A cry from the cross for a lost homeland
Good Friday reflections on Jesus’ seven last sayings from the cross
A Sermon by Rt Reverend Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, Bishop of Loughborough
- “Father forgive”
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
Luke 23. 33-38
Forgiveness – such a well known concept (for good or ill) and this is where it begins, or at least where its power is located, and its challenge to us is focused; at the cross of Jesus. Jesus, at his most helpless and at the point of greatest suffering, ushering the cry of forgiveness for his persecutors and in so doing, setting the bar for us too to do the same – to adopt a posture of forgiveness towards those who do us harm, those who hurt us, those whose words and actions cause us pain and anguish.
Luke’s is the only Gospel where this, the first of Jesus’ seven last words from the cross, is recorded. During these few verses Luke digresses from the familiar account and goes his own way. But more than that, it may surprise some of you to know that the words “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”, don’t, in fact, appear in all the ancient manuscripts. They’re missing from some versions of Luke’s Gospel. The general view is that Luke must have intended to include the words – apart from anything, they mirror so perfectly Luke’s account of the martyrdom of Stephen recorded in Acts chapter 7, where he too utters similar words at the point of death by stoning. It’s possible the words were omitted in some Gospel manuscripts, because of the belief amongst some Christians that the crucifixion of Jesus was of a different order – beyond the pale – an unforgiveable sin.
In any case, though it seems likely the words are authentic, this confusion seems to me to reflect something of our anomalous and difficult relationship with the doctrine of forgiveness. Some recoil from the whole idea, others find it too painful and just impossible, some use it to accuse Christians of being spineless and soft on crime and wrong doing, still others have embraced it and tried to make it a way of life.
For me, whatever you think of it, forgiveness is a central Christian theme that we can’t simply ignore. We must grapple with it and try to make sense of. It has undoubtedly been misused and even abused down the centuries. It’s been over simplified, misunderstood and even exploited by the church which has sometimes sought to force it upon people in a controlling, manipulative way, leading individuals to remain in abusive relationships and to suffer ongoing horrors in silence. That is not how I understand forgiveness. It is not about tolerating injustice for the sake of it or acquiescing to harm which belittles human life and dignity. Embracing forgiveness doesn’t mean giving up on justice or working for change.
The church community in Iran where my early faith was nurtured and which has suffered so much persecution over the past 30-40 years, has sought to model the way of forgiveness whilst not giving up its cry for justice and for the rule of law.
So having tried to establish what it is not, I’d like if I may to share with you some reflections on how I do understand forgiveness, offering some windows through which we may contemplate this most testing of Christian ideas.
It strikes me as interesting that this is Jesus’ first saying, uttered early in the process of his cruel crucifixion, perhaps before the depth of agony and torment have truly kicked in. He voices his intention, his desire for the reality of forgiveness to be manifest, before he’s at a stage where he might no longer have found the strength to do so. Forgiveness is less a definite point of arrival at some clearly defined destination, and more of a messy voyage – the ultimate expedition – undertaken in faith, knowing that we may stumble and fall and fail over and again. The yearning to be forgiving, is in itself a remarkable beginning.
[I met an elderly lady recently called Margaret who told me her grandson was in prison. I asked if she was able to visit and she said she hadn’t been, because she couldn’t yet forgive him. I asked if she wanted to, and she said yes, I do and one day maybe I’ll be able to. Margaret has unknowingly started on the journey which unsurprisingly she couldn’t articulate in all its complexity, overlaid as it was with emotions of betrayal, anger, embarrassment, and hurt. There may be many twists and turns and complications ahead but she has opened the door and is leaning into a future with possibilities rather than one where there are only dead ends.]
As the Islamic Revolution in Iran was beginning to take hold, in the early days, as its impact was gradually being felt by the Anglican Church through various raids on properties and confiscation of institutions, as missionaries and foreigners began to depart, leaving the community exposed and vulnerable, I remember well a sermon preached by my father, who was a Muslim convert and bishop of the church. I must have been around 12 years old but I recall it clearly. Aware that even greater dangers probably lay ahead, for himself and for his tiny flock, he declared his intention to side with forgiveness rather than hatred. He talked of having preached for years about the theory of forgiveness but now it was time to live it. He didn’t know then that soon he would be in prison, his wife would be injured in an attack on their lives and eventually his only son would be murdered and he and his family forced into exile where he would remain until his death in 2008. But he declared his intention early on to live with a spirit of forgiveness no matter what and though this proved far from easy, that is the path that he and my mother continued to travel and I have tried to emulate.
Forgiveness is truly not the easy option; it is costly and messy and painful but it does open up the way of life. It prevents us from getting stuck in the past, held fast in the grip of hatred and bitterness and it allows also for the possibility of change in the one who has offended. It is a recognition that nothing and no one is beyond redemption. That the way things have been isn’t the way things need to be in the future. That good can come out of evil, that love can overpower hatred. Now those who are offered forgiveness, to fully experience it, must choose to embrace it in a spirit of remorse and repentance, but its offer is the beginning, and that offer is the scandal of Christianity for it is open to all, no matter who you are or what you’ve done. And it’s a reminder too that we are, none of us, perfect and that we are on this journey together. All of us need forgiveness in our own lives, for our shortcoming and failures, our sins great and small.
In all this talk of being forgiving, it’s worth remembering that forgiveness isn’t always our gift to offer. Sometimes the greatest offence hasn’t been committed against us or at least not only us. When my brother, Bahram, was murdered, it was his life that had been cut short. The loss caused us terrible pain but was it our role to forgive his murderers, did we even have the right to do this on his behalf? Moreover, is forgiveness ever ours to offer, or does it belong to God? Neither St. Stephen as he was being stoned, nor Jesus from the cross, said “I forgive”. Their cry is “father forgive, for they do not know what they are doing”. I don’t think this means that the offenders shouldn’t take responsibility for their actions but rather that, in this act of evil, their humanity has been diminished and so only God forgive. This is a significant distinction. Margaret, who’s grandson is in prison, is struggling to do the forgiving when perhaps her eyes are set towards a target she doesn’t need to aim towards. To ask God to forgive is to trust God and to surrender to God’s will the task of judging and of changing hearts and minds. It’s to release us from the burden of responsibility and free us to move into the future.
