I am sure that many here would have had the experience of visiting a city or shopping centre with family or friends, deciding that each should go their own way and to rendez-vous at a meeting place at an agreed time. However, on turning up at what one thought was an agreed time and place, discovering that nobody else was there. This happened to me with my family some time ago. We had all gone our own way, I returned to where I thought we had agreed to meet and found nobody else there. And I did not have a mobile phone. I decided to trace my steps towards the car park. I set off but was stopped as I walked through an apartment store by a security guard who asked me if I was looking for my family. He then pointed me towards my son who was ‘covering’ the other side of the store. As we started towards the proper rendez-vous, I became curious about one thing. ‘How did the security guard recognise me?’ I asked my son. ‘What description did you give?’ Thinking to myself, was it my snazzy dress sense, was it my smile…..? My day-dreaming was abruptly interrupted when my son said, ‘Oh, that was easy. I told him to look for a man with a funny walk.’
The way others see us is not always the way we think they may see us nor even the way we would like them to see us. Last week I visited the National Portrait Gallery in London looking at some 16th and 17th century portraits. It was fascinating to see the way people tried to manipulate their images all that time ago. Their clothes said something about their standing in society, what they had in their hands, quite often a book or prayer book, said something about their aspirations, what was on the table besides them, a compass, sexton, a pen or even a sword, said something about their achievements, the direction in which they were looking said something about their ambitions, but it was only through the artist’s painting of their face that gave hints as to their character, as to who they really were.
This service provides an opportunity to commit ourselves afresh to our ministries…lay and ordained. The reason for this happening on Maundy Thursday is that the events from today until Easter Sunday, the most important 4 days in the Christian year, are the very reason we are in our ministries. The events of these days provide the food, energy and direction for our ministries. Over these days, the Church invites us to encounter God as God really is – not as we think God is, nor even as we would like God to be, but as God really is and, of course, the cross is central. As we encounter God, in the person of Jesus Christ, we cannot but encounter the world and ourselves who we begin to see, not as we think they are, nor even as we would like to see them, but as they really are. Out of these encounters emerge three pointers for our ministries.
First, the life-changing events of the next few days all happened in the darkness. The arrest took place in the darkness. Peter’s denial took place in the darkness. The first three Gospels make it clear that Jesus died in the darkness. Although the risen Christ was seen first thing in the morning, Christ was at work before that in the darkness. The letter of Peter states that Jesus even went to the realm of the dead, drilling into a tradition that he defeated Satan and broke down the gates of hell, reminding us, and this is what’s really important in this story, that there is no place, within ourselves or outside of ourselves, that is beyond the reach of the redeeming power of Christ…..not even the darkest depths of hell. In the Orthodox Church, the resurrection is depicted by an icon with Jesus stomping over Satan and the broken gates of hell. All this is traditionally celebrated on Holy Saturday and is called the ‘harrowing of hell.’ Christ may have been raised to the light, but he was raised in the darkness. 17th century poet Henry Vaughan wrote: ‘There is in God (some say) a deep but dazzling darkness.’
Within the world and, indeed, within ourselves, there is darkness. Think of places of war and torment around the world, think of what’s happening to our brothers and sisters in Harare, think of so many examples of unjust suffering that we encounter among friends and parishioners and among those we love…..and, of course, we will encounter darkness within ourselves. But just as the life changing events of Good Friday and Easter took place in the darkness, so this continues to be the case. As ministers of Christ, we are encouraged not to be afraid of the dark. While we enjoy the familiar and well-trod paths of ministry, life, new life is frequently to be found in the darkness. The Church so often is renewed, not from the centre but from the edge – God has always done his most significant work outside the walls, out in the darkness. But darkness is filled with the potential of God. ‘There is in God (some say) a deep but dazzling darkness.’ What these days show us is that even the deepest darkness is not beyond the reach of Jesus Christ and it is our role to identify and celebrate Christ’s activity when we find it.
Secondly, as we look into these days, we are reminded that the religious and faithful, with the very best of motives, can be drawn along the wrong path, uncritically taking on the values of the world. Because they shaped their understanding of Jesus through the eyes of their society, the whole world view of the disciples comes crashing down around their ears when Jesus is arrested and crucified……that wasn’t the kind of Messiah they were expecting. Because Peter fell into the same trap, not really believing he would be arrested, Peter could not deliver on his bold words of support when the servant girl recognised him. Of course, there were hints that God’s kingdom does not operate like the contemporary world…..but do we ever learn? One hint is today’s Gospel where social conventions are turned upside down when the disciples of Jesus were told that the way of the world is not always the way of the Kingdom. Jesus tells his followers that the greatest among them must become like the youngest and the leader like one who serves. Another hint came even earlier, in our Old Testament reading: it was David, the son of Jesse considered the least likely candidate to be king, who turned out to be the Lord’s anointed. While God is always drawing us out in to the world outside of the Church, we need to be alert to taking on board society’s values in an uncritical and unconscious way: we should be careful about simply rolling over and saying ‘yes.’ We have much to learn from the world, but, so too, the world has much to learn from the Church. We face challenges of this nature in regard to the question of same-sex marriage and in regard to the tendency to organise the Church of God like a business.
Finally, I want to return to where I began. The way others see us is not always the way we think they may see us nor even the way we would like them to see us. But we can be sure how God sees us, which is as we really are and through the eyes of love, a love for which he was willing to die. We may not always love ourselves, but we can be sure that God has loved us into creation and never stops loving us. That’s what this time is all about. What makes the events of these days so amazing – and this, in turn, can electrify our ministries – is that despite our vulnerabilities and imperfections, God can use us…..as we really are. A friend of mine who was a violin maker told me that a violin which was broken and then repaired can produce a better, purer sound after it was repaired than before it was broken. We are the clay jars referred to in the epistle, the fragile, vulnerable clay jars to which God has committed his greatest treasure. God places a huge amount of trust and responsibility in us and however we feel, whatever we think, we need to recognise that God knows what he is doing, we need to remember that he will support us in our work and we need to thank him for this privilege.
But all that we can do for God is small in comparison to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. I want to end with words from the finest hymn in the English language (‘When I survey the wondrous cross’), words which place in perspective both what God has done over these days and our response to it:
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.
Rochester Cathedral 5.iv.12.