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Passion Sunday 29th March, Lent Week Five 

Book of Common Prayer readings:

 

THE COLLECT.     
WE beseech thee, Almighty God, mercifully to look upon thy people: that by thy great goodness they may be governed and preserved evermore, both in body and soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

 

THE EPISTLE. Hebrews. 9. 11 

 
CHRIST being come an High Priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands; that is to say, not of this building; neither by the blood of goats and calves; but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.  For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh; how much more shall the blood of Christ, who, through the eternal Spirit, offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?  And for this cause he is the Mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance.

 
THE GOSPEL.  St. John 8. 46


JESUS said, Which of you convinceth me of sin?  and if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me?  He that is of God heareth God's words; ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God.  Then answered the Jews, and said unto him, Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?  Jesus answered, I have not a devil; but I honour my Father, and ye do dishonour me.  And I seek not mine own glory; there is one that seeketh and judgeth.  Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death.  Then said the Jews unto him, Now we know that thou hast a devil: Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and thou sayest, If a man keep my saying, he shall never taste of death.  Art thou greater than our father Abraham, which is dead? and the prophets are dead: whom makest thou thyself?  Jesus answered, If I honour myself, my honour is nothing; it is my Father that honoureth me, of whom ye say, that he is your God: yet ye have not known him; but I know him: and if I should say, I know him not, I shall be a liar like unto you; but I know him, and keep his saying.  Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day; and he saw it, and was glad.  Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham?  Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.  Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.

 

Thoughts for this day:

 

John wrote his gospel in troubling times; in the fifty or sixty years since Jesus’ death Jewish congregations had largely tolerated those members who would today be called ‘messianic’, that’s to say who believed and preached Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, the Christ; around the time John was writing his gospel this tolerance came to an end, ‘messianic’ Jews were expelled from the synagogues.

 

Since the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in D 70 Judaism had been forced to re-evaluate everything once taken for granted with regard to their worship and especially their cherished belief that ‘The Land’ given by God following the Exodus was no longer their home. The latter years of the First Century saw a great diaspora, a scattering of the people of God from Palestine.

 

Alongside this the expansion of the Christian Church was ever changing; Christianity was spreading far and wide throughout the Roman Empire, attracting new generations of believers who had little or no understanding of the ancient faith from which their own emerged, or the places and people described in the gospel stories.

 

As the tension, and the enmity, between these factions increased so too did the pressure on the emerging Christian communities to provide a credible justification for their claims, what theologians would call an ‘Apologetic.’ John’s gospel is one attempt by a Christian community to do just that.

 

Scholars debate the exact location of these ‘Johannine’ communities, though there is widespread agreement they were somewhere in the region of Ephesus in Asia Minor, in modern day Turkey. Paul visited here between 52-54 AD and Christianity was strong with many congregations. It was here that the seven Churches addressed by the writer of Revelation were located.

 

In no small part John’s gospel was written not only to answer Christianity’s critics at the end of the first century, but also to show how Jesus faced exactly the same criticism at the hands of his opponents during his lifetime.  The highly regarded New Testament scholar (and my former New Testament tutor) Professor Andrew Lincoln suggests that the whole shape of John’s gospel is arranged in the form of a trial in which Jesus’ enemies are examined, found wanting and ultimately convicted. His commentary on John’s gospel is revelatory.

 

The trial image certainly shapes the format of our passage this morning, where Jesus is being accused by his critics of blasphemy. His critics could hardly be more offensive; to brand Jesus a Samaritan is to designate him a religious outcast, i.e. not one of God’s covenant people. To call him demon possessed suggests Jesus should be treated as a social outcast, to be shunned by all and condemned to life on the margins.

 

Jesus has just returned to the Jerusalem Temple, the seat of all rabbinic learning and discussion, from the Mount of Olives, traditionally considered to be the place where the Messiah would appear; he has been engaged in discussion about the nature or character of God’s true children, and his teaching has incensed his critics who rebut him by saying WE are the children of Abraham, i.e. heirs to the promises given to Abraham.

 

Jesus is not disputing their genetic heritage as Abraham’s descendants, after all it is a claim he is proud to hold for himself. He is challenging their assumptions about what this heritage really confers by reminding them that God’s promises are, as they have ever been, conditional.

 

By abandoning God’s true kingdom concerns in their daily living Jesus warns they imperil themselves, and in this Jesus echoes the warnings given by the prophets like Hosea and Ezekiel, whom God commissioned to warn his people of the judgement and catastrophe that awaited them if they failed to return to the terms of Covenant living that was the bedrock of their faith. The Covenant was indeed a promise of blessings, but less well remembered was that it also demanded obligations.

 

Jesus contrasts the behaviour of his critics with the behaviour and faith of their ancestor Abraham, who was counted as righteous by God through his actions, implying they will share none of Abraham’s blessings because their actions are unrighteous!

 

Naturally they are outraged, but Jesus has them over a barrel. He has been healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, restoring the dispossessed and will, with Lazarus, even raise the dead to life – in short doing everything they believe authenticates the arrival of the true Messiah.

