April 19th Talks for the Veneration of the Cross 2019

Part 1: “You say that I am” (Luke 22v66-23v5)

When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes, gathered together, and they brought Jesus to their council. They said, “If you are the Messiah, tell us.” He replied, “If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I question you, you will not answer. But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” All of them asked, “Are you, then, the Son of God?” He said to them, “You say that I am.” Then they said, “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips!”
Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.” Then Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He answered, “You say so.” Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no basis for an accusation against this man.” But they were insistent and said, “He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.”

“You say that I am.”

Jesus is on trial for being a fake king, an imposter. Pilate and the Jewish authorities were used to dealing with fake Messiahs. They despatched them routinely. The crosses of Jerusalem were littered with them. But of all the Messiahs they had ever dealt with, Jesus was surely the most fake, the most transparent imposter. No army – no weapons even. Not a hint of any of the kind of thing we usually associate with kingship. It is clear from the way they speak to him that they despise him. After all the hype, he is barely worth their notice. So easy to crush that it is child’s play.

And yet, there is more majesty in his humility and meekness than Pilate, Herod or Caesar have ever encountered. This is a king who requires no army to preserve his kingship. His kingship is not enforced by violence, coercion, bulling or manipulation. And, of course, he couldn’t triumph over violence any other way. You can’t stop fighting by fighting. You can’t stop bullying or abuse by forcing people to do your will. It might look like weakness, but in the end those who live by the sword will die by the sword. The violence of this world has only a limited life-span because in the end it must destroy itself. Yet, the love unknown that is the only way Jesus knows looks like weakness, but is in fact far more powerful than any of that. It will outlast it all – and it when it has done so, it will rule over all violence and hate, all abuse and exploitation, all destruction and death. And in his humility Jesus’ true authority shines through.

“Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asks.
“You say that I am.” replies Jesus. And suddenly Jesus has Pilate on trial. “You, Pilate, can only put me to death if you somehow recognise me as a king; if you recognise that I, a Galilean carpenter with (as we’ve already established) no army is somehow a threat to your Caesar, the most powerful man alive with the biggest army ever assembled! And you’re right! I am. My kingship is a threat to him and to every worldly model of kingship!” And you can only kill me if you recognise that I am a king. “You say that I am.”

Who’s the fake king? Who’s the real imposter? Who’s really on trial here?
The kingship of Christ is real. It is more powerful than any of the fake kings of this world. It is shown, not when we fight and impose our will, telling the rest of the world how they should behave, but when we, in our weakness and humility, recognise in the face of slander and untruth, in the face of violence and persecution, in the face of injustice and suffering, a higher power that overcomes them all. Through our patient adherence to his will, through our prayers and worship, through our refusal to let our love and hope die, that there is a power greater than anything in this world. Then, we see “the Son of Man…seated at the right hand of the power of God.”

As we read this trial scene, we are placed ourselves in the position of the judges, invited (astonishingly) to judge Jesus, who is the judge of all. We are invited to consider the same question Jesus asked Peter, right at the start of his journey to Jerusalem. And you? Who do you say that I am? Do you say that I am the King?

Part 2: “Herod and Pilate became friends” (Luke 23v6-12)

When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. And when he learned that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him off to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign. He questioned him at some length, but Jesus gave him no answer. The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate. That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.

“Herod and Pilate became friends”

Not friends in the true sense. Friends in the sense of a common cause, friends in the sense that they were allies – like England and France, perhaps. Not friends in the true sense, but former enemies who no doubt still found each other irritating and incomprehensible at times, but who also recognised that their future welfare depended on one another.

Why so uncharitable assessment? Could it not, after all, be that this was the first sign of the peacemaking that Jesus’ cross would achieve, as some commentators have suggested ? Well, we know from their subsequent career that there was no turning of the heart of either man. Both were brutal and psychotic, to the end. No, this was the friendship of thieves, an alliance of bandits.

The Herod in question here is Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great, who had appeared earlier in the Gospel at the time of Jesus’ birth. Antipas was a lesser son of a greater sire. For one thing, he was not a really king, only a tetrarch – one who ruled over a quarter (a ‘farthing king’). When his father’s kingdom was divided into four, he was given the scrag-end of Israel, Galilee. And even that rule was entirely dependent on Rome.

