This is the post excerpt.
Much of the best literature, whatever the surface story, is really about friendships: Holmes and Watson; Harry Potter, Ron and Hermione; Sam and Frodo; Winnie the Pooh and Piglet…
Or, if your taste in literature is a little more mature: Hamlet and Horatio; Elizabeth Bennett and Charlotte Collins…
Friendships make good literature, because it’s in our relationships with true friends that we grow and become ourselves. With friends at our side, we often achieve things we couldn’t imagine tackling alone.
If we’re lucky – we all have someone we recognise as a true friend; perhaps you can picture yours now. On the surface they may look very different – a family member, a school friend, someone we came across much later in life…but all good friendships have things in common.
They will be relationships that have changed both of us. A true friend will know all about us, the good and the bad, but still want to be our friend. And we’ll know their secrets too. With our friends we won’t always feel the need to talk. They’ll sympathise with our failures, and celebrate our successes. They won’t be afraid to tell us the things about ourselves we need to hear. And when we’re struggling, and perhaps have nothing to bring to the friendship…a true friend will be there anyway, expecting nothing in return, because they love us.
Yes – if we’re lucky we know about friendships. But today we hear Jesus say, “You are my friends…I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father.”
That’s quite something to take in. Imagine the relationship you have with your best friend – and put Jesus into that picture. We know Jesus loves us – the cross shows us that – but to really accept, ‘I do not call you servants, but friends’, is quite a challenge.
A challenge, but for me important. A servant might love a good master – but there’s always something of compulsion, of power, in that relationship. The point about true friendship is that it’s freely given – on both sides. And it seems this is the relationship God wants with us, through Jesus.
There’s a poem by Adrian Plass that grapples with this idea…in the first verse God describes how he could, with the smallest movement, destroy us…in the second of how he brought the dead back to life and could do so again…the third lists all the ways God can be known, ‘Father, brother, Shepherd, friend, Alpha and Omega, King of Kings…
Each verse ends…
But I cannot make you love me
I cannot make you, will not make you, cannot make you love me
God in Jesus cannot make us love him, because if it’s forced, it isn’t love; he will not make us love him – because it’s our love, freely given, that he wants, before our obedience.
So, I go back to the example of my best friend…and try to picture Jesus inhabiting my life in the same way. Knowing the worst of me, not just because he’s God but because I feel able to share it, and loving me anyway. Being someone it’s ok to question; or to just sit in silence with. Sympathising with my failures and celebrating my successes. And, when I have nothing to bring to the relationship…perhaps not even faith…being there anyway, loving me and asking nothing in return.
It’s very different to many pictures of Jesus, but I think it’s important to hear Jesus calling us friends, because it helps us grow up as Christians. Good friends help us mature into better people because they dare to point out our faults, and show us a better way.
It’s said we’re known by the company we keep – but more than that, we tend to become the company we keep. Friends take on each other’s characteristics. Through friendship with Christ, far more than attempting obedience, we will become more Christlike.
Friends of course are equals. They learn from each other and change each other for the better. Can we really have that sort of relationship with Christ? There are stories in the bible of people who challenge God into apparently changing his mind…Moses and Abraham who plead on behalf of people God has said he will destroy; Jesus’ mother who asked him to ‘do something’ at the wedding in Cana; the Canaanite woman who persuades him to heal her child.
I don’t understand how Jesus could be changed by our friendship…but I do think we are encouraged to question, to wrestle…even to disagree…as we try to grow as Christians.
And even if it is only we who are changed by the friendship, the changes for the better in us may affect how Christ is seen in the world. In some mysterious way, the body of Christ here on earth may be changed by our friendship with Christ.
And as he said, Jesus calls us friends, calls us into that unique relationship with him so that we love one another as he has loved us. The friendship Jesus offers gives us choice and dignity. The invitation to question allows us to discover what faith means in good times and bad. His love gives us the confidence to fail but try again.
Only by being loved as friends will we develop into people who can love others in this way. Not just those we count as dear friends, but everyone who is part of this church.
If we at Adel St John begin to love one another as Jesus loves us, then we will be a church people want to join. And then the love of God will spill over into the community around, and others will discover its power to transform their lives.
I’m not a great wine drinker, and know little about vineyards, vintages or grapes…so I was amazed last month to see French vine growers lighting candles and fires under each vine in a desperate attempt to protect them from frost.
This is their livelihood of course, but I found the level of care for each individual vine quite moving. It also gave me a new perspective on God as vine grower in today’s gospel.
Clearly, for the vine grower, the point of vines is to produce grapes. In this passage, Jesus likens his followers to branches on a vine…reminding us we should be producing fruit.
Jesus doesn’t tell us what this fruit is…but we might suppose it consists of lives becoming more Christlike; of acts of love and compassion; of more evidence of the fruits of the Spirit named by St Paul: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control.
From this gospel reading, it’s easy to end up with a picture of fruitful Christians going to heaven…unfruitful ones cast into the fire. Like many bible passages, this one can be used to judge others…they don’t show this or that fruit…they aren’t proper Christians; or ourselves…what if I’m not producing enough fruit? How do I know?