Which brings me to the heart of what forgiveness is – the starting place for hope. Even as I was grieving for the loss of my brother, coping with the rupture from friends and home, stranded in a new and unfamiliar place, I saw my parents travel the painful path towards forgiving those who murdered their son. And through my teens I watched them adjust with graciousness to life in exile, and the apparent disintegration of all they’d worked for in Iran. And as I watched them I began to realise that what they were doing was continuing to hope when all seemed lost.
As we come towards the end of this section, I want to share with you [draw your attention to] the prayer my father wrote after my brother, Bahram, was killed. [It’s printed on the service sheet.] It was read, in the original Persian, at Bahram’s funeral in Isfahan. This is the English translation which has become known as the forgiveness prayer.
O God, we remember not only Bahram but his murderers.
Not because they killed him in the prime of his youth and made our hearts bleed and our tears flow;
Not because with this savage act they have brought further disgrace on the name of our country among the civilized nations of the world;
But because through their crime we now follow more closely your footsteps in the way of sacrifice.
The terrible fire of this calamity burns up all selfishness and possessiveness in us.
Its flame reveals the depth of depravity, meanness and suspicion, the dimension of hatred and the measure of sinfulness in human nature;
It makes obvious as never before our need to trust in your love as shown in the cross of Jesus and his resurrection,
Love that makes us free from all hatred towards our persecutors;
Love which brings patience, forbearance, courage, loyalty, humility, generosity and greatness of heart;
Love which more than ever deepens our trust in God’s final victory and his eternal designs for the Church and for the world;
Love which teaches us how to prepare ourselves to face our own day of death.
Bahram’s blood has multiplied the fruit of the Spirit in the soil of our souls: so when his murderers stand before you on the Day of Judgment, remember the fruit of the Spirit by which they have enriched our lives, and forgive.
As I prepared for today and read through this prayer it struck me forcibly that although the word hope is never used, the prayer is infused with the idea of hope. It defines forgiveness as the thing which allows us to trust more completely. Forgiveness is the thing that frees us from hatred, allows us to love and releases us from the anxiety of our own death. I wish now that I had quizzed my father more over this prayer while he was alive but it seems to me that it’s brimming with hope filled sentiments. What he seemed to be saying was that you need pain and suffering to fully comprehend the meaning of hope and the gateway between the two is forgiveness. That through pain we understand more fully how to trust, thus making the concept of hope more vivid and real. Hope is nothing if it doesn’t exist when all seems hopeless. You have to experience fear, anxiety, pain, hopelessless to truly know what hope is. In the words of Vaclav Havel who wrote a lot on the theme of hope, “perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope”. We have to inhabit the fear and suffering of Good Friday and dwell with it, to fully experience the hope and joy of Easter resurrection. And the place we encounter the beginnings of hope is right here at the foot of the cross as we gaze on the body of our Lord, arms outstretched, crying Father forgive.
Let us Pray
when the world condemns us, when wrong is done to us, when we carry the weight of things that are too much to forgive, come along side us in the darkness, and give us the grace to be forgiven and to forgive. Amen.
- “Today you will be with me in Paradise”
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Luke 23. 39-43
I confess I feel a special affinity towards this second saying of Jesus from the cross, directed towards the criminal hanging next to him, and it’s purely sentimental: “Today you will be with me in paradise”. I’m drawn to it partly, because the word paradise is originally a Persian word and has its roots in my culture and tradition. It’s amazing how significant it can be to see elements of ourselves reflected within Scripture: characters, places or words that reveal something of our own experiences. Perhaps that’s why minority groups who traditionally haven’t had much say in interpreting the Bible find it so powerful to read Scripture from their own particular perspective and to read themselves back into the story of God and God’s people, where often they’ve been air brushed out or ignored.
But back to the word “paradise”. In Jewish and Christian traditions paradise is associated especially with the Garden of Eden but in the New Testament it appears only three times. Once here in Jesus’ words as presented in Luke and then in Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians (12.4) and finally in the book of Revelation (2. 7). The word paradise conjures up the idea of an eastern oasis. Literally meaning “an enclosed space” or “that which grows in a designated space” the Persian Garden of Paradise is a walled-in garden apparently untouched by the severity of the desert landscape all around.. It is a space in which wild uncontrollable forces are tamed and cultivated according to certain rules and strict symmetries. A paradise garden will always include elements of shade, significant water features, and it’ll be enhanced by fruit trees and sweet scented flowers.
So Jesus’ promise of paradise is comforting as it reconnects me with my roots. It touches my soul in a way I can’t really explain. The image is one of safety and protection, beauty and peace BUT neither is it all schmaltzy and saccharine for it points also to the reality of the desert all around – the wilderness which is never far away, just beyond the walls. Paradise Gardens wouldn’t have the power and impact they do, if they didn’t sit in such stark contrast to the surrounding landscape. Stepping into a paradise garden takes the breath away partly because of its close proximity to the arid and barren countryside within touching distance of the lush, green and fertile. The power of the imagery is in the contrast, each more potent because of the other. In fact you can’t really have a paradise garden in the proper sense without the wasteland that surrounds it.
And of course both the idea of paradise, and of desert or wilderness, are central themes in Christianity and our faith story, and we’re confronted by both here, as we contemplate the cross of Christ.
So, a little like forgiveness and hope in my first talk, I want to suggest that the idea of paradise and desert go hand in hand. Apparently complete opposites, paradise and desert inform one another, each gives meaning to the other and helps us experience the other more fully and completely. And even more than that it’s possible to experience glimpses of paradise from the heartlands of the desert.
The cross is the ultimate wilderness, where God’s presence seems utterly absent in the face of suffering and death. Surely we can’t imagine a place of greater loneliness and emptiness, where evil is all around and God is silent. Where, I wonder, are these places in your life? So much hurt and brokenness, so much anger and bitterness that even God cannot penetrate? And yet, from that very place Jesus says to the criminal, “Today you will be with me in paradise”. This isn’t an insincere, “all will be well, just hang on in there for a while” offered from the side lines. This is Jesus reaching out from his own place of pain, from the very heart of his own desert experience – a reminder of God’s presence even here, even now. You are not alone, if only you can see it.
