The Cross. It struck fear in the hearts of the world. It was Rome’s ruthless means of control. Excruciating torture. Prolonged agony. Humiliating death. According to Roman custom, the penalty of crucifixion was always preceded by scourging. After this initial punishment, you carried your cross, or at least the transverse beam of it, to the place of execution. Besides the physical pain there was also the psychological torture. Because crucifixion was a public form of execution. The crosses were located by the roadside or at a crossroads. There was no hiding.
You were exposed to the jibes and insults of the people who passed by. Stripped naked, you were bound to the cross with cords and fastened with nails like these here. Roman nails, 2000 years old. Finally, a placard called the titulus bearing your name and your crime, was placed above your head. You would not die of hunger or thirst, but might hang on the cross for days. To breathe, you must stretch upward and stand to take the weight on your legs and off your arms and chest. So if your legs were broken, death would come mercifully swift from asphyxiation.
2000 years ago Jerusalem was under a siege. One man set out on a lonely road to do something about it. Only 14 miles long. A day’s journey, up-hill, Jericho to Jerusalem. A one-way ticket. Jesus is out in front leading the way, setting the pace. Here is Mark’s eyewitness account:
“They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.” (Mark 10:32-34)
Surrender is not a popular word, is it? Almost disliked as much as the word submission. It implies losing, and no one wants to be a loser. Surrender evokes unpleasant images of admitting defeat in battle, forfeiting a game, or yielding to a stronger opponent. The word is almost always used in a negative context. In today’s competitive culture we are taught to never give up and never give in. So, we don’t hear much about surrendering. If winning is everything, to surrender is unthinkable. We would rather dwell on winning, succeeding, overcoming and conquering not yielding, submitting, obeying, or surrendering. It is ironic then that surrender is at the heart of the Christian faith.
Palm Sunday is all about surrender. Jesus rode on a donkey not a horse. Jesus came in peace not war, to surrender not conquer. Jesus came to give his life as a ransom sacrifice, to be the Passover lamb, to make atonement with God. And when some in the crowd laid their coats on the ground, it was a sign of their surrender to him. Because surrender is the natural response to God’s grace and mercy. Our surrender is called many things in scripture: consecration, taking up your cross, dying to self, yielding to the Spirit, presenting ourselves as a living sacrifice. What matters is that we do it, not what we call it.
“To explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilisations. To boldly go where no one has gone before!” I’m sure you know these are the opening lines from the iconic TV series Star Trek. At the beginning of every episode, Captain James Kirk of the Starship Enterprise says “Space: The final frontier”
Most of us will never get to test that frontier but there is another frontier we all face with a 100% certainty. Death is usually the last thing we want to talk about and yet it comes to us all, sometimes prematurely. And too many people are ill-prepared. When a loved one in mid-life is diagnosed with inoperable cancer, your world is turned upside down. Your faith is tested. Your priorities and hopes for the future are changed, instantly, radically, irrevocably. And so by the way does your circle of friends. Invariably it gets smaller, but I’m thankful for those who have stuck with us over the past five years, who have encouraged us to persevere.
I woke up the other day and couldn’t see properly. I could see a blurred object like a large hair moving around in one eye. When I looked in the mirror there was nothing on my eye, but I could still see something moving around. That was when my curiosity turned to mild panic. Was I losing my eyesight? Was it cancer?
I phoned the medical helpline 111 and was referred to the local Accident and Emergency Eye Hospital. A nice person triaged me over the phone and made an appointment for me to visit the next day. I was seen quickly by an eye specialist who did numerous tests, one of which is not for the faint hearted. It involved smearing my eye with aesthetic jelly and then placing an instrument on the pupil to explore the inside of my eye. Her diagnosis was that I have a vitrous detachment or ‘floater’.
This week we celebrated International Women’s Day. The same day the UK government announced they would be funding more football sessions in schools for girls to improve gender equality in sport. I remember when our daughter wanted to play football at school she found it difficult to get picked for the team. The assumption then was that boys played football, while girls played netball.
