June 2021: The Power of the Gospel

We sat down to table and the officer began his story: “I have served in the army ever since I was quite young. I knew my duties and was a favorite of my superiors as a conscientious officer. But I was young, as were also my friends, and unhappily I started drinking. It went from bad to worse until drinking became an illness. When I did not drink, I was a good officer, but when I would start drinking, then I would have to go to bed for six weeks. My superiors were patient with me for a long time, but finally, for rudeness to the commanding officer while I was drunk, they reduced my rank to private and transferred me to a garrison for three years. They threatened me with more severe punishment if I would not improve and give up drinking. In this unfortunate condition all my efforts at self-control were of no avail and I could not stay sober for any length of time. Then I heard that I was to be sent to the guardhouse and I was beside myself with anguish.

“One day I was sitting in the barracks deep in thought. A monk came in to beg alms for the church. Those who had money gave what they could. When he approached me he asked, ‘Why are you so downcast?’ We started talking and I told him the cause of my grief. The monk sympathized with my situation and said, ‘My brother was once in a similar position, and I will tell you how he was cured. His spiritual father gave him a copy of the Gospels and strongly urged him to read a chapter whenever he wanted to take a drink. If the desire for a drink did not leave him after he read one chapter he was encouraged to read another and if necessary still another. My brother followed this advice, and after some time he lost all desire for alcoholic beverages. It is now fifteen years since he has touched a drop of alcohol. Why don’t you do the same, and you will discover how beneficial the reading of the Gospels can be. I have a copy at home and will gladly bring it to you.’

“I wasn’t very open to this idea so I objected, ‘How can your Gospels help when neither my efforts at selfcontrol nor medical aid could keep me sober?’ I spoke in this way because I never read the Gospels.

“‘Give it a chance,’ continued the monk reassuringly, ‘and you will find it very helpful.’

“The next day he brought me this copy of the Gospels. I opened it, browsed through it, and said, ‘I will not take it, for I cannot understand it; I am not accustomed to reading Church Slavonic.’

“The monk did not give up but continued to encourage me and explained that God’s special power is present in the Gospel through his words. He went on, ‘At the beginning be concerned only with reading it diligently; understanding will come later. One holy man says that “even when you don’t understand the word of God, the demons do, and they tremble”; and the passion for drink is without a doubt their work. And St. John Chrysostom in speaking about the power of the word of God says that the very room where the Gospel is kept has the power to ward off the spirits of darkness and thwart their intrigues.’

“I do not recall what I gave the monk when I took the copy of the Gospels from him, but I placed the book in my trunk with my other belongings and forgot about it. Some time later a strong desire to have a drink took hold of me and I opened the trunk to get some money and run to the tavern. But I saw the copy of the Gospels before I got to the money and I remembered clearly what the monk had told me. I opened the book and read the first chapter of Matthew without understanding anything. Again I remembered the monk’s words, ‘At the beginning be concerned only with reading it diligently; understanding will come later.’ So I read another chapter and found it a bit more comprehensible. Shortly after I began reading the third chapter, the curfew bell rang and it was no longer possible for me to leave the barracks.

“In the morning my first thought was to get a drink, but then I decided to read another chapter to see what would happen. I read it and did not go. Again I wanted a drink, but I started reading and I felt better. This gave me courage, and with every temptation for a drink I began reading a chapter from the Gospels. The more I read, the easier it became, and when I finally finished reading all four Gospels the compulsion for drink had disappeared completely; I was repelled by the very thought of it. It is now twenty years since I stopped drinking alcoholic beverages.

“Everyone was surprised at the change that took place in me, and after three years I was reinstated as an officer and then climbed up the ranks until I was made a commanding officer. Later I married a fine woman; we have saved some money, which we now share with the poor. Now I have a grown son who is a fine lad and he also is an officer in the army.”