Jesus’ wounds as he suffers on the cross are wounds filled with promise of healing – healing that can come only from one who has experienced deep woundedness himself. This is the place, hanging on the cross, where Jesus becomes Christ the wounded healer. He is both suffering humanity and divine healer and what he offers isn’t a vision of something far away but something here and now, for paradise is imminent: Today you will be with me in paradise he says. Throughout his earthly life, in each “today” in which Jesus was encountered by so many different people, that encounter brought salvation: it brought healing, it brought restoration, it brought wholeness. Even now in his hour of death he extends salvation to the one who seeks it. There is immediacy here. “Come”, he says, “let’s step into it together”, paradise is here even in this place of death, pain mingled with blessing, each sanctifying the other.
We can only imagine what life events had enslaved the criminal hanging next to Jesus. What sadnesses and betrayals, what desert experiences of his own. But on the cross, just as he’s paying for his sins he’s invited from bondage to freedom. There are echoes here of the Israelites led from slavery in Egypt towards freedom in the promised land. That freedom had brought with it 40 years in the wilderness – a life time for many of them – where they often doubted God’s presence and felt sure they’d been duped and left deserted. They longed sometimes to return to the safety of what they knew, even if it was the safety of oppression and servitude. Better that than the emptiness they now experienced. But the point is that God was always present in the wilderness. The promise of the covenant God made with them meant they were never forsaken and yet, even as they crossed the red sea, as they gathered manna to eat, as they built false idols to worship, they failed again and again to notice God in the desert in their midst. Paradise ever present while they strained, trying to catch a glimpse of it somewhere in the distance.
As I reflect on my own experience of exodus – my journey from a place of revolution and danger to a place of safety, I recognise both wilderness and paradise. It’s now almost 40 years since I arrived in England – 40 years in the wilderness you might say. Like the Israelites I didn’t expect it to be for so long, imagining we’d be back home within a few weeks or months, a year at most. Casting my mind back now I see the young teenager packing her suitcase, trying to decide what to take and what to leave; I see her saying goodbye to friends, exchanging hugs and small gifts; I see her looking out of the airplane at the desert planes of Iran not fully comprehending what was happening; I see her learning to navigate a new culture and embrace a new beginning, find a kind of home coming, a paradise in the wilderness. And yes it was lonely, and yes there is deep yearning to return home, almost a physical ache, to touch and see and smell the places of my childhood which will of course have changed beyond recognition, but nonetheless to reconnect with roots and simply dwell a while.
And there are many like me. So many people displaced. And many many have it so much worse than I ever did. Conditions are much tougher now for refugees, governments stricter and people more suspicious. Many risk life and limb trying to find their paradise, use all their savings, worse still, are stripped of their dignity. Some of course never make it, children, women and men who don’t survive the journey and others who get separated from loved ones or whose paradise turns out to be a refugee camp or a detention centre.
The evils that humanity brings upon itself; the deserts we create through war and greed and our inability to cope with difference and diversity. How can we possibly talk of salvation and paradise amidst such horrors and inhumanities? Who am I to claim God is present and Christ is reaching out with promise of deliverance. We are, it seems, utterly impotent and yet in that impotence, in our very helplessness, we can do nothing but come to the cross to look with bewilderment on the one who hangs there. The one who turns upside down all our notions of what it means to be powerful or successful or wise; the one who shows us that it is possible to bring good out of evil, to transform death to life, to find strength in vulnerability. And there, as we look and as we contemplate, little by little, we gain strength to work for change. Not just a promise of paradise for tomorrow but commitment to work for paradise today, here and now, transforming lives, co-workers with the God of love.
“Today you will be with me in paradise”, Jesus said to the criminal, who, let’s notice, hadn’t actually repented of his sins, hadn’t asked for clemency and didn’t expect anything from Jesus other than the hope of being remembered. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom”. To be remembered is perhaps the greatest thing we can hope for. When we’ve gone and there’s nothing left of us but memories, the greatest achievement will be to be remembered by loved ones from time to time. That remembrance gives life again for a few moments at a time. But Jesus offers so much more, freely and with no expectations in return. The gift of faith allows us to recognise paradise even in the driest of desert places – to notice love in the midst of pain, good in the midst of evil, kindness in the midst of hatred – and faith enables us to reach out and take the saviour’s hand in trust. This isn’t a mirage or hallucination. It’s a gift offered to all and it comes from the cross of Christ.
Let us Pray
we are weighed down by sin and separation, a world that is not at peace, people who are not whole. Your son Jesus Christ reached out to the thief and welcomed him out of the desert into your paradise. Come alongside us in the darkness, and bring grace and peace
to everything that is broken. Amen.
- “Here is your son … here is your mother”
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
John 19. 25-27
Around a year ago I heard Paul Boeteng speak, passionately and emotively, about the racism he’s experienced over the years as a black man in politics. Despite the shocking and abhorrent stories he shared, Boetang suggested that identity is an even bigger issue than racism – consuming our imagination and requiring careful attention. Identity is a major pre-occupation of our times. Consciously or subconsciously, many people are on a quest to discover and articulate who they are, how they belong and where they fit in. As well as the mass movement of displaced people globally, migrants and refugees who search for roots in new and foreign lands, there’s also the small matter of Brexit which leads to questions about European verse British Identity.
Then there’s the explosion of identity politics that’s grown out of new and complex ways of understanding sexuality and gender, expressing disparity not so much in binary terms but more as a spectrum of diversity. Ironically, instead of diminishing the significance of the things that divide us, identity politics appears to have bred a whole new set of dividing lines with individuals seeking a sense of belonging in ever more specific groupings, often defined in quite dogmatic terms, over and against others. But also, since the affluence and wealth of the latter part of the 20th century, many in the west have come to realise that their priorities have perhaps been misplaced and they’re now searching for a more real identity – something above and beyond the material and physical to give meaning to their lives.
For myself, I’m fascinated by the concept of identity and how it ties in with my sense of belonging. I guess it’s hardly surprising, given my life story and the rupture from my homeland at the impressionable age of 14 and in somewhat traumatic circumstances. I feel sometimes that I was robbed of a proper sense of belonging, destined instead to exist somewhere in nowhere land. But if I’m honest the roots of the dilemma go back further to when I was much younger, growing up as a Christian in Iran. The tiny Anglican Church there was made up of a mixture of converts, second generation Christians like myself and foreign missionaries. Ours was an odd existence by any standards and in truth we never quite fitted in.