As usual though, if we dig a little deeper, we find there are other ways to look at it. Since the first hearers will have been very familiar with grape production…a foray onto the internet seemed a good starting point.
And d’you know…I didn’t find any suggestion the grower shout at their vines, ”Produce more fruit or else!”, or that vines can prune themselves. Ridiculous ideas of course…but perhaps worth remembering as we picture God as vinedresser as some translations put it.
The first advice I found for would be vine dressers said, ‘No matter where you grow your grape vines, you’ll need some sort of support system.’
Grape vines apparently grow naturally in woodlands, climbing up trees. Left to themselves in open places they grow across the ground, producing bushy growth, many roots, but little fruit. So, vine dressers lift them and fasten them to supports.
I struggle a bit with verse 2 in today’s reading: ‘God removes every branch in Jesus that bears no fruit.’ But the word translated as ‘removes’, can also mean ‘lifts up’. So which do we use? Well vine dressers, it seems, focus on the lifting up of branches, so they reach the sun, take what they need from the main vine, and produce grapes.
This fits with what I’ve experienced of God. God for me has been the one who knows how by ourselves we struggle to do what’s right; who tenderly cares for each one of us; who through Jesus offers his grace time and time again. I think the God who does that will also lift us up when we’re unfruitful, into a place where we might begin to bear fruit.
The rest of the advice I found involved pruning. Being cut back, it seems, is the main way vines become fruitful.
And I learned 3 interesting things.
No grapes are allowed to grow on a vine in its first 2 years. The branches must grow strong and healthy before they’re ready to bear fruit.
Grapes only grow on new wood, and vines produce far more wood than they need. So even fruiting branches have up to 90% of their wood removed each year before they produce grapes.
I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t intend us to get bogged down in tiny details of vineyard management…but these ideas will have been very familiar to his first hearers.
They would know that growing grapes is a long-term project; Jesus’ use of this metaphor suggests that discipleship is too. I’m not suggesting that new Christians don’t bear any fruit, but that following Jesus is a life-long adventure, and bearing the fruits of a Christian life doesn’t always come easily.
Jesus’ hearers will also have known that pruning isn’t just a cosmetic affair, but deep and apparently brutal cutting away of dead wood, and disorganised growth.
Left to ourselves, like vines, we grow randomly, following new ideas and people. We get seduced into putting things other than Christ in the centre of our lives. We accumulate the dead wood of bad habits and grudges we harbour. These things need pruning, sometimes quite severely, if we’re to be fruitful Christians, bringing life to ourselves and to others.
And this pruning isn’t something that happens once…Jesus is very clear that fruitful branches are still pruned.
Sometimes, like grape vines, I think we also need surplus good wood cutting away. Sometimes what needs stripping out of our lives is the one good thing too many. Sometimes we need to learn to say no (even to the Rector!); or ‘I’ll take that on, but need to give this up’, so that we can flourish as the people God intends us to be, putting our energy into bearing the fruit of Christian lives.
My foray into the intricacies of grape production has reminded me of the obvious. Vine dressers spend much time and energy nurturing vines so they produce the best grapes. They don’t expect vines to do it all themselves!
It’s given me a picture of God the vinedresser caring tenderly and patiently for each disciple, gently encouraging us to bear fruit. It’s also reminded me that left to myself I bear less fruit, and that I’m not very good at pruning myself.
But how do I let God prune the unwanted stuff out of my life? Jesus suggests I abide in him. He is the vine; we are only the branches – without him we cannot grow or produce fruit. Christian discipleship starts in spending time with Christ – in prayer, worship and study.
Fruit might not immediately appear – but we will begin to recognise what it is that God the patient, loving vinedresser needs to prune from our lives.
After the magic 12th April re-opening, we were blessed to spend a fantastic week at the top end of Swaledale. We’ve been going there around Easter for over 20 years, one of the many joys being that it’s usually lambing time. We walked every day – and passed mile after mile of Swaledale sheep and their lambs.
Not surprising I suppose that the favoured breed should be the one native to the dale. But it then came as a bit of a shock when we passed a small group of blue faced Leicesters. At first glance, my brain tried to tell me these were not sheep but llamas or similar; the are much taller with longer faces than Swaledales. We had to enlarge our idea of what a sheep is to accept that these too fit that category!
Jesus talks often of sheep and shepherds, presumably because the people he spoke to would have been as familiar as the hill farmers of Swaledale with how sheep and shepherds interact. We too are lucky enough to see lambs in nearby fields, and the picture of Jesus as the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep is not totally alien.
In the middle of today’s reading though, there is a line that’s never really explained… ”I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” What was that all about? I wonder whether it’s a warning not to get too cosy a picture of shepherd and sheep. A shepherd has their own flock, the flock know the shepherd’s voice…other flocks know the voice of other shepherds.
But lest we take the metaphor too literally, Jesus reminds us he’s the only shepherd, so he will have other sheep, in other sheep folds. Humans need this reminder because our brains have evolved to find patterns. We’re able to process vast quantities of information because we automatically put things into categories. Spotting things that don’t fit help us to react quickly to danger; but it also means we build up pictures of what a ‘doctor’, an ‘engineer’, a ‘Christian’ should look like.