—The Way of a Pilgrim

What a wonderful story of the multifaceted ways in which Christ works in our lives! The issue here is alcoholism, but don’t restrict the lesson to that. Christ can heal any affliction if we let him. Notice first how Christ uses human agency (the monk) to introduce the young soldier to his Gospel. Notice how the monk abandoned his agenda (begging alms for the church), at least temporarily, to address a person’s needs that he perceived. We have to be ready to see others in pain if we ever hope to help them address it. Notice too the monk’s gentle persistence and the faith he has in the transformative power of the Gospel in people’s lives, a faith based, in part, on past experience.

Next, pay attention to how Christ used circumstance instead of understanding to stay the young soldier’s hand from drinking. He read the Gospel without understanding it, but was prevented from going on a drinking binge because he had lingered too long in his quarters to read it. Was it really coincidence that the soldier found the gospels before he got to his drinking money? This is how God typically works to control the circumstances of our lives in a wise and loving way, but we have to pay attention to realize it!

Finally, mark how understanding occurs—through persistent reading. Ask anyone who reads the Bible regularly and systematically and you will hear this same answer. God grants understanding to humble minds willing to submit to his word (as opposed to trying to make his word submit to their agendas, which sadly many try to do, especially today) through our persistent reading of his word. God doesn’t beat us over the head to make us learn (usually). Instead he uses ordinary people and circumstances along with our own efforts to speak to and transform us. Under normal circumstances it would have been best if the soldier had read the gospels with others and learned how to interpret them from the tradition we have, but that didn’t happen in this case. No problem, though. God can use even less than ideal circumstances to break through to us, as the young solder discovered. That may not be sexy enough for some of us but it is much more effective over the long haul.

If you are struggling with your faith, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest this story and its lessons. Maybe you should even pick up the gospels and start to read them yourself. Here is indeed balm for your soul!

Feast of the Ascension 2021: Pope Leo the Great on the Ascension of Jesus

With all due solemnity we are commemorating that day on which our poor human nature was carried up, in Christ, above all the hosts of heaven, above all the ranks of angels, beyond the highest heavenly powers to the very throne of God the Father. And so our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments. Our faith is nobler and stronger because sight has been replaced by a doctrine whose authority is accepted by believing hearts, enlightened from on high. This faith was increased by the Lord’s ascension and strengthened by the gift of the Spirit.

Holy Triduum 2021: Holy Saturday: Waiting for the Messiah We Didn’t Expect

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look around and see.
Is any suffering like my suffering
that was inflicted on me,
that the LORD brought on me
in the day of his fierce anger?

–Lamentations 1.12 (NIV)

LORD, you are the God who saves me;
day and night I cry out to you.
May my prayer come before you;
turn your ear to my cry.

I am overwhelmed with troubles
and my life draws near to death.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like one without strength.
I am set apart with the dead,
like the slain who lie in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
who are cut off from your care.

You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily on me;
you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
You have taken from me my closest friends
and have made me repulsive to them.
I am confined and cannot escape;
my eyes are dim with grief.

I call to you, LORD, every day;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you show your wonders to the dead?
Do their spirits rise up and praise you?
Is your love declared in the grave,
your faithfulness in Destruction[e]?
Are your wonders known in the place of darkness,
or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?

But I cry to you for help, LORD;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Why, LORD, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?

From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
I have borne your terrors and am in despair.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
You have taken from me friend and neighbor—
darkness is my closest friend.

–Psalm 88 (NIV)

It is now the day after the crucifixion, and if we are to take it seriously, we must pause for a minute and reflect on what Jesus’ first disciples must have been dealing with on that day after. We cannot say for sure because Scripture is largely silent about this (but cf. John 20.19; Luke 24.13-24 for clues), but surely they would have been absolutely devastated. The most wonderful person they had ever known had been brutally and unjustly executed. The women had seen his bloodied and pierced body taken down from the cross and buried. The man his disciples had hoped was Israel’s Messiah was dead and every good Jew knew that God’s Messiah didn’t get crucified like a criminal—or so they thought.