Our context was a missionary church seeking to develop its own identity with an authentically Persian voice within an environment where national identity was overwhelmingly regarded as coterminous with religious identity. In the west, faith is generally thought of as a personal matter whereas in the East it’s deeply rooted in one’s culture, racial ties and heritage – faith strikes at the very core of one’s social identity. In Iran, to be Persian was to be Muslim, and specifically Shi’a Muslim. To not be Muslim was regarded as a kind of betrayal of your nationality, raising all kinds of questions about your identity, who you were and how you fitted in. For the church the challenge was how to be both authentically Christian and fully Persian. For me, especially in my adult life as I’ve reflected on my own past and how it’s shaped me there’s been a quest to discover who I am and how I fit in.
So whether growing up in Iran or finding my place in this country there’s a sense in which I’ve always been a stranger and interloper; living with the ever present anxiety of just not quite fitting in. The challenge has been to not get stuck in that place which is neither one thing nor another – not to sit on the boundaries with the self pity of an outsider. But to be more creative and transform my experience of being on the margins from something that defines me negatively, into a positive place full of richness, meaning and hope.
Some years ago I read a novel by Anne Tyler called Digging to America. It had a powerful impact on me and remains with me to this day. The book is about two families in America each of whom adopt a baby girl from Korea. The extended families meet at the airport as the two girls are delivered into their care and the remainder of the book is about how their lives intertwine. Very little happens by way of a plot but underlying the narrative are questions about identity, displacement and belonging. Though the nationality of the girls is of course relevant, more crucial to the story is that one of the families are immigrants, as it so happens, from Iran. You have this extraordinary encounter between American and Iranian identities trying to incorporate aspects of Korean culture into their lives. Tyler expertly and movingly narrates how a Persian family in exile is struggling to belong in a foreign country. The Iranian grandmother, Maryam, remains with me vividly. As the story unfolds we see her struggle, wanting to be accepted as a regular American whilst at the same time resisting it. She feels that Americans will never understand her, that their interest in her is patronising and condescending and of course deep down she’s anxious to remain true to her own culture and roots. She’s frightened of assimilation that’ll result in loss of her identity as an Iranian. But in her struggle she’s sinking ever deeper into a lonely place – a kind of vacuum where she’s utterly displaced and doesn’t in fact belong anywhere.
A moment of epiphany is when Maryam finally realises she herself is blocking the path to belonging. She has hardened her heart towards her host nation and its people. She’s dwelt on that which is different, and used their alien ways to judge them. She’s undermined the common humanity that binds them together by dwelling on her own otherness. She finally realises that she cannot remain encased in her own heritage, which is already displaced from its geographical roots and therefore something different to what it once was. Rather, she must move into the future and embrace a new way of belonging. She must be generous to others and willing to receive from those who want to be generous to her. She finally recognises her choice either to remain entrapped by self pity or reach out in friendship so that those who are different can travel together and learn about each other and themselves in the process. She will of course always be different and probably continue to struggle with questions of identity. But the point is that she escapes an additional self imposed burden that deliberately places her on the outside by seeing goodness in the motives of others and by recognising her need of their friendship. In other words, you have to want to belong. It’s not something that’ll happen on its own. You have to give birth to it; you have to work at it and create it through an act of will.
And what was true for Maryam is true for me and I believe all of us to some extent or another. However much it may appear that we belong and fit in perfectly and however much we play the game pretending we do, in reality many of us feel we’re somehow different, for a whole variety of reasons. Very few have a sense of belonging completely. The question is, do we wallow in that, judge others and position ourselves on the boundaries: find reasons why we’re different, why we don’t fit in, why the rules don’t apply to us? Or can we make peace with our past and with our roots, and with all the complexity within us, accept these as part of who we are and find new ways of belonging, dwelling not on what divides us from others but on those common albeit fragile threads of humanity which bring us together.
And so at last we attend to Jesus’ cry from the cross to his mother Mary and the disciple whom he loved, “here is your son” he says to Mary, and to John “here is your mother”. In his agony and moment of absolute isolation – the point at which his identity is in the balance, his humanity and divinity struggling to assert themselves, Jesus releases Mary and John from the tight hold of that which has been familiar and safe. In an extraordinary act of generosity Jesus loosens the bonds of their familial ties, lightens the weight of their histories and eases the stranglehold of the stories that had brought each of them to this place. He gives permission for a new future and points them them towards a new way of belonging, which is less about their own pre-occupations and more about the potential of new relationships through him – which less concerned with tradition and history and individuality and more concerned with exploration, connectedness and community.
In my late twenties and early thirties, my husband and I experienced many years of infertility. After extensive treatment, two miscarriages and much heartache we were granted the gift of children. I remember well when my first child was finally born, it felt like the whole world was rejoicing with me – that I’d been blessed with a longed for gift – my prayers and deepest longing fulfilled. I confess, it was many years before I began to understand that it wasn’t really about me at all. That though my joy was (and remains) deep, the children aren’t primarily here for my fulfilment. They’re here to live their own lives, to discover their own purpose, to grow and move and find their being in the God who loves them and desires good things for them. I may have given birth to them, and for good and ill I’ve had a part to play in their evolving stories. But ultimately they must each discover their own identity and place of belonging as separate from me.
Of course our roots are important and of course our families help shape us and give us a sense of place in the world. But the point is that we don’t need to be constrained by the boundaries within which life seeks to encase us. For through this third word from the cross we’re encouraged to look wider and higher and deeper than those things which tie us to narrow ways of belonging. Whoever you are, wherever you come from, whatever your story, there is a common identity that binds us all as children of God, each uniquely made in the divine image and loved as part of the glorious diversity of creation. At Christ’s death on the cross, everything that constrains our humanity is thrown into question. Power is made manifest through weakness, authority is demonstrated through sacrifice and death becomes the moment of glory. And so we can discover ourselves anew. As Jesus recognises the pain of Mary and John, so our suffering and pain too is recognised and we are released to become a new creation. Our stories are important but they need not define us.
