This week’s readings record two of the most important events in the history of the Christian church – Christ’s post-Resurrection commissions to the apostles Paul and Peter. Taken together, these two figures tower over all others in the Acts of the Apostles, and even now, two thousand years on, they remain the most compelling models of what it really means to be an ‘evangelist’, that is to say, a preacher of the news that humanity’s salvation is to be found in the life and death of Jesus.
The striking contrast between Peter and Paul is instructive. Christ’s appearance on the road to Damascus is probably the most famous conversion experience in human history. Saul, renowned for his strength of will, and motivated by a profound hatred of Jesus, is first reduced to the helpless position of someone being led by the hand. He is then dramatically transformed -- into Paul, Christ’s most passionate and theologically articulate servant. Peter, by contrast, is a simpler and a softer character. In his case, the transformation brought about by the risen Christ turns an almost dog-like faithfulness into inspirational leadership, a new and powerful spirit that quickly wins Peter the deepest respect of the earliest Christians.
Peter and Paul were both good Jews, and as Christians they remained so. When they finally met it was their attitudes to Judaism that caused their disagreements. Paul heard in Christ a call to transcend traditional boundaries that Peter was reluctant to abandon. It was a dispute they found ways of negotiating, and like the other differences between them, it reveals something very important. Right from the outset, the Bible tells us, Christ chooses to entrust his ‘flock’ to shepherds with a wide variety of gifts -- and with sharply contrasting styles and opinions. Our perpetual task is to acknowledge that while we must continuously strive to understand the mystery of Christ, the answers we arrive at are never the last word, but always provisional. We now see, as Paul says, in a mirror darkly. Only in God's good time, will we come to see face to face.
Today’s short passage from Acts reveals that a marked feature of this ‘new life in Christ’ is a special kind of fearlessness. Peter is in conflict with the Temple police and the High Priest once more. But how very different is this Peter from the one who denied Jesus out of fear, and then burst into tears as he acknowledged his own wretched fearfulness. Now he speaks out boldly, even though he knows what risks he runs by doing so. The important point for us is that the Resurrection has not put an end to persecution and oppression. These things continue, and intensify even; tradition has it that Peter himself was crucified in the end. But the Resurrection gave him, as it gives us, the Spirit with which to overcome fear.
By taking us back to the theme of Advent, the lesson from Revelation makes the same point. “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him”. This is the passage that provided Charles Wesley with the words of his great Advent hymn. In the light of the Resurrection, we can now read them differently. It is God, not human institutions like the Roman Empire or the Temple police, who will be our ultimate Judge.
It is against this background we should understand the famous 'Doubting Thomas' episode that this week's Gospel of John records. Thomas is granted his demand for empirical evidence. But his declaration 'My Lord and My God' goes far beyond anything that his eyes or fingers might be called upon to confirm. Perhaps this is why John notes, but does not recount all the other Resurrection signs. Faith in the risen Christ is not simply a belief about an historical event. It is something that sets us free to live with the kind of confidence that the love of God alone can give.
'Triduum Sacrum' means 'the three holy days' -- the culmination of Lent and Holy Week. The readings for these three days are always the same, and like the traditional liturgies, invite us to reflect on the events of the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and Christ's Sabbath rest in the tomb -- the best possible preparation for the great culmination of the Easter Vigil and Easter Day.
GOOD FRIDAYGood Friday is the only day of the year in which the Church does not permit celebrations of the Eucharist lest this should detract from the supreme sacrifice that took place on the Cross. Instead, after the story of the Crucifixion according to John is read, people are invited to express their veneration of the Cross in the physical action of kneeling before it, and to participate once more in the Last Supper by receiving communion from the elements consecrated on Maundy Thursday.
A curiously empty day,
As if the world's life
Had gone underground.
The April sun
Warming the dry grass
Makes pale spring promises
But nothing comes to pass.
Relaxes into despair
As we remember our helplessness,
Remember him hanging there.
We have purchased the spices
But they must wait for tomorrow.
We shall keep today
For emptiness and sorrow. Elizabeth Rooney (1924-99)
In line with modern practice, the Sunday universally known as Palm Sunday now has two names. Strictly, it is called ‘The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday’. This is because, uniquely, there are two Gospel readings on one day. The first – in the Liturgy of the Palms – recounts Jesus ‘triumphal’ entry into Jerusalem, that bright moment when children waving palm branches led him – fleetingly -- to be hailed as king. The second, the long Gospel usually read or sung by several voices, recounts the dark sequence of events that followed – betrayal, abandonment, intense physical pain, humiliation and finally death.
This combination of readings frames Holy Week which is, we might say, a story of two processions. The first is triumphant – the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, accompanied by cheering crowds; the second, a slow, immensely painful journey to Golgotha and crucifixion, accompanied by shouts of condemnation. These two processions are polar opposites of each other, and it is in their sharply contrasting character that their meaning is to be found. The popular acclamation of the first procession reveals how false and fickle the human attribution of royalty is. The second procession, with its ironic ‘crown’ of thorns, reveals reveals the radically contrasting reign of divine love.
In different ways, the Old Testament lesson (from Isaiah) and Epistle (from Philippians) both underline the fact that the ultimate significance of the Crucifixion is not to be found in the terrible suffering it involved. Many famous historical figures have died painful deaths struggling heroically for what they believed to be right. This is not Christ’s Passion, which has nothing heroic about it. Jesus died in the most shameful and humiliating way that the ancient world was able to devise, and did nothing to defend himself.
Isaiah makes this the ultimate test of faith. ‘I shall not be put to shame’ because ‘it is the Lord GOD who helps me’. Paul finds still deeper theological significance in the ignominy of it all. It is precisely because Jesus ‘humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross’ that God so ‘highly exalted him’ and gave him ‘the name that is above every name’. This might seem like some horrible sadism on God’s part, until we connect it with the Incarnation celebrated at Christmas. ‘God was in Christ’, reconciling Himself to the world.
“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” So says God through the mouth of Isaiah in this week's Old Testament lesson. God's work and our perception of it go hand in hand, because to see what God has done, is at the same time to see ordinary life in a different way.
In this week’s Epistle, Paul makes this point to the Philippians in the extravagant language characteristic of the Middle East. Compared with “the value of knowing Christ”, everything else is “rubbish”! He includes in this category his personal possessions, his health, safety and social standing – all of which he has sacrificed in his determination to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus”. We can admire Paul for his discipleship, but he was both unmarried and itinerant. Most Christians have homes, jobs, families and friends, and it would be inhuman for even the most ardent Christian to seriously regard these as “rubbish” that could just as well be thrown away.
Still, if Christian life is to mean anything, it must extend beyond the conventional observance of Sunday morning. The question is whether we give our discipleship of Christ priority in the daily round, and if so, what it takes priority over. The Gospel this week poses an especially telling challenge on this score. By anointing Jesus with a rare and very expensive oil made from the roots of the spikenard plant, Mary of Bethany unmistakably gives devotion to Jesus a higher priority than she gives to helping the many poor people with whom her world was filled. Judas criticizes her for this, and though John attributes unworthy motives to him, with respect to the criticism itself, lots of people would say he was right. What a waste of money in a needy world! Yet Jesus commends Mary, and thereby creates a conflict with a widespread assumption in contemporary Christian ethics. In effect, Jesus gives the material needs of the poor a lower priority than the proper worship of God. As a result, this Gospel passage, and the episode it records, challenges us to think a lot harder than we normally do about Christian priorities.
Christ Church Morningisde
6a Morningside Road
Edinburgh EH10 4DD
Tel: 0131 229 0090
OFFICE HOURS: MON-FRI 9AM-3PM