Instead of receiving his Father’s kingdom wholesale, his Father’s will had split his kingdom between three sons, Herod Archelaus (who ruled Judah and Samaria) and Philip (who ruled the land beyond the Jordan). Each of them was a son of different wife of their sclerotic and sadistic father, Herod the Great. They were not a well-adjusted family in any sense and Herod Antipas had many reasons to be insecure, not least that Rome had already deposed his brother Archelaus and imposed direct rule in Judah and Samaria, through its governor Pontius Pilate. It surely wouldn’t take much to persuade Caesar to give Galilee to Pilate too?

But on this occasion, Pilate was glad that Antipas was there. This was the sort of mess that ruins a man’s career, so when he discovered that Jesus was Galilean, he was delighted to have found a way to wash his hands of the problem. Send the trouble to Herod, with my compliments.

The Gospels do not relate why Herod had been keen to see Jesus for some time. We got a brief glimpse earlier in chapter 9, back in Galilee:
“Now Herod the ruler heard about all that had taken place, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the ancient prophets had arisen. Herod said, “John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?” And he tried to see him.” (Luke 9:7-9)

Even that, however, does not shed much light on his motives, but we do know that Jesus was wary of him. In Chapter 13, when told that Herod wanted to see him, he called Herod an “old fox”. Whatever his motive, we can be fairly sure that he was not keen to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah or to sit at his feet and learn. Indeed, Jesus, in Chapter 13 hints that meeting Herod means death, so presumably Herod Antipas is trying to finish what his father could not and kills the Messiah before his kingdom could be established. And now Herod finally gets his chance and Jesus goes silent. He refused to acknowledge Herod’s right even to question him, let alone judge him.

In sending Jesus back to Pilate, it is clear that some sub-plot has developed here, not explained, but summed up in the phrase “Herod and Pilate became friends”. We are not given the detail, but the real reason why Pilate and Herod become friends seems to relate not directly to Jesus, but to their mutual desire to frustrate the Scribes and Chief Priests. The Temple authorities were the ones stirring up discontent with Roman rule and encouraging rebellion, with their endless talk about the Messiah and an alternative rule, the Kingdom of God, that would supplant Roman rule and restore an exclusively Jewish sovereignty to the Promised Land. And Passover was always a dangerous flashpoint, the celebration of God settings them free in the Promised Land.

Well, they were not going to be free. Not so long as Herod and Pilate had anything to do with it. In the end, these two vindictive, manipulative and brutal rulers recognised common cause in the need to bring down the kingdom of God movement.

Jesus, now they met him, was clearly of no real consequence. He was just a mock-king as their treatment of him shows. Of all the upstart would-be Jewish liberators they had encountered, Jesus was surely the most pathetic. But he did really annoy the Temple rulers and anyone who annoyed them was useful to Pilate and to Herod. They could both use him as a pawn. And so they became friends.

But not real friends. To find real friendship, you have to look elsewhere in this narrative. In the midst of all this politicking, scheming and self-interest, there was a true friend, one who was reaching out in friendship, not for self-interest or to bolster his shaky grip on power, but out of pure and simple love, love for us – love even for his enemies! “Oh my friend, my friend indeed, who at my need his life did spend.”

Hymn: My song is love unknown
Part 3: “Release Barabbas for us” (Luke 23:13-18)

Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore have him flogged and release him.”

Then they all shouted out together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!” (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.

The carefully ordered plot of Luke’s Gospel almost unravels into chaos at this point. In a masterfully tight six verses, he brings together so many voices, so many strands and plots, so many possible trains of thought for us to follow. But at the heart of this chaotic scene is a simple, dreadful truth: “a murderer they save, the Prince of Life they slay.”

“Release Barabbas for us.”

There is here a strong resonance with Deuteronomy Chapter 30. The people of Israel are freshly installed in the Promised Land having been released from slavery in Egypt. Up until now, they have been at the mercy of events, but now they are free; now they must make their own choices about how they live; and now they must take responsibility for those choices. And so God addresses his newly redeemed people, on the threshold of freedom, and declares:

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, … then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” (Deut. 30:15-19)

The consequence of liberty is that from now on they must choose. It is an unaccustomed position. For all the strictures of slavery, there is a weak comfort in being able to plead “but I had no choice”. But freedom denies us that hiding place. For good or ill, we are judged by the choices we ourselves have made. And when our choices are judged, we are shown up for who we truly are. It becomes deeply personal, crushing, condemning. It is so intimidating a prospect that we are tempted to return to Egypt, to go back into slavery, rather than bear the burden of responsibility for ourselves. It would be so easy to choose death, “but choose life” calls God.