This mysterious complexity is what my sisters and I have tried to capture on our parents’ grave stone where they are buried far from their home land, in a patch of ground fittingly called Paradise on the South Eastern side of Winchester Cathedral. On one side of the grave are carved words in English, Dust of the high planes of Persia in the earth of an English Shire, and on the other side in Persian are words from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, “So then you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household”.
Let us pray
we carry the imprint of the people we love, and the stories that have shaped us. Our past is part of who we are, and sometimes it prevents us from moving on. Come alongside us in the darkness, and free us to become all that you want us to be. Amen.
- “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”. When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”.
Mark 15. 33-39
One of my abiding memories of the early days of the revolution in Iran is the suddenness with which the Church community found itself alone and isolated. There were weeks, if not months, during which things were increasingly unsettled and chaotic. Curfew was in place, schools were closed, there were daily demonstrations with a feeling of growing uncertainty creeping across the country. But for me, and others as well I think, there was one moment in which the reality sank in that everything seemed to have changed. I can’t remember the precise date or time line though I suspect it was in the lead up to Christmas 1979. One weekend there was a performance of Handel’s Messiah in Church – given by a mixed group of missionaries and other foreigners with some local Christians also participating. I think my eldest sister and brother were probably involved. The church was full to bursting. But by the following weekend, when we were once again in Church, they were all gone. Just like that. The mission society and other foreign organisations had pulled all their people out, judging it too dangerous to allow them to stay. The change was abrupt and dramatic. Suddenly, in an increasingly hostile environment, our tiny community felt very vulnerable and exposed.
These words of Jesus from the cross remind me of that time. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” They express something of the sheer aloneness. Jesus, abandoned by the people and most of his disciples, in a place of fear and pain, nearing the end of his life; he struggles to breath and writhes in agony and feels abandoned by God. There is nothing. He’s utterly alone.
So here, it seems, we encounter the absence of God. And we dwell in that absence, amidst loneliness and fear. There is no where else to go, and no one to turn to. We have no choice but to wait – to stay and to abide. And as we did exactly that in Iran, we had to face the reality of the situation, of who we really were as a community, fragile and vulnerable, without anyone or anything to hide behind. There were no outsiders to make us feel a little safer; there was no escape and nothing to conceal us. The future was uncertain – we didn’t know it – but there was worse to come – arrest and imprisonment for some, the murder of my brother and eventually exile for us as a family.
Many of you will have faced those places of fear and abandonment, perhaps through illness, grief, unemployment, divorce, homelessness, and in all sorts of other ways. Those times when you’re faced with the reality that despite what we’re led to believe in our modern western culture – that we can control every detail of our lives – in truth there are times when we are powerless and have no control. All we’re left with is our weakness, frailty and vulnerability. At such times we have no choice but to face who we are, in the cold light of day, or in the darkness and aloneness of the night, when even God feels far away or absent. It’s then we begin to understand that what we do in life counts for little. That our skills, our gifts and our abilities – the things we thought we could control – are pretty meaningless for they cannot save us or pull us out of the pit of abandonment. All the things that used to give shape and meaning to our lives suddenly count for very little and all we’re left with is the essence of who we are, naked as it were before our maker.
I have a friend who’s struggling with a disease that is gradually disabling her body. It’s a degenerative muscular condition which over time is depriving her of the things she used to take for granted, and causing her considerable physical pain. She’s a gifted administrator and was destined for senior posts of considerable responsibility. As she’s stripped of the things she felt gave her a purpose and value and recognition, she’s having to reconsider her worth as a child of God, not in terms of what she does, but in terms of who she is. It’s very very painful, letting go of the things we once considered as essential to our self-understanding. How do we find self-worth when we can’t rely on the things that give us status and our place in society. Jean Vanier who set up the L’Arche communities where able bodied and disabled people live alongside each other soon realised that amongst those who are mentally disabled, all his achievements as a theologian, writer and scholar, counted for nothing. Vanier had to emerge from the place of abandonment and rediscover the core of his humanity which had nothing to do with his skills, and everything to do with the nature of his relationships.
I see something similar happen to those who are refugees, many of whom are highly qualified folk in their home country – doctors, engineers, architects and so on, find themselves in exile, unable to use their considerable skills, often not allowed to work at all. How do you hang on to a sense of who you are when you’re stripped of the things you do? The pain and the agony aside, that’s where Jesus was on the cross. Totally powerless and alone. No more miracles or fine sermons to impress the crowds with, no disciples hanging on his every word. No longer even the presence of God to reassure and to encourage – remember the words at this baptism resonating for all to hear: Behold my son, in whom I am well pleased? No trace or echo of that now, only silence and loneliness.
And yet … This lowest point, is also the point of greatest glory. For the shame and weakness of the cross reveal something of the nature of Jesus (who of course mirrors the nature of God) and that nature is an outpouring of love so strong that it submits even to death on the cross. I confess that I need the help of paradoxes to aid me in my faith journey – all those many apparent contradictions that must be held together in tension, challenging us to reside in the grey areas of life and faith, without the luxury of simplistic black and white answers: The God who unsettles us, yet gives us peace that is beyond understanding; the God who demands justice but is endlessly forgiving, the God who loves us beyond measure but appears to abandon us in our greatest hours of need.
And here of course is perhaps the greatest paradox of all. The death of Jesus, his moment of complete abandonment, becomes also his moment of greatest glory for through faithfulness – the offering of himself once and for all – his weakness becomes his strength as he overturns the power of violence and hatred replacing them with compassion and love. And here’s the thing. When we’re in our places of abandonment, hanging on our crosses, utterly alone and powerless, we too share in that glory. This is not easy and it’s not some wishy washy cliché. I don’t mean to underestimate the extent of suffering in our world and I certainly don’t want to minimise the importance of speaking and acting against injustice. There is far too much suffering and far too much injustice and some people have way more than their fair share of it. Striving towards creating the kingdom of God here on earth means we’re compelled to do our part in working for change. BUT, and here’s the paradox again – when all is said and done, in our moments of pain and anguish, of loneliness and abandonment, our suffering takes us closer to the heart of God for it gives us insights into the person of Christ, deepening our trust and faith.
At the height of the revolution in Iran, my father wrote these words which I still have on a poster that hangs on my study wall: “The way of the cross has suddenly become so meaningful that we have willingly walked in it with our Lord near us. Our numbers have become smaller, our earthly supports have gone, but we are learning the meaning of faith in a new and deeper way.”
