanhedrin and the High Priestly family were collaborators. They were the people who tried to work with the Roman occupiers and exercise power on their behalf. More conservative Jews would have seen them as collaborators. They agreed with the Romans that religion should be used to keep law and order, or as a modern sociologist would say “religion is the glue of society”. They believed that the Sanhedrin and the High Priestly family should work with the Romans so that religion had a role to keep law and order, in a very divided and volatile world. Many of us might agree that is what religion is for – to keep law and order, to maintain moral standards and acceptable behaviour. Caiaphas the High Priest was the one who advised the Jews that it was advantageous for one person to die than the whole people perish – so religion has to be practical, sensible. He was not to know the irony of John’s statement that actually because one person dies no-one would perish. He said that it was better for religion to preserve life and be sensible and useful. Fanatical groups and their leaders should be contained. Religion was important for stability and security; it should never become a movement for wild hopes and unrealistic dreams.
This is the setting: the High Priestly family, a small group, controlling religion, working with the authorities, everybody has got to be in their place and Jesus has disrupted this tightly organised system by the challenge in the temple. For this reason He is on trial, before the court of established religion.
Group discussion Imagine you are standing at a distance and watching this story unfold. You might like as a group to quickly sketch out the story on a piece of paper. As well as Jesus, which characters are you particularly keeping an eye on? Why?
Read or listen to these thoughts from Bishop Alastair
religion depends upon conformity to established patterns and views. Peter has entered a public world where everybody seems to be saying “this person cannot be the Messiah”. In this time of trial by public values and opinions, Peter, having been this faithful person who would die with Jesus, finds himself saying: “I don’t know this man; he is nothing to do with me”.
Next we have Peter, who is a disciple of Jesus. He is not known in these circles of religious leaders. Another disciple who is known by Annas brings him in to the courtyard to witness this trial. Peter enters our text by a gate. This gate would probably have been the entrance to the part of the Temple that only Jewish males could enter; the part that was governed by the strictest rules. Here we see that Peter is moving away from Jesus and entering by the gate of religion, the gate into the system that is controlling the people. He moves from being a follower of Jesus in that band of disciples who we excluded from this traditional approach to religion, to joining that very group – those who deny Jesus as the Messiah. Thus, most dramatically, when some of the officers of this official religion say “do you know this person”, Peter replies “no”. (You may recall another part of John’s gospel where Jesus says you must enter by the gate. But the gate you must enter by is Jesus Himself. John 10:1-10)
In a world where religion is allowed only the narrow role of encouraging people to conform to law and order, and any other role is seen to be a bit risky, it is very tempting for the established culture to absorb everybody who wants to be religious, just as we see Peter being converted to such conformity when the differences between the two approaches have to be confronted. We live in a culture where there is a strong desire for law and order, and religion becomes a force for the kind of peace and justice that does not disturb anything or cause any problems. This inclines us to empathise with Peter as he goes and warms himself with these others who are putting Jesus on trial. A contemporary philosopher, Richard Sennett has written about the warmth of intimacy. He argues that in the modern world, because of the weakness of religion, what people in the West really believe in, and what really sustains us in trying to survive in a cold, dark context like that courtyard Peter had entered, is the instinct to huddle together for intimacy. Because we have disengaged from public rituals and doctrines, all we have got is the relationships we can make and build around us to keep us warm. On their own, these relationships are fragile, and they are often
There is always a choice between getting a sense of personal identity from religious practices and groups and following Christ who offers the constant growth and development of our identity. Religion is on trial when we have to make this choice as disciples. Here we confront one of the great temptations and trials of religion: the choice to seek to affirm the ‘safe’ values of being respectable and controlling human passions, in order to keep law and order. This kind of 5
the source of evil and bitching. Paradoxically, the only way to keep relationships warm and working is to find ways of enabling forgiveness, new life and proper growth. Otherwise the huddles for the warmth of intimacy prove to be shifting, short lived and leave us too often exposed in the cold courtyard when all religion and personal values are put on trial.
In our text we have a picture of Peter joining the warming comfort and intimacy of the established approach to religion. At this moment of trial he finds himself denying Jesus and the alternative approach that He has tried to offer.
Individual reflection Take a few moments of quiet to imagine you are Peter standing warming yourself by the fire. What are you thinking and feeling – towards yourself, towards the people you are standing with, and towards Jesus and your fellow disciples? Try to be brutally honest with yourself and consider if you ever think or feel like this when you are in Church or with other Christians. If so; when and why? If not; why? Don’t worry you are not going to be asked to share this with the group!
religious people should, so as to be sure that they know what they were doing.
Read or listen to these thoughts from Bishop Alastair
This trial is also corrupt according to the account in John, because the High Priest says to Jesus “what have you and your disciples been doing, what have you been preaching?” In the procedure of the Sanhedrin it was not permitted to ask the accused to condemn themselves and that is why Jesus replies “why are you asking me, you are not supposed to be asking me, I’m not supposed to condemn myself.”
Jesus is brought to trial at the Sanhedrin. This was a court that had to have at least 23 judges. They sat in a semi-circle and there were two clerks – one to record an acquittal and one to record a judgement of guilty and condemnation. If the judgement was acquittal it was recorded immediately and the person was free. If the judgement was condemnation it was not recorded for 24 hours to give people time to consider the verdict and thus to make sure that they really wanted to record a judgement of guilty. The evidence of our text shows that this trial was corrupt since the court decided that they wanted to condemn Jesus immediately. If he was condemned, they should have gone away and come back in 24 hours having thought and prayed about the verdict, as good
Here we can see a form of religion that is so keen to maintain law and order that in fact breaks its own rules. It does not wait 24 hours for a considered verdict of guilty and condemnation, and it does not observe the right of the defendant not to incriminate themselves so that the case has to be made 6
by asking other witnesses. This is why Jesus says quite openly (not in closed religious circles like that of the group putting Him on trial), I have spoken to everybody and anybody – I have been to the temple and to the synagogue – I have spoken in the streets, in cities and villages, ask those who have heard me.” Jesus reminds His judges that they should seek evidence, not just in their own little group, but in the wider world where His word and His love have been offered.
challenge in this particular trial for us to recognise that religious people need to be in dialogue with the rest of God’s children because what we are given is for them as well as for us. Too often we can become like this group around Caiaphas and Annas who Peter has joined. We are so locked in to our own little world and how we control it, we are so nervous of anybody disturbing it, that we end up employing our own systems and processes to get what we want and doing it corruptly if need be rather than using them to maintain our respect and care for people. Furthermore, we end up denying the Messiah, we deny having anything to share with God’s children in an open transparent way, being in dialogue and listening – practicing all the things Jesus did so radically.
Here is an important paradox. The religion that claims to offer control and security for everyone, in fact operates in closed, exclusive circles, whereas the religion that is accused of being a small seditious sect operates openly with maximum accountability and transparency. There may be a strong
Imagine you are a human rights lawyer brought in by the Sanhedrin to review this trial. You are midway through writing your review and have finished pointing out where they got their processes and procedures wrong. You now need to write some bullet points about the potential effects their mishandling of this trial might have on them as a group and on their relationships with the communities around them.