These pictures can be very hard to shift – as pioneering women in science and engineering found. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold”, is a reminder we will always need.
For Jesus’ first audience it perhaps prepared them for his message to spread from the Jews to other peoples. What about us? Who are the ‘other sheep’ we need reminding of? Sheep who are not like us.
Now I’ve heard, and seen, repeatedly, how welcoming a church this is. So we might think we don’t need this reminder. But I think we’re precisely the people who need to keep reminding ourselves and the wider church of those ‘other sheep’.
If you saw the BBC Panorama programme this week, or have followed any of the recent arguments about sexuality and the church, you will know that the Church of England as an organisation has a huge problem recognising sheep that do not look like us.
Hopefully most churches are now able to welcome people from all backgrounds to worship with them. But what about when they feel called to positions of leadership, to ordination? The Church of England is desperate to encourage vocations amongst minority groups. But once they start training, and even worse, once they start applying for jobs, they often find they are less welcome.
The Panorama programme heard how trainee clergy felt compelled to conform, to become less ‘foreign’; to put up with racist comments, rather than ‘rock the boat’; how they struggle to get jobs once trained.
And these were not people whose English was poor, just people who looked, sounded and acted a little differently from the ‘typical’ vicar. There was a heart-breaking interview with a man saying…’I have tried so hard to fit in, I have given so much for the church, but I can only be me.’ Apparently as himself he is not welcome.
Now I’ve heard, and seen, repeatedly, how welcoming a church this is. So is this our problem? I think it is.
Being a welcoming church isn’t something we tick off our to do list. Sadly, our brains will keep giving us those ‘typical Christian’ pictures. We’ve got something precious here that needs protecting.
Secondly though, we can contribute to the wider church in the way we encourage and interact with those who feel called to any sort of leadership role.
Today is vocations Sunday – when we’re asked to think about what we might be called to do as Christians. It has a particular focus on callings to ordained or licensed ministry, but is also a good time to think about any ways we feel called to help in the running of our church.
We’ve been blessed over the last year to have so many people willing to lead parts of online and in person worship. This isn’t for everyone, but it’s for anyone with the gifts and the calling. It’s really important that we don’t dismiss anyone as too old, too young, the wrong colour, too new, the wrong type of person, to take a lead in our church.
At our extra Easter Sunday Eucharist, one of our young people acted as deacon. It looked different, it stretched and enlarged our picture of what leadership in the church looks like. And it was good!
When Jesus talks about the sheep of his flock, the only description he gives is that: ‘they listen to my voice’. The voice is Jesus’, our job as his church is to provide a space where all are welcome to listen to that voice and follow where it calls them.
We may have little influence on the national church. But we can work hard to enlarge our vision, to fight our brains’ tendency to look for people like us. We can try to develop a picture of a church leader that can encompass differences in colour, culture, class; and looks only for someone who is listening to and following the voice of Christ the good shepherd.
I’m sure you’ve all seen the adverts…’A dog is for life, not just for Christmas’…it’s at this time of year I sometimes feel we should say, ‘Alleluias are for life, not just for Easter Sunday.’
In fact, I have a clergy friend who, about now, starts putting regular posts on social media saying ‘It’s still Easter’, and continues until the Easter season ends after 50 days, at Pentecost.
A timely reminder not just for the secular world – but for us in the church too. There is so much effort involved in the wonderful celebrations of Holy Week and Easter Day, that ‘Alleluia’ can seem a little like a triumphant ‘The end’. Certainly, last Monday, I had no energy for any more Easter! But today’s gospel reading shows us very clearly why those 50 days are important.
As we proclaim ‘Alleluia, Christ is risen’ – with joy on Easter morning, I suspect we imagine the disciples doing the same. At dawn on Easter morning, we read in John’s gospel how Mary met the risen Christ and told the disciples ‘I have seen the Lord’. Even allowing for the male chauvinism of the day…why are they then not out looking…even in the vague hope she might be right?
But no, as we’ve just heard, on the evening of that same day, they were not out and about shouting ‘Alleluia’, looking for the risen Christ, but hiding in a locked room.
We’re told it’s ‘for fear of the Jews’. Yet ‘the Jews’ could easily have arrested them along with Jesus, had they wanted. I wonder – is it really Jesus they’re afraid of? After all, last time they saw him they protested their undying support and then ran away, leaving him to his fate.
Jesus has burst the tomb and is on the loose, but perhaps they aren’t very keen to run into him. Are the disciples locked in by their shame, fear, doubt perhaps?
Whatever is keeping them there doesn’t matter, because Jesus comes to them. He comes to them, where they are, and he says ‘Peace be with you’. Not, ‘Where were you?’, not ‘How could you run off and leave me?’, not even ‘I forgive you’, but ‘Peace be with you’.
‘Then they rejoiced when they saw the Lord’! I bet they did – perhaps partly with relief at knowing they were loved and forgiven.
And yet…and yet, a week later, there they are still shut in that room. This time Thomas is there – doubting Thomas as we remember him; but it seems the others also need convincing, since they’re still not out spreading the good news.
But Jesus comes to them…again without recrimination…offers his peace, and the chance to touch his wounds.
