Saturday, 12 April 2014

Entry to Jerusalem

In the early Church there were people called ‘Gnostics’ who were eager to dilute the humanity of Jesus. For them it was far too vulgar a notion that the Son of God might actually have died on a cross. Some even claimed that angels did a last-minute switch so that it was really Simon of Cyrene who hung on the tree, presumably with a chorus of angelic sniggering. This is immoral nonsense.

The truth is that neither cutting Jesus down to size as a human being nor ‘pushing him upstairs’ as a glorified angel is any answer to the suffering of the world and our need of redemption. What eternal difference at all can the exemplary life of one pious Jew make to people being bombed and terrorized in Afghanistan, Syria, the Congo or South Sudan? Answer: precisely none. Jesus was made higher than any angel to be our flesh and blood Saviour. He came not primarily to show us how to lead moral lives. It is true that he did this; but much more important, he showed us once and for all how to die that we might live in eternity.

For Jesus, his entry into Jerusalem was not a triumph like that staged for a Roman emperor. It was the vindication of the truth of who he was. The scene is set for the drama of our salvation to be played out in the city where the holy name of God dwelt. Already the forces gathered against Jesus even as he is fêted by a crowd. Plenty of those who shouted ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’ later shouted, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ Some just came to stand and stare, wanting to be entertained. But Jesus had not come for his moment of fame. The only way to understand and follow him is through the Cross. The Christ who gives meaning to our world today is the crucified Son of God who shares the humanity of every starving baby in South Sudan. We have hope not just of eternal life later, but hope in the struggles and challenges of today because we have no burden that he does not bear alongside us through his sacrifice. All the crucifying choices we may have to make as human beings are caught up in Jesus’s tears in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Nonetheless, the question persists and propels us into the mystery of suffering and apparent meaninglessness. Some Christians play a kind of roulette wheel of prayer whereby if you are really, really a Christian, you will be healed or set free. Of course it is God’s will to heal us; but sometimes that is the healing of a good death and, sometimes, mysteriously, the answer is ‘no’. I have no easy answer to the mystery of suffering; but I know that God has not abandoned us. All that we see in Christ broken and crucified reveals the love and the majesty of the Blessed Trinity who reaches out to each one of us.

The God worth believing in is the God whose Son enters Jerusalem knowing that he is going to suffer and die for the sins of the whole world. This is the God whose glory is so great that it is not diminished by being laid aside for our salvation. This is the God who is more loving than love, so that everything is poured out for the world with nothing ever held back. This is the Spirit who is closer than close, who faithfully remains with us even when sin brings darkness and freedom is abused by pride. This is the God who is greater than great, more loving than love, and closer than close. And if we are to be followers of Jesus and not just bystanders looking for cheap thrills and easy answers, a renewed commitment is invited from each of us this Holy Week to be martyrs.

The saints of Iona belonged to a tradition that looked for martyrdom even if not in the finality of death. They invented an extra kind of martyrdom: they left their homes and crossed the seas to carry the Gospel to unknown lands. They called this a ‘white’ as opposed to a ‘red’ martyrdom. We are invited to be white martyrs this Holy Week.

It is this little martyrdom, this pilgrim journey to the Cross with Jesus this week that will open us to the delight of forgiveness which carries Hosannas from our lips to our hearts. This little death will reveal life to us, even if we are suffering ourselves. These steps to Golgotha will enlarge our sympathies and open our eyes to see Jesus more clearly; not only in this holy sacrifice but also in the faces of the people we do not like or do not care to know. Only at the foot of the Cross will we find out who we truly are and what we most wonderfully might become. There we shall be taught again that every suffering can be redeemed even when it is not taken away.

Stephen Conway is the Bishop of Ely

Posted by Stephen Conway on Saturday, 12 April 2014 at 8:00pm BST | TrackBack
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Comments

Don't get it - lots of wheels going round doing no more than sliding on the track. For example, what does this mean: "he showed us once and for all how to die that we might live in eternity"? So what does this say about how I should die differently than I would have in order to pick up this state of eternity?

Posted by: Pluralist on Monday, 14 April 2014 at 1:13am BST

Sir,

Excuse my lacuna in scholarly exegesis, but how do we know "Plenty of those who shouted ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’ later shouted, ‘Crucify' " ?

Posted by: lowereastnyc on Monday, 14 April 2014 at 5:45am BST

"they left their homes and crossed the seas to carry the Gospel to unknown lands. They called this a ‘white’ as opposed to a ‘red’ martyrdom. We are invited to be white martyrs this Holy Week."

A very little bit of white martyrdom in Devizes this week. Our procession from St Mary's to St John's church with a Donkey and a colt, choir, congregation and lots of palms and branches. A group of weekend visitors to the town saw the spectacle and joined the parade with us, coming into church for the long Passion Gospel and the rest of the Palm Sunday Eucharist.

