Saturday, 28 March 2015

The subversiveness of Palm Sunday

Joseph Mawle (centre) as Jesus in BBC's The Passion, 2009

The BBC produced a two-part film called The Passion in 2009, staring Joseph Mawle as Jesus.
It traced the last events of Jesus’ life, from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, up to the Crucifixion.
In it you get a strong sense of the subversiveness of that entry, during Passover, when all the crowds hailed Jesus as King, riding on a donkey, in what we now call Palm Sunday.
To understand the subversiveness of this act we need to paint a picture of what was really going on that day, a political, religious and spiritual picture of authority.

Politically, it was a tense time.
Judea was an occupied territory, governed by the Romans, who in their turn were trying to keep the peace.
Passover was the single most important Jewish festival in the whole year – the time when Jews from all over the known world would flock to Jerusalem and recall their release from captivity under the Pharoah.
Because of this there was a strong sense of national religious fervour around the theme of liberation, which, given the occupation, made Passover a highly charged time, emotionally, spiritually and politically.

So here are the Romans, not really understanding the religious significance of Passover, trying to keep the peace, perhaps complaining about these zealous Jews, not wanting any unnecessary trouble.
Because we all know that crowds have their own dynamic, and it can be for good, or for evil, such is the energy generated when thousands of people gather in one place, for a common purpose.

We might think of the thousands who gathered in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo shootings on January 7th this year.
It was a protest in which there was a strong crowd mentality of solidarity with those innocent people who had been killed out of nowhere by extremists. It was a positive thing.
Or the so called Arab Spring of 2010, in which social media was the astonishingly successful channel for rousing civil resistance from Cairo to Tunisia, resulting in several leaders being toppled from power and fleeing the country.
Some of these protests were peaceful, others less so.
Other mass gatherings have turned to bloodshed – we can think of the Tiananmen Square in 1989, in which students protesting against hardline government were shot down and massacred as the tanks rolled into the square.

The things about crowds is that they are volatile  - a sudden change of feeling and they can turn nasty.
It might be thrilling to be caught up in a march for justice, but there will always be the troublemakers who stir people up.
This is what the Romans were worried about.
In The Passion, Pilate and his wife are gearing up for the heady crowds of the Passover, these troublesome Judeans they are obliged to rule over.
‘A Judean will start an argument in an empty house’, says Pilate’s wife.
‘Priests are the worst’, agrees Pilate.
‘There are always troublemakers during Passover week. The usual whining – taxes are too heavy, our soldiers too rough.
Pilgrims gather at the Western Wall of the Temple, in the bathing houses and markets. Any trouble will start there. Five years ago there was a riot. We had to finish it by breaking bones (…) I want patrols in the lower city – it’s a nest of thieves, beggars and whorehouses. The Temple Guard are supposed to be keeping order, but don’t you believe it.’

We perhaps have a tiny bit of sympathy as we see it from his point of view.
Crowds gathering, pushing, shoving, religious fervour, lots of them loving Jesus and his rousing speeches…
It’s all incomprehensible to Pilate and his soldiers – and a recipe for disaster as far as he’s concerned.

Then we have the religious leaders.
The BBC film very subtly portrays the High Priest, Ciaphas, as a man torn by conflicting impressions of Jesus.
He has heard that the Jewish people are turning to him, but Jesus doesn’t do things the normal religious way.
Jesus is a radical. He claims that he will tear down the Temple and rebuild it in three days.
This is blasphemy.
He forgives prostitutes and heals lepers without making the usual sacrifices.
He doesn’t appear to need, or even like Temple life – hence the scene when he overturned the tables.
He is dangerous at this Passover time – the people will forget the old ways and then Judaism will be finished – just what the Romans want.
It is vital that Jesus is in some way contained, but how to do this?
Jesus has followers, a band of men and women who walk around with him wherever he goes, hanging on his every word.
What is a High Priest supposed to do?

Ciaphas is not a monster – in the adaptation he has a loving wife and a family, and his thoughts trouble him.
‘Am I too soft?’ he asks his wife, before kissing her tenderly on the lips.
It’s a hard tightrope to walk, between loyalty to God and not enflaming the Roman authorities.

And into all this, at the height of Passover, comes Jesus.
Jesus knew the Scriptures.
He had read the prophet Zechariah: ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem, behold your king is coming to you, righteous and having salvation is he; humble and riding on a donkey’ (Zech. 9:9).

(There's a wonderful clip of it, 6.23 mins into part 1, here:

What better way to announce your kingship than enter the city of the great king, riding on a donkey?
And this is just what Jesus does.
Yes, he is humble, as our first reading expresses – he did not grasp at equality with God – otherwise, a horse with armour plating would have been perhaps more appropriate.
Horses were for the military – a donkey for the Messiah.
So Jesus knows exactly what he is doing.
It is a challenge to the high Priests in fact.
When Ciaphas hears Jesus is coming into the city on a donkey he is horrified because it’s blasphemy.
It’s the last straw. Jesus must be silenced.
It is better for one man to be given up for the people, than the whole faith is lost.
Little does he know of the heavy irony of his words.
One man will be given up for the people, but not in the way Ciaphas imagines.