“Choose life,” he cries out every time temptation assails us. Whatever that temptation is, whatever clamour is going on around us, conflicting voices, conflicting plots, conflicting options, God calls out among it all: “but choose life.”

But when the crowd call out “Release Barabbas for us”, they choose death. It is the final answer to God’s urgent plea on the far side of the Jordan: “But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray…I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

This is a scene rich in irony. The people are celebrating the Passover, and their demand to release Barabbas is seen as part of those Passover celebrations, part of their plot to restore sovereignty to Israel and return it to being the Promised Land, the land of freedom. Yet in that very act, they shut their ears to God, they are led astray and they destroy the land that they crossed the Jordan to possess.

Barabbas, we are told, was imprisoned for insurrection and murder. He represents both armed rebellion and death. “A murderer, they save, the Prince of Life they slay”. This was the moment when, faced with the mute plea of God to “Choose life”, they chose death, the moment when Israel died, the moment when all their dreams of restoring the Promised Land came crashing down. “Release Barabbas for us!”

Except that it wasn’t. Because at the very moment of their utter failure, God himself redeemed them. At the very moment when Israel died, God himself, as one of us, perfected the true Israel: the Chosen People became a new creation with the Chosen One. At the very moment when the people finally chose death, God himself, as one of us, stepped in to take that death upon himself, so that we might be free once more to choose life. And at the very moment when they ejected themselves from any hope of the Promised Land, God himself restored Israel to the Promised Land by crossing the Jordan once more from death to life, paying the price that would random us all.
In this moment, everything we fear about freedom is exposed, our choices fail, it becomes deeply personal and we are condemned by our own desires, but Jesus takes it all upon himself and sets us afresh in the Promised Land. Forgiveness is ours, life is ours, and freedom is ours, as a gift. We don’t need to earn it, but we do need to accept the gift. It is all set before us:

“Today I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”

Part 4: “As they wished” (Luke 23:13-25)

Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore have him flogged and release him.”

Then they all shouted out together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!” (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.

“He handed over Jesus, as they wished.”

It is tempting to see Pilate and Herod in a rather better light here. They don’t condemn Jesus. They just give in to the crowd. Perhaps they should be let off the hook after all. But that is also a deception. Just before this passage begins we are told that Pilate and Herod have become ‘friends’. Not, I think, in the sense that we would mean ‘friends’, but friends in the sense that they have found that their interests align. The preservation of their rule depends on keeping Rome happy and firmly in charge. To achieve that, they form an alliance, uniting against a common enemy: the Temple authorities, the spiritual leaders of the people, who hold out before the people a hope for an alternative kind of rule, the kingdom of God. Herod and Pilate do not want to save Jesus, they have a ruthless record of killing off insurgents and Jesus is another, however pathetic his attempt to seize power might have been. They would crush him without a thought.

But far more than they want to kill Jesus, they want to frustrate the efforts of the Temple authorities to have him killed. They have already shown how little they think of Jesus: a mock king, a figure of fun and pity. At that moment, the threat of Jesus appears negligible compared to that of the Temple authorities.

In all the chaos, at every turn, every option for salvation dies, bar one. There is no salvation in Imperial power, for Pilate and Herod both lose here, overruled and overrun by the people’s choice of death. Pilate is forced to “hand over Jesus, as they wished…”. The best he can plead for at this moment is weak comfort of the slave: “but I had no choice”. Imperial power, it seems, is just another kind of slavery after all.

Likewise, there is no salvation in religious formality: it turns out to be the very choice God warned us against. Here in the midst of their Passover celebration, the festival of freedom, the people exercise their freedom and bring condemnation upon themselves. The Prince of Life is handed over to death by their choice, “as they wished.” The desire to preserve their customs and rituals ends up subverting it, so that the ritual celebration of their freedom means they destroy their Messiah. The very thing they purport to be celebrating is the very thing they destroy.