Surely today’s texts would have reflected the utter devastation and hopelessness Jesus’ followers must have felt on that first Saturday. Like the psalmist above, surely they (like we) were asking the “why questions”—Why did this happen to Jesus? Why did God allow this to happen? Where was God in all of it? Why had he apparently abandoned not only Jesus but them as well? For you see, Jesus’ followers did not have the advantage of 20-20 hindsight we have. They were definitely not expecting Jesus to be raised from the dead because there was nothing in their Scripture that would have prepared them for what God did in Jesus that first Easter Sunday. And we fail to take Jesus’ death seriously if we gloss over all this and simply want to skip ahead to tomorrow.

But that is not how life works, is it? We typically don’t have the advantage of 20-20 hindsight as we live out our days and here is where we can learn some things about faith and hope in the midst of our own desolation as we reflect on the devastation Jesus’ followers must have felt the day after his crucifixion. Each one of us has our own hurts and sorrows and brokenness. Perhaps it stems from a job we did not get or that we lost. Perhaps a loved one got sick and died despite our prayers for healing. Perhaps we have had our families torn apart by divorce or addiction. Like Jesus’ first disciples, we too have had our expectations violated, especially now, and typically more than once. We’ve had our hopes and dreams shattered to one degree or another, and like Jesus’ first disciples, we look around and ask why. We wonder where God is in it all and why he has apparently abandoned us.

And this is precisely why Holy Saturday can be helpful to us because if we really believe in a sovereign God, Holy Saturday is a time when we must wait on him and see how he is going to act in our lives, both individually and collectively. We must put aside our limited expectations and wait and see what God is going to do in and through us. Like the psalmist in his utter desolation above, we too must cling to our hope in God and his mercy, in God and his sovereign power, and in doing so we will discover that we gain some much needed and desired patience. It is a patience tempered with humility as we wait on our Sovereign God to see what he will do to bring new life out of our own desolation, fears, and violated expectations.

We wait on this Holy Saturday even though it is not entirely possible to block out the wondrous truth that happened that first Easter. Unlike Jesus’ first disciples, we do know how the story turns out. While we didn’t expect a crucified Messiah, we have seen his dead body taken down from the cross and we have seen the empty tomb and heard the stunned and joyous testimony of the first eyewitnesses. And like his first disciples, this has violated our expectations. But we realize that God’s power and plans for us are so much better than our own. As we wait for Easter morning on this Holy Saturday, we are reminded that despite our failures, hurts, fears, and brokenness, God is a sovereign and merciful God, capable of bringing about New Creation from our desolation, and all this helps us wait on God this day with hope, real hope.

Take time to rest today, especially from the seemingly non-stop bad news of this crazy mixed-up world. Reflect deeply on these things as you learn to wait on God to act in your life and in this world to end the scourge. Remember that if God really did raise Jesus from the dead, he can surely do mind-blowing things for you and in and through you (or as a cabbie once said to Professor N.T. Wright, “If God raised Jesus from the dead, everything else is basically rock and roll, isn’t it?”), no matter who you are or what you are dealing with. As you do wait on God—and this will not happen overnight—you will also discover you are gaining the prerequisite humility and patience that you need to open yourself up fully to the Presence and Power of God’s Holy Spirit living in you. And when that happens you will have the assurance that nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Good Friday 2021: Fleming Rutledge Offers a Good Friday Reflection

Then [the crucified criminal] said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Luke 23.42-43 (NRSV)

Somehow the crucified criminal on Jesus’ right was enabled to see something that day that no one else saw. He saw Jesus reigning as a King and determining the destinies of people even in his tormented mented and dying state. To see him that way, Luke is telling us, is to see him as he truly is and to understand the source of his power. Not by signs and wonders, not by magic and dazzlement, not by “shock and awe,” but only by an ultimate act of God’s own self-sacrifice does Christ rule. His power is made known only through his death.

I ask you now: Can you see yourself as one for whom Jesus died? Can you say with the second thief, Jesus, remember member me when you come into your kingdom? It was not only for the bandits and “bad elements” on the other side of the civilized divide; it was for us too, with our masks of innocence and our delusions about our own righteousness. ness. His death was for us too.