Posted by: paul richardson on Monday, 14 April 2014 at 9:42am BST

I think this is a good - though not brilliant - sermon, but one that is well worth sharing and has given me pause for thought this Holy Week. But more than that I am glad to see it up on thinkinganglicans because in recent months and years I have come to feel that the articles and links posted on the website (and even more the comments then proferred) seem to be totally dominated by issues of gender and sexuality. I have been seriously wondering if 'thinking anglicans' should change its name to 'sexmad anglicans'. So it feels refreshing on occasion to read something in which neither gender or sexuality are mentioned. Please can we have more features like this. I care about issues of justice in relation to gender and sexuality too, but perhaps because I have worked for the church outside the western world through much of my life (indeed I could be said to do that now) I feel that the preoccupations on this website have become so insular that they make me ashamed to self identify as Anglican.

Posted by: Clare on Tuesday, 15 April 2014 at 12:23pm BST

I like the sermon too. Good but not brilliant is about right.

Clare, discussions that you see as "sexmad" I see as being about JUSTICE. Also, they are about the theology of who is created in the Image of God. If not all, then who gets to decide?

When the ABC makes a provocative remark, such as a massacre in Africa was caused by gay friendly churches in America, there's going to be a response, especially when no human rights organization corroborates the remark. Thus, the questions of why this was said, who's agenda does it support, is the Anglican Communion going to split over it, will the West appease the supposed murders, etc.? These are significant questions. In fact, it seems to be the justice issue of our day, as women and race have been.

Posted by: Cynthia on Tuesday, 15 April 2014 at 7:36pm BST

Thank you for these thoughts, Stephen.

I think growing into the whole of who God knew us and intended us to be and become, involves a "letting go to love", a dying to self, and a giving and sharing of ourselves. Easier said than done.

"I have a baptism to undergo," Jesus said, by which he meant his death and resurrection.

This baptism, symbolised in the only sign He promised, the sign of Jonah, involves death to self, and being raised and restored to new life.

But it is a restoration that is daily, not just when we physically die.

"If anyone would follow me, they must take up their cross daily."

The baptism Jesus invited his disciples to share was the daily death to self, and opening up to the resurrection reality of divine love.

"Unless a grain of the seed is buried in the earth, and dies..."

This baptismal imagery recurs again and again as a deep symbolic archetype in the Bible: Noah, 'buried' in an ark on the vast ocean, then restored to a new world, a new beginning.

The Israelites, descending into the jaws of death as the waters parted, then rising up the other side, bound for a new country.

The men in the fiery furnace, put down there to perish, and restored to life. Joseph abandoned in the pit, to rise and become the agent of new futures. Daniel 'buried' in the lions' den, and returning to life.

Jonah, already mentioned. 'Burials' in exile, whether Babylon, or Naomi in Moab, and restoration.

"Behold! I make all things new!"

The symbolism of baptism in the Jordon. The significance of being born again. The experience of baptism in the Spirit.

And our lived experiences, in the lives we are called to, to let go and love, and serve, albeit fallibly.

Martyrdom in this sense is the very nature of givenness and sharing and engaging in love, exemplified in the eternal sharing and givenness of the Trinity, in the sacrificial and given nature of God, in God's devotion of self, in the given life of Jesus, and the Cross, and burial, and resurrection.

The Way of the Cross, of this daily baptism, is the Way of martyrdom. But it is also the journey, daily, into eternal life and spiritual reality, and the whole of who we are, astonishingly, loved and called to be.

Posted by: Susannah Clark on Wednesday, 16 April 2014 at 1:24pm BST

I hope such technicalities don't get in the way of the Eastertide spirit, but there's a technical question about Gnosticism I've been waiting for an opportunity to ask for a while, and I know there are some people on here who are well-informed when it comes to early church history...

Gnosticism seems to differ from the Christianity in which we (or at least, most of us on this forum) believe, in that Gnostics hold the following four beliefs ("heresies", one might say if that word hadn't somehow become a compliment in the past couple of decades):

- that Christ's death on the cross did not really take place, and was some sort of illusion, as described in the original article above;
- that Christ was not fully human, again as described above;
- that the afterlife is a disembodied, purely-spiritual affair, not a resurrection of the body; and
- that admission to heaven is dependent on the possession of some kind of secret knowledge.

(Incidentally, there may be some mileage in rehearsing here the reasons why we believe those four statements are untrue - Bishop Stephen very successfully argues that two of them are "immoral", but that's not the same as being untrue. However, that's not the question I wanted to ask.)

My question was - do those four beliefs/heresies have individual names, or are they always referred to en bloc as "Gnosticism"?

Posted by: Feria on Monday, 21 April 2014 at 4:21pm BST
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