In his reflection last week Geoff wrote, “God does not always whisper sweet nothings and words of assurance”. By anyone’s standards the passage above must be one of the hardest passages in the New Testament! Is this the contract we buy into at our confirmation? If we want a cosy existence it could be wise not to sign up to this. We talk, don’t we, about “a cross we have to bear” and we know that very many people have terrible things to contend with. We also use the term in a more light-hearted way talking about some problem that crops up from time to time in our lives. Its use here is rather more specific. At this time of the year our thoughts turn towards Christ’s passion and crucifixion and that Good Friday morning when Jesus, tortured almost to the point of death, is forced to carry his cross from Pilate’s headquarters to the place of execution; to all intents and purposes his last walk. It was the way the Romans efficiently managed their executions; the prisoner was as good as dead, there could be no other ending. Is that the lesson about Jesus we are being taught here today?
Peter and the rest of the disciples were already reeling from Jesus foretelling his death, and that, immediately after they had reached the conclusion that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. Peter evokes a certain sympathy in us at this moment; his Hebrew background had not prepared him for a Messiah who was going to die in such a humiliating way. Was Peter unwittingly covering the same ground that Satan remorselessly scoured during the 40 days in the wilderness and so received the same angry retort? Or were Peter and the other disciples scared out of their wits knowing the chief priests and the scribes could well decide to silence them together with their leader, who seemed to have set his face to go to Jerusalem despite the acknowledged consequences. We can only guess, but whatever they had in their minds we can identify with their feelings.
I was pondering on this part of scripture a few weeks ago when I heard that Alexei Navalny, the leader of the opposition to Putin’s rule in Russia, and who had nearly died from Novochok poisoning, was determined to return to Moscow. I wanted to scream at the radio, “You have recovered and you are relatively safe in Berlin, why go back to almost certain death?” His perception must have been that he could only do what had to be done centre stage not hovering in the wings, saving his life. I don’t know whether he suggested that others should go with him but it seems no one did. In contrast the disciples did accompany Jesus to Jerusalem if not to Calvary. When Jesus’ teaching seemed too tough to take some of his followers walked away from him. Peter, though, acknowledged that Jesus was the only one who had the words of eternal life so the disciples, perplexed and anxious as they were, continued with him despite their misgivings.
So, where do the words “Guess how much I love you?” I used in my heading fit in?
Few of us will be put to the test of carrying our cross to the point of martyrdom; more of us will be challenged to endure through thick and thin. All of us like Peter and the disciples will get some things right and get some things very wrong. We will not be brave enough, we will not be faithful enough, we will turn away and have serious doubts; we may vie for status and thus lack humility. The list we know is endless and Lent is a time to reflect on how we fall short, to confess and to repent.
If we stay with the disciples a while longer it is not too difficult to imagine not only their fear that they would have a similar fate to their leader but also their devastation that they had neither lived up to their promises nor their best intentions. At their lowest ebb the disciples would not have had a clue that they were about to be, “surprised by joy”. Jesus was alive there with them; he wasn’t a ghost, he stretched out his arms in a gesture of embrace, showing his wounds. It was the revealing of these scars and the wound in his side that said to them and to us today, Guess how much I love you? This much!! – I have overcome all that evil and death have thrown at me. I did it for you and will continue for all who come to me. These scars are your salvation.
David Runcorn in his book, “Dust & Glory”, calls the scars, “glorious scars,” taking the phrase from Charles Wesley’s Advent hymn, Lo, he comes with clouds descending” – Advent being the season when we think about Jesus coming again to judge the living and the dead – when we will all be called to account.
those dear tokens of his passion
still his dazzling body bears….
With what rapture
gaze we on those glorious scars
In the Easter Eve/Easter Day services there is a ritual when five spikes are pressed into the Paschal candle to represent the scars of Jesus and these words are spoken with this prayer of blessing, “By his holy and glorious wounds may Christ our Lord guard us and keep us”
When we know we have failed; or we are struggling with the temptation to find easier ways to be a follower we can know that God in Jesus has been in that place and now assures us of his presence, “I am with you till the end of time.”
It is hard to take in but that is how much Jesus loves us. No wonder it is so good to recall that love with hope and joy through this Lent so that when we reach Easter we can be ready with all our alleluias!
Licensed Worship Leader
During Lent we are discussing a question both in our weekly reflections and subsequent on-line conversations during ‘Praying at Home’. We have borrowed the question from the title of a popular children’s book by Sam McBratney, ‘Guess how much I love you?’ Love is not always an easy thing to measure. But as we journey through Lent towards the events of Holy Week and Easter, we hear the crucified Christ asking the question: ‘Guess how much I love you?’ Christ extends his arms on the cross and responds, ‘This much.’ This lockdown Lent, we are all invited to take time to reflect afresh on God’s immeasurable love for us and our response to God.