Jesus comes…’even though the doors were locked’.
I’ve heard this story so many times, and I think I’ve always sort of supposed Jesus came through the wall to show he was God. But he’s at pains to show he’s a very human, bodily Jesus. Here he offers his wounded hands and side, in Luke’s gospel he eats a piece of fish. He seems to want them to know he’s the same Jesus they’ve spent the last 3 years with.
I wonder then – does Jesus come in without unlocking the door because he’s leaving this for the disciples to do? He invites them to be part of the new resurrection life he has begun, he offers them the reassurance they need, but leaves them to make their own move when they’re ready.
And so he comes to us, though we lock doors to keep him out. Sometimes the door is locked for fear of what Jesus might find when he enters our lives. Sometimes it’s locked out of disbelief…because the idea of a crucified and risen saviour is so difficult to grasp…or because God seems so absent in the world we see around us. Sometimes it’s locked out of anger, resentment or sorrow.
I think I’ve locked my door for all of those reasons, and probably others besides at different times in my life. But Jesus still enters.
He brings his peace when we’re ready to accept it, to accept we can be forgiven and loved.
He can’t say, as he did to the disciples, touch my hands and side…but he knows our need for something we can touch and hold. So he gives himself to us in bread and wine at the Eucharist. In the last fortnight I’ve shared the Eucharist with a number of people who have had to make do with online offerings for a year – and seen just how much it means to them.
That first Easter wasn’t just one morning of ‘Alleluia he is risen’…it was 40 days of Jesus coming into the locked rooms of people’s lives. Days of giving them physical proof, and of helping them know anything can be forgiven.
There are two beautiful phrases at the end of today’s reading that I want to end with. Jesus says to Thomas, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
…’have come to believe.’ Not – got it, in a flash one Easter morning – but have come to believe. I think today’s gospel tells us that believing is often a gradual process of Jesus coming into our locked rooms and giving us reason to open the door and venture out.
Then the final lines tell us ‘through believing that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, you may have life in his name.’
So ‘Alleluia’ is not just the Easter morning moment of joy, it’s Jesus coming again and again, as many times as we need, to where we are; Jesus saying ‘peace be with you’…whether we have feared, denied, betrayed, ignored him; Jesus giving us the means to touch him in bread and wine; until we are ready to open the door and find that in his name is life indeed.
Alleluia – amen.
I wonder how many of you are fans of the film Titanic? I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch it – after all, with that title it’s hardly going to end well!
Today is somewhat similar. We follow Jesus to the rubbish heap outside Jerusalem, the place of execution. And we fear we do know the ending; we fear that today we’ve reached the ending.
After all, we’ve just heard from Jesus’ lips, ‘It is finished.’
‘It is finished’, that’s certainly how it must have appeared to Jesus’ followers, and to those who couldn’t cope with his brand of radical love and needed rid of him. All those hopes for a new way of life seem to have ended at the cross. We seem to have reached the bottom, a dead end.
But the Greek for ‘It is finished’ can also be translated, ‘the work is completed’.
We could see the work of Jesus’ as living a human life in total obedience to God. Not the obedience of following orders, but of reflecting God’s perfect love back to God. Jesus’ whole life was one of showing what God’s love looks like in human form.
And this leads to the cross. Not because God demands it – but because perfect love refuses to use power, to manipulate, to repay violence with violence; so perfect love is vulnerable to the human need to be on top, to be in control. Perfect love asks for a new way of ordering society where every life matters. The cross is the response of those who feel they have too much to lose in this new world.
In his life Jesus sought out the outcast, the poor and downtrodden, the sorrowful, and declared God’s love for them…whatever the consequences. Those who were threatened by this had him put to death, and he died declaring God’s love and forgiveness for those who killed him.
The work is completed, not because it’s failed, but because even violence and death have not defeated God’s love. At the cross it’s hard to see the ending, but somehow we know that this is not it. Jesus died abandoned, betrayed, alone…but still loving. So when we reach the absolute depths of human life – God is there. Although God’s love reaches to the depths – the depths cannot hold it. We know what the disciples didn’t, that on Sunday it will burst the tomb and there will be a new beginning.
But there is no way to that new beginning except via the cross. This is not the ending – but it is our way ahead. Jesus overcame hatred, violence and death not by avoiding it – but by confronting it with love. Those who found new life on Easter Sunday had to face their part in the cross – their betrayal, abandoning, cruelty or indifference. They had to accept that God could deal with these, then they had to leave behind the people they had been, and begin new lives trying to share God’s love with others.
The cross is not the end, but nor is it a magical solution to life’s problems. The end is how we deal with all the ills exposed by the cross. 2000 years ago society’s attitude to the poor, the mentally and physically ill, the stranger, women, those who struggled with strict religious laws were all laid bare by Jesus’ life and death.
Those for whom the cross turned from disastrous end to new life had to leave such attitudes behind as they formed the earliest Christian communities.
This year COVID has done something similar for us, putting a spotlight on things we perhaps knew but preferred not to examine too closely. It’s been a difficult year for us all, but the load has fallen disproportionately on some parts of society. The poor, the disabled, the elderly, black and Asian communities, prisoners, asylum seekers have suffered the most. They have seen more deaths, but also greater loss in income, loss of freedom, loss of access to green spaces, disrupted education.