Fleming Rutledge. The Seven Last Words from the Cross (Kindle Locations 141-146). Kindle Edition.

Good Friday 2021: Fleming Rutledge on Faith and the Cross

A fantastic Good Friday devotional, and one I highly recommend you make part of your library.

Earlier [Jesus] had said to his disciples, “As the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. But first he must suffer many things and be rejected” (Luke 17:24-25). His triumph would be won, but only at greatest cost. Another other time, he said to the disciples, “1 saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10.18), so we know that he had before him the vision of his victory; but it would come only through his suffering. Once, we are told, “while they were all marveling” at the wonderful things he did – the healings and exorcisms and miracles – he turned to them and said, “Let these words sink into your ears; for the Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of [wicked] men” (Luke 9:44), but they could not believe it; it was completely outside anyone’s conception of the Messiah that he would be betrayed, condemned, and crucified. cified.

Here in this final portion of our Good Friday vigil, we are trying to gain some deeper understanding of what this all means for us personally. In preparing to examine more closely the final saying, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit,” I have tried to indicate that not even Saint Luke would have us believe that this offering of Christ’s life was a gentle passage into a heavenly reward. In these meditations I have written first of John’s and now of Luke’s three sayings separately from the others so that we can see how they fit into the purposes of these two Evangelists, but in the end the Christian tradition has always combined the seven sayings into a whole. When I was in seminary, I had many wonderful professors, but in recent years there is one, a theologian, who has emerged as the most prominent in my memory. He is long dead now, but I will never forget what he meant to me. I remember member in particular talking to him once about great questions of life and death, and the struggle to believe and to make sense of things. His only child, a son, had been born when he and his wife were in their forties, and then they lost him to a rare disease when he was twenty-three. three. Out of his great grief, this bereaved father said, “The Christian life is lived in between – in between My God, my God, why halt thou forsaken me? and Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

Fleming Rutledge. The Seven Last Words from the Cross (Kindle Locations 466-470). Kindle Edition.

Good Friday 2021: Fr. Carlo Carretto Offers a Reflection Appropriate for Good Friday

As for me, I began to know Jesus as soon as I accepted Jesus as the truth; I found true peace when I actively sought his friendship; and above all I experienced joy, true joy, that stands above the vicissitudes of life, as soon as I tasted and experienced for myself the gift he came to bestow on us: eternal life.

But Jesus is not only the Image of the Father, the Revealer of the dark knowledge of God. That would be of little avail to me in my weakness and my sinfulness: he is also my Saviour.

On my journey towards him, I was completely worn out, unable to take another step forward. By my errors, my sinful rebellions, my desperate efforts to find joy far from his joy, I had reduced myself to a mass of virulent sores which repelled both heaven and earth.

What sin was there that I had not committed? Or what sin had I as yet not committed simply because the opportunity had not come my way?

Yet it was he, and he alone, who got down off his horse, the the good Samaritan on the way to Jericho; he alone had the courage to approach me in order to staunch with bandages the few drops of blood that still remained in my veins, blood that would certainly have flowed away, had he not intervened.

Jesus became a sacrament for me, the cause of my salvation, he brought my time in hell to an end, and put a stop to my inner disintegration. He washed me patiently in the waters of baptism, he filled me with the exhilarating joy of the Holy Spirit in confirmation, he nourished me with the bread of his word. Above all, he forgave me, he forgot everything, he did not even wish me to remember my past myself.

When, through my tears, I began to tell him something of the years during which I betrayed him, he lovingly placed his hand over my mouth in order to silence me. His one concern was that I should muster courage enough to pick myself up again, to try and carry on walking in spite of my weakness, and to believe in his love in spite of my fears. But there was one thing he did, the value of which cannot be measured, something truly unbelievable, something only God could do.