And there is no salvation in a religious belief that depends on our own efforts. It sounds so liberating to be given freedom of belief, to make your own spiritual way, but the trouble is that that model of liberty depends on us consistently making the right choices, consistently choosing life over death. And no human being is capable of such consistent decision-making. In the end, whether from our own self-absorption or from external forces beyond our control, we will make a bad decision and our beliefs, however well intentioned, cannot help us then.

This chaotic moment, when Pilate, Herod, the Religious authorities and the people came together to hand over Jesus, brought down every option for salvation, bar one: worldly power, religious formality, personal choice, and even the temptation to hide behind the power of others and claim “but I had no choice.” One by one each choice closes itself down and condemns itself. And in the end they all lead to the same death. And ultimately this was our choice, it all unfolded “as we wished.”

Only one golden thread of truth is left: Grace. At the point where we finally recognise that we cannot save ourselves, God himself saves us, by dying, by losing, by failing. It is only when we acknowledge that our own resources are not enough, that we have failed, that we have lost, that we have no power, of ourselves, to save ourselves, when we finally die to ourselves and surrender our souls to Christ that we are saved. The moment of our defeat, becomes the moment of our victory.

“Death is dead, love has won, Christ has conquered.”

Part 5: “Do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves.”
(Luke 23:26-31)

As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

“Do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves.”

“O God, the author of peace and lover of concord. To know you is eternal life, to serve you is perfect freedom.”
That ancient Collect for Peace used to be said every week in the Communion Liturgy and it encapsulates succinctly the whole dynamic of the Gospel: being given life by knowing Jesus, being set free by serving him.

It is a dynamic which, in turn, is encapsulated succinctly by Simon of Cyrene. In this, most menial of services, carrying Jesus’ Cross, he finds what it is to find true freedom in the service of Christ. Simon, completely inadvertently, finds himself living out the teaching Jesus first gave at the start of his fatal journey to Jerusalem:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
One of oldest chestnuts in Biblical interpretation is the question of whether Scripture should be interpreted literally or metaphorically. But perhaps that is not the right question in the first place because, here, as so often, it turns out to be both metaphorical and surprisingly literal. As Simon takes up the Cross and follows Jesus he is somehow caught up in the life of a Christian disciple. We know that he would go on to become a follower of Christ because he is named. Not only is he known personally to the writers of the Gospel, but so also are his sons, named in Mark’s Gospel as Alexander and Rufus. The Gospel writers generally only named people who would have been known personally to the Christian communities receiving the Gospels and the fact that Rufus is also mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Romans, suggests strongly that Simon would take up his Cross as Jesus’ disciple both literally and metaphorically.

Simon, we are told, is from the country. Maybe that suggests that the men of the city knew to make themselves scarce at this point in order to avoid having to carry the cross, but Simon, the gullible bumpkin, found himself pressed into this horrific service. Presumably, he had come for the festival, to celebrate the freedom of God’s people, commemorated in the Passover. Instead, he found himself compelled to carry Jesus’ Cross, but strangely, he found true freedom in doing so.

Perhaps also, Luke, in alluding to the taking up of our Cross, intends us to hear an echo of the rest of Jesus’ teaching:
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?”

Here then is a clue to what is going on at this moment. Jesus is showing no concern for himself, unafraid to lose his life, because he knows that he is not the true victim here. The real losers are those who wield power over him, who have gained the whole world, but have forfeited their souls, their very selves.

By contrast, Simon is finding salvation in the service of Christ. He reminds us that Christian service is not always glamorous. It can be very menial, painful and costly. It can become a glorious sense of vocation, or it can be thrust upon us against our will. It can be obviously fruitful, or it can be apparently hopeless, the smallest of acts for someone who is destined to die anyway. But every act of service for Christ, every time we take up our Cross, we find perfect freedom, every time we deny ourselves and follow Christ, we discover that, in losing our life, we find it.

