Category Archives: Easter

Forsaken

Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At 3 o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud shout, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, which means, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

There is a mystery behind this cry of Jesus from the Cross that we have not been able to penetrate. It is almost impossible to imagine Jesus utterly forsaken by God. We ask – how could it be? Jesus, always so sure of the presence of his Father God, how could it be that he should feel so abandoned by Him, just at the moment he needed Him most? In the course of my ministry I have watched people die and sometimes not without considerable suffering. There has been on their faces a light and a peace that spoke more eloquently than any words of assurance promising that God does not forsake us even as we draw our last breath; that He may be closer to us in death than we have been aware of him in life.

We are surprised and puzzled by those words of dereliction that reach out from the Cross. Very difficult to explain. So difficult some people say those words could never have crossed the lips of Jesus, that the writer of the Gospel, to make the quotation from Psalm 22 more palatable, has deliberately inserted it in the editing of the Gospel with the intent of giving it a more dramatic ring to impress upon the reader and listener how much was the cost of our salvation to Jesus. In one early manuscript, for example, the words are altered and read Why hast thou taunted me? The explanation for this change is that the copyist took offence at the words of the orthodox translation and edited it for what he considered a more appropriate utterance. There are biblical scholars who solve the problem with the theory that, since it is impossible to think of Jesus being left in the lurch by his Father God, the quotation from Psalm 22, this cry of dereliction, was appended to the story of the Cross by the Gospel writers to underpin the sentiment encapsulated in the words of a well-known hymn: what pains He had to bear and it was for us He hung and suffered there. Well, maybe to quote from the same hymn – we may not know, we cannot tell.

You knew something was troubling my old landlady when you heard her quietly reciting the words of Psalm 23 – The Lord’s my Shepherd, a favourite passage of Scripture for her because, she explained to me, of its soothing and assuring effect, it lifted her up! Perhaps Jesus was similarly reciting the Psalm to ease the pain, the agony of it all. Who knows? Dr Vincent Taylor, Principal of Wesley College when I was a student, presented the evidence for and against the authenticity of this saying of Jesus, and said: It is improbable that tradition would have assigned to Jesus such a saying, except under warrant of past testimony. What he is saying is that, for a moment or two, as He hung on the Cross, Jesus did have a feeling of being abandoned, not only by His nation and His friends, but even by His Heavenly Father.

Celebration

Easter Lilies-Lilium longiflorum

Easter Lilies by Cliff from Arlington, VA. [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D via Wikimedia Commons

Across the world two Sundays ago the majority of Christians gathered in churches, many of them gaily decorated with appropriate banners and, even more delightful to the eye, a gorgeous colourful display of spring flowers. Bells will have pealed their clarion chimes, with organ and voices attempting to raise the roof with their resounding songs of praise. In my earlier days of ministry it was not unusual for choir and guest soloist to perform a favourite cantata at this momentous time in the Christian year. Children played their part, they came in their new attire to celebrate the Anniversary of Sunday School. In more recent times, if you could overcome your inhibitions, you might swing a bit trying to keep up to the rhythm of the praise band. For Christians, Easter Sunday is the most glorious day of the year. A time to celebrate, Christ risen, Jesus alive – as close to us as he was to his broken mystified disciples that first Easter Day. Nowadays we tend to be more restrained in our worship at Eastertide, the format more or less the norm for an ordinary Sunday. However, drop in to any church on the great day and it could not be mistaken for anything other than Easter worship, the hymns alone would guarantee it and maybe a vase of white lilies competing with the Cross for a space on the Communion Table.

As I look back on my pilgrim way I recall occasions when I fondly imagined that living life with Jesus, side by side, face to face, in those far distant days in Palestine would have been much easier than my constant struggle. Hymns for younger people certainly encouraged that perspective; seeing him, being with him. Here is a line from one of them, “I would like to have been with him then!” James Simpson in one of his regular columns for the Church of Scotland’s magazine Life and Work, reckons that the day after the crucifixion, was a very dark one for the followers of Jesus. Peter J. Gomes, an American pastor and preacher, who died a short time ago, speaks much along the same lines; his theme the first disciples and Easter. Their Easter Day, he contends, was far less impressive than ours; their Easter Day was much duller than ours. There were no trumpets on their Easter Day, their Easter Day was far less compelling than ours and the other side of Easter saw them locked behind closed doors, afraid and utterly confused.