While I continued to have doubts about my own salvation, to tell him that my sins could not be forgiven, and that justice, too, had its rights, he appeared on the Cross before me one Friday towards midday.

I was at its foot, and found myself bathed with the blood which flowed from the gaping holes made in his flesh by the nails. He remained there for three hours until he expired.

I realized that he had died in order that I might stop turning to him with questions about justice, and believe instead, deep within myself, that the scales had come down overflowing on the side of love, and that even though all, through unbelief or madness, had offended him, he had conquered for ever, and drawn all things everlastingly to himself.

Then later, so that I should never forget that Friday and abandon the Cross, as one forgets a postcard on the table or a picture in the wornout book that had been feeding one’s devotion, he led me on to discover that in order to be with me continually, not simply as an affectionate remembrance but as a living presence, he had devised the Eucharist.

What a discovery that was!

Under the sacramental sign of bread, Jesus was there each morning to renew the sacrifice of the Cross and make of it the living sacrifice of his bride, the Church, a pure offering of the Divine Majesty.

And still that was not all.

He led me on to understand that the sign of bread testified to his hidden presence, not only during the Great Sacrifice, but at all times, since the Eucharist was not an isolated moment in my day, but a line which stretched over twenty-four hours: he is God-with-us, the realization of what had been foretold by the cloud that went before the people of God during their journey through the desert, and the darkness which filled the tabernacle in the temple at Jerusalem.

I must emphasize that this vital realization that the sign of bread concealed and pointed out for me the uninterrupted presence of Jesus beside me was a unique grace in my life. From that moment he led me along the path to intimacy, and friendship, with himself.

I understood that he longed to be present like this beside each one of us.

Jesus was not only bread, he was a friend.

A home without bread is not a home, but a home without friendship is nothing.

—Carlo Carretto, In Search of the Beyond

Good Friday 2021: Notable and Quotable (2)

There is a Tree, “mystical and eternal” which rises above the hills of time. Where its shadow falls, there God’s claim rests upon us and something is exacted of us. Those who have entered even a little way into the silence of the threefold hour [of Jesus’ crucifixion] are bound to say, “This must be saved, this particular thing, this very tree.”

—The Rev’d Dr Wheaton Phillips Webb, The Dramatic Silences of His Last Week, 52

Good Friday 2021: Notable and Quotable (1)

Sometimes just as we have come to accept “the withering away of the Cross,” a silence falls…darkness,…and it strikes us how mortal we are and that before three decades have passed, or four, our very names will be unremembered and all we strive for as if it had never been.

Yes, and it is here [at the foot of the cross] where at last we find the courage to address [Jesus] with the same desperate familiarity with which a man just beyond his reach [the repentant thief who was crucified with Jesus]–yet not beyond his reach–dares to plead, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power.” Remember me! For if you do not remember me, I shall go down to the dust bereft and unremembered of all.

—The Rev’d Dr Wheaton Phillips Webb, The Dramatic Silences of His Last Week, 50

Good Friday 2021: N.T. Wright on the Seven Signs in St. John’s Gospel

From John for Everyone, Part 2. Simply Beautiful.

The changing of water to wine was, as he told us clearly, the first in the sequence of ‘signs’ by which Jesus revealed his glory. The second was the healing of the nobleman’s son at Capernaum (4:46–54). From then on he leaves us to count up the ‘signs’, and different readers have reckoned them differently. I think the most convincing sequence goes like this. The third ‘sign’ is the healing of the paralysed man at the pool (5:1–9). The fourth is the multiplication of loaves and fishes (6:1–14). The fifth is the healing of the man born blind (9:1–12). And the sixth is the raising of Lazarus (11:1–44).

John cannot have intended the sequence to stop at six. With Genesis 1 in the back of his mind from the very start, the sequence of seven signs, completing the accomplishment of the new creation, has an inevitability about it. Now here we are, at the foot of the cross. John has told us throughout his gospel that when Jesus is ‘lifted up’, this will be the moment of God’s glory shining through him in full strength. And the ‘signs’ are the things that reveal God’s glory. I regard it as more or less certain that he intends the crucifixion itself to function as the seventh ‘sign’.