On the whole these groups suffered more because they were already disadvantaged. COVID exposed how little our society values many workers even as we discovered how much we rely on them. COVID reminded us how precious a thing our National Health Service is. COVID highlighted how many isolated lonely people there are. COVID helped us relearn the importance of community and family.
We are still some way from the end of this crisis, but hopefully we have passed the lowest point. We are looking forward with hope to a new beginning…and we hear the idea that we should ‘build back better’. We are at a point in history – a little like the end of the last war – when there is appetite for change.
As Christians I think what we offer to the debate is the knowledge that real new beginnings are reached only via the cross. We cannot improve the lives of those who have suffered most without recognising the sins of society that underpin that suffering. Jesus showed us that obedience to God’s love means valuing every life, caring especially for the vulnerable. He also showed us it means leaving our tendency to selfishness, and our reliance on power over others at the foot of the cross.
This church, like many others has a long history of generosity to those in need. As we look forward to post-COVID life, let’s also think about how we can contribute to eradicating that need.
On Sunday we will share the joy of Easter, but today we stand at the cross. Let’s use this time to recognise the evils humans inflict on one another. Let consider what, individually and as a community we need to leave at the cross as we seek to share Christ’s love with all in the new beginning that is coming.
Here we are, on Maundy Thursday. We gather, with Jesus, in that upper room. We know something’s afoot. We know Jesus is travelling, increasingly wearily perhaps, towards the climax of his ministry. The disciples couldn’t grasp how it would end for Jesus, but they knew their lives were bound up in whatever was coming. As we put ourselves in their shoes, I suppose that tonight we face the same choice…to go with Jesus to wherever this journey ends, or to turn away.
This is where it gets difficult. If we’re going to stay with this story to its outcome, we can’t bypass the next three days. It’s perhaps only in the hard work of these days that we can really find out how the story ends for us.
We come to this holy night, not sure whether we have the courage to stay with Jesus…or even if we are the right people to accompany him. Perhaps that’s how the disciples felt. Perhaps, despite their protestations, they suspected they were going to be found wanting.
I wonder, as they gathered on that momentous night, whether they expected a ‘pep talk’…a rousing speech, Henry V perhaps, or Churchill? Or maybe a symbolic passing on of some of Jesus’ power. Instead, there was Jesus, kneeling before them, washing their feet.
Perhaps you’re relieved that this is a second Maundy Thursday where I’ve not been able to wash your feet…don’t worry, I can wait, I’ll get you eventually! I will, because it’s often been a moment that’s taken me deeper into the encounter of Holy Week, that’s helped it become my story too.
There’s something about feet. In Jesus’ day they would have been the dirtiest part of the body, dusty and smelly from the streets. But even today they’re often the bit of us we prefer others not to see, and certainly not to touch. It’s as if they still represent the part of us we don’t want exposed to the light.
That’s perhaps what makes it such an important part of the story…it takes us out of our comfort zone. And it’s when I’m out of my comfort zone that I’m most ready to be changed.
So, let’s imagine ourselves there now. The lights are low, the talk is intense, there is anxiety in the air. Imagine Jesus, a towel around his waist, kneeling at your feet. He has a bowl of warm water; he takes your foot, tired from the streets, perhaps calloused and sore. Taking his time, focused only on you, he gently washes it…easing the aches. Then he wipes it dry with his towel.
Do you look at him? Or are you too embarrassed to meet his eyes? I suspect he is looking at you – looking with love. Using that look to say…I’ve seen the worst of you, the dirtiest parts you try to hide…and still I love you’.
Using that look to say, ‘I’ve seen the worst of you, and there is nothing here that cannot be washed clean by my love.’
Using that look to say…’I know these feet will run away, but I bless them anyway, and I trust that one day they will carry you back to my side.’
After all, Jesus washed Judas’ feet, I guess with the same loving care. As if to say…even these feet are sanctified, made holy…even these feet can one day find their way back to God.
After the foot washing, Jesus said to the disciples, ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’ He laid aside his power and authority, putting himself in the most humble and vulnerable position…and challenged them to accept him as Lord and follow him. He didn’t tell them how to love…he loved them into it. Perhaps that’s why I find it so important that we actually experience the foot washing for ourselves.
It’s about me, in some ways here as Christ’s representative, being reminded that the first tools of my trade should be the bowl and towel. But it’s also about you not keeping the church and your faith at arm’s length, but letting me wash your feet. It’s about sharing our flaws and vulnerabilities. It’s about coming in humility…and finding ourselves bound more deeply to one another, and to this story of faith.
Tonight, we don’t know how the story will end for us. We don’t know how we will react to tomorrow’s pain and suffering, to Saturday’s emptiness. But by washing our feet, and sharing his supper with us, Christ sanctifies and blesses us for the journey. He shows us there is nothing in us, or in those around us, that cannot be redeemed by his love. He shows us how to love one another as we step out in faith to discover the ending together.