ACTION! There is a tendency in religious groups and for religious people to find a place in society by either becoming the glue that holds it all together: upholding what is acceptable and normal and providing ways in which people can show they are conforming or by becoming the explosive device: lobbed in every now and again as an attack causing untold damage. 1. What have you learnt from exploring this passage about how we as a National Church, as a Diocese and as a local group of Christians guard against these two extremes? You might want to consider, amongst other things, what youâ€™ve learnt about styles of leadership, support for individuals making hard choices in their discipleship journey and techniques for listening for the truth. 2. What might you as a group of local Christians do differently in light of your discussion? 3. What might you as an individual do differently in light of this group discussion and your personal
Session 2: Politics on Trial This week’s session is based on John 18:28- 19:16 and Luke 23:6-12. You need to read these passages out loud as a group at the beginning of your time together.
Read or listen to these thoughts from Bishop Alastair
neutral ground. It is interesting that these Jewish leaders do not want to join up with a rival group. We noted that at their religious trial they did not want any other groups joining with themselves. Their religion demanded the maintenance of strict boundaries. Peter had been sucked in to that way of doing religion. Yet, under pressure from a wider understanding of religious faith, those Jewish leaders are willing to seek support and alliance from the pagan political power. We can observe a small group that is fearful of change, thinks it has the answers, wants to control religious law and order, and now comes to Pilate as the one who controls political and civic law and order, in order to have Jesus put to death to crush the threat of this broader view of faith. They too say He is a criminal but that their law does not allow them to put people to death. Any wise political system keeps the death penalty out of religious hands as we can observe today, We are horrified, when in some Middle Eastern countries the death penalty is used to uphold religious values in instances which we would handle through the political channels of law and order.
The Roman political strategy was very much like the one we experience in the modern western world. The Romans, because they had conquered so much territory, developed a way of tolerating all kinds of faiths and beliefs – the modern word would be pluralism. They tolerated all kinds of things as long as there was an overall structure of law and order and a basic acknowledgement of the Emperor. The effect was that as long as people acknowledged the system as having authority over them, then they could believe and practise all kinds of things. We can recall that St Paul is quite positive about being a Roman citizen. He can see the value of a system that held everybody together. It is the forerunner of our modern notion of a legal framework within which everybody has their human rights. Of course, we have boiled it down not just to groups and sects and religions, but to individuals who can really behave and believe as they choose, so long as together we can maintain a civilised way of relating to each other. People want peace and not violence and war.
The text reminds us that Jesus had indicated the kind of death He was to die. We need to think about this fact, it is rather important. If the Jews had killed Jesus He would have been stoned. Religion buries people in a heap: it has tended to obliterate heretics and enemies. Jesus knew that if He was to die He had to be lifted up high, so that everybody could see Him. Jesus’ death is not to be religion overcoming him and burying him, as we do with so many things and people we dislike.
Pilate was Governor within this kind of universalizing, holding framework. It was radically inclusive and depended upon the rule of law – though there were numerous gradations, society was very hierarchical and citizenship was limited, as we know from St Paul’s Epistles. In this week’s text, the Jews who have held their religious trial of Jesus come to Pilate as representing the political power. They do not want to break their ritual discipline on this Holy day by closely associating with Pagans. The Jews had very high standards about their religious identity, Pilate was a Pagan. He understood their religious concerns and he generously came out and stood on the pavement and talked with them – on more
His death was to be a public event for all to see –Jews, Greeks, Romans, everybody. He was lifted up for the citizens of the world, in terms of politics, to look at and to make a decision about. 9
Every citizen is now on trial because He is lifted up. If they had buried him in a corner as part of a religious dispute He would not have
made the appeal that He is able to make to us today.
Group discussion Imagine you are a group of advisers walking with Pilate on his way back into his headquarters having just met with the Jews. What is he asking you? What issues do you raise? What advice do you give?
Read or listen to these thoughts from Bishop Alastair
John’s great revelation about the heavenly city coming down, embracing all the people in salvation. Jesus’ kingdom is the salvation of all that God has made, called to be raised up into glory and fulfilled and confirmed in its proper purpose.
Pilate is going to be the one who authorises this death on a cross, Jesus being lifted up. He begins the trial with a political question: he says “are you a king?” i.e. are you making a rival power claim? There were plenty of precedents involving religious leaders and groups who claimed to be the pure people, and wanted to expel the Romans and liberate their country for God’s true purposes. A few years before Pilate had crucified 1800 people along the roadside, in order to give a clear message that rebellion was not a sensible thing to try. He was a very tough operator. Therefore he begins the trial of politics with a very obvious question - “Are you king? Are you trying to take over and clear us out of your country?” Jesus replies by stating that His kingdom is not of this world.
The method Jesus has employed is not that of force, making people do things as Pilate had to do. His method is an appeal to the heart, it is an internal issue, a calling out to be a citizen of heaven, the kingdom of Heaven we are told by Jesus to pray for each day. Politics will come and go. Jesus said that we will always have the poor with us. We will always be dealing with the problems of being human and yet in all this mysterious struggle there is something in every creature that will draw us through those temporary things into glory and into eternity. The method is an appeal to the soul, to the heart, that deep instinct to live beyond the limitations of this life with its fighting, its fear, its temporary hopes and joys – those are the signs of things we go through in order to enter into eternity. These are the elements of real human belief that we want to examine more thoroughly as part of this Lenten journey.
We need to consider this conversation carefully - Jesus is offering a very different perspective. If you think of Romans 8, nothing can separate us from the love of God, not height or depth or breadth or anything. He is talking about the creator of the universe, of everything that is, of political systems and anti-political systems, of religions and antireligions. His kingdom represents the creator of everything! There is a similar picture in St
Pilate gets a glimmer of this agenda and its significance when Jesus says “everyone who 10
belongs to the truth listens to my voice”. There is a deep spiritual connection between this human instinct for eternity and the words of Jesus. In response, Pilate asks that famous question “What is truth?” Here is a politician who knows how to ask the question – what is truth? – but he cannot see it when it is in front of him - because he thinks that truth is an intellectual proposition, or a set of ways of working, or a scientific theory you can prove. Whereas truth is what is in the human heart – that which Jesus calls out - the invitation to acknowledge the instinct for eternity.
Pilate knows that this is an important question for politics –‘what is truth?’ – but he wants a superficial immediate quick fix. The demands upon politics to maintain law and order often prevents there seeming to be time to recognise this deeper agenda. This serves to make politics relative, and always temporary, and always behind the curve. We tend to live our lives in this more immediate way too. Paradoxically Jesus is saying that truth is learned in silence, in inner contemplation: it is not a system of theories or organisation.
Individual reflection Spend a few moments in quiet reflecting on the statement that Jesus “came into the world to testify to the truth” – you might want to write this statement in the middle of a piece of paper. Also reflect on the interpretation that Jesus came to offer the invitation to acknowledge the instinct for eternity. Be courageously open with yourself ( you will not have to share this with the group) – what in your life makes you think about and feel this instinct for eternity; the gut feeling and thinking that there is something bigger, deeper, wider and more permanent than what is in the present moment? You might want to write those things down on your piece of paper, around Jesus statement.