So amongst the crowds, the Romans and the Jewish priests, the whole of the Palm Sunday narrative weaves around the true nature of authority.

Pilate has political authority.
He is the legitimate ruling power, taking his orders from the Emperor himself.
Ciaphas has religious authority because he upholds the ways revealed to God’s people through Moses – the elaborate sacrificial system designed to purify them from sin, designed to be held by the male priests directly descended from Aaron.

And then there’s Jesus.
Knowingly coming in through the East Gate of the Temple, the gate through which Messiah will enter, on a donkey, as predicted by Zechariah.
In one sense it is a provocative act. An act of religious subversion.
Jesus is claiming to be the true Messiah of Israel, and Saviour of the whole world.
Only Jesus knew that political and religious authority were nothing without ultimate authority, and he was about to turn that on its head.

We might like to reflect on the true nature of authority as we approach the General Election.
‘You will always have the poor’, said Jesus.
There are always those at the bottom of the pile and the ultimate test of a just society is how we deal with the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots.
What does our Christian faith say to the hot topics of today’s political debate – Immigration, terrorism, the NHS and financial ethics?

As we approach Holy Week, let’s take away the image of Jesus on a donkey.
As an image it is as subversive as it can be.
The King of Heaven come to earth and humble, riding on a donkey.
What does this image say to power?
It says to power: you only have authority as far as God allows.
And God’s authority is on God’s terms – it’s not for us to wield.
It is a model for us, that we divest ourselves of any pretension to power or control as we share the message of Jesus Christ.
Because God’s authority is demonstrated by a Saviour who emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant and only then was highly exalted by God, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The day God died

Having to come up with a talk for a primary Easter Assembly that spans the entire story of the death & resurrection of Jesus all in one go is quite a challenge. 

The phrase 'the day God died' came to mind and wouldn't go away, so here is what I offered. 

Amazingly a few hours later I had 20 minutes spare and was just settling down with the novel I'm reading, by Maggie Hamand, a wonderful writer who I met a funeral, and my eye immediately fell on these words: 'If he is both fully human and fully divine (...) how are these two opposites combined, and what happens where they seem to be contradictory? For example Christ died on the cross but God cannot die', (The Resurrection of the Body, 2008, p. 89-90).

So I'm hoping I might have been on the right track.

Please feel free to use it if it's helpful. Target age: 5-11 year olds.

The day God died.

The day God died, was a terrible day, but it didn’t end the way you might have thought.
The sun had come up, but didn’t know whether or not to shine.
It hung in the air like a big question mark.

They brought God out in the morning.
It had already been a long night in the garden.
God was tired.
He was wondering where his friends had got to.
No one was in the mood for God.
They were ready to make fun of him.
He needed to be taught a lesson.
Obey the rules and keep quiet.
Try not to be a troublemaker.
Don’t heal people on the holy day; don’t bring someone back to life: it’s too difficult for us to cope with.

God was teased, he was pushed around; it was frightening.
It got worse; it seemed like everyone was against him and now was their chance.
God was led away, towards the hill.
Someone carried the cross of wood upon which he was to die.
They arrived at the hill and God was lifted up for all to see.
Underneath the cross, they played a gambling game to see who would get his cloak.
There was more teasing: he saved other people, can’t he save himself?
Can’t he come down from the cross?
That’s just pathetic.
What a big joke, to boss God around.

Three hours passed.
The sun was very confused.
At midday it gave up shining: it couldn’t be a bright and happy day, the day God died.
It wouldn’t be right.
That made everyone even more grumpy.
The darkness lasted three hours.
People began to get nervous.
What had they done?
At 3 o’clock God cried out – he felt so alone on the cross.
Someone tried to give him a drink, but it was too late.
In the middle of the darkness and the teasing
and the feeling so lonely,
God died.

But this is not the end of the story.

The next day was a holy day and no one did anything.
The sun came up and it was quiet from dawn till dusk.
People sat at home, eat their dinner and went to bed.
The day after was the first day of the week.
Time to get up and get on with things.
Mary and Mary got up bright and early.
They went to find where God was buried.
They wanted to be the first visitors.
However, they were not expecting an earthquake.
Or an angel, bright as the morning washing.
The whiteness was unbelievable.
The guards around the tomb passed out in fear.
Mary and Mary carried on standing,
holding on to each other in amazement.
The angel spoke: God isn’t here – look!
He’s alive (of course!)
Go and tell everyone!

The women were filled with excitement.
God’s not dead!
They ran off, out of the garden, away from the tomb.
They suddenly had good news to share and they wouldn’t stop until everyone knew about it, even throughout the whole world…
Until everyone knew about what happened
The day after
The day after
the day God died.

Sunday, 22 March 2015


This week our Lent group was, ironically, about what happens when nothing happens when you pray. We've all been there. The somewhat extravagant claims made by Jesus about 'asking anything in my name' were felt by some to be unfortunate, to say the least. Clearly we sometimes ask for things which don't appear to happen, and, in extreme cases, it can make us feel abandoned.