Jesus’ cry of abandonment from the cross is a call sometimes to dwell in the place of pain. To recognise the reality and the horror. To understand that nothing and no one can help change the situation. That there is no light, only darkness. But to know too that Jesus himself has been in that very place and that we are nearest to him precisely when we may feel furthest away. Our pain connects with his pain – he understands and can redeem our moments of despair and aloneness for through them we come to understand that our strength in fact lies in how we accept our weakness, in how we are when we’re at our lowest ebb. It’s not until you squeeze an orange and release its juice that you find out if it’s bitter or sweet. It’s not until we are wounded and hurt that we discover what’s really within us, whether it’s a capacity for hate or love, fear or hope.
I’m not sure that God was absent when Jesus cried out in despair. Rather I wonder if God was simply silent. Silent because there was nothing left to say in the face of the horror that was the cross. Have you ever sat with a friend who’s in deep grief at the loss of a loved one, or held the hand of someone waiting for major surgery? Have you ever embraced a child who’s fallen and hurt themselves, or listened to the life story of a prisoner or wept with a refugee or homeless person? If you have done any of these things or something like it, you’ll know that feeling of being lost for words. There is nothing you can say to help, only silence will do; it’s all that’s left.
So as Christ hangs on the cross crying “why have you forsaken me”, has God turned away because he cannot bear to look, or is she lovingly present but voiceless? Either way God has no answer to the depth of human suffering; and that’s what we witness here. There is no divine response, only silence – it is the loudest silence of all and painful to hear. But it is a silence that surrounds, envelopes and carries us through grace and disgrace, in the words of the contemporary contemplative Martin Laird, a silence that “presides in the unfolding liturgy of our wounds.”
Let us pray
Ever present God,
your son Jesus knows what it is to feel far from you. We are sometimes bowed down by the weight of your silence. Come alongside us in the darkness, and help us to recognise your presence with us. Amen.
- “I thirst”
After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.
John 19. 28-29
If you know anything about Iran you’ll know that it’s a vast country, roughly 8 times the size of Great Britain. Its 636,000 square miles include an extensive central desert region and formidable mountain ranges that separate towns and cities on every side – an inhospitable environment where very little survives in the extreme temperatures and arid climate. I remember well the long car journeys as a child – 7 or 8 hours from Isfahan (where we lived) in any direction, towards Tehran, Shiraz, Yazd and other places. Long before the days of mobile phones, we’d leave early in the morning – at 3 or 4 am – to ensure we were well on the way before the worst of the heat. You could drive for miles and miles and see nothing but a brown landscape and the long road stretching out ahead, sometimes cut through the sheer rock face with what was left towering on either side, other times with the level wilderness all around, as far as the eye could see.
Stops had to be planned carefully at the few watering holes or caravanserais along the way. Cups of sweet black tea, flat bread with cheese and walnuts, slices of watermelon always tasted better on these journeys. Punctures were a serious hazard and the risk of running out of water a real one. I was oblivious to the dangers as a child and remember only the sense of excitement, anticipation and, after we’d been on the road for a few hours, boredom; but now I realise how vulnerable we were and how exposed to the potential risks all around.
As we enter our final hour at the foot of the cross, we hear Jesus utter two simple words, “I thirst”, thereby exposing his vulnerability and ultimately his humanity. If we have any doubt that the son of God came down to earth and took human form, then here that doubt is expelled. Jesus is thirsty. Here, the story of the cross becomes our story. For the terrible story of the one who is falsely accused, abandoned by friends, stripped, humiliated, who cries out in pain and desolation, is also the beautiful story of God who came to earth to share our humanity.
Just a few hours earlier in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus had prayed to the Father; had implored him to let this cup pass from him. But now, here on the cross, he’s ready to embrace the calling at the heart of his ministry – he claims the cup the Father has given him. “I thirst”, he says and reaches out towards that which lies ahead. In this “I thirst” Jesus’ resistance ends – he surrenders and accepts his vocation which is to overcome the power of evil and hatred by giving himself in love. This poses a question and indeed a challenge for us all. What is your vocation and have you embraced it? Are you doing and being what you are called to do and be? Are you able to say “I thirst” knowing it may be costly and painful but knowing too that drinking the cup is the only way to fulfil your particular vocation – the only way to true fulfilment and to being the person God intends you to be.
As Jesus clasps the cup, it seems he’s utterly alone, but in acknowledging his humanity he’s also indicating his reliance on those around him. Alone he cannot quench his thirst – he needs others to put the sponge to his lips. Even the Son of Man requires assistance. And underlying this is the extraordinary truth that God needs our cooperation; without us God’s plans for the world cannot come to fruition. If God’s kingdom is to come on earth, we must play our part, in smaller and larger ways, working for peace and justice in our homes, our churches, our communities, our country, our world. And we too, none of us, is self-sufficient. Despite the illusion of control, despite our reluctance to admit to weakness and frailty, and our desire to seem omni-competent, none of us – even the strongest – can survive alone. We need one another, we must ask for help, we must admit to failure and brokenness.
Some are better at recognising this than others, at modelling our interconnectedness and our reliance on one another. And it’s been my experience that when we are able to expose our weaknesses and frailties – rather than limiting or diminishing us – those very imperfections become the means by which we connect with others at a deeper level, allowing them in turn to recognise their frailty. Each link adding to the chain which is the bond of our humanity. Each link driving us towards greater compassion and gentleness for one another.
We haven’t dwelt too much yet on the sheer physicality of the crucifixion. On the brutality of death on a cross, the unimaginable strain that it put upon the body, the long, slow and agonising death. But let’s make no bones about it. It was a cruel and truly dreadful way to die. The simple cry, “I thirst” doesn’t capture the full extent of horror but it does contain within it something of the frailty of the human condition and our need of others for support.
When we first arrived in England in May of 1980, we had very little by way of worldly goods, just the one suitcase each which we’d packed in the few days between my brother being killed and our leaving. We were reliant totally on the good will and generosity of others. We were fortunate, we had family who took us in and in time the church structures kicked in to provide us with a base from which to rebuild our lives. I never heard my parents complain and I know they felt deep gratitude but I also remember sensing that it wasn’t always easy for them to accept charity from others. To admit they were no longer self-sufficient but at the mercy of others.