Simon presents us with a totally different way of looking at life. And as if to confirm that interpretation, we are immediately presented with a different Jerusalem crowd. Not the baying crowd of the previous scene, but a sympathetic crowd, following Jesus and weeping for him. There is a tradition in the Jewish Talmud of women who would follow crucifixion candidates to offer them drink to ease their pain . Perhaps that is what is happening here. But Jesus turns their pity away from himself and back to them. In another prophetic interpretation, Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea, who warned the people of Jerusalem that when they saw the consequence of their betrayal of God they would “say to the mountains, ‘Cover us’, and to the hills, ‘Fall on us’.” . In the context of Hosea Chapter 10, this is both the moment when Jerusalem is destroyed by its rejection of God, when the deceit and corruption of evil is laid bare, and the moment when its sin is forgiven:

“Do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves.”

Weep in lamentation of your destruction, but weep also over your sins, so that you may turn and be healed and live. For in the moment of darkest sin, in the moment of utter destruction, forgiveness and new life are offered. They are symbolised by Simon, the lone figure in the crowd, who came to know Jesus and to serve him. In the face of every enemy, in the face of every threat, in the face of every evil, the simple life of Christian love and service is our surest defence and our ultimate victory over that which would destroy us.

“O God, the author of peace and lover of concord. To know you is eternal life, to serve you is perfect freedom. Defend us, your servants, from all assaults of our enemies, that we, surely trusting in your defence, may not fear the power of any adversary, through Jesus Christ our Lord,  Amen.”

Part 6: “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:32-35)

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing.

“Father, forgive them.”

“Almighty God, who forgives all who truly repent, have mercy upon you,  pardon and deliver you from all your sins.”

That’s what I say every week as I pronounce to God’s people the forgiveness of their sins. But which comes first? Truly repenting or pardoning? Sometimes we Christians contradict ourselves here. On one hand, we are emphatic that we cannot earn our salvation: it is achieved for us on the Cross by Jesus. But on the other hand, we imply that we can only be forgiven if we truly repent. And that can sound a lot like earning our salvation.

Dogs, when they believe they have transgressed, roll over submissively and present their tummies in a plea for mercy. And lest we dumb humans miss the point, one look into their anxious eyes makes it clear that they are begging for forgiveness. But this is not repentance. For one thing, they have no intention of giving up a life of chasing rabbits, or rolling in excreta, or any other transgression that makes Master angry. And for another thing, they beg for mercy automatically. Step inadvertently on their tail or trip over them in the dark and instead of taking offence, they will assume they are being punished and roll over to beg your forgiveness. No, this is not repentance. They just want to avoid the consequences of a life dedicated to rabbit chasing.

Repentance, however, means a complete turning around of one’s life. So if true repentance is necessary for forgiveness, it becomes a lifetime’s work, weeding out sin in every part of our lives, even (as the Psalms make clear) the sin of which we are unaware. By the time you’ve done all that, you’re pretty much in the position of having to earn your own salvation after all. So which is it to be? Repentance first or forgiveness?

“Father, forgive them.” Forgiveness comes first. Contrary to all reason, contrary to any appropriate sense of justice, forgiveness comes first, even before repentance has taken place. In this moment, the Garden of Eden is re-enacted. In Eden, humanity began a rebellion against God. “Eat the fruit,” encourages the serpent, “and you will be like God!” You don’t need to obey his will, become God yourself, usurp his position, take up his dominion and become God of your own life! And that rebellion continues unrepentant, right up to the moment when we nail our loving creator to a Cross and try to dispose of his rule once and for all. No repentance here!

They cast lots for his clothing, they stood by, watching, the leaders scoffed at him, the soldiers mocked him and we, we ourselves, gentle reader, we read it and shrug it off. No, there is no repentance here! “Non, je ne regrette rien!” “To think I did all that, and may I say, not in a shy way. Oh no, no, not me I did it my way.”

“Father, forgive them,” Jesus says. In Eden, when the humans are caught, they refuse to take responsibility. Adam blames Eve: “the woman, she gave me the fruit.” He even blames God himself: “the woman you gave me!” And Eve blames the serpent: “the serpent tricked me!” It wasn’t my fault, it was hers, it was his, and anyway you’re to blame too! And so the war begins and widens, the war that can never end because in the end it’s about self-justification, ducking the blame, about avoiding the consequences of a life dedicated to sin.

But here, on the Cross, Jesus ends the war. He takes responsibility. Whether or not God was to blame for putting the serpent in the garden, for giving Adam his wife, for planting the tree in the first place, he will take responsibility. He takes the consequences of our life of sin, the consequences we dare not face, and the consequences that so terrify us we would rather murder our brother or sister to avoid them. He takes the consequences on himself and takes responsibility, not only for his own actions, but for the actions of Adam and Eve too.