A common one for me was praying the baby would sleep. Or stop coughing. Or not get another cold. Please can we get a parking space at the Dr's. No. Please can I get at least 3 hours sleep before I have to get up and go to the supermarket. No. Please don't let it be chicken pox. It's chicken pox.

Interestingly, depending on your background, it would seem that some people, when things go wrong in life, and prayer doesn't seem to 'work', just think 'this is normal', and carry on with their Christian faith regardless, while others say things like 'what is happening...I don't understand... where is God?' It must just depend on your point of view I suppose.

Problematically, Jesus did go around saying 'whatever you ask for, in prayer with faith, you will receive' (e.g. Matthew 21:22; Mark 11:24 and John 14:13) sometimes adding the handy caveat 'in my name', which does somewhat narrow it down. So what are we to conclude when prayer remains unanswered?

One thing is simply to persevere - it might be a question of timing. Here's a notable difference in how prayer is seen by different people: if you take a 'slot machine' view of prayer, it won't come as a surprise that often the machine won't work and your result will fail to pop out when you want it. However, when the disciples asked 'Lord, teach us to pray', Jesus began by saying 'when you pray, say 'Our Father'. Prayer is a relationship with a loving parent who wants to give us good things. When we persevere in prayer, sometimes over years, we are changed and we grow closer to God. Someone has described it as a father trying to teach his child to ride a bike. The best way is not to hold onto the child as tightly as possible, but hold the saddle instead, sometimes taking your hand off when they're not looking. This way the rider grows in confidence; the child grows up; the believer learns to stand on their own two feet.

It used to bother me that I couldn't honestly say 'I heard God tell me so-and-so' but I've come to realise that divine guidance is more subtle than that. When I look back at so many moments in ministry, to where God's hand seemed very present, I can see I just followed the faintest of hunches, but they for the most part turned out to be serendipitous. 

And where there appeared to be silence, it didn't necessarily mean absence. 

A final thought we took away from the group this week was that perseverance, when you keep going in the face of (as yet) unanswered prayer, develops in us something even more precious than faith. And that's faithfulness. This quality shines in so many persevering Old and New Testament characters, who themselves lived with unanswered prayer (including Jesus) but continued to cleave to God anyway. Much more than singling you out as the lucky one who always hits the jackpot in prayer, faithfulness shows what kind of person you are. Faithfulness is a quality worth waiting for.

Sunday, 15 March 2015


We had our 3rd Lent Course session in the week, and thought about Intercession, aka praying for others. It is perhaps the type of prayer most commonly held to be 'proper' prayer - if people know you are a praying person, they might ask for prayer in the knowledge that praying for other people is very likely exactly the thing prayer is for.

In the Old Testament the word 'paga' is used to describe intercession, and means 'a meeting with an outcome'. It is also used to describe a boundary, a violent meeting and begging. The boundary idea suggests that in intercession we go as far as we can with God and leave the results in his hands. In Genesis 32 Jacob's wrestling in prayer was something of a violent meeting and cost him a dislocated hip. Similarly we do not wrestle in prayer for something and remain unchanged. Finally the Old Testament heroine, Ruth, asked her mother in law not to beg ('paga') her to turn back from going with her into the new life of faith in God. Begging suggests the strongest desire being employed in prayer.

In the clip we watched from The Prayer Course*, a helpful sentence from Pascale's Pensees was quoted: 'God has instituted prayer to bestow upon his creatures the dignity of causality'. In other words, we're not entirely at sea in our requests - what we pray can actually make a difference in what happens or doesn't happen, though we can't always see the immediate temporal connection between our prayers and their outcomes, and shouldn't expect God to dance to our tune. 

Someone from our group spoke of 'getting indignant' with God - of speaking loudly to God in prayer, over and over, until something changes. Getting indignant is a great phrase with which the psalmist would have a lot of sympathy. Some things we want so much we find ourselves saying 'come on God, what are you doing about this?' Ironically, the passion we have for this thing we're begging for is almost certainly put there by God in the first place. Which only goes to show that prayer is a God/human relationship which is, for want of a better term, almost symbiotic. God prays in and through us. We're in on the game. 

There's a delicate balance between having the faith to believe God will act, and the humility to wait on his timing, though. We don't see the big picture sometimes. In the early days of ordained ministry, I had one prayer for the church here, which was really a thinly veiled panic, as I looked out on the largely empty pews and wondered where we were going. It was 'Lord, we need more people'. For a while absolutely nothing happened. Over time the prayer became modified to something a bit more faith filled: 'Lord, send us the people we need' - more specific, and acknowledging that  it's not primarily about numbers, but about the vocations of the people of God. Quite soon after this a small number of new people began coming to the church. It's made a big difference. At the moment, the prayer is morphing into something further: 'Lord, send us the people we need, and those who need us.' With God's guidance and the Spirit's movement, it seems God is graciously answering this prayer too.

*From the Prayer 24/7 movement