 

If it is true Jesus is doing these things, then why do they criticise him for them? Why not recognise him, as so many are doing, for who he is? On the other hand, if he is not really doing these things then why are they getting so cross with him, why the need to accuse him in public of being a foreigner and a madman? Surely they could simply ignore him?

 

In this passage we see John describing the characteristics of authentic faith as it was in Jesus’ generation and as it remains in his own; believing who Jesus is, trusting his works, and living as he commanded his followers to live.

 

This is the encouragement John provides his hard-pressed readers in the 90’s and beyond. As our story continues to unfold in these troubled times through Passion tide and Holy Week, may John give us the same encouragement to ask who this Jesus really is, and take heart in the answer our faith provides.

 

 

 

 

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Revised Common Lectionary readings:

 

Ezekiel 37:1-14 New International Version - UK

 

37 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me to and fro among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ I said, ‘Sovereign Lord, you alone know.’

4 Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones and say to them, “Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.”’

7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

9 Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.”’ 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet – a vast army.

11 Then he said to me: ‘Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.” 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’

 

John 11:1-45 New International Version - UK

 

11 Now a man named Lazarus was ill. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay ill, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord, the one you love is ill.’

4 When he heard this, Jesus said, ‘This illness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.’ 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was two more days, 7 and then he said to his disciples, ‘Let us go back to Judea.’

8 ‘But Rabbi,’ they said, ‘a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?’

9 Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the day-time will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. 10 It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.’

11 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.’

12 His disciples replied, ‘Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.’ 13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.

14 So then he told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead, 15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’

16 Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.

21 ‘Lord,’ Martha said to Jesus, ‘if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.’

23 Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’

24 Martha answered, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’

25 Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?’

27 ‘Yes, Lord,’ she replied, ‘I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.’

28 After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. ‘The Teacher is here,’ she said, ‘and is asking for you.’ 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.

32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’

33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 ‘Where have you laid him?’ he asked.

‘Come and see, Lord,’ they replied.

35 Jesus wept.

36 Then the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’

37 But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 ‘Take away the stone,’ he said.

‘But, Lord,’ said Martha, the sister of the dead man, ‘by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days.’

40 Then Jesus said, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?’

41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.’

43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth round his face.

Jesus said to them, ‘Take off the grave clothes and let him go.’

45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

 

Thoughts for this day: Turning back the clock:

 

‘Spring forward, Fall back’ may be an Americanism but it helps me remember which way to change the clocks on the last Saturday night of March (unlike the year I went forward rather than back in October, and couldn’t understand why the newsagent near my student digs wasn’t open when I went to buy my usual newspaper and cigarettes,  ‘ because it’s the middle of the ****** night!’ was the response from an upstairs window to my banging on the door.

 

Danish philosopher Kierkegaard wrote in his 1843 journals,

 

It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards. But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forwards. A proposition which, the more it is subjected to careful thought, the more it ends up concluding precisely that life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood; exactly because there is no single moment where time stops completely in order for me to take position [to do this]: going backwards.

 

This insight is often shortened to ‘Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards’ and on the face of it seems reasonable and obvious; what would we do differently, or not at all, if we could only go back and have another go at it? Think again about the way we’ve allowed our whole world to become one great interdependent economy without pause to ponder consequences? If only we could….

 

And yet in our scripture readings for today we read in Ezekiel and in John’s gospel we hear that turning back the clock is exactly what is on offer; the well-known vision of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37, and God’s enigmatic question to his prophet ‘… can these dry bones live?’ and in John the raising of Jesus’ friend Lazarus who has most definitely been pronounced dead, and buried.

 

It seems that each of these readings contains the idea that what is thought final might not be final, as Jesus’ teaches his disciples elsewhere, with God all things are possible. (Matthew 19.26, and elsewhere in the gospels.)

 

Ezekiel is, to say the least, an uncomfortable prophet. From the beginning of his ministry in 592 BC he warned again and again of the destruction that would inevitably befall the people should they continue their spiritual rebellion against God’s call to righteous living. His message is not that of comfort, rather a sustained reiteration that all shall not be well, and all shall not be well, and all manner of things shall not be well.

 

By 586BC, by the hand of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, Jerusalem lay in ruins, the people en route to exile in Babylon.  This termination of a centuries old way of life is hard to imagine. Jews of this period unquestionably believed that,

 

  • The Promised Land, given in the time of Moses as their home following the Exodus was theirs for all time, it could never be taken from them.
  • ‘The House of David’ i.e. the monarchy established centuries ago, would last forever.
  • The Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, the House of the Lord, would never fall.

 

Now, all of a sudden, it was, it didn’t, and it did. Catastrophe and despair. To understand the impact from a Jewish perspective here are some words from Rabbi Lord Sacks, former Chief Rabbi.