Read or listen to these thoughts from Bishop Alastair
Thus, as a consummate politician, skilled in the primary art of surviving in the present and not really engaging with the more intractable issues of ultimate meaning and purpose, Pilate shifts the agenda and says: “I always release someone at this time – do you want Jesus or Barabbas?” He puts the responsibility on somebody else, on the people, not on himself. Should I crucify your king? And here the Jewish people, represented by this tiny, self-serving group commit a terrible blasphemy - because they know David is their
Poor Pilate is in a fix. Here is this man, is he a king? He has used the word king but in a different way. He claims that He is raising an issue about truth; Pilate is not sure what truth is. What do politicians do when they are in a fix? They offer people a choice, you have a referendum, or a review if you don’t know what to do!
king, that the line of David is the kingly line. And, of course, Jesus is of the line of David. Yet they say “the Emperor is our king”, (John 19:12). What an irony for this holy group that has refused to come off the pavement into the headquarters because they will be ritually defiled, and are bold enough to claim that the Emperor is our king - that is the person who we worship in a sense of law and order. By contrast, this impostor (though of the line of David) should be put to death.
localism? Pilate says “you do it, if that is what you want, you go in your little group and decide what you want to do, if you want to kill him, you kill him.” Let the local, the contextual, decide upon appropriate values and priorities. The political test is to maintain a peaceful framework of law and order, in this case through the violence of an innocent death. Politics is on trial and Pilate is trying to keep the peace. He is frightened of the big picture. He can only deal with what he can control through force in the immediate present. This big confusing picture of human hearts and the glory that envelops everybody, and a future with which God desires to grace people, is just beyond his political imagination, and so he says over to you, you deal with it in your own way.
In this text from St John we have a dramatic picture of politics on trial. We are given a description of a politician not taking responsibility but passing it on to others, and our old friend public opinion makes the decision, the crowd makes the decision. It is a decision that is defensive, pragmatic, designed to stop anything new happening. It aims to keep the vision restricted to the useful and the practical, to what we can see today and hope for tomorrow. There is no big vision, no heart soaring, no real desire for a greater perfection. Then Pilate says the great words “here is your king”. He presents Jesus and then he says “you take him, you put him to death”. Is this Big Government placing the responsibility upon what we have come to call
Politics is on trial around the issue of responsibility. Pilate is a politician not willing to take responsibility for truth, nor for decision making. He is the willing tool of public opinion, the will of the people who shout loudest. Public opinion is most powerful and effective when it is united in a negative judgement, a common enemy.
Group reflection What is “responsibility”? What does it mean to take responsibility for something?
Read or listen to these thoughts from Bishop Alastair
But Jesus remains silent. There can be no real communication between human politics based upon evidence of added value, and the mysterious power of a citizenship based upon sacrifice of self, and putting faith, hope and love before intellectual understanding.
This localised, popular approach is acted out in the second stage of the trial of politics – Jesus being put on trial by another king - Herod. This is the account in our text from Luke.
Two worlds and two languages are unable to connect, because of the driving selfconfidence of Herod’s political leadership in dominating the agenda.
Herod represents politics as localised, and as based upon experience and evidence. He is a person like many in the west today, intelligent, self-satisfied, well-off, mildly interested in religion, able to order much of his life as he chooses. His main interest is in the latest sensation – in this case the phenomenon of Jesus. Political responsibility is exercised by asking for evidence to substantiate the claims he thinks that Jesus is making in His use of the language of kingship. In the memorable words coined by Tim Rice in the pop opera Jesus Christ Superstar, Herod in effect says to Jesus, ‘prove to me that you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool’, an echo of the miracle of walking on the water, but as a personalised sign for this particular audience. Politics in this mode will only support things that ‘add value’ to what we already have – in a demonstrable way.
The contribution of the chief Priests and scribes is equally nervous and partisan condemnation. This is a ‘trial’ with no examination of the issues, simply a continuation of the defensive choice to maintain the status quo which has been formed between political and religious leaders. Both the political and the religious ‘trial’ is instant - no space for reflection or receiving anything new- the tenor of engagement is mocking and humiliating the One who is different. This is the classic form of humour in politics. Yet neither Pilate nor Herod find Jesus guilty. Politics has been on trial and found wanting. However, politics is willing to tolerate this funny ‘king’ - even if He needs to be contained by being mocked and marginalised.
Herod also questions Jesus at some length. He is interested in the agenda of a new kingdom.
Group discussion The Herod mentioned here is Herod Antipas who ruled as a Tetrarch – a word which suggests a group of four leaders, each given a particular territory (tetra is four in Greek). These are mentioned in Luke 3.1. Antipas had seen a series of Roman governors, of which Pilate was one; take over from his brother Archelaus as ruler of the biggest part of his father’s kingdom when it was divided up. His stepbrother Philip was also a Tetrarch. The other Tetrarch Lysanias was not Herodian. What do you think this situation added to or detracted from Herod Antipas’s ability to rule?
1. What does Christian faith have to contribute to political life? How do we as a National Church, a Diocese and as a local group of Christians offer this contribution? Looking back over the session you may want to think again around the following; things being made public, the big vision of eternity, the responsibility of leaders and the process of political debate. 2. What might you as a group of local Christians do differently in light of your discussion? 3. What might you as an individual do differently in light of this group discussion and your personal reflections?
Session 3: The Crowd on Trial This week’s session is based on Luke 23:13-25. You need to read this passage out loud as a group at the beginning of your time together. Read or listen to these thoughts from Bishop Alastair
shepherd amongst sheep who seemed to be lost. People not really embraced by religious or political systems in a meaningful way.
Each of us lives among other people. Sometimes we can get to know these ‘others’ and become a community. Mostly we do not know those around us, and so we form part of a ‘crowd’. The force which connects individuals, communities and crowds is ‘public opinion’. We have seen how religious leaders stayed in a small select group to make their decisions, before appealing to the crowds for support. They offered direction, not consultation.
This encounter reported in our text from Luke reminds us of the powers and responsibilities of ‘the crowd‘. The Romans used the media of ‘bread and circuses’ together with coins bearing the Emperor’s image, to manage the crowds. The chief priest and the scribes used the conforming disciplines of synagogue, Temple and Law. Most people seemed to have experienced these strategies of control in superficial ways – with limited commitment to the bigger cause being promoted.
By contrast, the politicians operated in more public areas - on a pavement, in the presence of religious leaders and others - yet this ‘transparency’ could only be handled by a clever correlation between the decision making of rulers and the will of the people.
The same might be said of the effects of the media in our own times– controlled and influenced by political, economic and cultural elites, but creating little more than a fairly fickle, superficial conformity – hence the disruptive potential of Twitter and tweeting.
Jesus spent much of His ministry amongst crowds, healing, feeding, and teaching – a
Group discussion Imagine you are the person tasked by Pilate to gather the chief priests, leaders and the people to hear Pilate’s decision about Jesus. Write a press statement, news headline or tweet inspiring them to attend.
their very nature, crowds operate on instinct and atmosphere – there are no easy mechanisms for discussion or considered decision making. Characteristically, therefore the response and choice of the crowd is immediate. An echo of the confident assertions of some sections of our media in pronouncing upon important issues.
Read or listen to these thoughts from Bishop Alastair In this text the crowd is challenged to choose between two judgements. One is the verdict of guilty and deserving of death - passed by the religious leadership. The guilt was of blasphemy against God and disloyalty to Caesar.
The crowd has enormous self-confidence. It feels equipped to arbitrate between right and wrong, who should be punished and who should be forgiven. It needs no details of character or circumstance – simply some headlines of guidance from religious and political leaders. When people come together to make a crowd, there is a discernible surge of energy and momentum, particularly in pursuing a negative judgement involving a clearly identified victim.