There is an ancient Christian tradition that says the Cross was made from the tree in the Garden of Eden. In one sense not true: it could not be literally true, but in another sense perfectly true, because the Cross is the tree where Eden is reversed, where our rebellion against God comes to an end, where Jesus reverses the decision of humanity to duck responsibly and shift the blame and brings the war to an end. The Cross is our peace.

And so, every Christian, at the moment of their baptism, is asked “do you reject the Devil and all rebellion against God?” “I do” we reply. Not to earn forgiveness, but because God has already forgiven us, God has already ended the rebellion. Forgiveness comes first.

“Father, forgive them,” Jesus says, “For they do not know what they are doing.” Of course, in one sense they know exactly what they are doing. Crucifixion is devised specifically to inflict the most pain and suffering possible in the course of extinguishing a life. It is entirely deliberate. But in another sense we don’t know what we’re doing. “The serpent tricked me!” Evil is deceitful. We only ever choose wrong because it somehow seemed a good idea at the time.

And so, every Christian, at the moment of their baptism, is asked “do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil?”

“I do” we reply. Not to earn forgiveness, but because God has already forgiven us, and in doing so has shown us the consequences of our evil. Forgiveness comes first. Repentance, true repentance, only happens when we realise the value of that forgiveness. It is then we realise that all our accusations against God are unfair. He only ever gave us life: there was no evil in Adam giving Eve as his companion, only good. There was no evil in planting the tree of knowledge, only good. There was no evil even in creating the serpent. If we’d only exercised the dominion God gave us, we wouldn’t have needed to do what the serpent said anyway. We were the ones who went astray and God was the one who took the consequences. Our rebellion caused the war, turning us against each other and against God. God brought the peace.

And so, every Christian, at the moment of their baptism, is asked “do you repent of the sin that separates us from God and neighbour?”

“I do” we reply. Not to earn forgiveness, but because God has already forgiven us, and therefore we must forgive others. We must forgive them, even before they repent, because we have been purchased for Christ and with him we now say:

“Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Part 7: “Sour Wine” (Luke 23:36-37)

The people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”

“Sour wine.”

The soldiers who offer Jesus sour wine represent the fruit of all humanity. On Monday we thought about how the vineyard was the ancient symbol for God’s chosen people, created by God to produce fruit for his kingdom, notably wine, the symbol of joy. God has longed, since the moment of our creation, for us to produce the fruit he created us to produce. Now when God is crying out for us finally to produce that fruit we give him from our vineyard, not wine, but sour wine. In place of wine, vinegar, in place of joy, sourness. As the Good Friday reproaches put it, “I planted you as my fairest vine, but you yielded only bitterness”

Yet, ironically, in exchange for our sour wine, Jesus offers us the best wine of all, saving (as John’s Gospel would put it) the best wine until last. As Jesus bleeds on the cross, he is offering us the blood which he will turn into the wine of his kingdom: “this cup..is my blood”. Here, at last, God receives from humanity the fruit he has always sought: his vineyard at last pours forth the true fruit of the true vine.

Here, on the Cross, we are re-created to be the people God always intended us to be, people who (in God’s power) are capable once again of fulfilling the vocation he gave us at our creation: to be fruitful and multiply. Here, at last, we are found, not as we have become, but as we were meant to be.

Part 8: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”
(Luke 23:38-43)

There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

A funny king this. The inscription over him was a classic Pontius Pilate touch. He was a man who loved taunting his Jewish underlings, whether it was parading pagan shields or sacrificing pigs in the Temple, he loved devising ways to cause maximum offence and humiliation.

“This pathetic wretch of a man is the best you Jews can do for a king!” That’s the message Pilate was trying to send. But ironically, this really was the king. Jesus was more kingly in his humiliating helplessness than Pilate or Herod or Caesar would ever be. This was not the defeat of the Jews, but the moment of their vindication by God. The Jewish scriptures had promised that the Messiah would bring judgment on the world, a judgment that would vindicate his chosen people. And this is that moment, the moment when the world is judged, the moment when we see how our violence and hatred mangles all that is best about us and the moment when the meek inherit the earth.
Surprisingly, though, we are given a choice about the judgment that is pronounced. The two criminals on either side of him represent the whole of humanity. There is nothing to choose between them. They are both criminals. The Greek word used here is “kakourgoi”, doers of evil (malefactors in the King James version). It could be rendered as thief, or as almost any kind of evildoer.