Have you ever noticed how many stories there are in the Bible where we never hear the ending? In school recently we thought about Jonah – sitting in a huff outside Nineveh because God forgave the people…and Jonah couldn’t cope with that.
At the Lent course we looked at the rich young ruler – hearing from Jesus that to gain eternal life, he should sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. We often assume it was step too far for him – but all we’re told is that ‘he went away grieving…’ We never find what he actually did.
And there’s the elder son in the tale of the prodigal. Left sulking outside the party his father throws for his little brother. I like to feel he came to his senses and joined in…but who knows?
Today’s story of course is not like that. We’ve ‘done’ Holy Week many times before; we’ve just heard the whole thing again. We know the story and the ending…
…or do we?
You could say that what happens to Jonah and the older brother doesn’t really matter…the city of Nineveh and the prodigal son are both saved whether or not they go on sulking. But maybe they matter because they give us the chance to enter the story…to put ourselves in their shoes…and to see whether the ending we imagine, or wish for, is faithful to our role as followers of Christ.
In a way, we know the ending to today’s story. We know what happened to the disciples…to Jesus. But we don’t know what the ending is for us.
Because this is more than a story…it’s an invitation to new life…an invitation to an encounter…to see where the story leads us.
I suspect we’re very different people to who we were last Easter. And we bring all of that to the story this year. And as we stand in the space between the way things were, and the way they might be, we have more need than ever of this story that challenges us to leave things behind and put our trust in something new.
So, if there are still places left, and you’re able, come to church for our services this week. If not – use the reflections in the ‘Lent at Home’ bag, and the online services. Enter the story ready to discover a new ending, and a new beginning for your life in Christ.
Today we arrive at Lent 4. It’s been quite a journey so far. We began in the wilderness, wondering how we could make this Lent meaningful, in a year that’s been a bit like one long Lent.
Then we were invited to follow Jesus, first looking carefully at just who it is we are following. Then trying like him avoid the easy fixes, recognising that this journey leads to the cross.
Last week, Jesus proved an uncomfortable travelling companion…armed with a whip of cords, and angry at how we get distracted by unimportant details, and forget our destination.
This journey’s definitely more serious hike than Sunday afternoon stroll.
As a family we’ve always enjoyed hiking. When our children were quite small, they would cheerfully walk quite long distances. But we had to make sure there was a proper stop in the middle…preferably beside a stream. Here we shed our loads for a while, and ate lunch. But more importantly the kids loved to throw stones in the river, try to dam the stream, or if the weather allowed, go for a paddle. It was important to forget for a while the miles still to be travelled, the hills still to climb.
I think the same applies to our spiritual and mental journeys, and the church seems to agree, since today – mid way through Lent – we arrive at Mothering Sunday…or Refreshment Sunday as it was before the newer celebration took over.
Historically this was a day of relief from Lent fasting. It was also a time when people were encouraged to return to their ‘mother church’. Centuries ago, young people barely out of childhood left home to work in big houses or on farms. On refreshment Sunday they had the day off, to worship at the church they grew up in, and visit their families.
I can imagine the wonderful relief of that day…no longer having to be adults…bearing responsibilities…they would go home, be fed and in a way, be children once again.
I can imagine it because I remember when I first started work…was first a mother, going home to my parents for a weekend. Walking through the door, I was somehow able to put down my responsibilities for a bit. I might take some work, or a baby with me…but we were cooked for, outings planned, decisions made. Obviously difficult stuff didn’t go away, but for a while I didn’t have to be teacher, mother, homeowner…I could just be me.
Sometimes those young people going home would pick wild flowers from hedgerows to present to their mothers, sometimes they would be allowed to bake a simnel cake to take as a gift. Perhaps it was from this that our notion of ‘Mothering Sunday’ grew.
In many cultures…many families, mothers bear much of the burden of work and responsibility. They’re often the ones who take our burdens for a while when they seem too much. So, it seems right that we keep this day, that we try for a day at least to allow mothers to lay down their burdens and just be themselves.
But I rather like the idea of Refreshment Sunday, as a reminder that we all need, now and then, to lay down our burdens and just enjoy being ourselves. It’s an idea that runs through our scriptures, from the institution of the Sabbath, to Jesus taking his disciples aside to rest and recharge after they’ve been out proclaiming the coming kingdom.
We don’t all have a mother around, or the sort of relationship that allows offloading of burdens. But those qualities are not confined to mothers. Jesus didn’t send the disciples back to their mothers; he took charge and responsibility for a while, giving them time just to be.
We can do the same for one another. Sadly, inviting someone round for a meal is still a little way off. But even just a phone call where we say ‘How are you?’, really meaning it and ready to listen, can give someone a ‘refreshment Sunday’…a chance to lay down their burdens for a while.
And there’s the idea of keeping the Sabbath as a day of rest. It gets a bit of a bad press in the gospels, as Jesus and the Pharisees wrangle over whether healing counts as work. But Jesus’ never challenges the importance of Sabbath, only its rules and regulations. Anxiety over keeping rules brings extra burdens to a day which should be about the opposite. Work is forbidden so that we’re free from responsibilities. Difficulties won’t go away, but for a day there is nothing to do but be with God.