The alternative is the verdict of Pilate and Herod, of not guilty and deserving only of chastisement for minor public order offences – the tolerant inclusivity of political leadership. The charge was disloyalty to Caesar, which had not been proved, and disloyalty to God, on which the politicians refused to pronounce. Roman justice took great pride in its competence, and if we read the accounts of Holy Week carefully we will see that Jesus was pronounced ‘not guilty’ four times. There is no indication that the crowd deliberated about this choice to be made. By
Personal reflection Imagine you were motived to go and hear what Pilate had to say. What sort of crowd person are you? Would you get there early to get to the front? Would you arrive slightly late so that you could stand cautiously at the back? Would you be comfortable in the middle with a group of friends? How would you behave; would you joke about, be quiet, or heckle? Once some people had started shouting what would trigger you to join in? (You can be honest; you are not going to be asked to share this!)
Read or listen to these thoughts from Bishop Alastair negative and the simplistic, rather than the sophisticated and struggling ambiguity with which Jesus confronts us.
The crowd that is so confident that is knows right from wrong, and who to raise up, and who to pull down, chooses Barabbas. It is interesting that the choice is between Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Barabbas. Both names mean ‘saviour’ and the crowd have a choice between two kinds of saviour. Jesus of Nazareth is appealing to the heart, this complex inner life, our ability to struggle through the darkness and find light together. A testing journey as we often seem to slide back. A wonderful but struggling vision of light coming out of darkness.
Think of our Lord’s parables. They are ambiguous, we have to work at them – pray, think, struggle, learn, slip back – that is real life. But if someone jumps up and says “follow me”, “do that”, “we’ll achieve this”, then the faith of the crowd is kindled and together, they say “great, we can manage that” and off they go. Is this choice of the crowd warning to us about the frailty of democracy? We might like to recall the tragedy in the last century, when in all the pressures of the 1920’s and 30s there was the mass movement of what became known as totalitarianism, National Socialism and Nazism. These popular movements pleased the crowds by offering a very simple solution through a very dynamic and gifted leader, Adolf Hitler. He said “do this”, “follow me”, “we’ll get there”. It was very simple. Some are to be raised up, the Aryan race, and some need to be crushed, the Jews for instance.
By contrast, Jesus ‘the saviour’ Barabbas is the equivalent of our modern action man. He has got clear goals and clear values. He is passionate for religion to obtain its victory and he knows what he wants to do. The irony is that Barabbas is freed and yet he is probably guilty of the things for which Jesus was found not guilty by the politicians. He was probably a Jewish zealot who would have overthrown the Romans if he could get his own way, who wanted his narrow little religious group to triumph. However, all crowds find it easier to gather around the
Personal reflection Spend a few moments in quiet reflecting on your personal beliefs and assumptions about who Christ is for you in light of these two types of saviour figures. Which of the characteristics described above appear in your beliefs and assumptions? What surprises you? What might you need to give more time to reflect on? You may like to write this down for yourself so you don’t forget!
Read or listen to these thoughts from Bishop Alastair
Barabbas offered this simple, popular narrative and Jesus offered a large, complex, struggle and vision of light coming out of darkness. The crowd will always go for the former, and our witness is to say there is some value in the latter. If we stand for anything at all or we try to learn from this terrible day of judgement, it should be something to do with the fact that what Christians value demands the closer connections of community, and that kind of sensitivity even when dealing with strangers. Simply to be in a crowd is not good enough, it is dangerous, it is simplistic, it is judgmental, the energy is negative, it often becomes hysterical and full of hatred and selfrighteousness. Every crowd needs the challenge to become what we would call a community. That is what we do every Sunday. We invite a funny crowd, all of us funny people, with all out hang ups and strange ways and we come and we share the same bread and wine and we make a community for that moment as a sign to the world. Our different approaches and values are not ameliorated or finally ordered – simply held for a moment in a space of mutual humility and concern for a greater, common good.
Crowds are powerful things, public opinion is a powerful force and it is also very dangerous sometimes. Pilate hints at this, when he asks “what evil has he done?” He recognises that the crowd are putting evil on this person. Pilate would rather simply flog him and agree that he has been put in his place. But crowds develop a momentum and passion which easily becomes hatred. That is what happened in the Holocaust. Passion becomes hatred, it is brutal, it is death-dealing and it is wicked. What is very interesting in an age in which we try and export democracy around the world, is the fact that Jesus is executed as the result of a democratic decision. It is the people who make the decision. They choose negative judgement, a simplistic strategy of scapegoating and the energy of collective, self-righteous passion. This is true of first century Jerusalem, it was true of the Roman state, it was true of 20th century Germany, it is true of the world today. Of course it is not just out there. A sorry feature of parish life is the temptation to develop a kind of conspiracy theory and energy against somebody or something – identifying a scapegoat and grossly oversimplifying the issues. Often all that it required is for people to listen to each other, to get a bigger perspective and to work at tackling all the difficult things with which the heart needs to engage. But, instead people become ‘crowds’ around single issues, and simply demand that someone waves a magic wand to solve all their problems. It is often tempting to ask for a Barabbas kind of leadership, to want a Barabbas type of direct action.
It is interesting to reflect that the dynamics of making a ‘crowd’ creates an atmosphere which chooses a religious option, rather than the more measured, short term focussing on stability approach of the political. The crowd forms around condemnation of a perceived threat to the status quo. It develops a passion that surges in favour of direct action to develop a vision for a better future that has a clear outline and a strategy for delivery. There is no space to live with the slower tempo and reflective spaces of community life – where the depth of relationships constrains quick and excluding judgement, and allows an elasticity of approach that can embrace generosity and forgiveness.
It can be very hard sometimes to slow all of that down and say are we being too simplistic? Too judgmental? Too selfrighteous? Can we look at this in a wider way? Pray? Listen? And stand in the silence that Jesus stands in through these trials?
Group reflection Flogging was known as “the near death” or “the half death” and the Romans reserved it as a punishment for non-Roman citizens and often used it as a prelude to crucifixion. The Torah and Rabbinic law state that it may be used as punishment but may not exceed forty times so that the person being punished retains some dignity (Deuteronomy 25:1-3). In our passage Pilate proposes to have Jesus flogged and then release him. Discuss what Pilate might have thought this would indicate to the people gathered.
ACTION! 1. “Every crowd needs the challenge to become what we would call a community”. Where are the crowds in our society and culture today? As well as sharing bread and wine together what else can people of Christian faith do to challenge crowd mentality and behaviour wherever it is found? 2. What might you as a group of local Christians do differently in light of your discussion? 3. What might you as an individual do differently in light of this group discussion and your personal reflections?
Session 4: The King on Trial This week’s session is based on Luke 23:26-49 and Mark 15:33-39. You need to read these passages out loud as a group at the beginning of your time together. Read or listen to these thoughts from Bishop Alastair
popularity of some TV reality shows. The crowd gains identity and security by not facing up to its own issues but rather through projecting them on to what is called in religion ‘a scapegoat’. We can feel at ease because all that is wrong is focused in a victim. Jesus says “do not weep for me. Weep for yourselves”. This is a powerful warning.
This is a very public trial. The king is going to be nailed to the wood and raised up; he is not buried under the stones in a religious kind of settlement. It is a political and public statement and invitation. He is raised up for anyone to look at and see, and to make a judgement. The kingship of Jesus is on trial.
They come to the place of the skull – Golgotha. All that is left of these processes of judgement are dry bones. Two others are crucified. The ‘king’ is in fact just one case among a number. This small site becomes the theatre of salvation. Jesus says “Father forgive them”, and if you look at the words it is not a statement, it is a mantra. He said to them again and again as he is crucified ‘Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing’. All these people present do not know a deeper or richer way of understanding life and living it. Religion, politics, the crowd – have all been found wanting, and yet, even at this last moment, Jesus invites them to look at him on the cross. The King is on trial.