Now what if that was how they had remained – self acknowledged failures? What if Easter had meant the end of an exciting venture under the leadership of a charismatic and beloved brother, Jesus? Did God have some other plan? We will never know, happily no contingency plan was needed, a fact that shapes and colours our worship, not only on Easter Day. What we tend to forget is that each time we cross the threshold of our meeting place on a Sunday we are gathered to celebrate the joy and glory of Easter!

On the first day of the week, when the disciples were behind locked doors for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them “Peace be with you,” he said. (John 20: 19).

For us

Anthony van Dyck - Crucifixion - WGA07434

Anthony van Dyck [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In a book of meditations, originally given in a Lenten series, Donald Hilton, United Reformed minister, suggests that Jesus died not knowing the answer to his cry of dereliction, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” If God had given him conclusive evidence that his darkest hour would also be his hour of greatest glory, Donald Hilton asserts, there would have been no glamour in the events that led to Calvary and the gospel would be found on the fiction shelves of the local library! There were no miraculous signals or mysterious voices to answer his cry. Yet, as we observe Jesus’ anguish, we can be sure this awful and terrible experience was no denial of all that had gone before. He, who in his lifetime became the friend of publicans and sinners, to whom people brought their sick to be healed; he who so clearly triumphed over evil when confronted by it, was not at the last reduced to defeat. Matthew, Mark and Luke go on to tell us simply that Jesus gave another loud cry and gave up his spirit. But in the fourth gospel, John contends we should know a little more – that Jesus died with the shout, “It is finished!” Not to be mistaken for a declaration of resignation. Rather, the cry of a man who has been through his hell and accepted the torment and triumphed over it. Light shone in the darkness! God was in it all.”When the centurion and his soldiers who guarded Jesus saw what was happening, they were awestruck and said, truly this man was the son of God.

It is as we see the cross through the eyes of the centurion that we are able to penetrate the undoubted mystery of the crucifixion and see God’s purpose fulfilled and be able to say with Charles Wesley, “didst thou not in our flesh appear; and live and die below; that I may now perceive thee near and my redeemer know.” (Hymns & Psalms: 184) What is important and must be said is that however the cross moves us to respond positively, it may differ from the way in which our neighbours in church have come to understand what it means for them. Dr Sir Alan Walker, the Australian Missioner, wrote a book with the title The many-sided cross, so-called because there is no insight, no doctrine, no school of thought that can possibly express the whole truth of the crucifixion. Alan Walker wrote, “It is like a diamond. Hold the diamond to the light, turn it about in the hand, light will flash and reflect in many colours the beauty of the stone, but what we see will depend from which angle we look at it.” From one angle the cross can be seen as a sacrifice; an innocent young man dies instead of, and on behalf of, sinners. From another perspective the cross can be seen as a demonstration of the love of God: a man dies not just for his friends, but for his enemies; a love that overwhelms and draws our response. So we could go on – there are other theories about the cross sincerely held by Christians, each one touching on a segment of the whole truth. However if it remains no more than theory, the death of Jesus achieves precious little for us. For whatever else may be shrouded in mystery, however much we may be puzzled by it and whatever may be said, one thing is true – in some strange and wonderful way, through the cross the power of God is released among us and our birth right – “made in the likeness of God”– is not just a dream, but a dream come true. The mechanism of the cross may remain a mystery for ever, its power need never be in dispute.

On a green hill

Image credit: Pixabay

Image credit: Pixabay

When a convicted murderer is condemned to death in the USA, or any other state for that matter, there is more than one way of doing it. When execution is by lethal injection it is supposed to be a more humane method than any other. Whether it is less barbaric than hanging or electric chair or whatever other form execution might take, are not all executions degrading and inhuman? Death by crucifixion in Jesus’ time, was the method used by Rome when slaves or the worst kind of criminals were its victims. The Romans themselves regarded it as the cruellest and most hideous of punishments. Little wonder the first evangelists ran into trouble when they preached the gospel of Christ crucified. It was absolutely ludicrous to suggest Messiah should be condemned to die nailed to a Cross with two criminals on either side of him. For him to die by crucifixion was beyond belief.