But as you know sexism on the playing field is tame compared to the gender discrimination women face in career opportunities, in promotion prospects, in pay differentials, in the stereotype roles expected of men and women, even within such a liberated and enlightened society as ours.
One female executive put it like this, “To get anywhere in the corporate world a woman has to do the same work a man would do in the same job, but she must do it twice as well.” Then she added, “Fortunately, that is not difficult.” Another said, “We deserve more pay than men. After all, anything Fred Astaire could do, Ginger Rogers could do backwards and on high heels.”
How good are you at memorising information? Probably better than you realise. I suspect over the years you have memorised hundreds of messages without realising it. Let me test you. How many of these messages you can complete? And for a bonus point, can you remember who said it.
To our members we’re the fourth…emergency service: AA Bread wi’ nowt …taken out: Allinsons. Vorsprung durch… technik: Audi The United Colors of… Benetton: Benetton The taste of… Paradise: Bounty The World’s Favourite… Airline: BA Go to work on… an egg: Egg Marketing Board A glass and a half in every… half pound: Cadburys And all because the lady loves… Milk Tray A pint a day helps you… work, rest and play: Milk Board The man from Del Monte he… say yes: Del Monte Put a tiger in… your tank: Esso Hands that do dishes can feel… soft as your face: Fairy Liquid No FT… no comment: Financial Times The best a man… can get. Gillette Guinness is… good for you. Guinness Refreshes the parts other… beers cannot reach: Heineken Beanz Meanz… Heinz Graded grains make… finer flour: Homepride Have a break. Have a… Kit-Kat Never knowingly… undersold: John Lewis Because you’re… worth it: L’Oreal It does exactly what it says… on the tin: Ronseal Diamonds are a girl’s… best friend: De Beers. And lastly…
I am sure like me you have been shocked at the eruption of violence in Palestine this week. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz invariably goes for the jugular with its headlines where Western media normally fear to tread. On Tuesday, for example, Haaretz ran the headline, “Israeli Settlers’ Hawara Pogrom was a Preview of Sabra and Chatila 2” In case you were born after 1982, in September that year, after invading Southern Lebanon, the Israeli military allowed the Lebanese Phalangist Militia to enter the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila and massacre over 3,500 Palestinian men, women and children. Haaretz drew the comparison, “This week in the West Bank, no one stopped the extremist settlers from running amok in Hawara.”
They say you never get a second chance at a first impression. But first impressions can sometimes be rather superficial. And that is also true when people think of Jesus. What were your first impressions of Jesus?
My first memory of Jesus was around the age of six when I first attended Sunday School. I remember two things: Singing the chorus, “Jesus loves me this I know…” and a large painting of Jesus on the wall. Jesus was holding a lamb in his arms surrounded by lots of little children my age – except strangely unlike my Sunday school class, they were all different colours. There was an African child, a Chinese child, an Indian child, a Native American child and many others that were different to me. But I do remember, reassuringly that Jesus had long golden hair and a blond European complexion. My first memories were of a white Jesus and for many of us that is our unconscious default view we carry we carry with us through life. Comforting it may be until we encounter someone with a different religious heritage. William Blake described the dilemma we face.
My first parish as a young enthusiastic priest was St John’s, Stoke, in Guildford, Surrey. It is situated next door to Guildford College. In my time there as Rector, we held occasional events for students and faculty. Previously I had spent four years working as a student pastor so when the chaplaincy of the college fell vacant I asked my Bishop whether the two posts could be combined. We heard nothing for months. Eventually when I pressed the Archdeacon, I was told that it was considered inappropriate for an evangelical to be appointed as the chaplain to an academic institution. Then when I proposed undertaking a part-time post graduate degree I was asked by the Director of Training, rather cynically, was I going to buy it from America? That was all the motivation I needed to pursue a Masters from Oxford and then eventually a PhD.
I can therefore relate to how the Apostle Paul must have felt when he was mocked by the Christians in Corinth for his lack of eloquence or oratory skills. Let me read to you from John Stott’s book “Calling Christian Leaders” (IVP)