Jesus carries the cross as a sign of being found guilty. He was found guilty by the religious and political establishments and by the crowd. It is a long route. The Romans designed a very long route for these poor people, to make an example. A soldier would walk in front of the person carrying the cross with a sign proclaiming their offence, so that everybody got the message. What is interesting is that the Romans never allowed crucifixions in Italy, since it was deemed to be too barbaric. Crucifixion only happened in the provinces to give this strong message about conformity.
There are just a few non-conformists in this crowd that is so solidified in getting what it wants. The text picks out Simon of Cyrene who sides with Jesus and helps carry the cross. There are a small group of family and friends. There is the group of women who accompany Jesus in his ministry. There is the tradition of Veronica who steps forward to wipe Jesus’ brow.
Jesus walks with a soldier in front of him on a long route to make sure as many people as possible get the message. The crowds follow him and this is their moment. There will be a mix of motives, but there is cohesion. This is what they wanted and now they achieve the result they chose. We know from history that crowds do gather for burnings or hangings. There is a macabre solidarity in the sufferings of others: something still evident in the
Group discussion Imagine you are walking together as a group in the crowd following Jesus carrying his cross to Golgotha. What are people around you saying and doing? What are you saying and doing? How does the crowd react to Simon of Cyrene and Jesus’ family and friends?
Read or listen to these thoughts from Bishop Alastair
to crucify and squeeze the last bit of life out of the wood that was still just green.
In a strange way, this scene could be viewed as a picture of the church. Sometimes society wants simple self righteous solutions and we are a little group of non conformists who actually want to minister to the Lord, stand with him and witness to this richer but more challenging way of living life and seeing it. Jesus uses a cryptic phrase “the wood is green” i.e. there is still a bit of life in this wood, it is green, it is not completely dry. There is still a trial on this cross, the wood is still green. What will happen when it is dry and we have let all the life go out of it? Human judgement has crowded together to support this verdict of guilty. Yet if we look carefully the wood is green, there is some possibility of life but it is drying up fast. The crowd continues to mock him, so the wood appears to be finally dry and dead. Then the famous inscription is mounted on the cross “The King of the Jews”. It is in three languages for the three great religions and cultures of the time. It is in Hebrew – the language of religion and spirituality, it is in Latin – the language of law and order and culture, and it is in the Greek – the language of intellectual understanding and of intellectual endeavour.
On this cross Jesus the king is crucified. He is held up to put all these people and all these systems on trial in the very moment of these forces combining to try His claim to be a king. The amazing thing is that as Jesus dies the crowd changes, suddenly its self confidence and its solidarity disappear and they shrink away. So often having got what the crowd wants, it is embarrassed and ashamed. This is what the crowd wanted and this is what the crowd has achieved – an innocent, good man murdered on a cross. The life squeezed out of the wood even though it is green. An alternative understanding of kingship and kingdom rejected in favour of retaining the power of the people. We might recall the parable in which the rich man who plans to build bigger barns is told: “tonight your soul is required, there is a bigger agenda, that is what you are made for. If you are so focused on getting your own way, in your own time, for your own benefit you are going to miss the invitation and the life that is in the wood even when it is green” We are so often tempted, as religious or political people, or as part of the crowd, to look at life and its mystery in a simple, self righteous and defensive way, which has the effect of squeezing the life out of the wood, even though it is still green. What a tragedy for those who participate in that short
The soldiers crucified the Lord, they act out the power that the crowd has, the political systems have and the religious systems have -
sighted, self righteous simplicity. And what a challenge to Christians reading this text to discern that in the life and death of this king there is still something that can speak to the heart, that desires to forgive us because we know not what we do. That is what the Lord is
saying as everybody observes His trial by looking at this cross. He is not judgemental. He is simply saying ‘Father forgive them they know not what they do’.
Personal reflection Where is the wood still green in your life? What do you need to do to make sure the wood doesn’t dry out or the life gets squeezed out? You are not going to be asked to share this so you might want to note something down to reflect on later.
Read or listen to these thoughts from Bishop Alastair Of course like all Jews, Jesus would have learnt that the Psalms as a child. And anyone hearing him say the words “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me”, would recognise the beginning of Psalm 22. This Psalm is in small sections. There is a section saying that things are really difficult “fat bulls of Bashan are attacking, my bones are being broken”, but between each section which rehearses the evidence of darkness and things going wrong, between each of those little blocks of real experiences, are other sections remembering God’s mercy, God’s grace and God’s promise. That is how the light and the darkness work. The Psalm is an expression of what Jesus is: of a new kind of rule. Darkness yielding light, a different kind of kingdom, a different kind of king. In our own lives, sometimes what seems like concrete evidence indicates that God is abandoning us; Illness, disaster, the breaking of relationships. But if we recall that our God longs to forgive us, to heal us, to restore us, to nourish us, then a different perspective and confidence emerges. We learn to submit to a different rule. That is why in a modern church in the
Then there is darkness across the whole land. Noon and the third hour are times of prayer. Each day has times for prayer, moments of seeking light in the darkness of the world with its struggles and complexities. Jesus is on trial as ‘king’ between these two moments of prayer. His whole ministry was to invite people to learn to see out of this darkness. Jesus proclaims “I am the light of the world. If you look at me, then from what seems darkness will come illumination for your souls, your aspirations, your sense of direction and your faith in God.” In Mark’s account, at this moment Jesus utters some words from the Psalm 22 “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me”. On the surface this sentence sounds terrible – “have you abandoned me?”
why religion finds it so hard to recognise the nature of kingship in Jesus. He pours out light in to our darkness, but too quickly we think we know how this works, and we put it in a box. We control what we are offered, and we are soon back to those little groups of religious people who were self-righteous, over confident, defensive, narrow and frightened. These people jump to the wrong conclusion because they are too narrow – “He is calling for Elijah.”
moments of darkness, although we do not have the discipline of the third hour of prayer, we do have scripture, sacraments, worship, creed and ministry – moments to recall who God is, how God wants to operate, what He offers. That is the light that comes back in to the darkness that sometimes seems to be so evident in our immediate surroundings. It is interesting to note that the bystanders witness Jesus beginning this Psalm, but they mishear and they say he is calling for Elijah. We can recognise that it can be very difficult for us to hear the word of our Lord in our consciences, in our souls, in our spirit, because the frames we inhabit are so strong that whatever we hear is processed. These people thought they knew about Elijah. Whatever they heard they simply assumed that Jesus must be talking about Elijah. This is
That is the danger when we are between the hours of prayer, those moments of seeking illumination, and we too quickly operate on our immediate assumptions, which leads us to make the wrong call.
Group discussion Pool what you know about Elijah. Would it make sense to the bystanders for Jesus to be calling for Elijah? If so, why?
conditioned answers and although they are trying to help where there is suffering, they are in darkness. And yet in this forgiving king the Father reaches out.
Read or listen to these thoughts from Bishop Alastair However, we human beings are not all bad and impetuous. Those around the trial on the cross offer what we call pastoral care. They offer sour wine, mixed with a drug to take away the pain and help people die slightly more easily. Goodness is present in people’s hearts, but trapped within quick answers and an easy judgementalism.