 

It is hard to understand the depth of the crisis into which the destruction of the First Temple plunged the Jewish people. Their very existence was predicated on a relationship with God symbolised by the worship that took place daily in Jerusalem. With the Babylonian conquest in 586 BCE, Jews lost not only their land and sovereignty. In losing the Temple, it was as if they had lost hope itself. For their hope lay in God, and how could they turn to God if the very place where they served Him was in ruins? One document has left a vivid record of the mood of Jews at that time, one of the most famous of the psalms:  By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept as we remembered Zion…How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a strange land? (Psalm 137 http://rabbisacks.org/portable-home-terumah-5779/

 

In the midst of this crisis God leads Ezekiel in a vision to the valley of the dry bones. Whichever battle led to the slaughter of an entire army ended long, long ago, there is no sign, no record, nothing to say who these people were, when they lived or where they came from.

 

As such they may not represent those who fell during the Babylonian invasion but those who remained and are now in exile who, in their despair, feel they may as well be dead, all hope lost, homeland lost, never to return.

 

It may be there are many sharing such sentiments today as the increase of the pandemic lays waste to the vision of society we’ve come to take for granted. As some have been heard to say when all this eventually ends, what remains will not be what once we knew.

 

Understood like this it may be the valley of dry bones represents the exiles in their despair, living and yet not living; they survived the slaughter but, cut off from the presence of God assured by the Temple in Jerusalem, they may as well be dead.

 

The raising of Lazarus in John’s gospel reflects similar sentiments, although this time focussed on the natural grief of a family for the untimely death of their brother. The sisters Mary and Martha and their brother live at Bethany, a short distance from Jerusalem. We know little of them, so it is an assumption they were at least well known or well-regarded enough for members of Jewish society to have travelled out to them bringing condolence, sharing grief.

 

Jesus, who often found sanctuary in this home, is elsewhere and only arrives on the fourth day since Lazarus’ death. What may appear his apparent laissez faire approach to what has happened is a source of consternation to his disciples and to Lazarus’ sister, Martha.

 

21 ‘Lord,’ Martha said to Jesus, ‘if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.’ 23 Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’

24 Martha answered, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’ 25 Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ 27 ‘Yes, Lord,’ she replied, ‘I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.’

We can’t know the tone of voice Martha uses here, is she angry, critical, sorrowfully stating what she sincerely believes? Jesus’ response challenges her faith in a commonly held first century idea of general resurrection. Standing before her is the embodiment of life in all its fullness. ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ is more than a statement of personal identity, it is a challenge to every accepted understanding of human existence; we are born, we live, we die a cycle of reality that cannot be changed.

 

Martha’s affirmation of faith in Jesus challenges this very idea, as her actions and that of her sister do when they follow Jesus’ command to remove the grave stone and allow Lazarus to emerge. This is not, to borrow a phrase associated with a former bishop of Durham, some ‘conjuring trick with bones’, all present attest Lazarus to have been well and truly dead.

 

Now he is alive once more. The clock is turned back, despair dispelled and for this family at least life can continue as they could never have imagined. We might imagine an outpouring of universal joy and celebration – yet what happens?

 

If we read a few verses on from the end of our reading we discover there are those who leave to report Jesus to the religious authorities who, hearing of this news, take the decision to terminate Jesus and his ministry. Jesus offers life, but not as they desire it. Shockingly they also seem determined to end Lazarus’ life also, lest he become an encouragement to Jesus’ supporters!

 

This fateful decision is the turning point in John’s gospel; from here on everything turns towards Jerusalem and the endgame to be played out between the religious and secular authorities, the High Priest and governor Pilate, before the crowds gathered for Passover.

 

I wonder, where do you find yourself this year on Passion Sunday, as the year turns relentlessly towards Holy Week in 2020? Who could ever have imagined our church no longer available to us, we, the body of Christ, unable to gather, unable to meet our risen Lord in bread and wine as we used to? The Church of England has a new strapline, ‘Church is Changing’, it certainly is, do we rejoice… or despair?

 

I close with a further reflection from Rabbi Lord Sacks on the plight of the exiles in Babylon. He reminds us that following the loss of the Temple the Jews were forced to find new ways to be; to worship, to interpret the presence of God with them and for them. The result was the emergence of the Tabernacle, personal space in each home where the presence of God could be acknowledged and celebrated, somewhere finite to locate the presence of God. He writes,

 

The very concept of making a home in finite space for an infinite presence seems a contradiction in terms. The answer, still astonishing in its profundity, is contained at the beginning of this week’s parsha: (The reading for the week)  “They shall make a Sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell in them ” (Exodus 25:8).

 

The Jewish mystics pointed out the linguistic strangeness of this sentence. It should have said, “I will dwell in it,” not “I will dwell in them.” The answer is that the Divine Presence lives not in a building but in its builders; not in a physical place but in the human heart. The Sanctuary was not a place in which the objective existence of God was somehow more concentrated than elsewhere. Rather, it was a place whose holiness had the effect of opening hearts to the One worshipped there. God exists everywhere, but not everywhere do we feel the presence of God in the same way. The essence of “the holy” is that it is a place where we set aside all human devices and desires and enter a domain wholly set aside for God. 

 

Church may well be changing as we continue this time of exile from all we know and love, yet let’s not despair of the absence of God’s love or presence with us and for us. Might we find our own tabernacle, the essence of the ‘holy’, wherever we find ourselves this Passiontide?

 

The Lord be with you.

 

  

 

 

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