And we are thieves. In the opening chapters of Genesis, God confers kingship on humanity: “have dominion” he says, in my image, represent my kingship on earth. And Jesus, as recently as the Last Supper, had confirmed that shared kingship on us: “I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom.” . But instead of mediating God’s kingship for the good of his creation, we stole it and used it for ourselves. We usurped God’s kingship and used it for our own glory, not for the glory of the creation itself or its creator. “The heavens declare the glory of God”, but we saw in them only something utilitarian, to be exploited for our own ends, as though it were all just about us.

We are all in the same boat. Our faith cannot make us superior to anyone else, rather it must make us recognise the truth: that in the end, we are bound together, the whole human race. We are brothers and sisters. In Genesis, Cain, challenged by God over his brother, Able’s murder, asks “am I my brother’s keeper?” Here, as we hang on the cross with our fellow thieves, we must recognise what Cain could not: I am my brother’s keeper. His sin is my sin. My sin, alas, is his. We are responsible for one another and in that responsibility we have all failed. And we still fail. We are all “kakourgoi”. We are the mangled travesty of kingship that Pilate intended to mock.
But this is the king of the Jews. Jesus’ true majesty shines through, here, in the most unlikely of places: with us on the Cross, sharing our lot, sharing our fate and taking the responsibility we ducked.

And as we look upon our brothers, either side of him, we are presented with a choice. They each represent us: our possible end. Which of the two thieves will we be? The one who still hurls blame at God? Or the one who recognises, in this God who shares our suffering to the utmost, who takes responsibility for our sin, who shows that he is his brother’s keeper, the one true king worthy of the name?

At this moment, Judgment comes on the earth and we can choose the judgment that is pronounced. At this moment all mocking, all self-interest, all anger and violence dies. Will we choose do die too, still angry, still raging, still blaming others and avoiding responsibility? “But choose life”, pleads God.

“Those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” Here, on the cross, we have a chance to find ourselves again, our true selves. Recognise Jesus’ kingship and so enter into his kingdom. And in doing so we will be restored to our true humanity, as God’s trusted viceroys. “I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom.”

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Chant: Jesus, remember me
Part 9: “Torn in two” (Luke 23:44-46)

“Is it nothing to you, all you that pass by?”

In Matthew’s account, the moment of Jesus’ death is accompanied by an earthquake and one of the more remarkable discoveries of recent years is that seismologists have confirmed that an earthquake did indeed take place in Jerusalem on Friday, April 3, in the year 33 AD. And if that comes into the category of tantalising fact rather that categorical truth, the rocks of Golgotha clearly bear the scars and splinters of an earthquake.

It makes me ask: “if the rocks of the earth cracked, how stony must my heart be that it does not break to see my Lord die? If the curtain of the Temple is torn in two, why I am not torn apart? If the sun’s light failed, how can I stumble on as though nothing has happened? Is it nothing to you, all you that pass by?”

“I will give you a new heart,” says God, through the prophet Ezekiel, “I will remove … the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” But to have a heart of flesh, we must be willing to feel again – the pleasure and the pain. We must face the pain we have suffered and the pain we have caused. It is a natural human response to harden our hearts so that we cannot feel pain again. But to do so simply petrifies us: rendering us immobile, unmovable, dying slowly from within.

To receive a heart of flesh requires us to feel the pain again. And if we don’t want to return to stone, we are compelled to deal with that pain in a different way, by choosing to love, choosing to forgive, to seek forgiveness, to mend the breach, to hold each other, not at arm’s length, but close, to take the risk of being hurt again, so that we can also love and be loved.

Break my heart of stone in your earthquakes, O Lord; let be torn in two; let my light fail, for I would rather be broken, torn and buried with you than remain lifeless and stony hearted. Blast apart the stoniness of my heart and give me a heart of flesh that your love might no longer be unknown, but come to know me deeply.

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.”

Chant: Jesus, remember me