Clergy are encouraged each year to take time out for a retreat. Not a holiday, but time away from the parish to be spent wholly on nurturing and refreshing our relationship with God.
In 2020, for various reasons, I didn’t manage this. I’ve missed it. It’s a time to put the responsibilities of the parish aside for a few days…a time just to be with God as myself.
Maybe for you, this is Mothering Sunday…you may be lucky enough to receive some gifts, or be treated however lockdown allows…you may be the one doing the treating…allowing someone a rest from the chores and responsibilities of motherhood. If so, enjoy this special day.
For some, Mothering Sunday is a reminder of difficult relationships, a time of grief. If this is so, may today for you be Refreshment Sunday. You might reach out to someone you know who needs to be asked how they really are, to share their burdens for a while, or to someone who will do the same for you.
And for all of us, let’s make the most of this space in our Lenten journey. Let’s carve out a bit of ‘retreat’ time, to spend with God, without any agenda but to be his beloved children.
I’m very fond of St Peter…he’s such a real, three-dimensional character. I particularly love him as portrayed in this film…’The Miracle Maker’…which I used in school.
In the film we first meet Peter as St Luke introduces him…the weary fisherman returning from a night’s fishing with empty nets, only to be told by a carpenter of all people to go back out to sea…in broad daylight. I love the way he rolls his eyes, but grumpily goes along with Jesus; his astonishment as the nets fill so full they can barely haul them in; his fear and fascination as he says to Jesus, “go away, Lord, for I’m a sinner.”
And throughout the film he’s there in the thick of the action…leaping impetuously in, foot in mouth…always struggling to understand but drawn magnetically by the person of Jesus.
And so we see him in today’s gospel. Just a few verses earlier, it’s Peter who acknowledges, ‘You are the Messiah’. And yet here he is rebuking the man he’s just announced as divine! Here’s Peter telling Jesus, he’s got it all wrong…a Messiah can’t be rejected and killed.
Foolish maybe…but Jesus’ response seems a little harsh, ‘Get behind me Satan’.
I wonder, did that well-meant intervention take Jesus back into the wilderness, to those temptations? Jesus spent those 40 days in the wilderness working out what it meant to be Jesus the Messiah, wrestling the temptation to be the Messiah the world expects.
Surely no one would follow a weak, starving leader…so he was tempted to provide food for himself, to gratify his own desires. Surely a credible leader needs to move in the ‘right’ circles, have power over others…so he was tempted to take everything, to have everyone kneel before him. Surely a Messiah needs to appear divine…so he was tempted to stand high above everyone…and just to make it obvious, have angels catch him as he leapt.
If you’ve given something up for Lent…you’ll know 40 days is a long time. That time in the wilderness was a tough battle for a man genuinely tempted to turn from the cross and be a different sort of Messiah. So perhaps Peter’s well-meaning intervention, just as the danger builds up and the cross looms, is a temptation Jesus doesn’t want. ‘Get behind me Satan’
In Lent we try to work out what it means to be followers of Jesus, but perhaps like Peter, we first have to work out who Jesus really is.
One reason I love Peter so much is that in his mistakes he just voices what others are probably thinking – but too scared to say.
For the disciples, realising Jesus is the Messiah, then being told he must suffer, be rejected and killed, was a massive adjustment to their expectations. We come to it after 2000 years of knowing the end of the story…yet we still rebuke Jesus…try to make him into the sort of God we expect.
If he can feed 5000 with one small picnic, why are so many hungry? If he can save Jairus’ daughter, why not our children, why not all those we’ve lost this year? If he can calm the storm, what about the storms of natural disaster, war and violence which rage today?
I’ve asked those questions…and been asked them…and struggled with them. Peter is just voicing our misunderstandings. We too struggle to understand how Jesus’ suffering, rejection and death, can somehow be what saves us.
Jesus refused to put himself in the centre. He chose to give not take; to heal not injure; to show mercy not vengeance; to forgive not condemn; to love not hate. He chose it because this path allowed God to work in him and through him…overcoming even death, and giving us a way back to God.
This week Jesus invites us to, ‘deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow me.’ To do this faithfully, we must put aside our ideas of what a saviour should be like, and look properly at the one who calls us to follow.
I suspect we won’t understand…I don’t think Peter ever really did…but like Peter we might step out in faith…because we find in these choices, so counter cultural and difficult to grasp…fulness of life we find nowhere else.
Looking at what Satan offered Jesus, we recognise things that promise so much…but lead to death rather than life. The temptation to attend to our own creature comforts before we consider the needs of others, leads to the inequality we see all around us…and research tells us that in unequal societies, everyone is less content.
The temptation to be important…powerful, causes us to see others as expendable…only important as they feed our importance. Just look at the oligarchs and dictators of the world to see this writ large. And the person so desperate to be at the centre ends up isolated, paranoid, driven by fear and hate.
The temptation for our religion to be an outward show of holiness…rather than a relationship with the living God.
What Jesus offers instead, is the promise that if we’re ready to take ourselves from the centre…to deny ourselves…lose our lives as we plan them…then we will gain life in all its abundance.