Parents recognise that no matter how children behave there is a bond that can never be broken. There is something deep that connects and absorbs, and forgives. Jesus calls God our Father. His kingship proclaims the connection of citizenship; a bond beneath the darkness, a light which absorbs heals and grows together. This king does not offer laws as the key to security and stability He offers baptism to cleanse us and Eucharist to join us in a kingdom of light.
There is an irony that that this darkness begins of noon-tide, which should have been the brightest time of the day. The people witnessing the trial of the king are not hearing what is being said, they have their pre23
As the earthly part of this trial of our king comes to an end, the curtain in the temple is torn in two. The barrier that religion created between those who are in and out, the barrier that the crowd create between those who are in and out, is just dissolved. There is to be a new kingdom of openness and connection. It will be manifested on the Day of Pentecost.
centurion proclaims in St Luke’s account “this man was innocent”, while in St Mark he judges ‘Truly this man was God’s Son’ The judge is not a religious leader, not a politician, not the crowd. The judge is a jobbing soldier – a pagan, the organising leader of ‘otherness‘. He can see the light in the darkness. The key witness to this kind of kingship is the most unlikely person.
And finally, the trial of the king ends with the head of another hierarchy of commitment and connection pronouncing the verdict. The
Group reflection Imagine you are having supper with your family having gone home from watching Jesus’ crucifixion. Suddenly someone rushes in and tells you that the temple curtain has torn in two and the holiest space has been revealed. What do you say to those you trust the most?
ACTION! 1. What have you learnt from exploring this passage about honouring Jesus as the Crucified King today? You might want to consider, among other things, the place of standing out from the crowd in public, looking for life and light, our tendency to operate with ready-made answers and hear what we want to hear and the breaking down of divisions between who’s “in” and who’s “out”. 2. What might you as a group of local Christians do differently in light of your discussion? 3. What might you as an individual do differently in light of this group discussion and your personal reflections?
Session 5: Ourselves on Trial This week’s session is based on Luke 24:1-12.You need to read this passage out loud as a group at the beginning of your time together. Read or listen to these thoughts from Bishop Alastair
women the key at this moment is the tomb. This is the destination of all life, the reality of death. There is no other way, and so they come to embalm the body, to confirm the reality of mortality. Life leads to this narrow entrance, this small, dark space. Life leads to the tomb of death: dust to dust.
We have looked at various kinds of trials taking place as Jesus was crucified - to help our own reflections and self-examination during this journey of Lent. This week we will consider the outcome of these trials: the story we will read on Easter Day. In a way this is the story of our trial. We are challenged to make a judgement and offer evidence of our relationship to the examination of politics, religion, the life of the crowd, the offer of a king. What is our judgement? What is the verdict in relation to our own journey and witness?
However, what these ministers to the reality of death discover is that this is not a tomb, the place of ultimate ending. Rather this small dark place is a place of beginning, of new life, of dazzling light. They bow down in amazement. Their response is an attitude of worship, of bowing down to a greater reality, one that is glimpsed as light in the place of darkness, as life in the place of death.
The text taken from St Luke starts with the first day of the week. The Jewish Sabbath was a Saturday and it was a rest day for reflection, for prayer. Following this discipline of rest and reflection, our Holy Saturday in terms of the Easter story, there comes the day of resurrection. On this day after the Sabbath, this day of prayer and preparation, the women come to the tomb. The stone had been rolled away. Tombs at that time were made in caves or by making caves in the rock. The construction would include a round stone, like a mill stone, and the making of a channel so that this stone could be rolled into place as a cover, to seal the tomb. The report about rolling away the stone indicates a fairly sophisticated structure, and we know in fact, that it was a grave of a rich person, Joseph of Arimathea.
This is the test for any church. Often our churches are stone structures, a small entrance into a dark space – certainly in the eyes of those who rarely or never attend. Is a church a place of light and life amidst lives dominated by the reality of darkness and death? As the women bow down into this mystery, they are able to hear the voice of the angel saying this is not the end, merely the beginning – there is no dead body. He is not here, He has risen. The king is enthroned in glory by passing through the darkness. Only the Lenten journey with our Lord can help us grasp this mystery and learn to approach what seems like endings in a spirit which opens up new beginnings – a different kind of citizenship - a new approach to religion and politics, to community and connectivity.
When the women come to the tomb, they roll away the stone and there is a narrow entrance to a small dark space. For these
Group discussion Imagine you have just arrived at your friend’s house to pick her up and go to Jesus’ tomb together. She has just nipped into another room to get some extra spices and her young daughter asks you about where you are going, what you are doing and how you feel. What do you say?
our God works. He takes us sinners and our pompousness and our righteousness and if we will but prepare, reflect and pray, recognise the evidence of death or failure, and bow down in worship, there can be forgiveness, grace and new life. If we prefer to choose to focus upon politics religion or being in the apparent safety of a crowd, and refuse to risk stepping out from these all too human schemes for survival, we will not reach the moment that invites us to bow down before the mystery of the evidence, of our finitude and limitation, and discover something more. If we try and control human beings simply around the apparent evidence, and not risk the trial of critical self-examination which exposes their limitations, then we will miss the gift of new life, the birth of a richer reality.
Read or listen to these thoughts from Bishop Alastair Each of the four gospels gives us the same sequence. This wisdom of the gift of new life comes through this sequence: first preparation, the day of preparation, - second the priority of Sabbath, reflection and prayer, - third coming to face the real vulnerability and limitedness of life, - fourth the humility to bow down in to the darkness and, - finally, behold it is not the end, there is a revelation of new light and new life. This life giving sequence does not happen automatically. It needs preparation, the Sabbath discipline of prayer, facing up to the reality of the end of life, bowing down in an act of worship before that mystery and then being enabled to receive something unexpected and miraculous. He is not here, He is risen. The key to this story is the message which the voice gives to them - “remember”. We must remember, as Jesus did on the cross, saying Psalm 22. If we remember what Jesus says to us as king, and what He showed to us in His life, that whenever the evidence points to the reality of darkness and death, to someone crippled in their back for 18 years, or with a flow of blood, or being blind, or dumb, or whatever the evidence seems to be, even the power of death over Lazarus, whatever the evidence, if we bow down and wait, and watch for mercy, new life can miraculously be given.
This moment of transformation occurs on the third day. They have had to wait all this time – this is not an automatic process, or even as predictable as a seed planted in the ground and then emerging. This is a gift for those who come in the right spiritual state and wait and watch like these women did in the stillness of a Sabbath rest, and then the darkness of the tomb. To those who are properly prepared, the new life can be given, a moment of resurrection – not just for themselves, but for the women thus graced to become apostles of this good news to others. We should stress that these women were the most unlikely witnesses.