Yet, in spite of the ignominy of it, Christians down the centuries have cast a halo of beauty round the cross. In church they sing of the wondrous cross on which the prince of glory died. St Paul explains where he stands in relation to the cross. “I decided to know nothing among you,” he says, “except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” This is no attempt to add a touch of glamour to the appalling circumstances of our Lord’s demise on a green hill outside a city wall. What Paul does is to state in the strongest possible terms the centrality of the cross for us. At the heart of our preaching and faith is the good news that Christ suffered and died for our salvation. Of course, the cross in itself cannot save anyone: Jesus himself is saviour. Nonetheless, the New Testament maintains the cross was not only inevitable but essential. If Jesus had said, “Father, you ask too much, I cannot go through with it,” it would have brought the mission to a full stop, there and then. To submit to this heinous act would signal to those who schemed to get rid of him that they held the trump card! It is not easy for us to appreciate how uncertain he must have felt allowing his prosecutors and persecutors to have their way. “Prove yourself, come down and save yourself”, they taunted. And Jesus’ response, “Father, not what I want, let your will be done”. There must have been considerable turmoil within as he considered the possibility that God’s way just might be the wrong way. Think of the terrific struggle he underwent in Gethsemane! Knowing what crucifixion was like, the thought of its excruciating agony and pain, the record tells us, brought the sweat out of him, “like great drops of blood falling to the ground”! At the end of the day, and we are not telling the whole story, the green hill spectacle defies description. We would be utterly, totally arrogant if we did not feel for him.

Attempts have been made to provide a more acceptable explanation for Jesus’ desolate outburst from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – a quotation from Psalm 22. It is difficult to see how they have transformed that agonising cry into a shout of trust and confidence! But if we are looking for further enlightenment, does this form of cosmetic surgery enable us better to kneel beneath the shadow of this instrument of cruelty and injustice? William Barclay‘s reaction to what he labels “this fanciful interpretation” – on a cross a man does not recite poetry, even the poetry of a psalm.

Solace in a garden

Jerusalem Gethsemane tango7174

Garden of Gethsemane
Image credit: Tango7174 via Wikimedia Commons

Asked what he does when activities become too demanding or stressful, someone who lives a full and busy life explained his own personal form of unwinding was to spend time in the garden, sometimes to do a bit of work, other times just to sit quietly and reflect. A good place to be. Indeed, what better place to be?

Dorothy Frances Gurney wrote, “one is nearer to God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth.” You can be close to God in the world of nature – he is its creator – and many do find spiritual solace there. There are places where it is better to be in order to sense the close presence of God. However, there is a garden that is very much a part of the Christian story. All the gospels refer to it. A garden set on the slopes of the Mount of Olives in the Palestine of Jesus’ day, known to us as Gethsemane. There Jesus chose to spend the final moments before his arrest, unburdening his soul to God in prayer.

Those who remember His personal conflict and his heart-rending prayer, “Father, if it is possible, take this cup from me,” may be excused for thinking that Jesus felt totally estranged from God in that Garden. As he prayed, “the sweat was like drops of blood falling.” Take a closer look and, in the picture we have in the gospels, we see Jesus and sense the presence of God with him. You do not plead like that to a god who is absent.

A garden, a sacred moment and a sacred place.

A disciple’s prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, at your moment of severe trial, when everything seemed against you and death itself stared you in the face, you found a sacred place, a sacred moment to spend in quiet with the Father.

You prayed to be excused the ignominy and the agony of the Cross. We would do the same. What we would find more difficult is to pray, as you did: “if is your will not to take the cup from me, I will go to the Cross.”

Lord Jesus Christ, save us from an hour of so severe a testing, but if it comes, may we find the grace to accept it and the strength to bear it, fortified and strengthened because you share the cup with us.

Lord, this is our quiet moment, our sacred place . . . . be close to us that we may share Your victory.