Probably not wealth, or even better health…but the discovery Peter eventually made that in following Jesus we can give everything up only to find it given back in a new and more beautiful form. A faith community willing to do that can surely be a blessing to the whole parish.
In a moment we’ll sing that wonderful hymn ‘Will you come and follow me?’, which asks…
‘Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name?
‘Will you risk the hostile stare, should your life attract or scare?
‘Will you use the faith you’ve found, to reshape the world around?’
A pretty good prayer for today as we seek to recognise Jesus as the Messiah he really is – and still deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.
I’m not quite old enough to remember the first space flights and moon landings, although I’m told my Dad, very uncharacteristically, stayed up all night listening to the radio coverage. It was, after all, an amazing moment in human history. For the first time we were venturing away from our planet, out to new worlds.
We sent astronauts to the moon wondering what they would find…life? little green men? cheese? But strangely, what blew their minds was looking back at earth from space. It seems that travelling out of their ordinary places enabled them to see the earth as it really is.
From Yuri Gagarin onwards, astronauts who see this view have experienced a sudden awareness of the fragility and unity of life on our planet.
Today’s gospel tells of a similar experience for Peter, James and John. They too step outside normal life. Mark is not a great one for descriptive details, but he makes sure we know Jesus led the three up a high mountain…apart, by themselves. Maybe the first century equivalent of going into space.
And they too have an experience which changes their perspective. They’d been with Jesus daily, they’d listened and watched…but, away from the ordinary, for a moment at least, they encountered God. Dazzling whiteness…old testament prophets…the voice of God…combined in the revelation that Jesus is God.
Most of us will only ever see the earth from space in photos and films. But what of transfiguration, an encounter with God? Is that just something to read about?
Not necessarily…but I think we have to be willing to go to the mountain top. I know…’chance would be a fine thing’, but although mountains help, I think it’s more about finding a way to step out of the everyday. And about openness…entertaining the possibility of something more…the possibility of encountering God.
It could happen anywhere, but for me there’s something important about being apart, away from distractions. I’m looking forward to the going on retreat again…but in the meantime I find the space by going to church for morning and evening prayer.
I know, it’s easy for me – I can put it in my diary as work. If you’re juggling home-working and home schooling it may sound like an impossible luxury. But if you do anything this Lent – perhaps try to find a moment each day or even each week, to be somewhere slightly different, even just a different chair, with nothing to do but focus on Jesus.
There’s no promise anything will happen…I’ve not been dazzled, or heard God’s voice…but just occasionally there’s an almost physical sense of encountering God through the person of Jesus. Our modern world doesn’t have much time for things we can’t explain rationally. But perhaps as people who confess, however tentatively, that Jesus is truly God, we should be ready for the mountaintop experience.
Because those experiences are life-giving and life-changing. I don’t think Peter, James and John were taken up that mountain just for their own well-being. I think it shaped them as disciples.
Many astronauts who view our beautiful planet hanging in the vast darkness of space are profoundly changed. Apparently, they experience three things: first, a realisation of the insignificance and fragility of life; then a sense of how we are all connected to, and responsible for, one another and our planet; finally, they’re struck by a desire to fight for the future, to protect our shared home and all its inhabitants.
It’s as though, from space, they see the earth as it really is…a precious home shared by one common humanity…and it makes them want to act.
I think something similar happened to Peter, James and John. Their first desire is to stay in that amazing moment…‘let’s build 3 tents for you’…but Jesus leads them back down. It’s not what they find on the mountaintop that matters, but how it changes their view of what they left.
This glimpse of Jesus’ divinity stays with them as they follow Jesus to Jerusalem, Gethsemane and the cross. It helps them grasp the impossible idea that God chooses, by all human measures, to be a failure.
They didn’t go up the mountain to discover a superhuman Jesus, but to see more clearly the Jesus back in everyday life. Jesus loving the outcast; Jesus praying in sweat and terror in the garden; Jesus mocked and humiliated; Jesus dying as a common criminal, abandoned by his followers.
That mountaintop experience gave them the confidence, in the end, to stop looking for a saviour coming in glory…and recognise that this is where we find God. It gave them confidence to proclaim this new way of living and form the early church.
I think, sometimes, we need to rediscover that perspective. Time and a different culture can make crucifixion look heroic, exotic. It wasn’t – it was commonplace… mundane, a cruel way of getting rid of the troublesome. In a memorable phrase from Herbert McCabe…’Jesus died of being human.’
And in the end, this is perhaps what the dazzling vision prepares us for…God choosing to be utterly, but perfectly human. Someone who got tired and weary as we do, someone tempted as we are, but who refused to exploit power, to hide behind illusions, to meet hatred with hatred. Someone who, whatever happened, trusted in God, forgave and loved.
Jesus who teaches us what being truly human looks like…
In some ways, living through this pandemic has been a kind of transfiguration experience. We’ve been forced out of normal life…and begun to see it as it really is. Like those astronauts, we’ve seen how we are all one, how we all depend on one another. We’ve seen very clearly how unequal society is.
So this Lent, let’s open ourselves to an encounter with God’s mystery. Let’s use it to give us courage to follow Jesus’ example. And as we become more truly human perhaps we will give others the chance to live more fully too.