Over the last few Monday evenings in this season of Lent, the congregations in the Anglican Parish of East Maitland and I have been reading the Bible. That might be a great surprise to some other Christians around us, who presume that Anglicans are not particularly serious about the Scriptures, but nevertheless it is true. We haven’t been reading the Bible in the small snippets that we are used to at our Sunday services, we have been reading each of the Gospels, more of less in their entirety in one sitting in an evening.
It all goes back to when I was a student being prepared for ordination at a seminary in Oxford. Every morning, as part of the regime of the day, we spent time in our stalls in the Chapel for silent reflection before and after Morning Prayer. This was a totally new experience for me. I had no idea how to sit in silence, still less how to use that time to pray. So whilst the holier of students seemed to be developing a relationship of love with God through daily periods of intense prayerful conversation with him, and whilst others simply caught up on some sleep, but with their hands clasped firmly together so that they gave the illusion to our College Principal of being in deep prayer, having exhausted all attempts to pray for long periods of time myself, I began to read the Bible.
It might sound strange to hear that someone started reading the Bible only after they had begun training for ordination, but that’s how it was for me. I had been hearing the Bible for the whole of my life, but in such small chunks that I had never really understood how the various fragments that were captured in my mind should be put together. So I started with Genesis Chapter One, right at the start of the Old Testament, and every day I read the Bible as if it were a novel for an hour. By the time I had got through Morning Prayer and the Eucharist I was absolutely bursting to tell people at breakfast what I had discovered. After a while people simply avoided me because they did not want to be drawn into a conversation over their morning toast about my latest discovery in my reading.
Pretty much every year since my days in theological college I have taken a retreat in Lent – these weeks that prepare us for Easter – simply to read the four Gospels, in four sittings, to re-acquaint myself with the fullness of the stories. This year was the first year for a long time that I haven’t been able to take time away from work in Lent to do it. So instead I invited the congregation to join me. On Monday evenings at Saint Peter’s in East Maitland we have been reading a Gospel a night together – not in short snippets, but in the same way that we would read any other book, except that we have been reading it out loud. What we have been discovering together is the beauty, and excitement of the Gospels when they are seen on one large canvas rather than as an individual detail through a magnifying glass.
All of us as Christians are preparing for Holy Week when we will hear the Passion Narrative, writ large, the final events of the betrayal and beating, and death and burial of Jesus all in one go, as one great drama. Our reading at Evensong tonight, from the Gospel of Luke (spanning Jesus’ agonising walk through the jeering and perhaps sobbing crowds from Pilate’s headquarters to be crucified) is a good warm up for us, as we prepare to come face to face again with the agony of the final hours of Jesus’ life. If we knew only the contents of this evening’s reading we might well go home despondent, like those disciples on the Emmaus Road who needed to encounter the resurrected Christ to find out that it had not all ended in failure; because we are confronted in this evening’s reading with what would appear to bystanders to be sheer tragedy. Yet another failed religious zealot, (who has excited a band of followers who have given up everything for nothing, on a revolution against Rome), finds himself hanging with other criminals on a cross – surely the most painful and humiliating of deaths.
But of course, for the writers of the Gospels, who already knew the end of the story before they started to write it down, this is not another hagiography of a revered but ultimately failed political martyr. It is the greatest story of hope in the world. The whole point of the account that we are caught up in this evening, is not to say that it is the end of the story, but to declare as clearly as possible that it happened. Unlike some Christian traditions that have limited resources to contemplate Jesus’ death, and are always prematurely pushing us forwards to his resurrection, this evening, as we will do again and again in a few short days time when we enter Holy Week, the Gospel writers boldly describe for us the agony of Jesus’ final day and hold us in it, so that we cannot escape from its pain-filled significance.
Right back at the start of the Gospel, when we look at the tapestry as a whole, the writers of this Good News tell their readers, styled as ‘Theophilus’ that the whole of this text has been brought together to provide an orderly account about the truth of Jesus; and now as they expound the final hours of his life, the writers want us to be clear that these things are reliable. It wasn’t a mistake, we didn’t get it wrong, it is true, we can rely on it. So various witnesses are brought on to the stage. There is Simon from Cyrene, who is on pilgrimage from his home in what is now Libya in North Africa. We are not told why he is compelled to carry Jesus’ cross, but we can suppose from all that we have read before, that Jesus’ body is now so exhausted from the repeated beatings that he no longer has the strength to carry it himself. There is the crowd who follow around them in the streets that are filled with all those who have come to Jerusalem to celebrate the annual Passover festivities and observances, and who just as quickly will return to their homes in the wide Jewish diaspora. There are Jesus’ own followers, including the women who have accompanied them on their journeys, who see from a distance all that is going on. There is the Roman Centurion, intentionally painted into the landscape to provide a solid and reliable witness to all that has taken place. Not for the first time in Luke’s Gospel we find a centurion – a representative of the occupying forces – who comes to understand who this Jesus really is; and whose testimony that Jesus was blameless and innocent is able to stand against those who will later say that Jesus died as a villain and not a victim.
Evidence. Eye witnesses. This is why the writers of Luke’s Good News embarked on the whole Gospel project, to show through encounters in his life, and now in his journey to death, that they are able to provide a trustworthy account for those who will come face to face with the claims of Jesus. As we focus on the detail of this moment we are challenged by the brutality and pain, but as we see these hours within the whole of the Lukan portrait we find the greatest possible hope for ourselves and for all of humanity. Because this is neither the beginning nor the end of the story. As if to remind us of the resurrection shape of the whole of the good news, we are drawn into a short exchange between Jesus and the criminals who hang next to him on the cross. Whilst one continues to shout abuse, the other, who is named in Early Church tradition as ‘Dysmas’, reaches out to Jesus in faith.
Luke’s story of the death of Jesus is already looking forward to what will happen next. It is vital to the writers of the Gospel that we know that the man who died on that cross was the very same man who did and said the things described earlier in the Gospel – that this moment of his death is not divorced from all that has gone before it. It is vital to the writers of the Gospel that we know that their account of his dying is trustworthy and attested to by those who saw it taking place. But more than all of this, it is vital to the writers of the Gospel that we know that the one who announced the inauguration of God’s Kingdom, and lived out its reality with its solemn warnings and lavish celebrations, and was then crucified, died and buried, took with him to the tomb all the pain of the world so that it might be overcome forever.
This Cathedral Church in the heart of this city, this Diocese and this region stands as a testimony to all of that, just as my Church does down the road. Like the writers of this magnificent Gospel, we offer our own witness today, to the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, at work in the rich tapestry of our lives, and on the canvas of the world around us.