This journey with our Lord right into Gethsemane, Golgotha and now the Garden, equips us to discern something about the way
They go from this place of spiritual encounter, having caught the vision and trusting that it is true. They know in their souls a new light and 26
women. Peter did the same thing, revelation comes to him later. We must not think that if we come to church God will speak to us directly and give us an immediate answer to send us on our way rejoicing. Each of us must come and bow down, and wait, and watch, and trust the Lord will give light and guidance, and the confidence that we need. But the gift is a mystery of the king’s pleasure – as are the verdicts of all judgements.
peace and hope. They recognise a continuity with who Jesus was and how He operated, not least this primary process of new light coming from darkness, new life. As they go to share this amazing revelation with others, they find that no-one believes them, even their friends doubt their story, because women were not perceived as reliable witnesses and it probably seemed absurd anyway. Peter and the others do not believe them. Peter goes, as we know, to have a look for himself. He bows down but he does not hear the voice or receive the revelation until later. He too has been waiting and watching, and yet when he confronts the evidence of death and bows down in to the darkness there is no immediate insight or confirmation of the first apostles’ story. This is important for us to notice, because it reminds us that there is not some magic formula for Christians. We prepare, we pray, we come to face the evidence and in a while there is revelation – that is what happened to the
This encounter provides an outline of the trial offered to each human soul. We prepare by following the Lenten journey. Observing the trials of religion, politics, the crowd, the king who calls us. This last trial shows one lifted up – into darkness and death, Christ the Messiah, nailed to the cross, judged guilty – by religion, by politics, by the crowd, by people clinging to more worldly ways of citizenship. Now, we are on trial this day, we have seen the other trials, we have seen this man.
Personal reflection Spend some time by yourself thinking about your own life and this sequence of preparation, rest and reflection, owning our own vulnerability and limitations, humility to bow down in worship and willingness to wait and receive new light, new life.
Read or listen to these thoughts from Bishop Alastair recall what the women did so that their waiting and watching could be blessed with the gift of new life welling up inside them so that it could be shared with others. First, they took spices, that is, they prepared seriously for coming to the place where the evidence of the mortality of life is confronted, they prepared carefully, seriously and thoughtfully. They prepared to honour Jesus. Then they
The church is often the place we come to, we bow down and we look, but even for those who are Christians, we do not enter in, we just bow and nod really. In our own preparation for this ultimate trial, we must beware false starts and short cuts. Alongside the testing journey through religion, politics, public opinion and safe citizenship, we should 27
came early. This shows that it is their first priority; they did not just fit in this visit as we tend to do.
women tended to do too – preparation, arranging the Sabbath, rising early, facing the reality of death, and yet humbly bowing down into the darkness and so receiving this new light.
Next we can note their attitude. Because they are women they are not used to having a view or being able to speak out to others. In fact, as women, they would be open to receiving an interpretation from somebody else. Most of us come to church, as do other groups, to have our opinions confirmed. We invest in places and practices that seem to underwrite our need for stability and security.
The women were used to being dependent, receiving new words without being involved in the rationale or planning. Although members of the small minded groups which populate the areas of religion and politics, and although active members of crowds and jeering critics of alternative kingships nonetheless the women who came to the tomb had inhabited the darker places, from which new light would be immediately and sometimes surprisingly acknowledged and received with grateful joy.
But women of that time were not allowed to have an opinion. Rather they would have been used to being given a revelation, a way of looking or understanding. They were not used to being in control, of having tight systems in which to hide and feel secure. Thus, despite living in such a traditional and regimented society, they would have been the most likely people to be open to new insights, new ways, new wisdom because women, sadly, were not educated and thus had to receive things in bits and pieces as they went along.
Our Lenten journey is a challenge to bring something of the humble, trusting, beingdone-to spirituality of these followers of Jesus, in relationship to the necessary and important need to order human life through religion, politics, crowds and citizenship. Both elements are vital. Our Lord Himself manifests both elements of spiritual witness, the directing power of leadership and the humble submissions of sonship. In this text of the day of Resurrection we see a rebirth of His inspiring, directing kingship, but only through the humble, dependent path that He had followed.
This means that they came with an openness that many men were protected from. We see this in the fact that Peter’s first reaction was not to believe. Whereas they were able to be challenged and changed by what God gave them, because they did not have this narrow defensiveness.
We should not be too influenced by a simple ‘gender ‘approach to this important dynamic. There are issues of great significance in the apostolic ministry of the women in these texts, as well as in the reactions of Peter and his male companions. But the outcomes differ in terms of timing and cultural formation- and the implications are there to challenge all of us.
Suddenly a gift is given, their hearts are set on fire and they know that this is not the end, that He has risen. The whole pattern of His life now makes sense for their lives, for the way God works in the world, for a hope of glory, and forgiveness, and new life. Now there is hope that every creature can be changed and receive in the light which overcomes darkness and death. But the key is something the
Group discussion The women’s words seemed to the men as “idle tales”, folly or nonsense. The word in Greek is léros (lay-ros) and it appears exclusively here in the Biblical text. Why would Luke use such a distinctive word at this point?
ACTION! 1. The word “discipleship” is an easy word to use but a hard word to define! From what you have learnt today how would you define discipleship? How do we as a National Church, as a Diocese and as a local group of Christians encourage this discipleship? 2. What might you as a group of local Christians do differently in light of your discussion? 3. What might you as an individual do differently in light of this group discussion and your personal reflections?
Session 6: Christianity on Trial This week’s session is based on John 13.You need to read this passage out loud as a group at the beginning of your time together. Read or listen to these thoughts from Bishop Alastair
Amidst the tumultuous and decisive events of this week, those whom Jesus has gathered as His disciples, His particular followers and witnesses, were given a condensed summary of His message and His methods – in the form of the kind of Passover activity familiar to so many in those times. This was a small supper – Passover, its aspiration and its action, focused in a small place, with a small group – a laboratory and model of the challenge and opportunity for a humanity born with this script in our hearts.
In this last and final week of our Lenten journey, we observe ‘Holy Week’ – the key movement from the apparent success of Palm Sunday, when the crowds sing the praises of the king riding on a donkey - to the what appears to be the collapse and disintegration of everything that Jesus had proclaimed and offered. For a brief moment the world seemed to be united in a rare display of harmony and celebration, humanity at its best. Then, within a few days, everything that we might aspire to is dissolved into bickering, betrayal, arrest, torture and death.
Passover provides the plot, the script. The account at the Supper introduces characters and a series of commandments. To Passover from death to life, from this world to another world, we have to give ourselves away. New life is not automatic or natural as we might see in a seed planted and dying and growing again. New life is a gift we have to choose to receive and the key scene to illustrate this process is acted out at this last supper. Passover happens in little groups doing ordinary things like gathering around a table and having a meal. And in our text from this chapter of St John, Jesus shows us how this choice can be shared.
This is the week of Passover – recollecting the journey of Israel from the rich but ‘pagan’ civilisation of Egypt, into a Promised Land which had to be accessed through a wilderness and a long tortuous journey dealing with the minefields of religion, and of political and popular pressures. Passover is the script of every soap-opera, much literature and human aspiration; the desire deep in human heart, to shift from the superficial delights of so called civilisation, which is always but a mask for the reality of darkness and death – to a promised land of ultimate fulfilment and flourishing.
Group discussion Imagine you are meeting to celebrate Passover in the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day. What are you looking forward to and why? What are your concerns and why? Is this similar to or different from your expectations and concerns about celebrating Easter or Christmas in contemporary culture?
ourselves away and to sacrifice ourselves so as to be made into one, the body of Christ, His church, His glory. Read or listen to these thoughts from Bishop Alastair
Thus worship is the first instruction - “do this, take bread and wine, remember me giving myself to the Father, you do the same, give yourself away, be taken, blessed, broken in your selfishness and distributed like the bread and the wine to those who need God’s life given to them too. Do this, take this bread and wine, be joined in Jesus, be joined in each other, do this, this is an instruction.” The Church reminds us on Maundy Thursday that if we are going to make the right choice about receiving the resurrection it has to be through the discipline of “doing this”. When we give ourselves into the fellowship of those sharing the bread and wine, we are drawn out of ourselves, joined to others by the miracle of grace and made one in the body of Christ. This is the means by which we receive new life and eternity. But it is not quite as simple as that first instruction might imply.
