Holy Saturday: My Favourite day in Easter

Today is Holy Saturday (reliable sources tell me.  Apparently there is a kerfuffle as to when Holy Saturday and when Easter Saturday are) the day in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

The day after Jesus was killed, but before he was resurrected.

The day after (some) altars are stripped and before churches ring with alleluias.

I really like this in between time.  Usually I get very angry when people talk about the cross without the resurrection.  A view of God’s purposes that is so narrow it can only work by considering what happened specifically at the time of Jesus’ death is surely missing the point.  It is his incarnation. life, death and resurrection which holds the answers.  But Easter is the one time I don’t get angry about this.  At Easter I enjoy it being slow, and working it through.  I enjoy this time between the two points I usually fight to hold together.

I enjoy it from a position of hindsight.  I enjoy it from a position of certainty that the resurrection comes tomorrow, unlike the original disciples for whom the experience must have been a very different experience.

I enjoy the waiting, acknowledging the trauma of what has been left behind and waiting for the hope and new life to come, being reminded that sometimes life doesn’t have easy answers and sometimes arduous waits are necessary.

I like that we don’t rush from one to another, but allow time for reflection.  What did yesterday mean, why do I look forward to tomorrow.

I will enjoy tomorrow too, Alleluias will abound, the Risen Christ will be proclaimed, but I will be glad of today as well

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Holy Week 2012: Monday

John 12:1-7  Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table.  Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the money bag he used to help himself to what was put into it.Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” [emphasis, in green, my own]

This was the reading we had at the Monday of Holy Week communion and compline in Bishopthorpe.  The Spectacled Bear has an excellent imaginative contemplation on the whole passage but it was the second half that struck me as it was being read.

Firstly this scene reminds me of a number of discussions me and my friends have.  “Why do churches need big buildings, and all that finery?  Let’s demolish all the cathedrals, sell the land and use the money to set up homeless shelters” is a good enough synopsis of them all.  My friends ask this because they have a genuine concern for the poor, and one that I share.  I genuinely think the church needs to be doing more to help those in most need.  I do, however, also think that selling our churches, or even the ornamentation, of those glorious buildings is not the answer.

For me this passage has two implications; one that serving the poor, the oppressed, the disadvantaged, the oppressed, challenging injustice, privilege and systematic abuse or neglect is vital to the Christian calling … but so is honouring God, and worship, and acts of adoration.  The first have that sentence make up part of our worship,but they are not all of it.  They should not push out other expressions of honouring God.  Some people, Quakers, puritans being the strongest examples, but most of non-conformist Christianity too have plain places of worship, in order to put emphasis on the relationship with God.  It is a way of removing distractions.  Other elements of the Christian tradition; many Anglicans, the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, for example have very ornate building.  Here the buildings themselves express worship to God.  Mary used an expensive resource in excess to demonstrate adoration of God, so too do churches use expensive resources; stone, Gold, embroidered fabric, land they own etc to express their adoration of God.

and in the passage Jesus permits and defends Mary.  Obviously we can stretch this too far, I would struggle to assert so plainly “Jesus permits and defends glorious cathedrals”.  It is not my place to speak for him, but the message is clear.  Abundant worship is right and proper and should be celebrated, and that is what these rich buildings are.

The second thing I noticed during the service, and it was more of an aside, was that the evangelist really didn’t like Judas Iscariot!  I struggle to picture a Jesus who has such obvious concern for justice permitting him to take money himself from the (implied) communal money bag.  Yes, Jesus built a community of love and acceptance, but he also came to right injustice, abuse, and to say “sin no more”.  To me this sounds much more like one broken human (or group of humans) struggling to love another broken human who caused them so much pain, and taking that anger out in personal attacks against them when writing up an account of their time together.

For more thoughts on Monday, have a read of these thoughts on Jesus in the Temple

Palm Sunday 2012 – an inspired friend

One of the hard bits of training to be a Local Preacher is the sinking, swallowing all-consuming panic when on a Saturday night you still have no idea how your sermon ends.  All inspiration is lacking, you feel incapable of delivering sound exegesis let alone a prophetic word.  You just have no idea what to say.

One of the best bits of training to be a local preacher (especially a young one, with friends on the other end of MSN/facebook chat/skype etc) is that even when you feel overwhelmed and cut off you have friends out therefore you.  Twice now good friends, best friends, walking the same path as me, have lifted me out of an abyss and given me inspiration, a seed of an idea, more often than not whole paragraphs that then form my sermon.  It really is amazing to know such fabulous people and utterly wonderful to be loved by them.

Now I can add another privilege to this list.  Being there for a friend when they are struggling.  A few helpful words, a bit of encouragement, a teasing of an already existent thought; there was no need to provide extensive ideas or wording, just a simple “try this, and develop that” and whhoooosh there it was.  A genuinely good sermon, which – so I hear – was well received by the congregation.  It was nice that I could help be a part of a creative process that I sometimes struggle with.