As though to confirm this, Jesus gives one last cry. ‘It’s finished!’ ‘It’s all done!’ ‘It’s complete!’ He has finished the work that the father had given him to do (17:4). He has loved ‘to the very end’ his own who were in the world (13:1). He has accomplished the full and final task.

The word that I’ve translated ‘It’s all done!’ is actually a single word in the original language. It’s the word that people would write on a bill after it had been paid. The bill is dealt with. It’s finished. The price has been paid. Yes, says John: and Jesus’ work is now complete, in that sense as in every other. It is upon this finished, complete work that his people from that day to this can stake their lives [emphasis mine]. (pp. 131-32)

Good Friday 2021: N.T. Wright Muses on the Cross

Read St. Matthew 27.33-56

As you stand there [before the cross] in this strange, powerful mixture of recognition and horror, bring bit by bit into the picture the stories on which you have lived. Bring the hopes you had when you were young. Bring the bright vision of family life, of success in sport or work or art, the dreams of exciting adventures in far-off places. Bring the joy of seeing a new baby, full of promise and possibility. Bring the longings of your heart. They are all fulfilled here, though not in the way you imagined. This is the way God fulfilled the dreams of his people. This is how the coming king would overcome all his enemies.

Or bring the fears and sorrows you had when you were young. The terror of violence, perhaps at home. The shame of failure at school, of rejection by friends. The nasty comments that hurt you then and hurt you still. The terrible moment when you realized a wonderful relationship had come to an end. The sudden, meaningless death of someone you loved very much. They are all fulfilled here, too. God has taken them upon himself, in the person of his Son. This is the earthquake moment, the darkness-at-noon moment, the moment of terror and sudden faith, as even the hard-boiled Roman soldier blurts out at the end. (Don’t forget that ‘Son of God’ was a regular title claimed by Caesar, his boss.)

But then bring the hopes and sorrows of the world. Bring the millions who are homeless because of flood or famine. Bring the children orphaned by AIDS or war. Bring the politicians who begin by longing for justice and end up hoping for bribes. Bring the beautiful and fragile earth on which we live. Think of God’s dreams for his creation, and God’s sorrow at its ruin.

—Wright, T. (2011). Lent for Everyone: Matthew Year A (pp. 137–138). London: SPCK.

Almighty Father,
look with mercy on this your family
for which our Lord Jesus Christ was content to be betrayed
and given up into the hands of sinners
and to suffer death upon the cross;
who is alive and glorified with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Maundy Thursday 2021: N.T. Wright Muses on Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane

Here is an exquisite devotional piece on Jesus as he prayed in Gethsemane. See what you think (and pick up the book).

Read Mark 14.32-52

Two generations ago, J. B. Phillips (best known for his translation of the New Testament) published a little book called Your God Is Too Small. It was a moving appeal for ordinary Christians to lift up their eyes and imaginations, and to realize that God is not simply a therapist, concerned with the humdrum, day-to-day matters of their personal lives and problems, but is the glorious sovereign of heaven and earth. We all need that kind of reminder on a regular basis.

But there is, perhaps, a more subtle point which needs to be made as well. When people start to get the point about the sovereignty, majesty and glory of the one true God, it is often difficult for them at the same time to glimpse and grasp the real divine greatness which the gospel stories reveal. But if we don’t get this point, as well as the larger one, we will fall back once more into the mistake of James and John, celebrating the greatness of God and hoping that some of that greatness will rub off on us in the usual, worldly sense.

All along in Mark’s book we have seen that Jesus is described as the one who, however surprisingly, is fulfilling the promises that Israel’s God will come back to his people at last, rescuing them and filling the world with his glory. Think back to the opening scene. Here is the preparatory messenger, here is the voice in the wilderness, and now here is the Coming One: my son, my beloved one, the one who makes me glad. Somehow, already, we have to get our heads around what Mark is saying: God promised that he would come back, but the one who’s come is Jesus, and Jesus is hailed by God himself as his beloved son.