For some reason, the memory of a blunt potato peeler has remained with me; it was in a box along with all kinds of other kitchen utensils that someone had cleared out of their own home, and brought round as a gift. As we struggled to peel vegetables later that day my mother wondered what use someone imagined she may have for a blunt peeler that really needed throwing out. In his hour of need when Jesus cried out “I thirst” it was sour wine he was offered on a sponge, hardly a drink to quench his thirst, I imagine, though perhaps it made the person offering it feel a little better. At least they were doing something. But charity should not be about just doing anything to salve our conscience. It should be a gracious offering, costly even, coming from the best of what we have.
My mind turns once more to those who are refugees today. The hundreds and thousands who’ve been displaced, forced to leave their homelands, many of whom have faced untold dangers getting here and may have lost loved ones along the way. Those professionals who’ve left good jobs and spent their life savings to reach safety, those who had nothing in the first place arriving here destitute and alone. Those who are held in detention centres, whose cases take months sometimes years to be heard, who aren’t allowed to work, and who receive meagre benefits which aren’t sufficient to live on. Those who are stripped of their dignity. Each with a story to tell, each echoing Christ’s “I thirst” which in the end is the cry of all humanity. For in the end very little separates us from one another. Very little lies between those who have and those who have not, those who belong and those who feel they don’t. A handful of unforeseen circumstances, the odd bit of bad luck. How would I respond to another’s cry of “I thirst” if I truly understood that the things which unite us are far greater than those which divide us? That in truth we all thirst and we all need help to quench that thirst.
That’s what I see demonstrated in social action projects that work with refugees. Not so long ago I as at Leicester City of Sanctuary that seeks to offer a warm welcome and practical support for asylum seekers and refugees. I spent several hours talking with those who work there, providing everything from a cooked meal, sewing and English classes, massages, football for the children. I also listened to the stories of those seeking asylum in this country, several were from Iran, delighted to meet someone they could talk to in their own language. But what struck me at Leicester City of Sanctuary wasn’t so much that some people had come for help and others were offering support, but that together, they were cooperating and collaborating. Refugees, asylum seekers and British citizens all contributing – cooking, running stalls, playing with the children all giving of their time and, crucially, all gaining something through their encounter with one another. Several volunteers told me how much they enjoy being there and how much they benefit from the experience. This is a model that has very little to do with some people giving from a place of abundance to others who come empty handed; and much more to do with getting alongside one another, each recognising the worth of the other, each contributing to, and benefitting from, and in the process, discovering that all of us thirst and all of us need also to help quench the thirst of others. This is at the core of our humanity and it’s a recognition that to belong we need to feel we’re contributing.
And when we truly feel we belong – that we’re both contributing, and being cared for by others – then we also have a sense of purpose which in turn gives hope and the possibility to imagine a better future. In Jesus’ “I thirst” I detect something of the deep human instinct for choosing life over death. He was so near the end and yet he hadn’t given up – he longs for change; even at this late stage he believes in the possibility of transformation. When we reach that point in life when all seems utterly hopeless and we’re totally overwhelmed – when we are burdened by anxiety, guilt, loss, shame, fear, pain or anger – the cry “I thirst” prevents us reaching the point of no return. It’s an acknowledgement that I may need the help of others but that I long for change and transformation.
The denial of emptiness within us will not do. Our brokenness cannot be buried, erased or forgotten but it can, with help and by God’s grace, be transformed. Desolation can turn to consolation, and even the most difficult of situations, can be turned to good. For that is the power of the cross, turning violence to gentleness, hatred to love and death to life. Shortly, a soldier will pierce Jesus’ side to make sure he’s dead before his body is removed from the cross. As the sword penetrates his body, we’re told that blood and water gush out. This has been no ordinary crucifixion of yet another criminal. This is the son of God, an innocent man, fulfilling his vocation and turning all the norms of the world upside down. This is the thirsty one who is also the bearer of life-giving water, whose broken body becomes the bread of life, whose blood the cup of salvation. This is the wounded healer whose suffering shows us the extent of God’s love for us. He embraces pain not because it’s good but because it’s the way of the world which he is absorbing. And he beckons us to follow his example. To use our wounds to become those who are not bowed down, bitter and angry but those who reach out in compassion to others. For our suffering takes us closer to the heart of God who knows and understands the pain and who gives us strength to become life bearers as well as being those who thirst.
Let us pray
in all our thirst, and all our longing, in all our failure and all our devotion, you are there. Come alongside us in the darkness, and walk with us through all our anguish. Amen.
- “It is finished” … “Into your hands O Lord I commend my spirit”
When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished”. Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
John 19. 30
It was about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.
Luke 23. 44-46
Two sayings rolled into one. As he nears the end of his ordeal, Jesus cries, “It is finished” and “Into your hands I commend my spirit”. For me, underlying these final two words from the cross lie three distinct but interconnected themes. First, is a hollow and devastating expression of total loss. It’s finished, it’s all over and in the emptiness there are echoes of defeat, and grief for what might have been. A miscarried opportunity. It may sound shocking to say but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hear in Jesus’ words, “it is finished” something of that overwhelming sense of meaninglessless many of us can associate with. And perhaps too a hint of relief that at least the pain is almost past – whatever it was, the worst is nearly over. I have sympathy for that – it seems like a very real human emotion – one that we shouldn’t deny our saviour.
And yet that’s not the full extent of it. “It is finished” contains within it the human cry of despair but it is also (and this is the second theme) a shout of triumph at the completion of a task – a feeling of achievement. I’ve done what you called me to do, Jesus says to his Father, and I’ve done it faithfully. The cry is equivalent to the athlete’s punch in the air at the end of a marathon. Yes, I’ve made it, I’m over the line – I’ve accomplished what you sent me to do, I’ve fulfilled my calling and I couldn’t have done any more.