But it was also nice that I knew what this friend was going to deliver in their act of worship this morning, and I was conscious of it during the service I was part of.  There were some great points to the sermon I heard; a good reminder of where the road to Jerusalem ultimately took Jesus, how it was an unexpected road to his followers, how he could have taken other roads; been a zealot, raised an army, come in glory not humility, but instead too the road to the cross, for such is the way of God.  There was a fantastic nugget about the Suffering Servant buried away and barely detectable, and I appreciated both of those.  Yet at the same time, my mind drifted to the sermon being preached elsewhere; a reflection on the knots that need untying, on the nots we put before Jesus (not me, not now, not this way etc etc) and on the cost of laying down our coats at the feet of the King who comes on a donkey.

I know which sermon will stick with me longer, which one I will be meditating on over this Holy Week; not the one I heard, but the one that I was allowed to be privy too by my friend. In that was inspiration and prophecy, the still small voice of God delivered by a human servant.

I would have expected that this post be about the donkey, or the palms, or the hosannas.  Maybe I should be spending more time on whether the “Hosanna” crowd were the same lot as the “crucify” crowd (personally I side with Barclay; they could well not be).  That would make sense for this important date in the liturgical calendar.  No doubt that will be the case next year.

But as I go into Holy Week my thoughts are with the colt or the cloaks but with those whom I travel through this time; those who are far from me but whom are in the same pilgrim group as me and I give thanks for the bond we have.

On “In Christ Alone”, but no, not for that reason

I told one good friend my next blog post would be a reflection on a line from a Christian worship song and another that I would write about lent.  Fortunately I can just about do both, kind of.

There has, in recent years, been much theological kerfuffle over the song “In Christ Alone”.  Is its theology OK? Should we sing it? And so on.  This has revolved around the line “The wrath of God was satisfied”.  Depending on how charitable I am feeling depends on my views about it, but that is not the line I am interested in here, that debate has, thankfully, died down.  It wasn’t until a Christmas service where I was thinking particularly deeply about the words that I began to wonder if I took issue with another line (I then mulled on it a long time, hence the delay).  The song triumphantly proclaims

No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from his[God’s] hand.”

Great, we all know that God, and therefore his acts of salvation are stronger than the devil who was defeated by Christ.  Where is the issue?  Well, the bit that got me thinking was that, as an Arminian I believe one can lose their salvation.  We choose to accept salvation and we can choose to reject salvation.  And that choice is no good if we’re locked into it once we make it, that makes a mockery of free will, so I believe we can choose to be saved and then walk away from that, with no issue. And vice versa is true.  So that made me slightly sceptical. Something can pluck me from God’s hand.  Or, more accurately, I can walk out of it.

This taken on its own can lead to a sticky position.  It can, if manipulated, lead to assertions that we cannot be sure of our salvation, what if that little niggle we have counts as us rejecting our salvation.

My Arminian viewpoint is one of the many reasons I feel at home in the Methodist Church, and one of their central tenets is that

“all may know they are saved”

Clearly then we can say that salvation is a matter of free will, and also that we can be assured of our salvation, because as long as we know we have accepted salvation then we know we are saved.  There is no trying to double-guess God involved.

So where does that leave me with the song?  It leaves me in Lent.  It leaves me considering the powers of hell, temptation, the road to the cross, Jesus defeating evil and sin, and casting out demons and all those lenten themes.

I come back to the point I made earlier, that Christ is the victor over “the powers of hell” and it is Christ who assures my salvation (this is where it ties in with lent, we know Christ to be superior to the devil by his interaction the the wilderness and, if we take the gospels at face-value the exorcisms subsequently and ultimately in the resurrection which we look forward to).   There is no way that the devil can undo my salvation, as long as I am trusting in the means of that salvation.  The weakest link in this scenario then, seems to be me, and here I think it gets slightly more grey (although I have a black and white conclusion).  However it is that the devil interacts with humanity (and I will happily throw around ideas about how involved he is or isn’t) it would seem to be by exploiting things.  So the positive human attribute of being curious and questioning our faith, can be manipulated to become a lack of faith.

And what about schemes of man.  I would be most hesitant to say that any human who, knowingly or otherwise, leads me away from faith must be acting for, with or by the devil.  I think, an atheist for example can be sure enough of their convictions and in control of their life to try and lead me away from faith of their own volition.

Do I think the devil can trick me into walking out of God’s salvific hand?  Do I think humans can either?  Here it gets trickier, because clearly I am not being stolen, I am making a decision, and my Arminianism is such that I fundamentally believe I am free to do so.  But what then, has the devil beaten or out schemed God?  I do not believe so.  I believe I must bear full responsibility for that decision, and furthermore that God loves me enough to respect that decision.  I believe my free-will is imparted to me as part of the imago dei, it is part of what it means to be made in God’s image and I believe God made us in his image as an act of love.

One final consideration must be made.  That God will try utterly hard to see that we choose to stay with him.  There is something, for me at least, quite compelling about being in relationship with God.  I yield that this is entirely subjective, but the times when the questioning of my faith has made the edge of God’s hand look tempting then I have had a heightened sense of the safety and the firmness of his palm.  Call me cowardly for sticking with what  feel to be safe by all means, that is a fair criticism, but I believe it is part of God’s love for us that he also reminds why it is a good idea to stay.

So, I must conclude that “no power of hell, nor scheme of man, shall ever pluck me from his hand” … unless I choose it for myself and then God will let me walk out of his hand with a tear in his eye and a heavy heart, but shall do so out of love for me.