Amen

The blog will be taking a holiday next week, but will be back on April 9th.

Welcome Eastertide

Judy Garland – remember her?  If you are a certain age, you will!  And – the song?  “Put on your Easter bonnet, with all the ribbons on it …. and join the Easter Parade.”   Easter is special in the song; the occasion for a grand parade.  Join the crowd, follow the band, dress up with your Easter Bonnet and all the ribbons on it.  But that was a film made in Hollywood!  When do you see women in hats with ribbons these days?  Or, for that matter, without ribbons?  At a wedding – maybe – but at Easter!  Well, hat or no hat, Easter is a happy festival occasion, a time for celebration in Church.  A time for ”euphonium, trombone and big bass drum”.  Although I didn’t always appreciate it when I was rudely aroused from my slumbers at 7 a.m. on Easter Sunday morning; woken by the Findochty Salvation Army band parading past my bedroom window, flag a-flying, big drum beating, heralding the event, proclaiming the good news,” Christ the Lord is Risen today, Alleluia!”

The Way of the Cross at SunsetSource: Wikimedia Commons

The Way of the Cross at Sunset
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Fred Pratt Green, the Methodist 20th Century hymn-writer gives his hymn, ‘This joyful Eastertide’  the refrain: Come, share our Easter joy, That death could not imprison,  Nor any power destroy, Our Lord who is arisen.’  But it wasn’t much like that at the dawn of the first Easter morning.  When news of the Resurrection broke, we can only imagine the anger and consternation it must have caused those who engineered the events of Good Friday. Even the close friends of Jesus were disturbed and perturbed by it.  Their response to the news that Christ was risen was slow, almost reluctant.  The women who visited the tomb were distressed, terrified, completely at a loss.  Mary was in tears.  There were many bizarre ways to explain the disappearance of a dead body – resurrection the least likely.  Thomas, the disciple, was not with his friends when the Risen Jesus was with them.  When given the news, it was all too fantastic for words – to be taken with a pinch of salt.  Later still, the Apostle Paul doing a stint of open-air preaching on Mars Hill in Athens must have been disappointed if he expected a rapturous reception.  The crowd listened respectfully at first – until he mentioned the resurrection, then a section of his hearers began to mock him.  Paul also found it difficult to convince the Church of the mystery and glory of the resurrection.  But, preach it he must; he is convinced that, “ If Christ has not been raised from death, then we have nothing to preach and you have nothing to believe.”  (strong stuff! 1 Corinthians, 15.14)

Good News BiblePaul, anxious to communicate and share the joy and assurance of Easter, acknowledging the need of some further explanation, writes in his correspondence with the church at Colossae – if you think of your baptism you will begin to understand the significance of resurrection and penetrate its mystery. ( Colossians 2.12; cf also Romans 6.4.)  In Paul’s day baptism would probably be mostly by total immersion in water The candidate would step into the water, probably a river and an Apostle (or some other) would plunge the convert completely under the water. In fact ‘to baptise’ is the translation of a Greek word meaning ‘to plunge.’  Paul’s linking of baptism with resurrection is simply that, apart from it being the rite of admission to the church, baptism was symbolically like dying and rising again. To be plunged under water was like being buried In the grave; when you rose out of the water – like rising from the grave.

What Paul is saying directs us to the very heart of the Easter message; when we are baptised we die with Christ and we are raised to new life with Him!  We are not meant to take it literally – we cannot go back in time or go through the awful pain and agony of crucifixion or put ourselves in the shoes of Jesus’ friends standing at the entrance to an empty tomb that first Easter morning. One more thing that ties the two together – baptism and resurrection:  in the first days of Christendom baptism was usually associated with a personal confession of faith.  Interesting as it may be to speculate, to debate, to posses a shelf full of theological tomes, the Easter message is to be believed rather than talked about.   Easter faith is not the preserve of one day in the year only, it is the faith in which Christians daily live. We are the Easter people.  Let us rejoice as Fred Pratt Green’s hymn  invites . . . . . . . . .  share our Easter joy!

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Welcome Eastertide
Source: Wikimedia Commons