For me, this lies behind what I learnt from my parents as I watched them adjust to exile and the loss, in human terms at least, of all they’d given their lives for in Iran. The church they’d served, which had its roots in the missionary movement but had striven to become its own authentically Persian witness, was arguably an experiment that had failed. What little life it had left, was being squeezed out of it and it wasn’t unreasonable to regard it as finished. But, at least, the worst was over (as far as my parents were concerned) and now they could turn their back on it and get on with the rest of their lives. And yet, they refused to live as people who’d been defeated, but remained instead hope-filled. They lived as people who’d followed their calling and knew they could have done no more. Over the years there were moments of darkness and doubt, I’m sure, when they felt the stab of the nails which kept Christ hanging on the cross, the piercing of his side with a sword – “it is finished” barely a whisper on their lips. But they held fast and continued to offer their lives, in a whole new way, to serve the church in Iran from exile. Thus exile was snatched out of the hands of failure and defeat, refusing to be identified merely as a place of banishment and loss, becoming instead a place of transformation, where new possibilities emerged and evil began to give way to good.
And so the cry of anguish emanating from the cross, which is also the cry of completion and victory, gives way to another cry: “it is finished” makes way for the prayer “into your hands I commend my spirit”. When all is said and all is done, there’s nothing left but to surrender to the will of God. Submission is the third theme – letting go of all that’s been in order to embrace that which lies ahead. This is not to forget or ignore, or worst still, to deny the past; it’s not a petulant refusal to participate any longer. It’s an acknowledgement that there’s only so much I can control. All through life, in different ways – smaller and larger – there come times when we have to admit that we’ve done all we can – we’ve taken responsibility and played our part and all that’s left is to surrender, trusting God to use what has been – the good, the bad, the pain and the joy – and create out of it something that might bear fruit for the future.
Contemporary western society creates the illusion that we can control every aspect of our lives, shape the outcomes and manipulate events to suit ourselves. But friends, in truth we cannot be at peace until we learn the art of surrender. Whether it’s creating the perfect family life, getting the longed for job, managing our health – or whatever else we strive for – we can take responsibility and control up to a point (and it’s right that we should) but eventually we must let go and let God. And for me, as I reflect on life in exile, I can see that there’s been a slow process of letting go – letting go of the past and of the person I was, in order to discover new things and become the person I was being called to become. Rather than clinging to the past in a futile attempt to recreate it in a new time and place, I’ve had to acknowledge how the past has shaped me and become a part of me whilst opening myself up to unexpected new possibilities for the future.
Just over six weeks ago there was a service in Wakefield Cathedral to launch an authorised translation of the Church of England’s Holy Communion service into Persian. This has come about in response to the growing number of Iranians turning up at churches across the country eager to explore Christianity and in many cases be baptised. Clergy and congregations have struggled over how best to offer a welcome. This translation not only provides the opportunity for Iranians to worship in their own language but when laid out in parallel alongside the English, it allows people to worship together, each following the service in their own language but in a shared offering to God – a new inter-cultural experience. Wakefield Cathedral was filled to the brim, with standing room only, as this new creation was breathed into being. For many of the Iranians present – those who have come to faith in this country – this was the first time they were following liturgy in their own language. For those of us present who remember the church in Iran and whose stories are bound up in its life and worship, there was great rejoicing but if I’m honest, there was also some pain. This new embodiment of Persian Christianity is different to what I remember – not only are the words of the service somewhat changed from our version in Iran, but there are new songs and at a deeper level the emerging Persian flavoured Christianity in the diaspora is different to ours in Iran. In Wakefield Cathedral I was very conscious of the need for some of us to let go of something very dear in order to rejoice in the emergence of something new.
And the supreme example of that is presented to us by Christ on the cross. Christ who offers up all that he has been, lets go of the identity he’s embodied on earth and surrenders to God through the pain of crucifixion in order to become a new creation. It is not until a seed dies, buried deep within the darkness of the ground, that it issues forth new life. So it is with us. Not until we are willing to give up our grip on the old that something new can emerge. But of course that new creation doesn’t deny or nullify or eradicate what’s been but is instead formed and shaped by it. The pain and suffering of the cross are carried into the resurrection when it comes. They give it its distinctive flavour – the new life that follows is coloured by its experience of death so that the resurrection is not triumphalist or aggressive or grasping. But rather it is compassionate and gentle and long suffering.
But that is not for now. Resurrection is still far off. Today we reside at the foot of the cross, witnesses to the crucifixion, we share in the death of Christ and it is here in the darkness that we must dwell. But as we watch and wait, so we too are shaped by the manner in which Christ bears his suffering, and we begin to open ourselves up – in all our loneliness and loss and pain, in all our shame, regret and frailty – we open ourselves up to be transformed by his death; to become ever more compassionate and gentle as we embrace the new life we are offered.
Exile for me has been something like that – bearing the pain of loss but open to the possibility of transformation. And there is richness in the complexity, for it has given me insights into the suffering of others and allowed me to connect at a deep level with those who are far from home in so many different ways. All that I was (in what sometimes feels like a previous life), in all its beautiful messiness, informs what I have become and what I continue to become. For good and ill it has shaped me and I have sought to offer it to God in its entirety even as I’ve reached out towards that which is new, that which is unknown but continues to beckon me, the ongoing adventure of life and faith.
For nearly three hours now we have gazed at the cross of Christ. Whether or not you’ve joined in the hymns or appreciated the choir’s sublime music, however helpful or unhelpful you’ve found my words, whether you’ve enjoyed the silences or found them uncomfortable, there is no better place you could have been, no better way to have spent the past three hours. It is only as we stop and take time to meditate on the cost of Christ’s faithful sacrifice that we begin to get a glimpse of what it means to surrender our lives to God’s will and in doing so to discover who we really are as children of God, loved with a passion almost beyond comprehension.
Of course, such understanding requires us to see with the eyes of faith. Without faith the cross is nothing more than a gruesome and pointless death. And faith demands a leap of trust and an open heart. There is no easy path to follow nor are there easy answers to life’s conundrums. The landscape of faith is a vast territory stretching from certainty at one end to doubt at the other, through which we must navigate our way. Faith is an adventure that takes us to the darkest places, all the while offering just enough light to illuminate the way. Faith is all at once both a journey into exile and a joyful homecoming – it begins at the foot of the cross from where we have heard the cries of one who understands our pain and journeys with us throughout.
Let us pray
you rejoice in our faithfulness and you embrace us in our loneliness. When we mourn, when we are afraid, when we come to our own end, you are there, too. Come alongside us in the darkness, and carry us through death to life. Amen.