Mark offers no theory about how this makes sense. The earliest Christians didn’t theorize: they worshipped. They remained firmly monotheistic: Jesus wasn’t a ‘second god’ added to the one they’d already got. But, somehow, they found that worshipping Jesus and worshipping the one whom Jesus called ‘father’ went together.

We might, as I say, just about be getting our heads and our hearts around this. But the scene we now witness strains this picture in a new way. It offers a whole new dimension of the word ‘God’ itself. Gethsemane stands at the heart of the whole early Christian picture of who God is, and hence of who we ourselves (bearing God’s image) are meant to be. And at the heart of Gethsemane there stands the unforgettable prayer that shows what love really means, the love that passes between father and son, the love that reaches out to this day into the dark places of the world: ‘Abba, father,’ he said, ‘all things are possible for you! Take this cup away from me! But—not what I want, but what you want.’

Not long ago, I heard a church leader declare that with this passage we actually see ‘conflict’ within the Trinity itself. (He was using this idea to justify continuing conflict within the church.) But Gethsemane is not about conflict. It is about love. This is the full, honest interchange of love in which the son lays before the father the true condition of his God-reflecting humanity, caught now in the necessary work of bearing the utter pain and sorrow of the world.

But, people might say, doesn’t this prayer show that Jesus and his father are, as it were, on opposite sides of the equation? Doesn’t it appear that Jesus wants to be released from his obligation, but knows that the father wills it anyway?

Not so fast. What Jesus’ prayer shows is the proper, right, natural reaction of any human being, and particularly the human being who completely reflected the life-giving God, to the dark forces of corruption and death. It shows that as Jesus went to the cross he was not doing it out of a distorted death-wish, a kind of crazy suicide mission. He continued, as one would expect from the life-restoring son of the life-giving father, to resist death with every fibre of his being. His very prayer to be rescued from it displays not a resistance to the father’s will, but a resistance to the forces of evil which result in death. There is no conflict here; only the deepest affirmation of the father’s will in all its aspects.

And now we ask again: is your God this big? Big enough to come and take on the forces of evil and death by dying under their weight and power? There’s a hymn which has a verse beginning, ‘Jesus is Lord! Yet from his throne eternal, in flesh he came to die in shame on Calvary’s tree.’ There is one word there that is wrong. It shouldn’t be ‘yet’. It should be ‘so’. Jesus is Lord, and so, and therefore, he came into the world, came to his own people, came to the place of fear and horror and shame and guilt and evil and darkness and death itself. He came out of love, love for the father, love for the world. That is what Mark’s story is telling us. All the theologians down the centuries have produced formulae to explain this. But it’s all here, in a nutshell, within this astonishing story.

And of course the disciples didn’t get it. First they fall asleep. Then they make a half-baked attempt to defend Jesus. And then—many people think this is Mark’s own signature, a shocking and shaming personal memory—one young man is grabbed by the tunic, so leaves the tunic and runs away naked. That says it all. Humankind, naked and ashamed in the garden, while the snake closes in for the kill. The son of man has arrived at the place where the problem began, to take its full force upon himself.

Today
Lord Jesus, King and Master, help us to watch with you, to stay with you, to learn from your anguish the lessons of love.

—Wright, T. (2012). Lent for Everyone: Mark, Year B (pp. 151-155). London: SPCK.

Palm Sunday 2021

He who came down from heaven to raise us from the depths of sin, to raise us to himself, we are told in Scripture: “above every sovereignty, authority and power, and every other name that can be named,” now comes of his own free will to make his journey to Jerusalem. He came without pomp or ostentation. Let us run to accompany him as he hastens toward his passion, and imitate those who met him then, not by covering his path with garments, olive branches or palms, but by doing all we can to prostrate ourselves before him by being humble and by trying to live as he would wish.

—Andrew of Crete, Bishop, Sermon 9 for Palm Sunday