We need to recognise that Jesus has two ways of teaching. One of them is by invitation. He tells stories and parables and it is up to us to reflect, place ourselves in the story, and to grow in our understanding. We all think about the parables differently, and as we think different thoughts, imagine different things, we grow ourselves by pursuing this invitation to reflect, engage and develop new insights. However, Jesus also has another style of teaching, which is not by invitation, rather it operates through instruction - He just tells us. An example would be the Sermon on the Mount, where we are told that not just murder is a sin, so is anger. There is no messing, this is an instruction. That is more of a challenge to the self because with invitation we grow the self as it suits ourselves.
There is a second instruction that comes in our text for this week: “do this and wash one another’s feet,” Jesus says that as He has performed this act, so we should similarly serve one another. We should recall that washing feet in that context was a very practical, useful, effective act. There were no made up roads, it was dusty and everybody wore sandals. Feet soon got dirty. In such a context it would have been enormously refreshing for somebody else to wash your feet to cool them and to cleanse them. That kind of service is practical, useful, it makes a difference and makes people feel better.
In our text, in this account of the last supper, instruction is given and enacted. In this key scene at the end of His ministry Jesus summarises His whole message to human kind with three instructions. They are given to His disciples as a framework for the essence of our witness to the king and His kingdom. As we consider these three commands, our Christian discipleship is on trial. The first instruction comes from the accounts of this Last Supper in the other Gospels. It is summarised by St Paul in the tenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians. Jesus says do this share this bread and wine. This scene is enacted as a model of how our broken, incomplete lives need to be gathered together in the grace of the kingdom, to create a Body in which each can live and flourish. We are instructed to come to share bread and wine, an offering of ourselves as Jesus offered Himself on the cross to the Father, to be joined up into the glory of the Promised Land. We are called to give
In some churches on Maundy Thursday there is a foot washing ceremony and what that signifies is that everybody should participate in the foot washing, whether it is the Pope or the humblest server – whoever it is – everybody with all our different roles and functions. In the church and in society everybody is called to be a washer of feet, and to have our feet washed too. “Do this as I have done for you.” Think of the Apostles that night. What a mixed group. There were the 31
top three, Peter, James and John who were present at all the major moments. I wonder what the others felt about that fact and their own exclusion. There were all other kinds of disciples too I expect. People lived in very public contexts. As a sign to all of them, our Lord instructed, “Do this”: a model of how His followers need to behave: distinctive: simple: effective. To recap: two instructions so far – worship, share bread and wine and get drawn into giving yourself, be made the body of Christ, bearers of God’s will in the world. ‘Then do this’ – wash peoples feet, do something simple, practical, that makes a difference to enable other people to feel better and live a richer life.
society and how we relate to each other has always been built on things such as honour or status or power or wealth, and that is still the basic framework within which we relate. If we lack those things we are judged to be poor and not making the best of ourselves. Human society has always worked in this way – through systems of survival formed out of competitive selfishness. We grow up desiring to be top of the tree, just as James and John wanted to be placed on the right and left of Jesus. Power, status, wealth, property, these are the kinds of things that make us feel fulfilled, and they are often expressions of a selfish instinct which feels secure only if others seem to be below us in the pecking order. By contrast Jesus kneels and makes Himself lower than those He seeks to serve.
However there is a third instruction in our text. The third instruction comes at the end of the gospel when Jesus says – “do this – love one another- that is a new commandment.” It is very easy for us Christians to miss the commandment to love one another, because being Christian is about love. What is new we might think? Yet Jesus insists that this is a new commandment, Let us think carefully. Human
The Ten Commandments give guidance about how we should deal with honour and shame and ownership. Then Jesus arrives and says that while the agenda will continue in terms of enduring concern with power, wealth and status, nonetheless, the revolution that is His gospel is focused in a command that is devastatingly simple: love one another. Every relationship should start and finish in love.
Group discussion Explore the statement that Jesus teaches in two ways; invitation and instruction. Can love be commanded?
Read or listen to these thoughts from Bishop Alastair and endures all things. It is patient, kind, endures all things, not jealous. ‘We’ know that is how we are made to be. Giving yourself to others is what love involves: it touches the heart and when people come to those moments of love in a wedding service, that is what they want said, what they want
Many wedding couples choose that famous passage from 1 Corinthians chapter 13, about love, even those who are not practicing Christians. They recognise the importance of love as something that hears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, 32
to hear, that is what they know they are made for – and Jesus says that this is a new commandment.
To be human is to be able to choose. To exercise what the theologians have called our free will. To choose involves making a judgement. We need to consider the evidence of our experience, our established practices, and the traditional, accumulated wisdom amongst human kind. Alongside this ‘evidence’, we need to listen to the murmur of our hearts, that deeper register of hope for a greater horizon, a richer fulfilment, an eternal home.
The danger is that we use the word love in such a loose way. We think we know about it, we think as Christians we are bearers of the love of God. But we need to be honest about that little flicker of envy when we open the paper and see that someone has won the lottery! There is something in us that desires that kind of honour and status and wealth and property, that makes us believe we can be self-sufficient and in control of our lives. The other side of this coin is the fact that as a result of our search for these things, others will be denied, to enable us to know we have risen above them, into this very familiar and sadly enticing way of being human, Jesus introduces a new commandment – love one another.
In this Holy week we are on trial in our attempt to make this choice. Our Lord provides three instructions to shape and direct our path as our journey approaches the summit of Golgotha and the Empty Tomb on Easter Morning. We are challenged to choose three simple, basic activities, each expressed through small gathered groupings enacting our desire for Passover from the present times to the Promised Land: - To worship, focussed on the sharing of bread and wine in remembrance of our Lord’s life, death and resurrection. This is a moment for forgiveness, fellowship and the birth of new life in us and among us. A sacrament or sign to the rest of God’s children. - To give ordinary, everyday service and care that will make a real difference in somebody else’s life, like washing tired feet in a hot, dusty climate. - To love others without limit: to love in generosity and self-sacrifice, resisting temptation to seek self-security in wealth, power and status.
How would the world be transformed, how would the relationships in our parishes be transformed if people loved one another? If we were patient, kind, forgiving, gracious, gentle – all those qualities that Paul lists in 1 Corinthians 13. In this Holy Week we have the definitive moment enacted in that supper room. Our Lord summarises His message and His methods. He models the kind of citizenship that His kingship requires – the kind of citizenship of loving service that will transform our approach to religion, politics, human relationships beyond our core groups (the crowd factor), our understanding of ourselves and of our Christian discipleship. Let us pay especial attention this week to the Passover Script, and the challenge to give ourselves to God and to others in love, so that we can be caught up in the grace and new life of the kingdom of Heaven – made manifest amongst us here on earth.
Three commands - devastating in their simplicity, terrifying in the challenge to take them seriously and give them priority.
Personal reflection Take some time to reflect quietly on this challenge for yourself. Do you have some choices to make? How are you going to go about it?
ACTION! 1. Christianity is defined here as small gathered groups worshipping, doing acts of service and loving others without limits. Is this what you see of the church nationally, as a Diocese and at local level? 2. What might you as a group of local Christians do differently in light of your discussion? 3. What might you as an individual do differently in light of this group discussion and your personal reflections? 4. What reflections might you offer to Bishop Alastair about the life of the Diocese?